“Shoe Dog,” Ray Dalio’s “Principles” and Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” stand out as a few favorites of top CEOs, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both agree that the best business book of all time was written 50 years ago.
When the two billionaires first met back in 1991, Gates asked Buffett for a book recommendation. Without missing a beat, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO answered: “Business Adventures” by John Brooks, then said he would send his copy to Gates.
“More than two decades after Warren lent it to me — and more than four decades after it was first published — ‘Business Adventures’ remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer,” Gates wrote in his blog back in 2014. (He cheekily added, “And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy.”)
“Business Adventures” is a compilation of 12 stories — previously published in The New Yorker, where Brooks was a staff writer — about some of the most important events in 20th Century corporate America. Each profile is a fascinating account of how a certain moment in history shaped an entire company.
But what truly makes the book so brilliant (apart from its wonderful prose, is that it can appeal to readers who aren’t even interested in the nature of finance. It offers a goldmine of lessons about people and life — our instinctive behaviors, what makes us excel and what troubles lie ahead if we give into our inherent savageries.
Here are most essential life lessons from “Business Adventures”:
1. When you become blind to change, you become obsolete.
In his book, Brooks writes about one of Ford Motor Company’s biggest failures: the 1958 Ford Edsel, which the automaker had intended to be the “new and ultimate” car for middle-class Americans. Brooks notes that Ford wanted to make a car that fit the needs of the American public, so it polled the population to see what they wanted most.
Ford was dissatisfied with the poll results and ended up going its own way. Eager to create hype, it began marketing the car one year before it was even completed. And on launch day, the model was delivered with oil leaks and trunks that wouldn’t open. It was also mocked as being too expensive and using up too much gas.
When you stop paying attention to the evolving changes of society and human needs, you fall behind and become vulnerable to competitors.
2. Failure isn’t a bad thing — accept it, learn from it, and move on from it.
The big Edsel flop led to a $350 million loss. And yet, Ford’s executives took zero responsibility for their failures. In fact, they claimed to have done everything right.
While writing the story, Brooks said a marketing manager told him it was the customers who were at fault. “What they’d been buying for several years encouraged the industry to build exactly this kind of car,” the representative said. “We gave it to them, and they wouldn’t take it. Well, they shouldn’t have acted like that. And now the public wants these little beetles. I don’t get it!”
People often think, If I fail, I will lose something very important — like getting into a good college, working at (or starting) a great company, getting a promotion, making lots of money and so on. But learning from our mistakes is one of the greatest tools for learning; it gives us information on what we need to do differently to succeed in life.
3. Never underestimate the importance of company culture and values.
This is a powerful lesson for anyone — whether you’re a founder, manager, employee or job seeker.
Brooks describes Xerox founder Joseph C. Wilson as being ahead of his time in the ’60s because of how he prioritized building a compassionate work culture. He made it his duty to donate millions of dollars to charities and universities. He implemented progressive hiring policies during the civil rights movement.
“To set high goals, to have almost unattainable aspirations, to imbue people with the belief that they can be achieved…these are as important as the balance sheet, perhaps more so,” Wilson said once according to Brooks.
Today, more than ever, employees value unity and purpose in a company — and they’re not afraid to quit or reject a job offer from a company with a bad reputation. Having good company culture will likely lead to higher productivity and motivation, fewer employee health issues and less turnover.
Keep this in mind as well if you’re a job seeker. Joining a company with poor culture won’t keep you happy in the long run.
Millennials weren’t born when Brooks’ classic first hit shelves in 1969. (Heck, their parents were barely out of grade school.) But every young and driven person should read “Business Adventures” if they want to deepen their expertise, excel in their ever-evolving careers and thrive in life.
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