Food for Thought – Review of My 2019 Reading List

For the last couple of years, I have been using the time around Christmas not only to eat, relax, and eat again (well, this tradition is still in place, in this explicit order) but also to pause, think, and reflect. Sometimes, this can be revealing, sometimes this is a quite painful experience. However, to me, this is a good time to set the past year’s achievements and setbacks into perspective, to define new goals and to challenge my outlook on what’s important in life – to reprogram my radar, if you want. For this in particular, I try to leverage new ideas and perspectives. One way to confront myself with new ideas is reading, and each and every year I resolve to read more, to increase the diversity of topics I read about, and, most of all, to read stimulating and challenging books, which will be the topic of this article. One thing upfront, and this dazzled me quite a bit in retrospective: Many of the books I read last year provided clues (some more, some less) on something like value or meaning. Be it on an inter-organizational level (as in business ecosystems or related platforms), on an organizational level, the individual level, or even on a subconscious level, which we can’t access directly. The latter aspect was particularly interesting to me since we as humans pride ourselves of being so rational and to come to scientifically resilient conclusions, while, in reality, we forget that our consciousness is merely the co-pilot in the vehicle that is our true self. But I will come to this later. While the following paragraphs will present my 2019 reading list, I will dive into some of my personal highlights later in this article.

The books I loved most in 2019
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action Simon Sinek
The Big Five For Life: A Story of One Man and Leadership’s Greatest Secret John Strelecky
12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Jordan Peterson
Structures or Why Things Don’t Fall Down J. E. Gordon
The Infinite Game: How Great Businesses Achieve Long-Lasting Success Simon Sinek
Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life Rory Sutherland

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action – Simon Sinek (2011). To me, Simon Sinek represents the archetypical American salesman (if something like that exists). His message, clear to the point and strikingly simple, that he keeps repeating over and over and over again is: “Start with why”. If you want to succeed as an individual or an organization, you need to inspire action, personal loyalty, and trust, which – according to Sinek – requires providing a deeper motive for what you do: a clear why. One of his examples is the success story of Apple, and while there are probably lots of equally important success factors, one thing that Apple does really well is to provide a deeper meaning to their products and services: “To challenge the status quo”. We don’t buy Apple products because they are the cheapest or best performing products. These products provide us with the feeling of individuality. Ever wondered why the Apple symbol on your laptop is upside down (from your perspective) and perfectly and correctly visible for others when the laptop is open? Because it talks to others and says: I am different. And this is something you might want to signal to your environment. Anyway, Sinek does make a powerful point. People are a lot more likely to accept anything, be it ideas, products, or people, or to act if they are given a clear and tangible reason, a purpose they can identify with. In the end, acquiring the feeling of individuality is much more powerful than buying just a computer, isn’t it? That’s what happens when you provide a purpose, the why. This book is well worth reading as it puts some phenomena in business life into perspective – even though Sinek tries to sell his ideas pretty strongly at times.

The Big Five for Life: A Story of One Man and Leadership’s Greatest Secret – John Strelecky (2010). The way in which Strelecky presents his ideas and his perspective on how people can live and work together seems a bit like he as figured it all out. Strelecky tells the story of a businessman in his final months as he faces terminal brain cancer. In his last encounters with his family, friends and business associates, we gain a lot of insight into how to live not only a meaningful business life but ultimately a meaningful life. The most important concepts that Strelecky presents are the purpose for life (the overall meaning that we identify for ourselves) and the big five for life (five big goals that we intend to achieve in our lifetime). While I gave this book as a present and recommended it several times this year, it is not because of these simple yet strong concepts. To find a purpose for life, for example, is in my opinion a life-long endeavor, maybe something we will never fully achieve. And it may be subject to change as well as we undergo different phases in life and change who we are. Additionally, to define five big goals after whose accomplishment you can tell yourself “I have seen the big five, I am ready to go” does not seem like a fair description of life. Life is not a bucket list after whose completion you are ready to go. I really enjoyed this book (and recommended it) for a different reason. While reading this book, I felt like the world was slowing down a bit and it ultimately provided me with a bit of the feeling of control. The latter aspect is, in my opinion, crucial: Life is not always easy, and we are craving for the feeling of control. While we are sometimes pushed around, eventually fall down, or face hard challenges like losing someone or even facing our own mortality, Strelecky paints a picture of hope. That we can still live a meaningful and fulfilled life if we choose to. I don’t think that it is necessary to define your big five, but it inspired and motivated me to take responsibility and control and to build up something meaningful. Maybe it can inspire you as well.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Jordan Peterson (2018). Peterson is, in many ways, a highly as well as controversially discussed phenomenon these days. While some people accuse him of being dangerously rightwing, millions of others have read his book or followed his interviews and YouTube videos. In this book, he presents 12 simple, almost dull rules, which, when followed, provide structure and lead to a more fulfilled life. Well, another one of those let-me-tell-you-how-you-should-live-your-life-guys, you might think. Well, yes. And no. Peterson paints a picture of hard realities: Life is neither fair nor easy. May it be sickness, injustice (personal or even political), or just your own thinking that confronts you with obstacles and challenges, the human existence is prone to suffering. The only way to cope with this fact is to take responsibility and control, to respect yourself, and to face these challenges with dignity. Provide yourself with a purpose that is bigger than yourself. Don’t try to victimize yourself in situations of defeat nor pursue happiness just for the sake of it. Instead, you should focus on yourself, treat yourself like someone you are responsible for (this is very valuable advice; we more than often forget that only we are responsible for our bodies and souls and neglect our basic needs or wishes), or compare yourself only to who you were yesterday, not to others (which sounds simple but is in fact a very hard thing to do, in my opinion). While Peterson finds deep satisfaction in connecting his ideas to biblical stories and imperatives (which, to me, is not really necessary), he succeeds to provide simple guiding principles to live a better, meaningful life. Yet the question remains how we can translate some of these aspects into our own situations and how we can keep our focus on these rational principles when we fall apart emotionally, for example. While this book gives you an extended picture with dos and don’ts, it can only serve as a starting point, presumably for a lifetime of “figuring it out”.

Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down – J. E. Gordon (2003). In order to challenge your mind and enhance creativity, I think it is a good exercise to expose yourself to ideas and perspectives which have nothing to do with your original intellectual turf. While I love reading about physics or astronomy, I read this book to better understand structural design, that is, why certain things like bridges or buildings don’t just fall down. This book connects the layman’s gut feeling about why things should be designed in a certain way (the most experience I had with designing structures was building tree houses, but they sometimes did fall down) with the scientific background and the challenges associated with these designs. One thing I was particularly struck by was a story from World War II: While many English airplanes were shot down by the German army, some did return, many with lots of bullet holes. After analyzing these returning planes, the English army tried to improve the planes by armoring… well, the areas with the bullet holes (remember, the planes survived the holes anyways, that’s why they returned). The result was, however, that these “improved” planes were harder to fly as their aerodynamics were seriously altered. This didn’t lead to the advantage the English pilots had hoped for. Instead of trying to improve the already good planes, the more relevant question would have been: If some of the planes are able to “survive” being hit by bullets, then what is different about the planes that get shot down and how can they be improved? This is a very interesting story that shows how we oftentimes tend to exchange the more difficult problems for similar ones which are easier to solve. But answering those questions doesn’t lead us to the right answers. I really enjoyed this book as it provides scientific facts about structures without going into too much detail, so that tree house designers like me won’t be lost on the way.

The Infinite Game: How Great Businesses Achieve Long-Lasting Success – Simon Sinek (2019). Another book from Sinek. The reason why I would like to include this one, too, is that I somehow perceive “The Infinite Game” as an extension of “Start with Why”. What Sinek described as the “why” earlier, developed into what he calls the “Just Cause” now. People and organizations who are playing the infinite game follow this Just Cause. They try to come a bit closer to this Just Cause with every one of their actions knowing that it will never be reached 100 %. They’re not focusing on making short-term profit. They don’t sacrifice relationships with business partners or associates for short-term goals. They treat the game as if there were no finish line. They are in it for the long run. That is a huge difference in mindset. Very often, we sacrifice things that are important to us for short-term goals like a promotion, a short-term increase in our salary or even company profits, etc. While Sinek shows how this plays out on a corporate level, see Walmart, Apple or Ford as examples, he also applies the concept on an individual level and shows: real, sustainable success does only come if we are true to the Just Cause and do not sacrifice it for short-term benefits. I liked this book a lot as it questions many of those practices that seem common in business and life these days: to benefit now by sacrificing long-term goals and principles. One example really stuck with me: the Kodak example. While Kodak blamed the disruptive character of digital photography for the failure of their film-based business model, the real problem was that their vision, their Just Cause, was so narrowly defined, that they just didn’t see how they could actually embrace this new, upcoming digital technology and use it to provide a better product (or service) to their customers. Disruption should not be understood as a dead-end for a company’s business model but as an opportunity to advance the business model, given that radical change is embraced. And there are multiple other examples of people or companies living (or failing to live) up to the Just Cause in this book, which you should see for yourself.

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life – Rory Sutherland (2019). People are rational. And our greatest achievement is objective science, right? Wrong. This book really made me laugh sometimes and made me uncomfortable at other times. Laugh, because Sutherland makes his point with disarming British humor that you cannot escape from. And uncomfortable because the evidence he provides for… let´s call it human ignorance and shortsightedness is so precise, that you may want to close the book at some point never to hear its name again. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. However, Sutherland does point out that we do have neglected something for too long which is core to all our actions. Humans are not rational (well, we did know that already, I agree). But we tend to forget that human preferences and decision making are oftentimes so deeply hidden in our subconsciousness, that it is truly impossible to figure out what we want and why we want it. “People don’t think what they feel, don’t say what they think, and don’t do what they say” (David Ogilvy). But this leaves room for what Sutherland calls alchemy: dealing with the emotional and non-rational side of human beings. Sutherland shows firstly that problems in life and business may be best solved by being, well, completely irrational. Secondly, while all rationalizing may be well-intentioned, it doesn’t really help us with the feeling side of ourselves or our fellow human beings. However, there might be ways to what Sutherland calls “hacking” your way into this hidden part of our human side. Namely, to be able to talk to ourselves or others on a level that is inaccessible to our rational arguments. This can be done by creating the right situation or sometimes simply by performing certain actions that create the right “magic”, that is set the mood for your brain to embrace a certain attitude. Very insightful and yet entertaining book which makes you think, question, and at the same time learn to appreciate more of the magic that makes us so human. In all the good and all the challenging ways.

When I think about all those book insights, the conversations that I had in 2019 and all the thoughts and questions that came up, I believe that lots of people’s energy was directed to defining, in essence, what true value is. We think about network structures like business ecosystems, in which multiple organizations search for a greater meaning that helps them coordinate their activities (a shared value purpose). We see organizations trying to figure out the unique value they can provide, some with great success (as Sinek shows with Apple), while the answer seems more elusive to others (like Ford). Individuals are asking the same question: What is my purpose and how can I advance that purpose further (as Strelecky or Peterson or Sinek are discussing from very different perspectives). And then, there might even be a definition of value that is not fully accessible to our rational thoughts. Value might even be defined (differently) on a subconscious level without us being able to fully influence it (without our subconscious asking us for permission). However, after going through all these rational ideas, these diverse perspectives, it might be ultimately up to us to find value in our own life. To listen a little bit more carefully (to others and to our inner self) and to allow some magic to happen. Because in the end, with all these questions and doubts in mind, life might be richer if we allow ourselves to be amazed – by all the big things and all the small things.


Other nice reads in 2019

Other books that I have read, which are in my opinion still worthwhile to look into, are the following:

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World´s Most Dynamic Region Joe Studwell
Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy – and How to Make Them Work for You Geoffrey Parker, Marshall Van Alstyne, Sangeet Paul Choudary
The Magic of Thinking Big David Schwartz
Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI Paul Daugherty, H. James Wilson
Die Kunst des klaren Denkens: 52 Denkfehler, die Sie besser anderen überlassen Rolf Dobelli
Conscious: The Power of Awareness in Business and Life Bob Rosen, Emma-Kate Swann

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