Work

Book Recommendations Shortlist

Need a book recommendation? Check out these non-fiction classics

5275 3517 Paul Breloff

I love to read. So when my team asked for book recommendations in a recent Town Hall, I hopped on the opportunity to reflect a little on the books I’ve found helpful on my career journey these last 15+ years. These are all nonfiction favorites — narrowing my fiction favorites is simply too big a task — and all made a strong impression at the times I read them, even if they may not all stand the test of time equally. While these aren’t the most original or arcane selections, they’re ones you’ll almost certainly be glad you checked out.

Happy reading!

Books about the world: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond) – One of the very first books I read that sparked my interest in why certain places were different than others. I am pretty sure I read it while backpacking in Vietnam. One idea that stuck with me was about the conditions that enable a production surplus (i.e., enough food that we can save it for the future) and how that served as the foundation for modern civilization (e.g., science, philosophy, commerce). The flipside, of course, is how horrifying it is to learn the ways those tools were used against the defenseless as imperial ambitions grew…
  • Cosmos (Carl Sagan) – This is a Carl Sagan classic, and if you don’t know about the Big Bang or time dilation or how big the universe is and you want to have your mind blown, read this book. While it hasn’t directly shaped my career, it’s definitely shaped my worldview (er, universe view) and I like to think there’s an alternate dimension in which I’m an astrophysicist.
  • Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari) – This guy writes his book as if he’s sitting on a nearby planet, thoroughly untroubled by the contemporary concerns of humanity and more interested to understand our trajectory from a cosmic or millennial perspective. The way he grounds the arc of human experience as an extended trajectory of conquest and stories, always within the frame of Earth’s lifetime, makes everything feel small but in a powerful, mind-expanding way.
  • India After Gandhi (Ramachandra Guha) and The State of Africa (Martin Meredith) – I read these books about a decade apart (IAG around 2009, SoA only this year) but they were indispensable books for me as I seek to better understand the context and history of these amazing markets I work in. The books are similar: massive tomes that take on the task of telling the myriad stories of hugely complex and diverse places from the time of independence movements (roughly mid-20th century) through the early 2000s. Obviously, any book like these is totally incomplete and I’m sure disputable on many fronts. But for me, they’ve been useful tools to help me structure my understanding of where India and Africa have been and search for clues about how best to navigate the present and look ahead.

Books about work and teams: 

  • Execution (Larry Bossidy) – I read this book a long time ago, and I fear it’s better suited to a simpler, pre-digital age — in certain parts they recommend writing hand-written letters! It contains a lot of wisdom and best practices about how to create systems for people, strategy, and operations to get stuff done and ensure maximum impact, productivity and accountability. While some of the tools work better if you’re leading big teams, there are ideas anyone can take advantage of, even if you’re just the boss of yourself. Another book recommendation on the execution theme is The 4 Disciplines of Execution. This one pushes us to focus on our “wildly important goals” and keep track of progress via “lead” measures on a scoreboard, all while (reassuringly) acknowledging the whirlwind of day-to-day stuff that can suck up 80% of our week.
  • The Four Hour Workweek (Tim Ferris) – The Tim Ferriss classic… It seems cliche to recommend this but what I really liked and what led to some useful epiphanies is the reminder that a good business makes money, and some of the best businesses make money quite simply — without crazy new ideas, lots of VC money, and impossible odds. It’s kind of an antidote to the voracious world-dominating viewpoints of most VC / entrepreneur books (e.g., Zero to One!) and re-grounds business in a simple profit equation: Put in as little resources as possible to make as much money as possible, and focus on actual free cash flows so you can live a really cool life.
  • High Output Management (Andrew Grove) – Another classic, written by the longtime Intel CEO and Silicon Valley legend Andy Grove. Maybe a little dated, but still largely applicable and covers a lot of amazing basics about building and growing teams, running complex organizations, creating leverage points, and making decisions.
  • The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) – This one rocked my world, and was a topic of a previous blog post. In essence, Daniel Coyle asks, “Why some teams are more than the sum of their parts, and some are less?” This gave me a way for thinking about teams of all stripes (athletics, business, etc.) and what makes them great, without just falling back on some flaccid notion of “shared values.” There are a number of other culture-oriented books I’ve also enjoyed (including Primed to Perform, Delivering Happiness, and Setting the Table, to name just a few), but this one is special.
  • New Power (Jeremy Heimans) – Written by the CEO of Purpose, I recently found this book a very insightful and useful framework for thinking about the role of social media and movements and virality in building great businesses. I fear I am still an “Old Power” kind of guy (maybe it’s my age?), but there’s a lot in this New Power method and philosophy I’d genuinely like to learn and leverage to unlock professional potential through Shortlist.

Books about development: 

  • The Mystery of Capital (Hernando De Soto) – The book that drove me to become (briefly) a real estate lawyer… This is one of the most insightful development books I’ve ever read, describing the complicated interplay of law, record-keeping, and politics that turns things we own into “capital,” i.e., things we can easily turn into money through mortgage, collateralization, etc. The idea of widespread “dead capital” in emerging markets was fascinating to me, and I went into real estate law so I could learn in detail how a web of property rights and contracts could actually turn this dead capital into living, breathing capital ready to be deployed toward investment and growth.
  • The Elusive Quest for Growth (William Easterly) – The William Easterly classic (along with White Man’s Burden), which I remember as one big, brilliant takedown of traditional development economics and the development-industrial complex that rests on it. Easterly became a persistent counterpoint to Jeffrey Sachs and his “if we only had enough money, we could solve all the problems!” idealism. I like that this book eschews big development aid in favor of letting a thousand flowers bloom. This was an initial spark that got me more excited about tools like microfinance and entrepreneurship to solve big problems rather than massive institutions like the World Bank.

Books about startups:

  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things (Ben Horowitz) – A more recent hit, written by the iconic founder of venture behemoth Andreessen Horowitz. I found the first half a bit self-congratulatory, but the second half was full of interesting examples and insights about the challenges and celebrations along the way of building startups.
  • Traction (Gabriel Weinberg) and Lean Startup (Eric Ries) – These are good books to refer back to every once in awhile; they’re kind of like two sides of one coin. Lean Startup focuses on the “rules” of building product in a rapid prototyping/iteration model (“build-measure-learn” cycles), and Traction focuses on distribution and goes through a bunch of marketing and sales tactics to get your product out there.
  • Zero to One (Peter Thiel) – This is the Peter Thiel meditation on what makes a high-growth, dominant startup. There’s a lot here that I question or don’t agree with (e.g., the focus on building a monopoly as a positive thing, the need to dominate markets, etc.). But, it’s a really useful framework to try to make sense of the modern tech landscape and the difference between a normal business and a venture-backable startup.

I hope you were able to pick up one or two ideas for your next read. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own book recommendations, so please leave comments or write me at paul@shortlist.net.

The Future of Work: Best of Times and/or Worst of Times?

1000 976 Paul Breloff
Our robot friends can now pluck petals.

I just capped off a frenetic three-week visit to the US, making stops in 7 different cities (if you can count my 20,000-person hometown of Lockport NY as a city — perhaps a stretch, though we do have the amazing Erie Canal Locks).

My trip was book-ended by two unique experiences. On the front end, I participated in a Young Leaders Conference put on by the Council for the United States & Italy, bringing together 51 professionals from 17 countries in Boston to discuss “The Changing Nature of Work and Its Implications for Individuals, Businesses and Society.” And on the back end, I sat on a panel at SOCAP in San Francisco, discussing “The Future of Work — and What’s Working Already.” Similar topics, but very different outlooks.

The first event in Boston focused on a series of thought-provoking questions about the way work is changing. We discussed the forces that are causing these changes, from gig-enabling marketplaces to offshoring to robotic and AI-driven automation to wealth concentration and the emergence of a new monopolistic order. We considered the havoc this is wreaking, at the level of income disparities, industrial re-ordering, loss of identity and self-esteem. And we queried: What on earth might we do about it?

The discussions were terrific, textured, and open — and a lot of fun. (Spoiler: Not sure we solved it.) However, at the end of the day, they more often than not tracked the pessimistic arc of most journalistic news stories and commentary: The world is changing, it’s creating more losers than winners, we should raise our fists and resist. And, I must admit, I often feel this way.

SOCAP presented another point of view: Amidst the doom and gloom, there’s hope and excitement. Amidst robots and machine intelligence, we are opening up new ways of democratizing opportunity and giving real people a chance to seize control of their destinies. Probably not surprising for SOCAP, which is held at Fort Mason, perched on the scenic northern tip of SF. It’s one of the only conferences where most meetings are had while staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, where you can always taste the ocean, and where you sometimes leave with a tan. Who wouldn’t bend towards world-beating optimism in those environs, and with the do-gooding, feel-gooding energy of over 3,000 global participants?

But now, back in India, free from the ideological pull of both experiences, I find myself drawn to and mulling over the lesser told story of the really cool stuff happening around the future of work: The future of how we learn new skills, pursue fulfilling careers without crushing student debt, discover and pursue awesome career pathways. Many of these sub-currents seem driven by entrepreneurs and enabled by modern technological possibility. Among the examples and trends that give me hope:

Viable, accessible alternatives to traditional, expensive four-year undergraduate degrees. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional liberal arts program (says the philosophy/psychology major…) but for many it’s a debt-ridden path to professional no-man’s land. One of my fellow SOCAP panelists (and Shortlist investor) Ryan Craig of University Ventures published a book called “College Disrupted,” which argues that online degrees and other higher ed alternatives will unbundle traditional degrees to offer a better deal for the majority of students in terms of graduation, employment, and wages. And he’s publishing another book next year on faster, cheaper, and better alternatives to college, identifying hundreds of new options.

An example is a program like MissionU, whose founder Adam Braun also joined our SOCAP panel. MissionU is a one-year program which combines training in-demand skills like data analytics and business intelligence with soft-skills like collaboration and critical thinking, financed with an income-share agreement requiring $0 upfront (repayment is taken as a % of income post-graduation).

An explosion of short-course options to upskill in areas like programming, data science, digital marketing, and more, offered by “boot camps” like General Assembly and Galvanize, online course providers like Udemy and Udacity, MOOC-aggregators like Coursera, and blended models like Upgrad. Almost anyone can catch up to the cutting edge with enough basic smarts, motivation, and tuition money (which can be, admittedly, steep).

New ways of combining upskilling and talent connection into one business model, especially in emerging markets. Companies like Andela (in Africa) and Revature (in US/India) combine talent screening and tech upskilling to find and train teams of engineers. (Ashwin Bharath, COO/Co-Founder of Revature, rounded out our panel at SOCAP.) These engineers get contracted out to global companies, like GitHub and Viacom, while staying on the books of Andela/Revature. Companies get lower cost talent, and young professionals get the opportunity to learn new skills and advance their careers on someone else’s dime.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a blog by me if I didn’t plug Shortlist, and how excited we are about facilitating a shift from pedigree-based to competency-based hiring. We see so many ways to use tech and data to make it easier for employers to see past the CV and instead assess true potential, ability, and fit, promoting a level economic playing field and helping companies and employees alike find a better match. In fact, we see this shift towards competency-based methods as integral to the success of many of the above ideas. Employers will need to reorient themselves from traditional proxies like 4-year degrees and name brand corporate experience to other signals of competency if programs like those at MissionU, General Assembly, and UpGrad are to reach their full potential.

Last but not least, I love to see a LOT more focus on building a career of meaning and impact, particularly among millennials. Perhaps I’m over-sampling the do-gooder set (too much time at SOCAP; Medium/Facebook/Google AI bots great at predicting my click propensity) but it really does seem like mission and meaning are more important to young professionals than ever. Getting rich quick and at all costs is no longer cool; making the world a better place is (though if you can do that while getting rich, that may be cooler still, according to my read of the zeitgeist). I see new articles and blogs every day focused on meaning at work, ikagai, and self-actualization. Companies like Imperative are trying to help companies lead with purpose.

Our data head Anshul’s (nonprofit) side hustle.

Even on my team at Shortlist, I love to see the extracurricular energy of my colleagues: Our data science head Anshul moonlights as the co-founder of GreatToAwesome, helping young Indian professionals build “careers of passion and impact”; and one of our first employees Ben launched a podcast Journey Down Discovery Lane, featuring guests with ideas for “becoming your best self.”

So, amidst the pessimism, there’s light! There’s cause for optimism! Maybe we can turn this thing around, and the future of work will be better than ever!

Even so: robots scare me…