What I’ve Been Reading

1. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What That Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

Anyone who drives should read this book. Every page contains a fascinating nugget about cars, traffic, traffic culture, public transportation, and more. A year ago I posted some of the nuggets gleaned from a book review. A random new one I learned from the book: People who actively look for the “best” parking place in a parking lot outside a mall, say, inevitably spend more total time than people who just take the first open spot they see.

2. The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (and What to Do About It) by Michael Raynor

This is one of the better business books I’ve read in the last few years. The Strategy Paradox is as follows: strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure. The best-performing firms often have more in common with “humiliated bankrupts than with companies that have managed to merely survive.” The best strategies, in other words, will lead to extreme success or extreme failure. There is other good stuff here on managing uncertainty, probabilistic thinking, and more. Thanks Ryan Holiday for the recommendation.

3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I couldn’t get into it. Usually it’s hard to say this about classics but I know I’m not the only one who finds Dickens inaccessible. I did, though, enjoy this paragraph:

In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter.

This was my favorite fragment:

There was a delicious sense of cleaning-up and making a quiet pause before going on in life afresh, in our village on Saturday nights…

This sentence made me think:

But I loved Joe,—perhaps for no better reason in those early days than because the dear fellow let me love him,—and, as to him, my inner self was not so easily composed.

4. In-n-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast Food Chain that Breaks All the Rules by Stacy Perman

For an author who wasn’t able to talk with the key players of the Synder family, this is nevertheless a remarkably researched and in-depth look at an extraordinary company. I love In-n-Out not only as a restaurant / burger joint (it’s probably my favorite restaurant in California) but also as a business and brand. Perman explores how the family was able to scale the business while preserving the core values that put In-n-Out in a league of its own among fast-food outlets. She also documents the tragic family battles that nearly destroyed everything Harry Snyder created. I recommend this book for anyone who loves In-n-Out and maintains even a casual interest in business.

6 Responses to What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Just ordered the In-N-Out book – thanks! Never eaten there but people are obsessive and evangelistic about it, so they’re clearly doing a lot right.

  2. Ryan Holiday says:

    Going to get the In-N-Out one myself.

  3. Samuels says:

    Ben – The only Dickens worth reading is Bleak House. He successfully interweaves several stories and develops multiple characters while upending the British parliament. It’s not too preachy and not a word is out of place. Easily one of the best “classics” I’ve read and highly pertinent for 2009.

    Take an earful of this impeccable style

    “As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holbornhill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

    And thats only on the first page.

  4. Simon Halliday says:

    The Strategy Paradox seems odd to me the following statement, “strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure.” Sounds weird. Let’s say failure & success are mutually exclusive and that there’s no in-between, it makes no sense to me that increasing the likelihood of the one necessarily increases the likelihood of the other. Unless you’re talking about ‘big ideas’ which could be treated like coin flips in ‘success/failure’ space it seems like a strange way to articulate things. I suppose I’ll have to read the book though…

    On G.E. I can understand why you didn’t get in to it, I struggled through a number of Dickens’s books, then had Dickens ritually slaughtered by an English Lit lecturer who was obviously a better researcher than teacher.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Great excerpt. I’ve added it to my wish list.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Simon — on Strategy Paradox — yeah, it’s a tricky one to parse out. I
    think the idea is that there are other factors which affect the ultimate
    outcome of an effort, your strategy being just one of them. Two companies
    can each implement the same strategy and one will succeed and one will fail
    due to the impact of different external forces. The author also notes that
    the strategies that result in the GREATEST success also can result in the
    GREATEST failure — this is somewhat obvious, I suppose, that placing the
    necessary big bets is key for big wins, but can also lead to big loses.

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