We find joy in our work.
Marshall is an avid reader and keeps a stack of all-time favorite reads on the top shelf of his bookcase. He profiles the three best books he reads in any given year in an annual letter, archived below. Send Marshall a note if you would like to hear about a recent favorite selection.
Will and Ariel Durant are husband and wife, and certainly near the top of the list of all-time great historians. Over the course of four decades, they wrote The Story of Civilization, an 11-volume, 10,000-page history of the Western world for the general reader. It garnered them a Pulitzer Prize in 1968.
This 102-page essay was penned after they retrospectively reviewed their vast work. It is their response to the self-imposed questions: What use have our studies been? Other than recounting a lot of tragedies, triumphs, and wars, have we learned any more than anyone else might without so much as opening a book?
So begins this book’s fascinating synthesis of history’s broad themes, such as “Biology and History” (life is competition and selection), “History and War” (war is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy), “Character and History” (known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind), and “Growth and Decay” (when a group or civilization declines, it is through the failure of its leaders to meet the challenges of change).
Will and Ariel also reveal a humbling amount of hesitation and modesty considering their earned authority. As they note, “most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.” As it is written, history is one person’s version of events, supported by the sources the author had access to or chose to use and, whether intentionally or not, shaded by that person’s embedded biases. With remarkably beautiful prose, this short book packs lesson upon lesson that will aid you in better understanding how the world works.
The Lessons of History
Will & Ariel Durant
Scott Adams is best known as the creator of Dilbert, the satirical comic strip about the modern work environment that now appears in over 2,000 newspapers in 57 countries. This book, partly autobiographical, is an articulation of Adams’ strategies for success and happiness.
Adams achieved success through hard work, continuous skill development, and persistence. For 16 years, he worked a corporate job while on early mornings, nights, and weekends he explored ideas that could deliver greater personal and financial freedom. He sought to create something that had value and that was easy to produce in unlimited quantities. (I would say Dilbert hit the mark!) He outlines, in summary fashion, 22 failures he sustained on the road to success and embraces failure for its essential function, calling it the raw material for success and advising that we invite it in and learn from it.
I admire Adams’ approach to thinking in systems rather than goals (“…goals are for losers and systems are for winners,” he writes.) This approach of thinking in systems (or creating habits), rather than setting explicit goals, has been a major theme of my own thinking lately. A system is a method that you can repeat that results in incremental improvement, keeps your trajectory tilted positively, and better allows luck to find you. Adams’ finds that people who use systems do better, while people who use goals spend most of their life short of them, feeling like a failure.
I also found clarity in Adams’ formula for happiness – have good health, resources, and a flexible schedule. He adds “be good to others”, as a lot of one’s own happiness depends on this action. This book nudged me towards a better personal system in a few areas, and I bet you will find a few useful insights in it too.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life
Who would have guessed that Phil Knight, the creator of Nike, was such a remarkable writer? Had such an incredible personal story to tell? Had so much truth – in life and business – to pass along to the rest of us?
Shoe Dog, for good reason, has been the most frequently recommended book to me over the past couple of years. Last year, both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, (individuals whom incidentally claim to hardly know Phil Knight), went out of their way to recommend it as a favorite of theirs, too.
The book is the story of Nike’s first 17 years, the span of time before it became a public company. Initially, the company was known as Blue Ribbon Sports, an importer of Japanese running shoes that Knight and a couple of other early employees began by selling out of cars at track meets. It begins with a 24-year old former University of Oregon track athlete, Knight, out on an early morning run in 1962, coming up with his Crazy Idea, and offering himself what he calls the only advice any of us should ever give: “Let everyone else call your idea crazy…just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is.”
If you are an entrepreneur or simply feel mired in business challenges from time to time, you will be both astonished and encouraged by Shoe Dog, as these years were spent on the brink of failure, time and again, for the company. For me, the sharing of big truths, life truths, was the best discovery of all.
The book is deeply personal, too, and Knight is frank about the wins and losses in his own life. This aspect of the narrative is moving and powerful. His writing is beautiful and at times poetic. It is a page-turning drama that I found hard to put down. This book has broad appeal – from students of business and life, to fans of a compelling personal story, to those interested in the recent history of sports and some of its major personalities. I recommend this one as having the broadest potential audience of any book I’ve read in the past few years.