10 Books That Will Make You Smarter in 2015


Yes there’s a small company in “A Christmas Carol.” But you won’t learn much studying the business practices of Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley. With the holiday break stretching before you, pick up (or download) one of these excellent 2014 titles instead. Some will make you think. Some will make you feel. All will hold your attention, even after a few mugs of eggnog.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

The Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker combines history with first-hand observations of the present to explore the contradictions that make China such a daunting destination for western companies. Rising individualism coexists with continued authoritarianism; people ravenously pursue material goods and wealth, yet also greater meaning. We’ve seen the demographics of this complex market. Here is the psychology behind them.

Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

The movie Frozen was released in November 2013. How many times have your kids made you watch it since then? And how do Pixar and–more recently–Walt Disney Animation Studios manage to produce hit after hit that is not only hugely commercial but also technologically innovative and emotionally true? Catmull, who is president of both studios, lifts the lid of the toy box to show how it’s done.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One‘s Looking by Christian Ruder

Much is written about individuals sacrificing their privacy online. But that’s nothing compared to the amount of leg being bared by society at large. Ruder, co-founder of the dating site OKCupid, applies data analytics to sort out the good, bad, and ugly (also the racist and horny) elements of human nature, as revealed by social media. His findings suggest a new–potentially more accurate way–of assessing how evolved we are as a culture. We also learn that smart people prefer curly fries.

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

Jamison’s theme is our ability–or inability–to feel the pain of those in extremes of illness, poverty, and captivity. It’s not an obvious subject for business readers. But as leaders rise, they grow increasingly isolated. Customer “pain points” become mere opportunities for profit, and employees’ needs recede before the needs of the business. This insightful book reminds us that we are all humans first.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

A provocative read for anyone evaluating the credentials of job candidates, anticipating her child’s academic future, or regretting her own academic past. Deresiewicz, a former professor at Yale, describes how this country’s eyes-on-the-prize approach to education has spawned a generation of young people who are rich in skill and efficiency, poor in self-knowledge and moral courage. Do you really want to trust your business to someone whose definition of leadership is simply being at the top?

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

The video of a woman barraged by unwelcome male attention as she walked around New York City received loud but mixed reactions earlier this year. Those who decried her experience as atypical should read the tales of discrimination and harassment collected here. Bates, a British journalist, argues persuasively that inequality is a continuum, with incidents minor and major deserving attention. The swelling chorus of women’s voices brings her message home. Men who encounter women in homes, offices, and public spaces–which is to say all men–will benefit.

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local–and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy

Some company owners are heroes because they blaze trails. Others are heroes because they fight back. John Basset III is among the latter. The third-generation owner of Basset Furniture Industries took on the foreign competition decimating Virginia’s furniture industry and threatening his company and community. The book doesn’t reveal much that is new about the wages of globalization. But the stirring human story reminds us what’s at stake.

For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Starbucks’ plan to sell $7 cups of coffee at super-premium cafes likely received more publicity than its goal of hiring 10,000 veterans and active-duty spouses in five years. Starbucks founder Schultz and Washington Post writer Chandrasekaran do more than say, “Thank you for your service.” They demonstrate why companies not actively recruiting veterans are denying themselves a remarkable source of leadership and talent.

The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us by Diane Ackerman

In her usual sparkling prose, naturalist and poet Ackermen guides a spellbinding tour of how innovation is reshaping the natural world. This ultimately hopeful book is forthright about the damage humans do to the environment while introducing us to a world of wonders, from buildings warmed by the body heat of commuters at a nearby train station to orangutans in captivity finding mental stimulation in iPads. Scientifically minded entrepreneurs will be inspired by the challenges.

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Popular business books abound with anecdotes about people arriving at fiendishly clever solutions to seemingly intractable dilemmas. This book uses examples ranging from rock stars to competitive hot dog eaters to explain how to come up with such nifty solutions yourselves. Like psychological Houdinis, the Freaknomics boys reveal the tricks to escape in-the-box thinking.

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