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Business Books for the Festive Break

As we are winding down for the year-end break, I suggest using the time to read books such as the following to prepare yourself for 2024 and beyond: 

  • Mindset – Carol Dweck 
  • Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell 
  • Bounce – Matthew Syed 
  • The Infinite Game – Simon Sinek 
  • Elon Musk: Risking it all – Michael Vlismas 

Mindset: Changing The Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential  (Updated Edition) 

Carol Dweck introduces the idea of two mindsets – fixed and growth.  

A fixed mindset believes that abilities and intelligence are innate and unchangeable, while a growth mindset sees them as qualities that can be developed through effort and learning. 

Fixed – “you are so clever”, “talented”, “genius”, “gifted”. 

When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself. 

Benjamin Barber, an eminent political theorist once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. . . . I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.” 

Outliers: The Story of Success 

In this book, Malcolm Gladwell introduces the 10,000-hour Rule, which suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, for example two to three hours per day for ten years, to achieve mastery in a particular domain, but also factors such as cultural background, family environment and opportunities play a critical role, far more than innate talent alone. 

He explores fascinating examples, such as The Beatles, to explain what makes them great (They performed multiple times per day for months and months in Liverpool and Hamburg, developing their skills and crafting their performances, before moving into the mainstream). 

Bounce:  The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice 

This book focuses on sport and what I was most surprised by was the myth-busting research into whether some population groups are better or worse than others at particular sports.  

The answer was that there was no genetic difference between populations (only within populations) that predisposed someone to likely be good at one sport and not another, for example height, weight, stamina and muscle development. The differences in performance came from culture, opportunity and consistent purposeful practice (as mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell). For example, the best Kenyan long-distance runners were born at altitude, ran to school every day and lived in a community that supported long-distance running as a worthwhile sport and career option, but their DNA showed no significant differences from people across the world with a similar body type.  

Now that the conditions are understood and the sport has become popular in other countries, there are many more athletes from across the world that have been brought up in similar circumstances that are achieving success because there is now focus, funding and opportunity in their countries where there wasn’t before. It all came down to purposeful practice and an opportunity to utilise the skill once developed. 

My key learnings were that as leaders we need to stop pigeon-holing our team members based on pre-conceived ideas about the natural talents of specific population groups – every population has tall and short people, sprinters and long-distance runners, fighters and weightlifters, thinkers and dreamers; all personality and body types are represented. We must focus on the individual and support them to develop their strengths and build teams that cover off each other’s areas of challenge. We also need to move our education systems across all modalities firmly out of the mindset that the individual with the ‘correct’ answer wins, to focus much more on the process, effort involved and testing the answer. In the world outside school, there is rarely only one solution to a problem, so let’s encourage more teamwork earlier to better prepare them for the world of work. It is already happening in several forward-looking schools with great results. WeThinkCode_, a coding school in South Africa, is a great example. 

We need to be much more tolerant of failure and facilitate spaces for team members to try and fail as fast and as often as possible (like the Beetles performing, trying and failing, in a low-risk environment like Hamburg), to make the small mistakes now and avoid the big ones later. Part of this is to encourage research and accessing as many tools and resources as possible to work out all the ways that something has failed before, because there are very few unique mistakes. The way forward is to test the assumptions and options that were available when those prior failures were made. Is there another way of approaching the problem that wasn’t available before, for example DNA testing, or by accessing the huge databases available through AI tools? How do we come up with a unique response to the challenge and NOT repeat the mistakes of the past. Cars became faster because brakes improved. Our team members will innovate faster if we can teach them how to stop quicker, before they go over the cliff. 

The Infinite Game 

Simon Sinek’s book provides another perspective on the growth versus fixed mindset, encouraging the reader to play a business game that never has an end, and probably most importantly, doesn’t have fixed rules either. We just continue to adapt, improve and keep playing for as long as possible (keep innovating and testing assumptions, as mentioned above).  

Many individuals and businesses fail because they get too caught up in a particular target or goal and either destroy themselves in the quest, or arrive at their long sought-after ‘destination’ and have no plan, or resources left for what comes next.  

This is a critical problem for anyone who has been completely immersed in their job or business for decades, and then retires and dies shortly after. In order to stay in the game of business and life, you need to stay alive and that is much more likely if you have a purpose and meaning that is bigger than you and has no end, both as an individual and an organisation! 

Elon Musk: Risking It All 

Many don’t like Elon Musk, but there is no questioning that he has dramatically increased the rate of development in the industries in which he has become involved. What struck me most about his success is related to what I have described above. He reads and works for crazy hours to fully understand the industry he is going into and then, as he has done with SpaceX, he encourages his teams to build the impossible, test it (to destruction if necessary) and then try again, as fast as possible. Yes, he takes huge risks and yes he may have been lucky, yes he may burn up before his dreams are realised, but he has still achieved an enormous amount in a very short space of time and his businesses may be critical factors in facilitating humanity playing the infinite game by building a colony on another planet. Interesting times! 

While these books might seem quite different, they offer some key themes: 

  • Reward effort, not being right. 
  • Expect mastery to require dedicated, purposeful practice – make mistakes fast, get up again fast, and keep moving forward. 
  • Encourage a growth mindset by challenging team members with progressively more complex problems to solve with enough space, time and resources to try and fail and try again. 
  • Ensure that the organisation has a ‘Just Cause’ (Sinek’s term). A just cause is an inspiring, idealistic vision that goes beyond profit and serves as a rallying point for the entire organisation, providing a sense of purpose. Sirdar breaks it down into ‘Promise’ and ‘Vision’ to better differentiate between the eternal promise that the business is making to its stakeholders and the vision being what the organisation, or its impact, will look like in a defined period of time. 
  • Find a “worthy rival” and celebrate their success (mentioned in both Sinek’s and Syed’s books and a key part of the space race at the moment). Collaboration and ethical behaviour are essential, as competitors should not be seen as opponents that must be ground into the dust, but as players in the same game working to advance a greater cause.