My favourite books
I've read over 150 books in the last 3 years. Here are my top picks.
By Ray Dalio. This one is part memoirs, part schematic, from the best disciplined structured thinker in the modern world. Dalio is a finance guy, but his views on people and management transcend business. For a book that is structured like government legislation, it also reads beautifully.
By David Ogilvy. As a junior art director, I was told not to read this book. I was told it makes you cynical about the impact of creativity. What a load of bullshit that was.Many years later, this book opened my eyes to the self-serving, ego-driven nature of creativity for the sake of it … advertising is rife with the stuff (just have a look at 90% of the work entered at Cannes). Ogilvy revived my faith. He knows there are techniques to affect human beings (hint: they worked in the Stone Age and they still work today).
By Walter Isaacson. This is the best history on how computers work and why they exist. Reading this will elevate you above 95% of the population that still think they're magic. Beautifully written and complete from Abacus to Zuckerberg.
By Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of Paypal and Palantir. This book manages to get me fired up every time I read it. It sets the bar for the level of innovation required to succeed in the internet age (10x better than the status quo). Thiel's arguments in favour of monopolies are seriously earth-shaking, too.
By by Tim Ferriss. This is the book that changed everything for me, and caused me to leave adland. It is broad in its scope, covering things from productivity to holiday tips, but the first section contains the real gold. Tim reasons that being rich isn’t about having money, but about having time. Using that principle, he outlines how its possible to automate the boring stuff in your life (working, mainly) and live an exciting (but laid-back) life. If you’ve been getting flogged in the meat grinder of ad agency workloads, this will know your socks off. I guarantee it.
By Robert Coram. John Boyd flew under the radar, so to speak, but his impact has been felt in modern military doctrine. Like Dalio, he is a structured thinker who became a philosopher of sorts late in life. If you like cheesy films like Top Gun, this will also float your boat.
By Andy Grove, the long-standing CEO of Intel. Grove is the king of people management and organisational design. Sounds grim? Somehow, Grove makes it interesting and very easy to wrap your head around.
By Jimmy Soni, this is a biography of Claude Shannon, electrical engineer and father of information theory. Shannon is an unknown genius, and created the digital signals we now all take for granted.
By Michael E. Gerber. Some real wisdom in here encapsulated in the classic line: "don't work in your business, work on it." Lots of must-remember advice and pitfalls to avoid.
By Spencer Johnson. If you are a creative person, you can be prone to peaks and valleys in your mood and motivation. I have mild manic-depressive tendencies, so this book spoke to me. The takeaway: iron out your highs and lows for more consistency, and know that the higher your moods go, the deeper your come-down.
By Ed Catmull. There is no more consistently-brilliant company than Pixar. I love how they've created a business that can cope with a creative process as unpredictable as filmmaking. Not only that, their stable of writer/directors (known as the Brains Trust) each have multiple winners to their name, proof that process beats freakish talent, every time.
By Tim Marshall. Being a history and geography nerd, this book combined the two in such a satisfying way. Modern centres of power and moments in ancient history can be explained by looking at maps. How the USA became so strong because of the Mississippi, and how, conversely, Russia has suffered from not having a deepwater port. If you were ever a fan of the PC games Age of Empires or Civilization, you're gonna love this.
By Russell Brunson. This book opened my eyes to the dark arts of digital marketing. Sure, it all comes across as slightly insincere and dodgy (with tactics that brand or DTC marketers wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole). But if you want an intro to funnels and buyer's psychology on the internet, this is it. Wash hands after reading.
By Anthony Bourdain. The late Bourdain could really write, and this is a cracking tribute to food and life as a young chef. If you enjoy food, drink, sex and drugs, this one is for you.
By Yuval Noah Harari. This book gets talked about so often that I avoided reading it for years (just like Harry Potter). It's actually better than the hype, and refreshingly honest about the history and biology of humankind. I was expecting an ideological, anti-human view, but this was logical and dealt with even the most sensitive of topics. The chapter about money being the first universal religion is spellbinding.
By Cal Newport. Newport doesn't write particularly engagingly (it reads a lot like a university essay) but his ideas make it worth the read. Maybe get this as an audiobook and listen at 2x speed. Paul Graham's Maker vs. Manager essay has the same POV – that our best work is done quietly, in long periods of focus, where we enter a state of 'flow'. As a founder, I'm always trying to create an environment for deep work in my business.
By Ben Horowitz. This is a blunt, no-holds-barred memoir from a tough CEO about tough times in his startup. It's erratic, and definitely not as easy to reference as the High Growth Handbook, but it's still worth reading.
By Elad Gill. One of the smartest manuals for running a company and going after growth. Is logically and clearly organised, and I found the HR chapters particularly useful.
By Ryan Holiday. This is an easy introduction to Stoic philosophy from one of my favourite writers. In short, when the going gets tough, what you do next will set you apart from everyone else. It encourages you to seek obstacles (read: pain), because that's where change and progress happens.
By Brad Stone. Amazon is big and scary to me. In Australia, we don't really have Amazon like they do in the US, but it's impossible to avoid being awed by what Bezos has built (and is building). This is a good overview of how Amazon operates. Particularly good chapters in here about AWS, Amazons under-the-radar monopoly.
By Jordan B. Peterson. This is a controversial book because Peterson goes down so well with the Alt-Right. Sure, Peterson is a conservative guy, but the key beats of this book hit me hard. The gist is: being human means brutal suffering is just part life, so it's up to you to shoulder responsibility and get on with it. It's a bitter pill, but one that did me good.
By Steven Pressfield. A short and unconventional read you can knock over in a day, it has stayed with me long after. Pressfield (a film screenwriter) explores how creative people sabotage themselves when they try to make a dent in the universe. I recognised some of these problems with myself, so this became the first step to fixing habits, and finishing better work more often.
By Robert B. Cialdini. This is quite a dense book, and harder to get through, but it’s worth the effort (and be sure to take notes). Like Ogilvy, Cialdini studies humans at our primitive level, and understand what makes us make decisions. An example is the principle of reciprocation. We humans feel indebted to those who do something for us, no matter how small. This is because once, we needed to work together in tribes of people with different skills and jobs (which evolved into the barter system). BEWARE: You can use this book for devious means, like selling things.
By Mason Currey. This helped with my general laziness and malaise. Currey takes a bunch of famous artists and authors from history (granted, I’d never heard of many of them) and accounts their day-to-day. How they got their colossal pieces of work done. SPOILER ALERT — Morning people do it better. Read this, and you’ll start putting some TLC into how you work, and when.
By Antonio Garcia Martinez. While it’s a brash and funny account of an ex-Facebook employee and startup founder, the real gold for adfolk lies in the extreme detail about how digital advertising works. Martinez is an expert on the topic — his own company was bought by Twitter, and he helped father Facebook ads. What I learnt blew my mind. The buying and selling of eyeballs has come a long, long way in the last couple of years, and if you’ve ever been making banner ads at 2am, you’ll get a lot out of it.