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Summer reading suggestions 2021

Books on the science of change, noisy companies, networking know-how, and more.

Whether it’s half-day Fridays, vacation weeks, or simply a few extra hours of daylight, the summer is an ideal for time for burrowing into a good book. Here are eight great reads from our recent coverage that challenge conventional wisdom and offer fresh perspective—on yourself, your company, and the economy at large.

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

by Katy Milkman (Portfolio, 2021)

Want to be less lazy and more confident? In her new book, Wharton professor Milkman offers research-backed guidance for making changes that last. She finds that the trick is to understand your internal obstacles and select the right strategies to overcome them. It’s not that change is hard. Rather, she writes in this engaging mélange of behavioral economics and self-help, “we often fail by applying the wrong tactics in our attempts at change.”


Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment

by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein (Little, Brown, 2021)

The proponents of the nudge and other behavioral economics hacks are back with a take on expert judgment. Companies live and die by the ability of their employees to make sound decisions. Their judgments determine what strategy to follow, where to invest, who to hire, and much more. There’s just one problem, the professorial supergroup of Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein write: “Wherever there is judgment, there is noise—and more of it than we think.” For example, the probability that two interviewers will give the same job candidate the same rating is only 62 to 65%. One thing’s almost certain: executives are underestimating the variability of decisions that stems from noise.


How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances

by John Hudson (Countryman Press, 2021)

Alternate title: MacGyver for Management. Hudson, a survival instructor for the British military, offers lessons on how to get through the most challenging ordeals. The direst circumstances require what Hudson calls the Survival Triangle, the sides of which are hope, plan, and work. And this applies whether you are floating on a boat in the Pacific for 438 days or trying to devise a strategy for gaining market share. He lists work first, because if you can exert some effort to change your situation, you begin to feel in control and can then sustain hope. On the basis of that hope, you can plan further measures to save yourself, leading to yet further concrete actions (more work)—which in turn yield further hope, on and on in a virtuous circle until, with luck, you are rescued.


Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation

by Kevin Roose (Random House, 2021)

AI can do a great job scanning X-rays for abnormalities, but it can’t reassure parents about their child’s prognosis. That tension lies at the heart of this shrewd and searching book by technology columnist Kevin Roose. What if automation displaces millions from their jobs while at the same time improving healthcare diagnostics and slowing climate change? And how do we thrive in this kind of hybrid environment? He thinks it is wrong to expect that AI will eliminate whole categories of jobs. Almost every role contains tasks that tech could do better than people and requirements that are very human. And Roose points out that we already are surrounded by “boring bots”—algorithms that can perform tasks currently carried out by white-collar workers, such as managing payroll and operating databases.


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

by Bill Gates (Random House, 2021)

The Microsoft cofounder’s green manifesto is a techno-optimist’s plan for tackling the climate crisis through innovation. It will take all the tools at our disposal—regulation, activism, rethinking systems, and yes, technological breakthroughs—to avoid climate disaster. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the solutions here tend to rely more on innovation and business than on politics and policy. After all, Gates has some experience in scaling up an operating system that will transform our world.


Making Great Strategy: Arguing for Organizational Advantage

by Jesper B. Sørensen and Glenn R. Carroll (Columbia University Press, 2021)

Stanford b-school professors Sørensen and Carroll have written a book about strategic due diligence that fills an important gap in the literature by caring not a whit about a company’s strategy per se, but rather focusing entirely on how rigorously that strategy has been formulated and how thoroughly it has been vetted. And argued over. The authors assert that “the development, communication, and maintenance of a strategy argument is best achieved through an open process of actually arguing within the organization, engaging in productive debate.”


Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection

by Marissa King (Dutton, 2021)

What can David Rockefeller’s 100,000-contact Rolodex tell us about the human condition? In her new book, Yale professor King examines the types of human connection, which she breaks down into three network types—expansionists, brokers, and convenors. (If you have 100,000 people in your Rolodex, you’re an expansionist.) For each network type, she describes its topographies, its advantages and disadvantages, and how to build and manage it. She also explores the idea of shifting your network style according to your current career needs.


Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up

by Sara Horowitz (Random House, 2021)

Freelancers Union founder Horowitz urges people to rely less on government and more on a powerful cooperative spirit. She defines mutualism as the creation of organizations with a purpose, a long-term focus, and a sustainable and independent way of generating revenue. New Deal legislation didn’t order companies to pay higher wages; it empowered unions to fight for them. Horowitz puts great value on this distinction, because the latter approach grants greater autonomy to workers.

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