And just quickly, before we get started:
I love reading and my appetite for books which both challenge and compliment my thinking could perhaps be described at times as voracious.
Three absolute standout books for me are Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. Whenever I recommend further reading for senior leaders (well in fact for anyone who works in an organisation, and is concerned about what the future holds), these three are at the top of the list. Well actually there’s a fourth one I also recommend, but you can probably guess what that one is (hint: I wrote it).
Peter Thiel is one of the seven* co-founders of PayPal, the online payment company (now owned by eBay), an early investor in and board member of Facebook, and much revered in Silicon Valley (he is also occasionally parodied, as the character of Peter Gregory in HBO’s series Silicon Valley is purportedly based on him).
*Incidentally, this group of seven is sometimes referred to as the PayPal mafia, as between them they went on to collaborate on numerous other successful tech start-ups, including Tesla Motors, Space X, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp, Yammer and Palantir: each of these ‘unicorns’ are now valued at more than $1 billion. (Tech start-ups with valuations in excess of $1 billion are known colloquially in Silicon Valley as ‘unicorns’.)
In From Zero to One Thiel’s core idea is that most of today’s organisations have become successful by copying existing products, and making them just a little bit better: it’s a process he describes as taking something from ‘1 to n’. In other words, simply adding more of something or marginally improving something with which we’re already familiar. According to Thiel, this type of progress is horizontal, and it’s easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. The very slow and linear progression of the car industry over the past hundred years or so is a classic example: very little about cars has changed over that period of time.
Thiel uses the typewriter as an example: build another 100 versions in different colours and each with minor improvements, and you’ve made linear progress: something a bit better, but not by much.
If, on the other hand, you have a typewriter, and from it you build a word processor, you have achieved vertical progress. You’ve created something entirely new, something fresh and unique.
This is what Thiel describes as taking something from ‘0 to 1’.
Thiel’s thinking is most-definitely unconventional, but in most ways, it just simply makes sense.
For example, his ideas on hiring in new organisations is pretty straight forward; this is how he described his hiring policy whilst building PayPal:
If you were excited by the idea of creating a new digital currency to replace the US dollar, we wanted to talk to you; if not, you weren’t the right fit.
Thiel’s idea was quite simple: to promise his employees what other organisations at that time could not—the opportunity to work to their strengths, on a unique problem, alongside great people. Common sense, right?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an infamous author, financial trader and anti-academic** who just like Thiel has garnered a reputation for contrarianism and irreverence. He is most widely known for his very clever Black Swan metaphor***, which he uses to describe highly consequential but unlikely occurrences that render predictions and standard explanations meaningless.
** He’s also very, very hard to get hold of. I attempted to contact him to say thanks for his fabulous work when I was writing my book, and then again once it was published, and received a default email reply which basically said ‘leave me alone, I get too many emails and will not be answering yours’. Kinda like Bilbo Baggins when he says to Gandalf: “No thank you! We don’t want any more visitors, well-wishers or distant relations.”
***The Black Swan concept has its roots in Latin from the Roman poet Juvanel, who wrote of rare events as being like ‘a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan’. This phrase took hold in Europe in the 1600s, when it was used as a statement of impossibility i.e. black swans cannot exist, because they’ve never been seen. It wasn’t until 1697 when Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh landed on the west coast of Australia and noted the presence of black swans that the phrase gained an even deeper irony.
Taleb argues that despite our natural bias, it is a mistake to predict the likelihood of future events based on the past. In other words, the past is not always a reliable indicator of the future. He goes on to point out that many of our societal and organisational systems are designed to meet worst-case scenarios based on past events. Again, as with Thiel, Taleb’s thinking just plainly makes sense.
Common sense might then go on to suggest that the alternative to relying on past events to prepare for an unknown future is to make ourselves and our organisations be less fragile. The opposite of fragile: hmmm, what would that be? Strong? Solid? Resilient? Even robust, perhaps?
Well, not quite.
In Antifragile, Taleb suggests that just as the opposite of positive is negative (not neutral), the opposite of fragility is not resilience or robustness, but rather, the negative of fragility—anti fragility. Taleb notes that this ‘blind spot’ is universal and that there is no word in any known modern or ancient languages meaning antifragile. Says Taleb, ‘half of life—the interesting half—we don’t have a name for’.
Things that are fragile break easily and generally degenerate over a period of time: think of muscle atrophy when you spend too long on the couch eating hamburgers all day. Not to be confused with something that is robust and resilient (i.e. something that withstands the forces of change, but in doing so does not change itself, like a concrete bunker, or perhaps the woeful state of politics in Australia, the US and Great Britain at the moment… sigh), things that are antifragile**** actually get better as a result of their exposure to disorder. They benefit from shocks, and thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness and uncertainty.
Once you grasp the concept of antifragility, you will cringe every time you hear somebody at your work talk about how the business is strong and robust enough to survive the changing world—because now you know it’s just not true!
****Yes, in case you’re wondering, alpine style, or light and fast as it is also known, is totally antifragile.
Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian and writes about all things social psychology, productivity, self-help culture and the science of happiness. He’s also an all-round nice guy, and unlike Taleb, he replies to my emails!
In The Antidote, Burkeman explores the concept that society’s excessive focus on positivity and optimism is the problem, not the answer. He uses the analogy of playing a game with a friend where you challenge them to not think about a polar bear for a whole minute. But they can’t do it, and neither can you. All you can do is not not think about the polar bear.
Burkeman suggests that one of the overarching themes of western society over the past century, which has been to be optimistic and look at life through a lens of the glass being half full and not half empty, is fundamentally wrong, and that we can’t but help thinking about things from the negative perspective. In short, Burkeman suggests that we can rediscover the power of negative thinking.
It’s a wonderfully rich and yet easy to read journey that Burkeman takes you on, and it will lead you to question many, many things that you’ve been taught about in your life. And if you’re not really into reading, then just buy the audio book and listen to it in the car—it’s narrated by Burkeman himself, and he just sounds so well… nice.
So there you have it. My top three recommended books for reading. (Or my top four when you include my book.) Oh, and which book just misses out by a whisker? Well it’s by Daniel Kahneman, it’s also a must read, but we’ll explore that in another newsletter.
ps What’s my favourite fiction book I hear you ask? Ah, that’s easy. It’s written by Pulitzer winner Wallace Stegner, and it’s called Crossing to Safety. It’s brilliant. Why? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out!