This piece originally appeared on The Hustle.
I don’t blame people for wanting to get an MBA. It’s not their fault they’ve been duped into believing it’s the best way to further their career in business.
So how are you supposed to learn what you need to get ahead?
Books. Now, I know that’s an ambiguous answer. There are millions of books. Thousands on every topic. You could spend your entire life reading books on business. I’m here to solve that problem.
Go to the first source
When a reporter from Fortune asked Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky what he knew about management prior to running his 3,000 person organization, Chesky responded with, “It’s kind of like, what did I know?”
But somehow Chesky figured it out. How did he do it?
Rather than trying to learn everything about a particular topic, Chesky found it was more efficient to research and identify the single best source in that field. He then went straight to that person. “If you pick the right source, you can fast-forward,” he said.
And since a business degree is a pointless waste of time, the best way to educate yourself on business is by reading books.
Here’s a list of the 11 books you should read in lieu of getting a business degree.
Titan: The life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow: A must read for anyone interested in business
I once read that you’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with. If that’s true (which I believe it is), then reading biographies is like spending a few hours a night with the great ones.
Biographies have a strange way of changing your behavior. When you spend an hour or two a night learning from your heroes you notice that you start to adopt their habits. It’s strange, I know, but it’s true. A good biography will fast forward your career because of the time you’ll save learning from the subject’s mistakes rather than making them on your own. A great biography will save you decades.
Plus, your business career will be significantly easier when you know that whatever you want to accomplish has already been done.
Everyone interested in business should read John D. Rockefeller’s biography. Aside from being the richest person in history, Rockefeller was a loyal family man, a disciplined worker, and incredibly confident but humble. He built Standard Oil, one of the largest companies the world had ever seen, from scratch. Rockefeller is the reason monopolies in America are illegal.
But unlike other business magnates, Rockefeller was famously kind and generous (he funded the University of Chicago and donated to Spelman College).
Time Magazine and The New York Times list Titan as one of the greatest biographies ever written, and I think it’s one of the greatest books of all time.
I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.—John D. Rockefeller, “Titan”
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene: How to navigate the corporate world
Business and war are quite similar. But not for the reasons you might think. Business, like war, is often won in people’s minds. A great leader can control the attitudes of his enemies, his team, and himself, and if done correctly, can win a war before it ever starts.
The 48 Laws of Power is basically an adaptation of Sun Tzu’s the Art of War (another great book). The major difference is in The 48 Laws of Power’s readability and it’s use of historical stories. I find the Art of War tough to read, whereas The 48 Laws of Power is a page turner. Greene spends over 400 pages explaining how to climb the social ladder and uses historical examples to make his case.
In one’s life, you’re better off following the teachings of Moses, Jesus, or Buddha to gain long-term happiness. But the sad fact is, many people live by a very different set of rules, and while most of these folks eventually self-destruct, they can inflict severe damage on our personal and professional lives in the process.
48 Rules of Power is a good primer for learning how these people think.—Amazon review of “The 48 Laws of Power”
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini: Getting people to buy what you’re selling
Understanding what motivates people is important — not just in business, but in life. There are thousands of books on this topic but most of them are garbage. That’s why I suggest reading only read Influence by Robert B. Cialdini when it comes to sales.
Practically every book written after 1984 on persuasion or human behavior cites Cialdini’s book at least once. Influence is the classic on the psychology of what makes people say “yes” and helps them apply these learnings. The text is half tactics, half strategy, making it practical and easy to understand.
Influence is based off three years of undercover research Cialdini did at telemarketing firms, car dealerships, and fund-raising organizations. There’s a reason Influence is on nearly every business school curriculum in America.
Embarrassment is a villain to be crushed.—Robert B. Cialdini, “Influence”
Letters to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders by Warren Buffett: How to talk well
Strong communication skills, specifically through the written word, is arguably the most important skill a leader can have. Think about it. Texting, Facebook, email, blogging. We spend our entire professional lives at the keyboard.
On the surface this book seems like a strange recommendation. But here’s the thing—Warren Buffett is one of the greatest communicators I’ve ever read. The mark of a great communicator is their ability to explain complicated concepts in an engaging and simple way. Buffett does both beautifully.
Every year since 1977 Buffett has written a letter to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. In these letters he explains, in layman’s terms, Berkshire’s performance, what it means to shareholders, and what they should expect in the future. Buffett uses metaphors, humor, and a perfect combination of conversational and professional language to explain boring topics like price appreciation, insurance floats, and GAAP accounting.
Every letter is available online for free on Berkshire Hathaway’s site but I recommend paying a few bucks and getting a hard copy of the letters.
I will tell you now that we have embraced the 21st century by entering such cutting-edge industries as brick, carpet, insulation and paint. Try to control your excitement.—Opening line in Buffett’s 2001 shareholder letter
Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy: How to make things look sexy
David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy and Mather (one of the biggest ad agencies in the world), is the person to learn from when it comes to advertising. While there are dozens of great books on the subject, Confessions of an Advertising Man is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.
Ogilvy’s other book, Ogilvy on Advertising, is better known, but Confessions of an Ad Man covers most of the stuff mentioned there, plus additional details such as client/agency relationships and how to grow a business.
“Much of the messy advertising you see on television today is the product of committees. Committees can criticize advertisements, but they should never be allowed to create them.”—David Ogilvy
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Learn from America’s greatest president
Abe Lincoln was a management genius. In the 1860 presidential election the Republican party (Lincoln’s party) was a mess. There was no clear leader, people couldn’t agree on the issues, and the country was a wreck. To bring the party and country together, Lincoln convinced the candidates running against him to join together to form his cabinet. The result was a ragtag group of men — who previously hated each other — working together to successfully navigate the country through its toughest period.
The biggest takeaway from this book is how to handle different types of people — a skill few people take the time to master. Lincoln had a magic ability to organize people, and Team of Rivals does an amazing job explaining how to replicate his skills.
A runner-up for this category was High Output Management, (Brian Chesky’s favorite book). It is far more technical, but it’s quite dull.
This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes.—Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham: Written by Warren Buffett’s mentor
When asked which book people interested in investing should read, Warren Buffett said, “Chapters 8 and 20 [of The Intelligent Investor] have been the bedrock of my investing activities for more than 60 years. I suggest that all investors read those chapters and reread them every time the market has been especially strong or weak.”
I’m no Buffett, but I’d suggest reading the entire book. The Intelligent Investor covers strategies for any investor, plus the importance of controlling one’s emotions…arguably the most crucial skill needed when playing with the market.
The newer editions have been updated to include modern investment techniques and practices.
The intelligent investor is a realist who sells to optimists and buys from pessimists.—Ben Graham
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith: Economics are dull but necessary
I’m not a fan of books on economics. I find them dull. But they are important. The Wealth of Nations should be your first source when it comes to understanding economics.
While it’s mostly focused on classic economics, it’s a defining book on economic theory that every business person should read. Not reading this text would be like a Bible scholar not knowing about The Exodus.
The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations.—Adam Smith
The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman: Copywriting is the most underrated skill in business
Copywriting is the single most valuable technical skill a business person can have. I know that’s a bold claim, but it’s true. Now, when you hear copywriting you’re mostly likely thinking about creating sexy advertisements. But that’s not what I’m referring to.
Copywriting is your ability to transfer your knowledge of a product, service, or idea onto a sheet of paper for the purpose of selling. Part of the process involves understanding what your audience needs, what they want, what motivates them, and what stirs their emotions.
When it comes to copywriting, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook is the gold standard. The author, Joseph Sugarman, is a famous direct mail marketer. Before the internet was around, direct mail marketers wrote letters to potential customers. Using only a sheet of paper, these marketers had to convince strangers to send a check for a product they had never seen before. And Mr. Sugarman was the best in the business.
While The Adweek Copywriting Handbook can get technical, it’s a very easy and fun read and teaches strategies to get people to read whatever you write.
Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slope.—Joseph Sugarman, “The Adweek Copywriting Handbook”
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: One of the best-selling books of all time
A legitimate reason for wanting an MBA is because of the network you’ll build. However, most people are awful networkers. They don’t know how to hold a conversation, show interest in others, or be likable. That’s why How to Win Friends and Influence People is a must read.
I’d be shocked if you’ve never heard of this book before. Carnegie published this classic in 1936. It has since become one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time. Practically every great business leader can quote a few sentences from How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most universities have this book in the curriculum. And if they don’t then they should lose their accreditation.
Your parents read this book. Their grandparents did too. Now it’s your turn.
You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.—Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
Mastery by Robert Greene: Self-development is often ignored but most important
Without direction life is meaningless. Chasing money is utterly useless unless you know why you’re doing it. And unfortunately, most people, especially money hungry type A business folk, never ask themselves why they want to make money or why they want to run a business. Mastery helps you find that answer.
I put two Robert Greene books on this list on purpose. Greene’s books are the most well researched and in depth books I’ve ever read. Every sentence is packed with practical information. I think of Greene as more of a historian than a writer.
In Mastery, Greene explains how to become a leader by examining the pathways to success taken by historical masters such as Mozart, Einstein, and Darwin. He explains how people found their calling.
The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.—Robert Greene, “Mastery”
If you read and master these books, I believe that you’ll know more than 99% of MBA graduates. And, at a book a month, you’ll only spend $200 and 11 months to learn what others pay hundreds of thousands for, over two years.
Or, as Will Hunting beautifully put it:
“See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!”
Now go on… read!