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Updated: March 27th, 2020
Business books are often great for the how-to. When you want to find out how something was done, what methods were used and who did what, business books are a great resource. Any SMB owner should read business books now and again, because the insights you can get from them are actionable. However, some of the best ideas come from taking a sideways approach to thinking about business.
The following books will help you think more deeply and more creatively about the world at large, and may very well spark an important idea that you might not otherwise have had.
You wouldn’t think that you could talk about pretty much literally the history of ‘everything’ in just one book, but Bill Bryson pretty much gets it right. This general history of science is great because it will make you feel smarter with each page, and yet it reads as easily as your typical beach novel. Bryson’s ability to render the highly complex as astonishingly simple is unparalleled. The reason you should read this book is that it will put you in spell that will invigorate your curiosity about everything. You’ll start to see connections between things that you never realized were there. That’s a very important ability to have for anyone in business. Plus it’s way more funny than any science book should be.
Our world is made up of ‘stuff’. Over the vast span of history we have generated an awful lot of it. This book is less a comprehensive history of the world than it is a personal tour through humanity and its stuff. This book is the result of a radio show cataloging MacGregor’s curation of stories about objects found in the British Museum. From this rather dry premise, MacGregor tells the story of our world in surprisingly affecting detail. It feels epic and personal. You will learn a lot. And just like the Bryson book, 100 Objects will make you look at the world through fresh eyes.
A huge amount of the work of owning and running a business comes down to solving problems. All of us could benefit from taking a fresh approach to solving problems. Humans are prone to falling into patterns, especially when we have a degree of comfort or understanding with the tasks or concerns that we’re working on. Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking is about looking at problems in the most creative way, perhaps moreso even than the right way. Too often we try to figure out, right away, what the correct answer is to a particular problem, rather than to figure out what the problem itself can tell us. Lateral thinking is the application of alternative logic to address the contents of a problem. What this book boils down to is a bunch of ways to think creatively about problems. If you’re looking for a breakthrough idea, start here.
This book is billed as a natural history of innovation, and while it is an entertaining ride through the minds, dreams and imaginations of some daring thinkers, it is even more interesting as an instructive look at how to have good ideas. The historical examples in the book provide plenty of mental ammunition for anyone who is interested in discovering a new approach. While covering a broad scope of intellectual achievements, this book is a reassuring reminder that many of the most important ideas in the world came from the earnest ambitions of small business owners.
We live in a world that seems often to be guided by a ‘bigger is better’ set of principles. This 43-year-old, still-relevant economics book is an outright rejection of that way of thinking. This is a book about economics that puts people at the center, rather than unfettered growth at all costs. It posits that endless growth is a dangerous goal, with inevitable and far-reaching consequences. Sustainability should be a concern for all business owners, and this book might be a good opportunity for SMB owners to take an internal account of their own growth ambitions. Do you want to be a global conglomerate? Do you want to serve your community? What is the endgame? What kind of world do you want to live?
There’s probably an argument to be made for why it’s important to read Plato or Aristotle, but if we’re being honest, it’s a lot of work and we’re tired. The School of Life does a typically excellent job of synthesizing the ideas of a wide range of important thinkers from throughout history. The most important aspect of this book is that the biggest ideas from these thinkers are delivered in the context of how they can benefit our normal lives. It is a self-consciously pop approach to philosophy, but one that is accessible and undeniably useful to just about anyone. You will feel consoled and enriched while reading this book that prioritizes ease of use and approachability over formal rigor. It’s a fun read about serious stuff.
This playful, poetic, philosophically rich book is short and not a huge challenge to read but could change the way you look at some of the most basic things we all face in life. Carse argues that there are two types of games that make up the broad spectrum of human interactions, from personal relationships to organized society — finite games are those that have an apparent purpose (profits, winners, losers, clear beginning, clear end, commonly known rules), and those that have a more ephemeral nature. By looking at the world as a series of choices and agreements, transactions, investments, debits and game-like engagements, we can develop a new understanding of what it means to coexist with the people in our lives — from a significant other, to a customer, to a stranger. This book might help you develop new goals for your personal growth, and for the impact you want to make with your business.
Samantha Novick is a senior editor at Funding Circle, specializing in small business financing. She has a bachelor's degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Prior to Funding Circle, Samantha was a community manager at Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Her work has been featured in a number of top small business resource sites and publications.