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The 2018 Digital Tonto Reading List

2018 December 16
by Greg Satell

One of the things that I’ve found over the years is that innovation needs exploration. It’s a simple equation: If you don’t explore, you won’t discover, if you don’t discover you won’t invent and if you don’t invent you will be disrupted. No matter how smart or organized or successful you have been in the past, this basic rule hold true.

Of course, there are many ways to explore. You can seek out people at conferences whose focus is different than yours. You can watch TED talks and listen to podcasts. However, my favorite way to explore is to read. In my opinion, there is simply no other medium that offers the richness and depth of a good book.

That’s why every year I publish a list of books I have read and included in my articles. While I try to faithfully convey the insights I come across, there’s nothing quite like exploring for yourself. Also, not everything of value is directly quotable, so there are many books that I do not include in my articles, but you may find helpful. Here’s this year’s list. I hope you enjoy it!

Book(s) of the Year

To be clear, I’m I’m not a fan of self-help books. Most are a revolting mixture of pseudoscience and salesmanship that obscure more than they reveal. The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success by Albert-László Barabási is different, an entertaining account by a serious scientist offering a summary of his research for the general public.

Barabási’s key insight is that success is different from performance. (which is the subject of Anders Ericsson’s excellent Peak, which I included on last year’s list). While performance arises out of talent and practice, success is a network phenomenon. Or, as Barabási’himself puts it, success isn’t about you, it’s about us.

What makes the book especially interesting is that the author is a pioneer in the field of network dynamics. So while he boils his theories down to simple concepts like “quality” and “fitness,” you know he’s done the math and he includes references to both his own work and that of others in the notes.

The underlying message, that you not only need to perform at a high level, but also focus on how the information of that accomplishment travels through networks, is somewhat intuitively obvious. The strength of this book, however, is that Barabási’ gives us powerful tools to understand how those network dynamics behave.

I’m also including here my own upcoming book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change, which will be out in April. Like Barabási’’s The Formula, it is rooted in network science, but rather than personal success, I focus on how to create transformational change, based on principles that have made social movements successful for decades. It is the product of 15 years of research and I am enormously proud of it. If you like this blog, you’ll love this book!

Business, Leadership And Economics

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called General Stanley McChrystal “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I had ever met,” so when McChrystal came out with his new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, I read it immediately. Chris Fussell, his former co-author and President of his consulting group, told me that it is meant to be part of a trilogy with Team of Teams and One Mission, so you might want to think about picking them up as well.

Continuing in the leadership vein, bestselling author Dan Schawbel’s Back to Human addresses the problem of how to create a feeling of social connection in a world where digital technology increasingly isolates us. It should be considered a must read for leaders struggling to connect to a Millennial workforce.

One of the very best books I’ve read over the past year is Tim Harford’s Messy, which explains how our desire for order can often hamper productivity and innovation. Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker, offers a highly readable account of why much of what we’re told about achievement is wrong.

I always try to read at least a few business biographies every year and I Invented the Modern Age, Richard Snow’s book on Henry Ford, really blew me away. I also enjoyed Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, which chronicles the rise of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. The One Device, by Brian Merchant gives an exhaustive account of every imaginable facet of the iPhone.

Finally, if you enjoyed The Second Machine Age and The Rise and Fall of American Growth, both of which featured prominently on previous lists, you should pick up Tyler Cohen’s The Great Stagnation, which addresses many of the same issues and offers a somewhat optimistic look at our current economic woes.

Science, Technology And Innovation

Synthetic biology may very well be the most consequential technology of our lifetimes and in A Crack in Creation, Jennifer Doudna tells the story of how she discovered CRISPR, which has transformed the field. More than just a highly readable memoir, it also points to the future and offers a clear vision of where the field is going and the ethical issues that must be addressed.

I also read, and thoroughly enjoyed, How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton’s history of creativity, invention and discovery. Ashton, who developed RFID chips, is himself an accomplished innovator, and gives a practical account what it takes to invent.

I’ve wanted to read Big Science by Michael Hiltzik for a while and was glad I finally got around to it. It tells the story of Ernest Lawrence, who did much to transform science from what was basically a cottage industry into a major enterprise. Soonish, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, explores the exciting potential of ten futuristic technologies, such as asteroid mining, fusion power and programmable matter.

History, Society and Politics

Probably the best book I read all year was The Soul of America by Jon Meacham, although I realize that it may not be as relevant to many of my international readers, which is why I didn’t choose it as “book of the year.” Meacham, a first-class historian, chronicles how throughout our history, the United States has struggled to live up to the ideals upon which our nation was founded.

Until this year, I never realized the importance of Thurgood Marshall to the civil rights movement. Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King won the Pulitzer Prize and Root and Branch Rawn James Jr. is every bit has good. Lift Every Voice, Patricia Sullivan’s excellent history of the NAACP, takes a broader view. I recommend them all highly.

Another topic I was woefully ignorant about was how the women’s movement in the 19th century was in many ways the prototype for the social movements of the 20th century and today. Sisters by Jean H. Baker tells the story of the early pioneers and Mary Walton’s A Woman’s Crusade covers Alice Paul’s leadership in the endgame. Both are excellent.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose shows how nonviolent methods can be successful even under the most brutal conditions and Why David Sometimes Wins by Marshall Ganz gives an insider’s account of Cesar Chavez’s movement to organize farm workers. New Power Jeremy Heimans  and Henry Timms and Amy Chua’s excellent Political Tribes give a more modern perspective on movements.

Russia has been dominating the news lately and Mark Galeotti The Vory tells the story of how the Russian mafia merged with Putin’s regime. Ukrainian Night by Marci Shore gives and in-depth view of Ukraine’s “Euromaidan” revolution. I highly recommend both to anyone interested in this topic.


So that’s my list for this year. If you have any suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

I will publish my “Top Posts of 2018” on Wednesday and then will take the rest of the year off. I’ll be back on Sunday, January 6th with my future trend for 2017: The Return of Big Business.

See you then…

– Greg

Image: Pixabay

2 Responses leave one →
  1. December 16, 2018

    Thanks Greg, although I am concerned about how few of your list I have read.
    ‘Team of Teams’ and ‘One mission’ are both well thumbed books on my shelf, which I recommend to all and sundry.
    I tend to go back and re-read books that have grabbed me in the past, always finding new things in them that had not sunk in first time.
    In that vein, Robert Cialdini’s classic ‘Influence’ has been re-read (again) and his follow up ‘Presuasion’ published late in 2017 is on my list of must reads for every marketer.
    Merry Christmas, and thanks for all the brain food during the year.

  2. December 17, 2018

    Great suggestions! Thanks Allen.

    – Greg

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