- “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins
- “Linchpin,” by Seth Godin
- “The Money Class,” by Suze Orman
- “The Total Money Makeover,” by Dave Ramsey
- “You Need a Budget,” by Jesse Mecham
Of these five books, three have helped to improve my professional life (Collins, Godin, and Ramsey), one is a fine technical book (Mecham), and the last seems bizarre and dangerous (Orman).
First, Seth Godin. I think the reason I loved Godin is that it was an easy, breezy, well written, and actionable (!) distillation of the ideas thatÂ I focused on in my dissertation: namely, creative performance is a function of your expertise in your domain, the extent to which you can co-opt gate-keepers in your field, and your eagerness to fail. Godin repeatedly emphasizes the second of the three attributes, and really emphasizes the social aspect of business. A hand-drawn chart sums up a number of his arguments very nicely:
While Godin focuses on co-opting gate-keepers, Collins focuses on building expertise. The way one becomes an expert is practice, of course, so the center of Collins’ writing is how to move into a position where you can keep practicing for an extended period. Using a case study approach, Collins emphasizes doing something that in which (a) you find excitement, (b) you make money, and (c) you can become the best in the world. While much of Collins’ tone is written at the level of CxO types, the personal applicability of the lessons is obvious.
As Collins lays out how to build expertise, and Godin seeks out the social aspect of co-opting gatekeepers, Ramsey keeps an eye clearly on failure. All learning comes from failure, and Ramsey’s advice is all about how to embrace this part of life. Essentially, Ramsey seeks to turn disasters into annoyances and annoyances into non-events. Specific advice, such as rapidly paying off debt, paying in cash, and such all have at their root a minimizing dependency on steady incoming cash-flow from an external source. My only criticism is that Ramsey is a much better radio host than he is an author — casually listening to his podcast is more enjoyable than reading him in book format.
All the advice of Godin, Collins, can perhaps be summed up in one sentence:
If you want it bad, you get it bad. If you want it like hell, you get it like hell.
Mecham, by contrast, offers an extended text-based infomercial for his budget software, YNAB. The software is fine, as is the book. Mechan’s advice is broadly compatible with Ramsey, and being conscious about spending decisions is hardly a bad thing. Still, while Godin, Collins, Ramsey together outline an exciting vision of how the economy actually works, Mechan’s writing is a less-useful and more-muddled version of the same (so more like my writing level!)
Godin, Collins, and Ramsey are great writers. Mechan is a fine one. Orman is dangerous. While reading Money Class, I kept thinking, “Who is this written for?” When I read that Orman had worked for Merrill Lynch and Prudential, it all made sense: Orman teaches a spreadsheet-based version of microeconomics which works fantastically if you average the results over 10,000 random people. This is dangerous because it ignores the variability in outcomes that can be critical during the course of building expertise, co-opting gatekeepers, and failing. Advise that Orman gives that prepares for failure (a large emergency fund) is immediately undone by assuming long-term and constant streams of income (prepare to pay off your mortgage… by retirement).
I don’t view life as dry or cold, so Orman’s disembodied advice really puzzles me. Failure should not be a disaster that requires a “new American dream”: it is (and has been since you were a toddler) an intrinsic part of learning.
In conclusion, Godin and Collins are must-reads. Ramsey is a must-listen. Mecham is perfectly fine. Orman is writing from a different, and colorless, planet.