I’ve read 74 books to date in 2015.
What follows are my top recommendations from that list.
Books with Strong Ties to Product Management
The first four relate to product management – empowering autonomous teams, decision making, creativity, and the life of Steve Jobs.
by General Stanley McChrystal, David Silverman, Tantum Collins, Chris Fussell
“The pursuit of “efficiency”—getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money—was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency.”
General McChrystal describes the transformation of the Joint Special Operations Task Force from a command-and-control organization focused on efficiency to an adaptable organization through transparency and decentralized decision-making authority.
Topics covered include: balancing authority and autonomy, managing complexity, building resilient organizations, prescriptive vs. emergent strategy, team dynamics, knowledge sharing, and collective intelligence.
Also mentioned in the book (and now on my reading list):
- The Rise & Fall of Strategic Planning by Henry Mintzberg
- Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker & Walter Reed
by Phil Rosenzweig
“The opposite of success isn’t failure, but mediocrity.” – Tweet This
Rosenzweig arges that good decision making requires both a deliberate and analytical approach (left brain) and a willingness to take risks, push boundaries, and go beyond what has been done before (right stuff). He argues that when faced with a challenge we should ask two questions:
- Can we influence the situation?
- Are we trying to do well or do we need to do better than rivals?
He then reviews research and makes recommendations for how to handle situations based on the answers to these two questions.
This book covers the following concepts: positive thinking, the illusion of control, influence, overconfidence, base rates, the limitations of deliberate practice, the difference between authenticity and sincerity, when to use modeling, the winner’s curse,
Also mentioned in the book (and now on my reading list):
- The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness by Jerome Groopman
- Bright-Sided: How the Relentness Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
- A Bias for Action: How Effective Managers Harness Their Willpower, Achieve Results, and Stop Wasting Time by Heike Bruch & Sumantra Ghoshal
- Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to be Smart by Ian Ayres
- The Winner’s Curse: Paradoxes and Anomalies of Economic Life by Richard Thaler
- Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter Bernstein
- Risk Taking: A Managerial Perspective by Zur Shapira
- Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt
- Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company by Andy Grove
by Walter Isaacson
“Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.” – Tweet This
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is one of my favorite books. I assumed he would do a good job with the Jobs biography and he did not disappoint. I was not always a fan of Jobs’ behavior, but it’s hard to argue with his talent and work ethic as a product designer. It’s worth reading about his life.
by Philippe Petit
“Observation was my conduit to knowledge, intuition my source of power” – Tweet This
I enjoy it when accomplished artists write about their creative process. I want to know how the sausage is made. I’m blown away by how similar the underlying arc of the creative process is across disciplines.
If you saw Man on Wire, then you already know who Philippe Petit is. If you didn’t, he’s hard to define. He is a tightrope performer who designs daring stunts. His most well-known stunt was his walk between the Wold Trade Center Towers. But he’s also walked between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, across the Louisiana Superdome, among many others.
His writing is exquisite and this was a delightful read from cover to cover.
Similar books by artists about their creative process:
- The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace
Books on Meaning, Mindfulness, & Happiness
I’m a strong believer that if you want to perform at your best, you have to start by taking care of yourself. These books will provide inspiration on how to do just that.
by Jonathan Haidt
“I wanted to write about a set of ideas that would fit together, build upon each other, and tell a story about how humans beings can find happiness and meaning in life.”
The author uses research to evaluate some of our most strongly-held beliefs about meaning and happiness.
He takes a respectful approach to ancient wisdom and pairs it with what we know from modern science.
It’s a fascinating read.
by Kim Nicol
“Our timing is perfect.
This is what I’m telling myself now. It is because I went to catch the bus, and it arrived just as I reached the bus stop. Perfection. This happened twice.
The first time I thought, Wow, my timing is perfect!
The second time I though, Wow, the Universe’s timing is perfect!
Then I reconsidered this. For does it not take two? For a bus and a girl to meet, doesn’t it require participation from both parties?
Yes. And so I decided instead our timing is perfect.
The third time, I missed the bus – I saw it drive by while I was still half a block away.
And I thought, Well, that wasn’t my bus. Because … our timing is perfect. Me and the universe. Me and the world. We’re in this together. And our timing is perfect.”
There are many books about meditation and mindfulness. This book isn’t like any of them.
Kim doesn’t tell us how to be mindful, she shows us what mindfulness looks like. It’s pure magic.
I recommend it for everyone.
by Laurence Endersen
“Our call to action is to be curious, build character and make better choices.” – Tweet This
This book covers a broad swath of life advice on how to develop curiosity, build character, and make better decisions. I found the quality to be inconsistent, but the good more than makes up for it. It’s a quick, easy read.
Topics covered in this book: curiosity, lifelong learning, incentives, emotional intelligence, negotiation and influence, adversity, simplicity.
Academic Reads that Pushed My Thinking
These next three come with a warning. They are long, slow, but great reads. All three are academic in nature. And all three pushed my thinking in profound ways.
I don’t expect many of you will tackle this list. But I’m including it for the one or two of you who dig this kind of stuff. If you do read them, let me know.
by John Dewey
“To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry – these are the essentials of thinking.” – Tweet This
I highlighted more of this book than any other book I’ve read. It’s length is deceiving. I spent about 15 hours reading this 200-page work of genius.
Dewey was an educational philosopher during the first half of the 20th century. His thoughts on critical thinking are profound. He does write like a philosopher, which means this little tome is dense. But it’s worth the effort.
Dewey has influenced my thinking on how to develop a product management curriculum more than any other author. There are two concepts that I’ve found to be profoundly insightful.
The first is captured by the quote above. I could write volumes on how this quote applies to responsible product management. Too often we jump to the first solution without exploring many.
The second is his description of the double movement of reflection. It involves the back and forth movement of generating an inductive theory and deductively testing that theory, essentially taking the time to know what we think and to examine why we think that.
by Karl Stanovich
“Critical thinking skills of the type that underlie the unbiased processing of evidence have repeatedly shown a connection to thinking dispositions independent of intelligence.”
If you enjoyed Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and you can tolerate a textbook-dense read, this is a great follow up.
Stanovich builds on dual process theory (think System 1 and System 2) and dives deeper to unravel System 2. Without diving too far into the theory, he distinguishes between the algorithmic mind (the ability to process cognitive simulations – often what we refer to as intelligence) from the reflective mind (the ability to recognize when you need to interrupt autonomous processes – often impacted by thinking dispositions).
If you’ve read Thinking Fast and Slow and are familiar with many of Kahneman’s illustrations of System 1 errors, Stanovich argues that the reflective mind is what helps you prevent these errors by raising a red flag and encouraging you to double check your thinking.
It illustrates that it’s not enough to grow our knowledge or develop our skills to act on that knowledge (algorithmic mind), we also need to develop our abilities to interrupt our autonomous processes (reflective mind).
by Daniel Dennett
“Whenever we find thinking hard, it is because the stony path to truth is competing with seductive, easier paths that turn out to be dead ends.”
I’ve been a fan of Dennett since my undergraduate days and this book might be his best yet.
He starts by teaching the reader good argumentation. Not just how to make a good argument, but also how to critically assess one.
He then uses those tools to help the reader understand a complex, but compelling argument about the evolutionary past and future of human consciousness.
It’s a great book to pair with Stanovich.
My Favorite Fiction
And finally, where’s the fun in a reading list without some vacation reading? These were my favorite fiction books for the year.
by Andy Weir
I know this book has been hyped all over the place, but I think it’s well-deserved. I couldn’t put it down. It was fun, witty, exhilarating, and I couldn’t wait to see how it turned out.
It tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars. His crew was supposed to be there for 30 days, so he has survival equipment. But it won’t last the 3 years it will take NASA to go back and pick him up. It’s an exhilarating survival tale.
by Anthony Doerr
I wasn’t expecting to like this book. I find WWII novels to be overdone and depressing. I usually don’t like Pulitzer-Prize winners. I find the critics reward novelty and gimmickry over good story. But enough trusted people recommended it, so I picked it up. It too was a page turner
It follows the paths of two children, one in France, another in Germany throughout the war until they cross late in the book. It’s endearing, and yes a little depressing. But it’s not your typical war novel fare.
by Robert Heinlein
After a deep foray into science fiction in my high school and college years, I’ve avoided it for the past fifteen. But The Martian inspired me and this is a long-time classic that I managed to skip over. I’m glad I read it.
It’s the story of Valentine Michael Smith, who was born and raised on Mars, who returns to Earth. It covers a lot of ground, and like many good science fiction books, attacks some cultural norms, but never at the cost of the story.
by Iain Pears
This book was slow for me to get into, but I was glad that I stuck with it. It tells the same story from three different characters’ perspectives. I liked the first character’s story the least, hence the slow start.
The three narratives, while a bit gimmicky, worked surprisingly well and left me wondering about “the truth.” That’s a great outcome from a book of fiction in my mind.
How to Make Time to Read
Are you inspired by this reading list? Do you wish you had more time to read?
Shane Parrish of Farnam Street wrote a great post on this very topic. Check out: Finding Time to Read.
Product Talk is taking the rest of the year off. New posts will return on January 6th.
In the meantime, I’ll be working on my editorial calendar. I’ve got big plans for the coming year, including:
- a podcast,
- video lessons,
- mini-coaching sessions,
- and more courses.
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