Do Superachievers Read Business Books?

I spoke a while back on go-to-market scaling at the 10X CEO Accelerate conference in Deer Valley to about eighty startup CEOs. I dropped a few references to popular business books into the material (e.g., Blue Ocean Strategy, Inside the Tornado, The Crux), as I often do, and discussed them quickly in passing.

This prompted a question at the end of the session that went something like this:

“You mentioned several business books in your speech.  I must admit that I don’t read a lot of business books.  I don’t have any time.  And I don’t particularly like reading.  So, my question is do superachievers actually read these books and view reading them as part of their success?”

It was a helluva good question. 

While I certainly have my own take on the answer, I must admit that I’m an information junkie who loves reading (so my view will likely be non-representative) and while I’m an achiever, I wouldn’t say I’m a superachiever. But, I thought, I know some superachievers [1] and some of them work with other superachievers [2] so I can ask for their takes and then fuse those composite opinions into a blog post [3].

Here it is.

Do Super Achievers (Actually) Read Business Books?

Before answering, let me address the fact that it’s often presented as a loaded question, where you can almost feel the word “actually” silently slipped into the phrasing. In its loaded form, the question comes implicitly packed with some of these widely-held assumptions:

  • Business books are bullshit.
  • They’re the province of professors and MBAs.
  • At best, they contain one good idea inflated into a 250-page book because you can’t sell pamphlets for $25.
  • Wannabes read business books as a way to lead their business life by proxy as opposed to putting it all on the playing field.

To the extent you can view attitudes about MBAs as representative of attitudes towards business books [4], you can feel a further lack of love.

“As much as possible, avoid hiring MBAs.  Our position is that we hire someone in spite of an MBA, not because of one.” — Elon Musk

“Never, ever hire an MBA.  They will ruin your company.” — Peter Thiel

“When it comes to success in business, the MBA degree is optional.  But a GSD, which is only earned by getting shit done, is required.” — Christine Comaford

Overall, there is a strong sentiment in Silicon Valley that the best teacher is doing.  Then again, there is also a strong sentiment that failure is a better teacher than success, yet in 35 years I have never seen a single job specification that listed any form of failure as required experience.  Strong sentiment and action are seemingly two different things.

Now, let’s directly answer the question:  do superachievers read business books?

Remembering that there is no single mold of superachiever, I think the answer is:

  • Yes, but not religiously.
  • And they really like to read broader books as well.

I think the driving philosophies behind this are:

  • The realization that most business books really are one good idea inflated to 250 pages.  So, if they can learn the basics of a good idea without having to read the full 250 pages, then all the better. Superachievers guard their time.
  • The point is to understand the core concepts in which fluency is required to function in Silicon Valley (e.g., The Chasm, The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Lean Startup).  There are probably about 20 of these in total and the important part is understanding the concepts, not reading the book.  Superachievers are often fast learners and self-taught.  Skimming the book, reading a summary [5], or watching a video is likely enough. 
  • It is foolish not to learn from the mistakes of others.  While skeptical of finding the universal keys to success in any book, they are more open to hearing concrete stories of success and failure.  Thus, they are less interested in pop business concept books [6] than reading real stories of successful and unsuccessful companies.
  • Superachievers want to be the best versions of themselves.  They are highly motivated for self improvement and if convinced that reading certain books will help improve their performance, they will find the time to read them. But books are just one way to improve. So are conversations with other founders — a key reason why organizations like YPO and 10X CEO do so well. So is execution education, like Stanford’s great programs. So are great podcasts (e.g., Acquired, Founders) on the treadmill.
  • It is important to step outside the all-consuming world of the startup to gain perspective.   That’s why reading world history, business history, military history, behavioral economics, sports, competition, and motivation are popular topics for superachievers. It is possible to spend too much time on the standard material. Reading more broadly is both energizing and helps you get outside the proverbial box.
  • Doing is the best teacher.  While reading is great, you need to do a lot and try a lot. Move fast and break things, as they say. The Silicon Valley way.

In short, on the question of business books, I’d say that superachievers are universally well informed, if not necessarily well read.

More broadly, I’d say that superchievers are generally well read. In Silicon Valley, this results from the energizing effect of reading non-business material often combined with some intellectual flex to demonstrate your polymath abilities. That’s why you’ll find almost certainly find authors like Daniel Kahneman, Robert Cialdini, or Sun Tzu — who write one level of indirection away from startups — on most reading lists, as well as others (e.g., Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, William Irvine), who write several levels beyond that.

If you can’t identify John Galt, recite the three primary beliefs of the Stoics, or reveal the Martian etymology of the word grok, then well, perhaps you’re an outsider on Sand Hill Road after all. Superachiever or not.

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[1] To respect privacy, I won’t do any attribution here, but simply say that I’ve spoken with successful startup founders and with deca-, centa-, and even a kilo-millionaire (aka, billionaire) about this topic. If you’re one of those people, let me thank you again for answering my questions.

[2] For example: a top-performing VC who is a superachiever in their own right and who, by virtue of their startup work, frequently engages with other achievers and superachivers.

[3] Someone could obviously do a study here — and maybe someone already has, but I couldn’t find it — and doing one on my own is well beyond the scope of a Kellblog post.

[4] After all, you certainly do read a lot of business books in b-school.

[5] For some business authors, chapter 1 of book N is an excellent summary of book N-1 (e.g., Moore, Christensen)

[6] Which tend to argue, get this one thing right and the rest takes care of itself (e.g., Storybranding, Grit, Purple Cow). This is a weakness of many pop marketing books.

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