Ben Horowitz

What Should I Read?

One of the more frequent questions I get from my executive clients is “What should I read?”

The answer may not be what you expect - because it certainly isn’t business books.

The best executives with whom I’ve worked rarely read business books. Even I don’t read them very often - and I’ve written them.

There are a couple of reasons for that.

The first is that too many of the books aren’t implementable. They tell stories about companies that have done this or that - but rarely give you enough of the process to be able to replicate. As a result, they’re like the “Executive Missions” that were (and still are) so popular.

Here’s how it works:

  • You go.

  • You look.

  • You listen.

  • You get jealous.

  • You decide that you’re going to make your company do that [it doesn’t really matter what the “that” is], too.

  • You go home.

  • You tell your executive team that you saw the most amazing thing and that you know that “we can do it, too.”

  • You try.

  • You fail.

The reason you fail - whether executive mission or business book (remember “In Search of Excellence” and “Good to Great”?) is because you’ve seen the outcome. You’ve not learned the process that the companies went through - most importantly, all the good and bad of it.

The books can tell you a story. They can’t solve your problems.

Even truly excellent books like last year’s “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr ultimately don’t work without additional support. That’s why there’s such extensive follow-on for readers that sign up for the ongoing support. It doesn’t cost anything - and it helps - but it’s still a high risk maneuver without more in-depth, real-time guidance.

Which leads me to why the majority of business books really, really don’t work: It’s because all they’re there for is to increase the visibility and market for the consultant who wrote it. Yes, it’s another consultant ploy.

So what do executives read?

History. Mystery. Science Fiction. Physics. Spirituality. Medical Science.

You name it. They read it.

And, for their business reading, they read Biography - including biographies of businesses (like “How Google Works”) and industries (like pretty much every one of Michael Lewis’ books). They also read Executive Autobiographies - with a couple of the favorites being Andy Grove’s “High Output Management” and Ben Horowitz’ “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

(Can you tell I don’t bother with getting a fee for my recommendations? You have to find the books yourself if you’re interested enough!)

The important thing isn’t even what you read. It’s that you read.

If you’re interested in travel, read about it. If you want to know what happened in the Spanish Civil War, read about it. If music fascinates you and you think that one day you’d like to compose, read, read and read more. (Then go compose.)

The whole purpose of reading is to broaden your horizons and open you up to new worlds. To be exposed to different thinking than your own. To see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Because the most amazing thing about reading is that you’ll find yourself incorporating those expansive, mind-expanding, sometimes mind-bending experiences into your day-to-day thinking - which will make you better at what you do. And that will make you more likely to get to where you want to go.

Which is really the point, don’t you think? And this way, you’ll enjoy yourself all along the way.