When I published this, I knew that it would be of the most tumultuous weeks in America’s recent history. As such, I decided to take a different approach to this week’s memo. Though there remains political uncertainty, there is still an opportunity to invest in foundational education. By November’s end, things will again resemble our new normal. Colleagues will return to Zoom conferences and children will finish up their fall semesters. Millions of service workers, public servants, and other essential personnel will have carried on as if America’s federal elections were any regular week.
So I chose to focus on something more foundational than the analyses of modern commerce trends, digital agglomeration, or the historical context behind the evolutions of our industries. Thanks to countless conversations with 2PM’s varied community over the past year, a number of books have been shared with or by me. The texts are diverse in their subjects, their agendas, and their authors.
Upon reviewing the 50 or so books or documents that I have read or reread in 2020, these are the 20 that made the greatest impact. I took copious notes for my own consumption. The notes allowed me to synthesize different ideas, the motivations of different people, and the durability of ideas throughout different decades. I found that the ideals were more similar than not, history often rhymed, and we have more in common than we would like to believe.
This is an eclectic list, yes, but it is a beneficial one. You may snicker at some, you may glaze over others. That’s by design; read them anyway. Learning how others understand their own worlds is a skillset that we could use a bit more of. In David Epstein’s Range, a book on the practice of generalism, he wrote:
The more varied your training is, the better able you’ll be to apply your skills flexibly to situations you haven’t seen.
Or consider this one-liner from a 2018 Harvard Business Review article:
But frankly, while there is a professional advantage to consuming this collection, most of the advantage will be more personal. Commit to reading this list and you’ll gain the advantage of context. You’ll better understand those next to you. You will be able to empathize more with those who you’ve never worked with, lived beside, or voted with. So without further adieu, here are the 20 books to read heading into 2021 and why they are relevant.
High Output Management — The walk from Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke’s office takes you down a set of stairs in the Ottawa headquarters. On the way down, you’ll pass a little bookshelf with texts that you can take, borrow, or give. I was late to reading Andrew Grove’s legendary book on management, but it’s worth it. The copy that I keep was gifted by one of the public market’s finest CEOs. The book itself is a must-read. Authored by the former chairman and CEO of Intel, the book explains a number of key management strategies, including leverage in the gathering of information, decision making, and the “nudging” of others.
Zero to One — The irony of my first visit to Silicon Valley was that it was for a launch event hosted by prolific angel investor Jason Calcanis. At the end of the event, another successful investor was signing the inside covers of his new book. Back then, I didn’t know much about Peter Thiel beyond his contributions to Paypal and his Facebook investment. But for anyone building anything, the book is a must. He’s an unparalleled thinker. One of his original thoughts continues to stand out: most people act as if there are no secrets left to find.
Shoe Dog — There are few brand founders as accomplished as Phil Knight, the man behind Nike, which now has a market capitalization of $152 billion. Shoe Dog explains how Knight accomplished what he did. By all accounts, he was a tyrant in the process. Consider this quote:
The cowards never started, the weak died along the way — that leaves us.
Knight embodied the spirit of the athletes that Nike sponsored. A ruthless leader with a work ethic that the shoe industry’s leaders, whether American or Japanese, could not account for. If Shoe Dog was foundational text, Swoosh is as well. Gifted to me by Casey Armstrong, the Chief Marketing Officer of ShipBob, this unauthorized version tells more of the story. If Shoe Dog is the important Disney version, Swoosh is its Wolf of Wall Street. Yes, read that one too.
The Man Who Solved The Market — This inspiring Jim Simons story transcended investments. I read this book as a primer for my renewed enthusiasm for mathematics. Simons used it to his advantage by quantifying markets in automated ways before anyone else knew to do so. Not only does this cover the rise of Renaissance Technologies, it explains how the fund influenced our markets first and then our politics. One of the world’s most accomplished investors built a culture that built wealth, that wealth built new industry magnates, those magnates helped America’s 45th president get elected. Robert Mercer is the former CEO of Renaissance Technologies and the principal investor of Cambridge Analytica and partner to Peter Thiel’s Palantir. His daughter is Rebekah Mercer. Simons and his hedge fund are major donors to another candidate.
A Most Beautiful Thing — A recount of the first all-black high school rowing team, Arshay Cooper’s book touched me deeply. Chicago’s West Side was an extremely difficult place to grow up. It is the story of someone without the bottom rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs building his own safety and psychological support through sports. This book is especially close to me. Sponsored by Rowing Blazers, an early investment of 2PM’s, the story became a documentary executive produced by John Carlson, father of Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson, and directed by Mary Mazzio. Narrated by Common, the book and documentary shows the depth of ingenuity and the ability to overcome the most extreme of circumstances: poverty, violence, and neglect.
American Rule — Jared Sexton Yates covers 300 years in 300 pages. His ambition is to completely reexamine American history and the myths that we now believe to be law. It’s an uncomfortable read for some. Of course, some will view it as partisanship but when you do read it, look beyond that. Understand the greater themes at play and how they interact with our lives today. Sexton identified blind spots that I didn’t consider. For instance, when we discuss complicity, we rarely mean our own. This book makes you look inward. The book topples giants and raises the forgotten. This excerpt is one that I will never forget:
[I]t becomes obvious that the march on Selma, the Stonewall uprising, Frederick Douglass’s fearless turn as America’s conscience, the perpetual struggle by women and vulnerable minorities to seek equality, and even the ability of people to continue striving, dreaming, and just surviving in a system designed to hinder them at every turn, are just as inspiring as a band of eighteenth-century revolutionaries defeating Great Britain, the world’s foremost empire.
Something to consider.
Empire of Cotton — Harvard historian Sven Beckert’s book on the global history of the cotton trade sat on my desk for months before I had the courage to pick it up. And this one is of the most personal to me. I am the descendant of Nigerians and the English. Half of my family worked in North Carolina only to meet the other Louisiana half in 1979. I’d be born four years later. Beckert’s book is another uncomfortable read. He paints the world’s penchant for war capitalism as a fact as common as the air that we breathe. Consider this excerpt:
When “free trade” was imposed upon the Ottoman Empire in 1838 and British cloth “flooded the market in Izmir,” local cotton workers lost their ability to maintain their old production regime.
Free trade, the economic principle that many of us cherish, was at the root of the rise in capitalism and free labor. It wasn’t a uniquely American problem. The entire world was aided by American labor. Beckert’s words are as objective as you’ll find on the matter.
The Righteous Mind — As a native Texan who now lives in Ohio, navigating religion and politics may as well be part of my job description. Given the entrenched divisions that we find ourselves standing behind, this 2012 book by Jonathan Haidt is one that should have been read by more of us before now. The book sympathizes with Haidt’s liberal politics but it does paint a clear picture that, regardless of what you believe, our perspectives on morality are often wired from birth. This can be blinding to others and Mind implores readers to consider their own blind spots.
Einstein’s War — Arthur Stanley Eddington was the star of this book written by Matthew Stanley. It is a parallel biography of a scientist and thinker who partnered with Einstein to evangelize his scientific breakthrough. Eddington and Einstein were both pacificists, teetotalers, and bohemians but Einstein’s theories fueled Eddington’s practical science and expeditions. The result was both of them rising through the ranks of British astronomy. Merit was not enough; it was Eddington’s marketing and communications expertise that turned an unknown scientist into a legend, almost overnight.
The Gucci Mane Guide To Greatness — Gucci Mane is a platinum-selling recording artist and New York Times bestseller author. This will be the most predictable book in the “self-help” category that you’ll ever read, but when you’re done laughing at the recommendation, take a look at a photo of Radric Delantic Davis 10 years ago and compare it today. He doesn’t just look like a different human being; he looks like an altogether different soul. Once 80 pounds overweight and incarcerated, Davis has rededicated his life to health, wealth, and devotion to those around him. He’s someone that you’ll root for. Even if this is the last book that you read, it’s worth understanding the delta between his former life and his current one. That has to be useful.
Atomic Habits — According to esteemed author and 2PM collaborator and James Clear, the holy grail of habit change is 1% of improvement each day. It’s an important lesson that Clear has lived himself. Atomic Habits captures the benefit of compounding improvement, especially the infantismile ones. Clear’s life is made of these moments and so are ours. Like many of you, Clear values the pursuit of deep generalism and optimizing the abilities, influence, and opportunities that you possess. Clear sent a copy in the early fall of 2018, weeks before the October release. At that point, I didn’t know much about him. What I did know is that, like me, he is an Ohio guy. He’s an athlete. And he has insatiable curiosity. I should have read the book much sooner than I did. It took everyone else reading it for me to fully grasp how important his work is for professionals like you and me.
Driven — I first met Dr. Doug Brackmann after an introduction by an Entrepreneur’s Organization colleague at a retreat outside of Nashville. A year later, he became my therapist. This book sums up his philosophy on working with entrepreneurs, leaders, and other highly driven individuals whose characteristics are commonly associated with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He’s begun to impact me through his implementation of an alternative meditation style.
Extreme Ownership — By now, the business world is aware of former Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink. I was introduced to this book, written by Commander Willink with Leif Babin, through a few mutual friends. While it can be predictable at times, the knowledge that radical accountability can be a competitive advantage takes all 288 pages of the book to break through. It’s chock full of takeaways like this:
When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable — if there are no consequences — that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards.
The Restless Wave — I didn’t always agree with his politics, but the late Naval officer, prisoner of war, and U.S. Senator John McCain was a hero of persistence and reinvention for me and many others. There was a moment or two in the senator’s 2007 presidential campaign that I believe many of us would respect a great deal more today. He wasn’t the perfect politician but he had a civility about him that we could use more of today.
The Federalist Papers — There are two reasons to review the historic collection of 85 essays. The first is that the United States of America was highly influenced by them. The second is that it is one of the first lessons in recorded American history of the benefits of prolific content creation. The series was written by John Jay, James Madison, and a household name, Alexander Hamilton, between October 1787 and May 1788. Yes, 85 essays were published in under nine months. They used the anonymous pen name “Publius” and published to the medium of their day: the New York state newspapers.
Americanah — I learned about author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie later than I would have liked: through 2014’s Beyonce hit “Flawless“, which sampled her wise words on feminism. I’ve been studying her ever since. As a father to two African-American women, I need all the help that I can get for navigating what was, what is, and what will be. Adichie has helped me do just that. Americanah tells the story of a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, a first-generation immigrant, who navigates near destitution and eventually graduates from college. It’s the quintessential American story, one that proves that the story can be anyone’s.
Moby-Dick – More than fiction, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the story of capitalism in early America. As the center of the whaling industry and the oil trade, Nantucket Island was the Manhattan Island of its day. Many of the country’s wealthiest families earned their status through whaling and went on to impact or inspire American business, philanthropy, and education. From the Starbucks to the Macys or the Folgers, these families were more than capitalists. They were the abolitionists of their day, inviting speakers like Frederick Douglass to the island for rousing oration. You won’t read much about the above in Moby-Dick but you’ll better understand the genesis of wealth as Captain Ahab attempts to avenge his leg while out to sea on the Pequod.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” – The story of the last African-American to be traded into slavery is one that I wasn’t ready for. The book is a culmination of study over three months of conversation between author Zora Neale Hurston and “Cudjo Lewis”, the last of the transatlantic slave trade survivors. Born Oluale Kossola, he was kidnapped at age 19 in 1860, just five years before slavery would be abolished, and brought to temporary barracks called barracoons on the coast of modern-day Benin. I loved this book because it reminded me of the resilience of my ancestors as well as the resilience of its author. Hurston recorded these interviews and wrote the book to be published in 1931. Her work would take 85 years to see the light of day. The last African traded into captivity was alive and well in 1927.
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World – The world was shifting economically, the first World War was raging, and the Spanish Influenza was killing indiscriminately. This is the story of the Paris Accords, written by Margaret MacMillan. The focus is on America’s President Woodrow Wilson who employed many of the same tactics that we see today. For six months, the center of the world was Paris. This book delves into the geo-politics that define our lives today. Peacemakers made new empires out of bankrupt ones and new countries were carved out of wartorn countrysides. History doesn’t repeat; it rhymes. This book will help you identify some of the source material of the proverbial music that we hear today.
These are the books that line my hard oak desk. In any given month, I visit manufacturing plants, I walk through shipping facilities, I sit in front offices, and I serve in boardrooms. I have the pleasure of working alongside a great spectrum of our society. Some of those individuals see the world the way that I do and some would refuse to try. But I have found that while context can never fully mitigate a disagreement, it can begin a conversation. That conversation can become foundational. And that foundation can lead to better things over time. When I write, it’s from a place of objectivity and consideration to the people that I meet and those who I write for. These are the authors, books, and texts that have shaped me.
By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes |Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM