Ten New Professionally Relevant Nonfiction Books:
Business and life lessons in peculiar places

It delights me when a nonfiction book I read for pleasure and not work unexpectedly provides professional insights. It’s a double whammy.

Sure, I can learn the lingua franca of technology management by reading business bestsellers like Good to Great (Hedgehog concept) or The Lean Startup (Build-Measure-Learn-Pivot concept). Often, however, books not classified as “business” yield the sweetest and rarest inspirational nuggets.

I chose each nonfiction book on the following list, ordered from newest to oldest, not only because they’re great reads but also because of the professionally meaningful insights I reaped from them. In this sense, it’s a personal list and it won’t resonate equally with everyone. Furthermore, the topics of these books are specific to my interests — Science, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Supply Chain, Baseball, Politics, History — and don’t hold universal appeal. Instead of providing book reviews, I provide a brief overview of each and explain why I find them professionally important.

1. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, by Walter Isaacson, March 2021. Isaacson follows Nobelist Jennifer Doudna and her collaborators and students through the invention of CRISPR, an easy-to-use tool for editing DNA. Although this is especially relevant today with mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, I also found the human drama inspirational.

Doudna’s lab fiercely competes with other labs to be the first to publish discoveries, bringing fame and fortune. Yet, these academics-cum-businesspeople adhere to a mostly genteel set of rules based on years of tradition and mutual respect. Early on, these scientists recognized the ethical dilemmas posed by these discoveries and self-governed, establishing boundaries to guide the God-like powers these inventions make possible.

Valuable managers are player coaches. Doudna embodies the servant-leader ethos, giving the post-docs in her lab space to innovate. At the same time, she’s present to ask challenging questions and weigh in using her immense experience and informed intuition.

2. Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World, by Cade Metz, March 2021. An immensely readable non-technical recounting of the colorful personalities who brought about the Artificial Intelligence gold rush of the past fifteen years. Those fortunate and smart enough to hop on the AI train became immensely wealthy as Google, Facebook, Tesla, Baidu, and others competed for the best and brightest. More importantly, after a long period of “AI winter” where the technology didn’t live up to the hype, there is an explosion of impactful work around neural networks and deep learning.

One managerial takeaway is the importance of acquiring a thorough understanding of the landscape before starting up a new business. The behemoth companies pouring huge dollars into AI/ML can easily trample underfunded or badly positioned startups.

3. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist, by Robert J. Lefkowitz, February 2021. Cardiologist turned biochemist Lefkowitz tells the entertaining story of his career, culminating in the 2012 Nobel prize in Chemistry. This book reads like “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character.

Lefkowitz explains how he mentored his 200+ trainees in the penultimate chapter of the book. Many of his mentees have gone on to their own fame and fortune due, in some part, to the nurturing Lefkowitz provided during their formative years. Lefkowitz’s ten golden rules of mentorship are worth the price of the book.

4. Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos, by Jeff Bezos, November 2020. If you’re like me, a compendium of Bezos’s annual shareholder letters sounds like a snoozer. How wrong I was. Bezos’s flexible intellect revealed in these shareholder letters helped me understand Amazon’s unparalleled financial success better. A few takeaways from this short book — all quotes from Bezos:

  • A single-minded focus on the customer: “I talk so often to other CEOs and also founders and entrepreneurs, and I can tell that even though they’re talking about customers, they’re really focusing on competitors. It is a huge advantage to any company if you can stay focused on your customer instead of your competitor.”
  • Culture of experimentation: “Invention is in our DNA and technology is the fundamental tool we wield to evolve and improve every aspect of the experience we provide our customers.”
  • Separating the decision-making wheat from the chaff: “As a senior executive, what do you really get paid to do? You get paid to make a small number of high-quality decisions. Your job is not to make thousands of decisions every day.”
  • Disagreeing and committing: “And sometimes you’re, like, I know this person, or I’ve worked with them for years. They have great judgment. They really disagree with me, and they have way better ground truth. I’m going to disagree and commit.

5. Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, by Melanie Mitchell, November 2020. Portland State University professor Melanie Mitchell presents the current work in the field, recognizing the great advances in machine learning and its limitations. Artificial Intelligence is redefining how enterprises of all stripes interpret data. In the over-hyped world of AI/ML, this book provides a managerial level-setting.

Mitchell illustrates how Google Translate mangles colloquialisms and sarcasm with the following passage:

“A man went into a restaurant and ordered a hamburger, cooked rare. When it arrived, it was burned to a crisp. The waitress stopped by the man’s table “Is the burger okay?” she asked. “Oh, it’s just great,” the man said, pushing back his chair and storming out of the restaurant without paying. The waitress yelled after him, “Hey, what about the bill?” She shrugged her shoulders, muttering under her breath, “Why is he so bent out of shape?”

French Translation (Google): Un homme est entré dans un restaurant et a commandé un hamburger, cuit à point. Quand il est arrivé, il était brûlé. La serveuse s’arrêta à la table de l’homme. “Est-ce que le hamburger va bien?” elle a demandé. “Oh, c’est génial”, dit l’homme en reculant sa chaise et en sortant du restaurant sans payer. La serveuse lui cria: “Hé, qu’en est-il de l’addition?” Elle haussa les épaules, murmurant dans un souffle. “Pourquoi est-il si déformé?”

Translation back to English: A man entered a restaurant and ordered a hamburger, cooked to perfection. When he arrived, he was burned. The waitress stopped at the man’s table. “Is the burger okay?” she asked. “Oh, that’s great,” the man said, pulling back his chair and leaving the restaurant without paying. The waitress shouted, “Hey, what about the bill?” She shrugged, murmuring in a breath. “Why is he so deformed?”

Mitchell uses the Obama photo below to reflect on the chasm existing between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. A glance at the photo enables humans to understand the joke immediately, but this is far beyond the capabilities of the most intelligent AI.

President Obama adding a few pounds. Photo Credit — Pete Souza

6. Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, by Fareed Zakaria, October 2020. Best known as a journalist and political commentator, Zakaria explores the consequences of political, social, economic, and technological change related to the post-pandemic experience. Rather than adopting an apocalyptic worldview, he expresses informed optimism.

Zacharia’s commentary about Artificial Intelligence is spot-on coming from a non-technologist. He recognizes the benefits of AI over humans for medical diagnosis through pattern matching, the robotic replacement for humans in hazardous situations, and self-driving cars. He sees the future of AI as technology that assists humans rather than obviating them.

The value of this book for me is not just Zacharia’s take on AI. Rather, it’s his ability to place our digital future in a global context. Zacharia’s insights help me guide employees into career paths with secure futures instead of jobs that will become obsolete as technology advances.

7. The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, by Benjamin Lorr, September 2020. Lorr pens a superb exposé of the grocery industry along the lines of Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2010 unmasking of the underbelly of low wage work. Lorr’s fascinating first-person accounts from workers in all stages of the grocery supply chain give the book its gravitas.

One chapter in particular, in which Lorr rides shotgun with a female long-haul trucker, provides the managerial nugget warranting inclusion on this list. The driver reveals the financial hardships faced by owner-operators (those who own their trucks and drive them). She also discusses the discrimination female drivers face and the physical danger that accompanies women on the job.

These managerial insights are specific to women in trucking but apply to virtually any workplace where men far outnumber women:

  • Myriad industry articles bemoan the driver shortage, correctly noting that females account for almost half the workforce in the U.S. but comprise just 6.6% of truck drivers. Creating a female-friendly workplace would go far to lessen or eliminate the driver shortage.
  • Besides Lorr’s book, few industry sources have called out the mistreatment of women in the trucking profession. Sweeping unacceptable or criminal behavior under the carpet and willful blindness to the mistreatment of women are two equally dreadful manifestations of managerial cowardice.
  • Transforming the workplace to entice women requires a top-down managerial zero-tolerance policy and, in some cases, a complete cultural turnaround.

8. The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik, June 2019. This book focuses on using data to pinpoint areas for improvement. Major League baseball players are already the creamiest of the elite crop, yet they still develop bad habits and mechanical issues that, when corrected, may yield huge results.

Elite performers can become even better by focusing on weaknesses. Helping employees grow and improve is one of a manager’s most important responsibilities. Another managerial duty is to recognize potential talent in the hiring process.

If you’re interested in reading more about these ideas, I’ve written a series of blog posts:

9. The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, May 2017. Okay, I’m a sucker for the “baseball is a metaphor for life” adage. Therefore, I include a second baseball book, and a second book by the same author, in my list. This is the story of two baseball statisticians, Lindbergh and Miller, who run baseball operations for a California minor league team.

The managerial value of this book lies in the lessons learned by Lindbergh and Miller. They reaped no benefit from being the smartest people in the room when no one was willing to follow them. Although the story depicts a cast of colorful characters on a raucous ride, it’s also about learning humility and how these two outsiders gain respect from the players and managers.

10. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kerns Goodwin, September 2005. Compared to just about any other presidency, Lincoln faced a s*$%show. By the time Lincoln took office, seven southern states had already seceded from the Union and began the Confederacy. The Civil War was looming large. Kerns Goodwin’s comprehensive treatment of Lincoln and his presidency reveals a shrewd leader with the confidence to bring avowed rivals into his cabinet. Lincoln’s leadership skills would have served him well as a corporate CEO.

Although Lincoln’s team didn’t look different — they were all white guys and abolitionists, they thought differently — they had opposing viewpoints on the Missouri Compromise, Fugitive Slave Act, containment of slavery, Reconstruction, and many other issues of the time. Nowadays, diversity of opinion on a team suggests that the team should also be different; the strongest teams are composed of mixed gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Yes, this book is long-in-the-tooth compared to the others in this list. But there are so many management lessons from this remarkable book, I wrote a separate blog post about it:

That’s it. As I mentioned initially, this list of current books provides both great reading and great managerial wisdom. Sometimes vital pieces of managerial wisdom are buried in the most peculiar places.