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★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)
Humans are hardwired to seek causal stories – we don’t want to hear that the Dow went up or down 500 points for no reason, or that a company is succeeding (or failing) because it just got lucky. Separating the impact of luck and skill is critically important: models covered here include process vs. outcome, storytelling, and correlation vs. causation.
How do you build a brand from $6 million to $600 million in fewer than two decades? This unique entrepreneur story provides granular insights into the process of brand-building and managing growth. The format is unique, too: it’s a big coffee-table book with lots of beautiful graphics and intriguing sidebars. It’s a shame that this book is so under the radar – I discovered it entirely by accident, as it essentially hasn’t been marketed. It’s not even sold on Amazon! This is my effort to make it better-known, as it’s infinitely superior to many popular entrepreneur stories, like the vastly overrated Shoe Dog by Phil Knight.
50 years before Wal-Mart and a century before Amazon, America’s dominant retailer was The Great A&P. How did it succeed – and why did it fail? The answer spans mental models like trait adaptivity, culture / status quo bias, contrast bias, salience, incentives, and local vs. global optimization.
Starbucks singlehandedly changed the way America thinks about coffee – but it almost became a victim of its own success, as longtime leader Howard Schultz explores in this uncommonly honest and open account. Mental models include: contrast bias, status quo bias, incentives, local vs. global optimization, and product vs. packaging.
The man, the myth, the legend – how did Jeff Bezos become the Sam Walton of our time, fundamentally changing how the entire world thinks about retail? Brad Stone provides a thoughtful and balanced exploration, touching on mental models like: commitment bias, scientific thinking, status quo bias, inversion, marginal utility, empathy, and more.
Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy – OnA Review + Notes
Advertising is often disdained or derided, but Ogilvy built one of the largest (and most profitable) advertising agencies from scratch by using none other than mental models thinking. In an engaging deconstruction of actual advertisements, Ogilvy overviews base rates, cognition vs. intuition, social proof, and more.
Billionaire serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and Palantir, is an iconoclast who’s willing to stand apart from the crowd – he stresses the importance of reasoning from first principles and finding games that nobody else is playing (where it’s easier to win). In a thought-provoking book, he touches on models including: arms races, luck vs. skill, and agency.
Fracking is generally understood as a late-2000s – 2010s phenomenon, as that’s when it exploded into the limelight – but it’s a fascinating story that extends back decades prior. Who won, who lost, and why? Mental models include: bottlenecks, luck vs. skill, path-dependency, n-order impacts, margin of safety, and incentives.
How does a small specialty retailer make a living selling products so difficult to hawk that thieves won’t even steal them? The answer is a uniquely “yummy” corporate culture that will change the way you think about doing business. Mental models include: empathy, social connection, win-win games, local vs. global optimization, reciprocity bias, and trait adaptivity.
Many people today see Wal-Mart as a has-been; they forget that half a century ago, it was every bit as much a disruptor as Amazon – building an entirely new kind of retail experience and leaving rubble in its wake. How did Sam Walton’s smart thinking – and unbelievable panty sales – build an American icon? Mental models include status quo bias, salience, multicausality, and incentives.
In a broader-ranging discussion than his eponymous book on advertising, Ogilvy opines on life and business with wit and charm in previously-unpublished letters, memos, and musings. A great all-around business book touching on mental models like trait adaptivity, nonlinearity, schema, and empathy.
★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)
It’s hard to imagine that decades ago, Americans thought of coffee as a commodity that came from a can. Whether or not you like Starbucks (I’m a third-wave indie coffee guy), you can’t deny that Starbucks changed coffee – Schultz’s motivational story includes models like status quo bias, agency, and trait adaptivity.
It can be hard to measure productivity directly – so we’re sucked into the trap of looking like we’re working rather than actually getting anything done, which leads to more stress – and less worthwhile output. The path to really productive “Deep Work” spans mental models like utility, opportunity costs, salience, product vs. packaging, and more.
Many shallow analyses fall prey to survivorship bias, only “connecting the winning dots” and conveniently ignoring also-rans that also fit the pattern. Jonah Berger takes a more holistic approach to analyzing why things “go viral.” The answers? Mental models like social proof, utility, and salience.
How does this classic business novel hold up decades later? Many of the problems it cites haven’t been fixed by modern business practices – instead, in many cases, they’ve gotten worse – making this quick, engaging read worth your time to consider. Mental models include: local vs. global optimization, product vs. packaging, utility, and more.
Negotiation is the ultimate tough-guy, dog-eat-dog, Viking-or-Victim field… right? Wrong. Successful professional negotiators understand the power of empathy. Other mental models featured in this landmark classic include: win-win games, sunk costs, fairness, dose-dependency, schema, and many more.
What built the original “cloud” disruptor? You might think the answer is visionary leadership and savvy coding… which is perhaps true, but surprising players like mindfulness and stunt marketing also make important appearances. Like a more chatty Zero to One, this book will change the way you think about tech disruption.
A decade ago, nonchalantly hailing a ride across town with a complete stranger – or worse, crashing in their spare room for a few nights – might have earned you a visit from some credentialed professionals in white coats. Today, it’s not just common practice – it’s big business. The story of how Uber and AirBnB transformed the way we travel spans models from luck to nonlinearity.
Talent exists, and it’s important – but it’s also important to recognize how much of our performance is driven by our own talent, versus the circumstances and teams we find ourselves participating in. Although I have questions about Groysberg’s methodology, this is still an interesting book with important conclusions, like The Halo Effect applied to individuals instead of companies.
Our culture prizes busyness – adults and kids alike are chronically overscheduled, leaving us with little time for rest and leisure. Is this the sign of a life well lived… or is it hampering our ability to get things done? Beware of Soojung-Kim Pang’s section on sleep schedules, which is profoundly unscientific and dangerous to many readers’ health – but a good book otherwise.
★★★★ (4/7) (acceptable for its category)
The classic treatise on disruption: why do once-great businesses – making seemingly all the right decisions – fall by the wayside to smaller upstarts with no resources or reputation to speak of? While you have to be careful not to over-apply the lessons, there are models here spanning from local vs. global optimization to marginal utility.
★★★ (3/7) (mediocre)
none at this time!
★★ (2/7) (meaningfully flawed)
none at this time!
★ (1/7) (run, Forrest, run!)
Cross-list Angela Duckworth’s “Grit” here – by far the worst book you could waste your time reading.