BONUS: My Top Recommended NON-BUSINESS Books for Entrepreneurs
[Disclosure: This chapter contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase after clicking the link, I will earn a commission at no additional cost to you.]
I hope you found this guide on antifragility helpful, and that you’re now thinking about ways to create an agile, adaptive business.
I have one last resource to share. Well, eight actually.
Like all good founders, I know you’re constantly seeking to improve their technical and business skills. But I also know that after a 15-hour day pushing your startup forward the last thing you feel like doing is consuming even more tactical business content!
If you’re anything like me, you’re craving a change of topic.
As a start-up mentor, most of the key ideas I pass on to founders don’t necessarily come from business books. In fact, I have found that my most profound shifts in business thinking have come from reading specifically non-business books, or at least books that don’t promise “5-minute” business success.
The best books for founders are the ones that, regardless of their domain, teach you to value counterintuitive and contrarian wisdom, to test rather than to assume, to clarify your position in the world through effective writing, to tinker, to cultivate the feedback you are most afraid of hearing, and to understand how our world is influenced by randomness.
Here are the best non-business books for shaping the minds of start-up founders:
- Fooled By Randomness – Nassim Taleb [affiliate link]
I recommend Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness to anyone who will ever look at analytics (this includes all founders by definition). The first rule of looking at any data is to be able to distinguish between a real effect and an artifact of randomness.
This book opens one’s eyes to the surprisingly disproportionate effect of randomness on our lives, and how we tend to invent unsupported narratives to fit essentially random outcomes.
I have assigned this book to everyone I have ever trained as a professional digital advertiser.
This book is not so much an instructional manual as it is a manifesto on moving beyond our infantile attachment to logic.
Rather than come up with a marketing successful campaign on the logic that “mothers will respond to X”, or “middle-aged businessmen will respond to Y”, Sutherland tested options that made sense and other options that did not make sense. Instead of trying to tell the market what he thought it should want, he experimented.
Sutherland quotes his company’s famous founder David Ogilvy, “…people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” Asking people what they want won’t get you there. You have to test a million things and follow the response. Ground up, not top-down.
To process as fast and effectively as they do, our brains work as simplifying machines. Because of this, our sense of how the world works is predictably divergent from reality: we think our situations are more unique than they are, we rely on experts uncritically, we superimpose cause/effect relationships, etc.
Founders are that rare breed who specialize in a world of counter-intuitive wisdom; start-ups are nothing more than proofs-of-concept that the market is somehow different from how people assumed. Founders understand that their gold lies in digging into a surprising result to find the distinction that others are not yet making.
Hitchens is my model not only for writing, but also for critical thought. Opinions do not count for anything, he maintained. The truth lies in “not what you think, but how you think.”
Founders are contrarians. They’ve chosen a more solitary, more long-odds profession over muddling along with the Middle Management Masses. Hitchens understands what that position feels like. He understands that contrarians can be among the most valuable of society’s gems; if you have worked out a truth that is not easy for others to accept, your road can be simultaneously urgent and lonely.
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Nassim Taleb [affiliate link]
This is the book that formed the basis for the guide you just read.
Antifragile is, in my option, Taleb’s most interesting and consequential book. Taleb is a probabilist who specializes in asymmetric risk: events with consequences that scale disproportionately to the system itself. A Richter-6 earthquake, for example, does exponentially more damage than a Richter-3 earthquake. Adding 10,000 cars to a city’s streets slows traffic exponentially more at rush hour than it does early in the morning. The greater the exponential curve, the more “fragile” we are to things like earthquakes and traffic.
But some things, particularly organic things, are not just robust but antifragile. The cells within an organism are trial-and-error machines; the successful ones replicate, and the unsuccessful ones are cleared away. On a macro-scale, Darwinian evolution works on the same principle relative to a species.
What if a founder could build their company like an organism? Something that could respond to disruption and strengthen itself as a result?
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser [affiliate link]
On Writing Well is a short, entertaining overview of good (cross-domain) writing.
I’m not recommending this book because I think you’ll write a blog. That’s the least of it. Clear writing is clear thinking. Clear thinking leads to a clear company mission, a clear value proposition, a clear vision for your customer as to how their life will be better with you being part of it.
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini [affiliate link]
Cialdini’s seminal work covers six factors that affect whether or not we will do something that someone else wants us to do.
Every founder is trying to find a customer base. Every articulation of value to those potential customers will include some or all of Cialdini’s famous six “weapons of influence”.
- The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph – Ryan Holiday [affiliate link]
I originally read The Obstacle Is the Way during a bleak time in my own life, and I found it to be a very welcome introduction to Stoic thought.
Stoicism is very useful for founders, but Seneca or Marcus Arrelious might be slightly unapproachable. Holiday’s work is a well-written primer, accessible to anyone and filled with insights on the resilience and emotional context that can bolster a founder’s state of mind.
I hope these books are as inspiring to you as they were to me. Best of luck in your endeavors!