I've been writing this blog for over two years now, but I've been reading strings of characters that we call words which form sentences who are the content of books for much longer. From the many blogs I read, my favorite sort of posts are those that recommend good books. Very rarely do I get my book recommendations from Amazon, Goodreads, or some sort of popularity contest listicle. I much prefer reading a book recommendation from a writer I admire than the masses of crowds. With that said, here are five of my favorite books that I've read in 2015.
Reminscences of a Stock Operator
Unless you follow investing circles, you probably never heard of this book, which is a shame since it's a classic. The best books are timeless - they can be written hundreds of years ago and still be applicable in modern times. Reminiscences is that book. Even if you don't plan to invest a nickel in your entire life, you should read this book just for the stories.
Reminiscences is about a flawed man who is a stock trader, and the book is about his life stories. What you learn are the behavioral aspects of finance, which no other book teaches so well. And the background of its main character, Jesse Livermore, is absolutely crazy. I won't spoil it, so read it here before taking on Reminiscences (which is a really short read, by the way).
The game taught me the game.
Ignorance at twenty-two isn't a structural defect.
He'd say good morning as though he had discovered the morning's goodness after ten years of searching for it with a microscope and was making you a present of the discovery as well as of the sky, the sun, and the firm's bank roll.
One Up on Wall Street
I read a lot of finance and business books, not because they're fascinating (although some are), but mostly to be able to refute people who quote some strategies as gospel. If there's anything you should know about business and finance, it is that both are extremely dynamic and social forces that constantly change through time. To be extremely succinct: no strategy will last forever.
With that said, the reason One Up on Wall Street is one of my favorite investing books is because it treats investing as an art and a science rather than a formulaic affair. Most finance books begin and end by the same process, which usually involves fundamental research (income statement, balance sheet, cash flows) and complex statistical back testing and trend analyses. While I'm sure Peter Lynch does some of that too, his core investing philosophy is simple. What he sees to be true is what he invests in. Here's Peter Lynch's philosophy applied by me for Starbucks.
Every day I walk by multiple Starbucks locations and see them packed to the brim. I observe that customers order overpriced coffee (revenue), and often stay at the same location for hours (ambience, social impact). I then call up my friends and ask them what their favorite chain coffee shop is (Dunkin Donuts, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, other). The answer is unanimously Starbucks, although local hipster coffee shops are always preferred. Fortunately, hipster coffee shops don't compete for the same customers as chains, so Starbucks has that market dominated.
Next, Lynch would recommend we meet with Starbucks management to see how they are in person. Are they frugal or ostentatious? Do they know what their competitors are up to? How do they plan to expand?
Most financial analysts don't lay this kind of groundwork. They just look at the financial data and the news, wholly forgetting the intangibles. Peter Lynch, on the other hand, is all about intangibles. And it doesn't hurt that he's an amusing writer who isn't afraid to throw jabs. Highly recommended.
"Any idiot can run this business" is one characteristic of the perfect company, the kind of stock I dream about.
I don't know about you, but I've always wondered why Pixar movies are so damn good compared to other animated films. Maybe it's because I was two years old when Toy Story came out and it had a structural impact on the fundamental formation of my psyche, or maybe Pixar just makes great movies. I don't know.
Anyway, Creativity Inc. is great because it's so different from your usual business-shrouded, self-help books. Most large companies eventually become stale, where creativity goes to a perpetual state of rest. What this book does so magnificently well is take all the MBA curriculum you've ever learned and toss it. As a surprise bonus for Apple fans, the book has neat stories about interactions Ed Catmull (Pixar's CEO) had with Steve jobs.
The problem is, the phrase is dead wrong. Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly - hindsight being 20-20 and all - we often aren't open to knowing more.
Management's job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.
Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on - but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.
Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
Here's another book that's only tangentially related to my job, and yet, I learned a lot from. Danny Meyer is the proprietor of the burger chain Shake Shack, but also many other restaurants that you've probably never heard of. I forget who gave me this book recommendation, but it's a good read even if you never plan to become a restaurateur.
Essentially, what Meyer preaches is focus on the customer experience to the most inconsequential detail. I found a lot of similarities between Meyer's approach and that of Apple and Amazon. The customer experience is key, even if you have to spend amounts which would make the finance department laugh you out of the boardroom.
In every business, there are employees who are the first point of contact with the customers (attendants at airport gates, receptionists at doctors' offices, bank tellers, executive assistant). Those people can come across either as agents or as gatekeepers. An agent makes things happen for others. A gatekeeper sets up barriers to keep people out. We're looking for agents, and our staff members are responsible for monitoring their own performance. In that transaction, did I present myself as an agent or a gatekeeper? In the world of hospitality, there's rarely anything in between.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Ok, let me be honest here. Initially, I didn't want to read Sapiens because everybody was reading it. I'm always skeptical of such books (and TV shows, movies, and everything else that the crowd embraces) since they're often founded on hype rather than facts. But I succumbed, since I was such a fan of A Short History of Nearly Everything, the premise of which is similar to Sapiens, which is also a short history of nearly everything.
And I'm happy I read it. Although there are many facts this book references that I find questionable, the philosophical questions this book raises are truly eye-opening. Facts aside, this book will make you think. That can't be said about most books.
The modern economy grows thanks to our trust in the future and to the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their profits in production. Yet that does not suffice. Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials, and these are finite. When and if they run out, the entire system will collapse.
Some other books I've read in 2015 that you might want to put on your list if you're starving for more:
- The Richest Man in Babylon: a select few short stories that teach you how to save.
- The Talent Code: geniuses aren't born geniuses (sorry, Jimmy Neutron).
- The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: outlier events matter more than those in the normal distribution, yet we tend to ignore them.
- Thinking Fast and Slow: slightly overrated book, but nonetheless thought provoking. It shows the pitfalls of human behavior and how you can't avoid them.
- A Random Walk Down Wall Street: unless you're a professional trader, just invest in mutual funds or a diversified portfolio of individual stocks. Not the best investment book, but worth a read.