The story of Elizabeth Homes and the company she founded, Theranos, portrayed in the book Bad Blood, is what happens when this advice is completely ignored.
It is a five-star page-turner that is a window into human nature. Once I started reading, I was hooked by its heart of darkness. (More on the book below.)
I also tell young entrepreneurs that “if you want to be a better CEO read a lot.”
Last year, I read more than 34 books — using a technique I developed that doubled my reading speed — coming in a bit shy of my one book a week goal.
Bill Gates devours 50 books a year. (That’s how I set my goal.)
In 2018, I focused on books about writing and better decision making. I dug into the art and science of marketing. And, because of my new role as CEO of Soluna, I read several books about the blockchain.
Here is the annual list of my favorite five-star reads…
(As a bonus, I am including links to other reviews of each book I enjoyed reading.)
“Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” — Daniel Kahneman
Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman) — I know many CEOs that say, “I always go with my gut.” I can relate. I often do a quick analysis of the data at hand and make a call. It’s because I have a bias for action. But, over the years I have found that my gut was often wrong. After reading this incredible book, I now know how dangerous this decision-making approach can be. We, humans, are incredibly vulnerable to cognitive biases. Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel prize, explains why. We have two brains, he explains. One brain, he calls “System 1.” It makes quick decisions using pattern matching and readily available data. It is this brain that helps me detect a hint of irritation in my wife’s voice over the phone. It is also the intuition that helps me avoid a pothole in the road before my conscience even realizes it was there. The second, called “System 2”, is more methodical, slow, and asks questions about what is true. System 2 is used to perform complicated tasks, analyze vast amounts of data, and to help you master a new set of dance steps. The relationship between this fast brain and its slow sister is the subject of the book. By explaining the inner workings and influences of these brains Kahneman hopes to, “improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice in others and then eventually in ourselves.” [A great New York Times review is here.]
“We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.” ― Robert B. Cialdini
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Robert Cialdini) — You know that feeling you’ve had after you just enjoyed a sample of ice-cream at the supermarket? It’s an overwhelming obligation you get about purchasing a pint of this new treat. Do you ever wonder why that happens? In his seminal book on social psychology, Cialdini unlocks the secret. He calls it the principle of “reciprocity.” It is one of six secrets to human persuasion that he unlocks from several years of going undercover and participating in the training programs of top selling organizations. The other five include social proof, commitment, authority, scarcity, and liking. This book from 1984 is timeless, well written, and offers a rubric for understanding how to influence people, and more importantly, how to detect when you are being influenced. Every CEO should read this book (twice). [My friend David Cancel has his entire company, a marketing tech firm, read it.]
Let My People Go Surfing (Yvon Chouinard) — Last January as I was preparing for my annual trip to Saranac Lake for president’s day weekend, I was in desperate need of some new winter gear and decided to make a trip to my local Patagonia store. I efficiently made my way through the store, grabbing what I needed, and came across this book quietly stacked near a new ski hat. I picked it up and just never put it down. This is a beautifully written book by a man who accidentally created a world-changing company by focusing on his passion. Chouinard explains how he goes from falling in love with the outdoors to starting a company to make money so he could go surfing — to creating a global clothing enterprise that donates 1% of revenue to climate change initiatives. Amazing. [The Independent looks at his management style.]
Bad Blood (John Carreyou) — Elizabeth Holmes idolized Steve Jobs. Steve was well known to have an ego. He was brilliant and had a passion for creating amazing products for Mavericks. And, he changed the world. Elizabeth started Theranos to change the world of healthcare. She was brilliant, had an ego, and never delivered a working product. She spoke eloquently about how her “unicorn” venture would make a “dent in the universe.” Sadly, on the inside, it was just a house of cards. This book is a thriller that left me standing on a crowded subway car in New York countless times with my mouth gaping open in shock. You’ll learn how narcissism, loving your own product and neglecting your customers can leave a black hole in the universe. [Bill Gates read it too, and this podcast(and the limited mini-series by the same name) takes a deep look at Elizabeth Holmes.]
“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” — William Zinsser
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction (William Zinsser) — I desperately want to master the art of writing. I believe as a CEO, my ability to communicate in all forms is paramount. I don’t particularly think I am at my best and so I constantly write — this blog for example — in an effort to perfect this skill. I have read the classics like The Elements of Style, but Zinsser’s book is a recipe book for mastering non-fiction writing. What I love about it is how it reads like a novel. My biggest take away from the book is how important it is to keep your writing simple, human, and joyful. “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for,” he elucidates. The book includes countless examples of good and bad writing. He shares how to write memoirs, interviews, and technical topics. He delivers this sage advice with thrilling personal stories, books he’s read, and classes he’s taught. I loved it. [Here is a lovely homage on Zinsser and a summary of his tips from the book.]
The Advantage (Patrick Lencioni) — I am a big fan of Lencioni. I read everything he writes. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a classic. This latest book is an all-in-one book about what I call “getting clear.” Lencioni explains that in all his years studying the best companies, he discovered that they all share one secret weapon — organizational health. Surprisingly, that superpower can be developed in any organization. It takes “getting clear” by (1) getting the team to trust one another, and (2) answering six important questions. Spoiler Alert… The first question is “Why do we exist?” [Ethos3 delivers an inspired review.]
Principles (Ray Dalio) — Ray Dalio’s book is a reference guide for self-reflection. He exemplifies “pain is where the learning is” — another phrase I like to use with new CEOs. Dalio starts the book with a candid account of his own hubris-driven bet that costs him his company. He was so broke after that experience that he had to borrow money from his dad to take a trip to Texas for a consulting gig. Dalio then embarks on a journey of introspection that ushers him to a world. There he cracks the code on the economy. He writes it down in a set of principles. He calls it “the machine.” (Funny enough, I love automata theory from computer science and enjoy the analogy.) His company, Bridgewater, goes on to use this insight to create the most successful hedge fund in history. The principles in this book are quite helpful. He spells out how to learn from your mistakes. How to build a team that thrives on finding the best ideas and acting on them. He discusses the need to be “radically transparent.” And, most importantly, he explains how to make better decisions. He also talks about the importance of understanding what I call “the wiring” of each member of your team. He then combines all of this with sophisticated algorithms to simulate the machines in the real world.[Here is a gripping interview of Dalio on one of my favorite podcasts, The Knowledge Project.]
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John Belizaire is a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and investor. He is also the founder and managing editor of CEOPLAYBOOK — an online publication dedicated to exploring what it means to be a startup CEO. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter. Subscribe to his popular newsletter — Mental Candy — read by over 500 CEOs.