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  • Tony Simmons

Does reading books make you smart, or do smart people read books?

Perhaps the very concept of this question is mired in a chicken ‘n egg quandary. Perhaps it is as simple as a physical manifestation of the nature vs nurture argument? Yet, even though this question is sophistic, I want to delve deeper, knowing that the answer will always elude me.

“Reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.” Bill Gates

I am a decent reader, not prolific, just a single book every couple of months. I generally like to get my mental stimuli through other means and senses, but every so often reading a book gets me focussed on some new ideas, concepts or thoughts. It is always amazing that the book I start reading yields to me a brilliant tonic for exactly what I was needing in a business at that precise moment. A book for me often provides a reset button, a pivot in mindset or focus or a spur to take me forwards to a new level.Amazed by successful people

“Knowledge exists in two forms - lifeless, stored in books, and alive, in the consciousness of men. The second form of existence is after all the essential one; the first, indispensable as it may be, occupies only an inferior position.” Albert Einstein

There are no statistics that I can find on the correlation between reading and success, but I assume it is very closely correlated. I will rely on anecdotal evidence when I state that almost all smart and successful people read books. When I mean books, I mean a book, read cover to cover, I don’t mean a Wikipedia entry, blog, newspaper entry or tweet.When I have discussed business and life with successful people, the world over, the echo of their words: “I was just reading….” Or “have you read” always lingers with me. Why? Because when something you read sticks with you, so much so that it becomes something worth repeating to tell a tale or educate a listener, then it must have had a profound impact. It must have meshed with other thoughts and ideas that it connected with true meaning for the reader, and they gleaned something purposeful or interesting. Therefore, I ascribe value to what people have read, and often seek out that same book to see whether I too can find the nuggets of gold hidden in the text.

“My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” Abraham Lincoln

Analysis ParalysisWhen my wife was pregnant with our first child, I was dragged (kicking and screaming like a child) to pre-natal classes. Oh, what a joy. I don’t remember much from these sessions, but I do remember the presenting nurse asking the audience of expectant Mothers and Fathers, “What books have you read about child birth and children?” As she went around the circle, everyone gave the name of a title or two and one person even emptied a backpack full or books. I mean, there was a book crammed into every single nook and cranny of this bag – it was Tardis like! That was certainly an extreme, the polar opposite of me. When I was asked what books I had read, “none” was the answer I gave. A quizzical, perhaps shocked, nurse looked at me and asked the logical follow up, “WHAT! Why? Don’t you care about your unborn child?”. I can see how that thought would manifest in the brain, but I see reason in my answer too, “because children have been born for millennia, and parents didn’t need a book to guide them. Its innate, natural and if anything seems off or uncertain, seek help or advice from a professional. How hard can it be?”. I suppose at one end of these two extremes there is too much information. An overload of detail where it becomes impossible to synthesize all the messages, thoughts, concepts, ideas, practices and put them into any meaningful order or practical application. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a lack of any stimulus to challenge your thinking, present you with facts, new knowledge and ideas and engage your current thoughts with new information. 

 “Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world.” Napoléon Bonaparte

For each person, the balance will be different, but somewhere in between these polar opposites lie the perfect number of books you should read. Bottom line, you must read something.Key books

“Everything I read was public. Anyone could buy the same books and magazines. The same information was available to anyone who wanted it. Turns out most people didn’t want it. Most people won’t put in the time to get a knowledge advantage.” Mark Cuban

Books are intended to convey ideas, some obvious, some subtle, some vexing and some ridiculous. However, everyone who can read will take something out of a book they read. As  most people bring along their biases when consuming words, these same people will bring out different messages or assimilate core messages in a different manner. 

For me, I am often not sure that what I take out of books I read is the message that the author intended to convey. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, it is a process of taking in information, sifting out the weeds, keeping the nuggets of gold, and applying those nuggets in the immediate term. Sometimes, if the book is truly unique, it may form a guiding principal of your business activities and life.

I’ll give you five books that I continually recommend (my top 5 recommended books perhaps) and summarise my take-outs.

What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School Mark H. McCormackThis was my first “business book” and it shaped me. As a lawyer like McCormack, it resonated with me. A street-smart approach to sales, working hard for success and starting a business from a position of first-hand knowledge. Simple and savvy and it has guided me throughout all of my business life.

The E Myth Revisited Michael E. GerberI haven’t met many business people who haven’t read it. Gerber’s seminal book nails what a business should look like from a sales and operational perspective and nailed the concept of “working on your business” rather than “working in your business”. If you are starting a business and haven’t read this, you have rocks in your head!

Who Moved My Cheese Dr Spencer JohnsonI knew from a young age that I often swam against the tide. It was mostly to my own detriment, but I did reach some pretty interesting places along the way. I didn’t understand the mindset of many of my colleagues, or staff, until I read this book. In a start-up, dexterity and dynamism are essential ingredients, this book helps you connect with those people who find fear in those dynamics.

The Lean Startup Eric RiesTrying to launch or scale a product, any product? Read this. Enough said.

Mastering the Rockefeller Habits Verne HarnishA masterful book on growth via routine, goals, data and priorities. In working through these key business areas, you will understand how to remove the common barriers to growth, how to get the right people doing the right things and have a strategic vision that can be measured and sold to the whole company. The way I look at it now as that a company should be guided by 2 important time-frames, 30 days and 10 years!

I could go on and list Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Covey, Steven Levitt, Peter Thiel, Dale Carnegie, Edward De Bono and Anthony Robbins. Each of these books manifestly infected the essence of my business acumen and practices. 

But now it’s your turn, do you read? What are the key books that affected how you operate in business and what were the key messages you took from them?

Please, let us all know

Tony Simmons

Essential business books - what's in your top 5?

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