Great Pre-MBA Books

When a friend says they are getting ready for business school there are a couple of books I typically suggest they read. Here’s the problem: the so-called classics (example: Good to Great) tend to be stale and usually you can just find executive summaries of them in about three Google searches. What the pre-MBA crowd needs is a list of books that will get them excited instead of putting them to sleep.

You need awesome books, you deserve awesome books, and gosh darn it, they’re out there.

So how would we define “exciting, awesome pre-MBA books”?

  • They should prime you for absorbing information. They should give you a base of knowledge that helps your “ah ha!” lightbulb click on when you are in class. They should be a bit challenging for the sake of forcing you to pay attention and chew on the concepts, that way you’ll really digest it.
  • They should spark amazing conversations with your classmates. This is definitely one of the best parts of getting an MBA. If you can make the best part even better then, well, that’s a nice benefit.
  • They should be fun to read. When you enjoy what you’re reading you tend to move through the material faster and retain the information far better. If you’re the type that can read a textbook in a single night then good for you, but most of us still need a little sugar with our medicine.
  • They should be free of buzzwords. Because buzzwords are the devil, and going into b-school you’re already going to have a hard time avoiding them, no need to handicap yourself.

Alright, let’s get to it.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

My wife pretended not to hear me when I told her “this book is like a Bruckheimer flick, only finance!” but deep down I know she really did hear me. I stand by my statement: it reads well, it’s funny, and you’ll have a far better understanding of how and why the economy detonated in 2008.

Example of the awesomeness contained within: Here’s some of the writing and the kind of forehead-smacking revelations this book is full of.

“Credit quality always gets better in March and April, and the reason it always gets better in March and April is that people get their tax refunds. You would think people in the securitization world would know this. And they sort of did. But they let the credit spreads tighten. We just thought that was moronic. What are you, fucking stupid?”

And yes, The Big Short is now a movie with Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling.

The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver

Great lead-in for whatever quantitative analysis class you end up taking, as Silver goes through the principles and limits of modeling. There are some great examples in here, to include meteorology, chess, and politics (I realize those all sound awful and boring, but trust me). It’s also a good introduction to Bayes’ Theorem, so that’s nice too.

Example of the awesomeness contained within: When chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Deep Blue in 1996 he intentionally made a nonsense move to throw off the computer’s model of typical chess strategy (it worked, the game resulted in a draw).

The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb

Piggybacking on The Signal and The Noise, this one will give you a completely unique lens for vetting ideas and thinking about how our world works. Being able to make concepts like silent evidence and the ludic fallacy part of your everyday thinking will do wonders. This is one you will be scribbling notes in and returning to frequently. Also, the term “black swan” has become pretty common at this point, so you will truly understand what‘s behind it.

Example of the awesomeness contained within: The narrative fallacy, the idea that after a surprising event occurs we search for what caused it and then delude ourselves into believing that we can then see the next big surprise coming (which, by its very nature of being a surprise, you won’t). History books describe Hitler’s ascent into power as an obvious evolution, but from reviewing European newspapers from the 1930’s (which document Hitler’s ascent into power as it unfolded) it is clear that no one anticipated what was coming. Same idea with 9/11 and Al-Qaeda in the mid/late 90's.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Like it or not, Apple and Jobs will come up in nearly every class you take in business school. The book goes into a lot of the business and product development decisions at both Apple and Pixar, and while everyone else will probably be referencing the Aaron Sorkin movie or some listicle, you will be able to bring something of value to the conversation. Also, the book is written pretty simply so you can turn on your speed reading mode and rip through it.

Example of the awesomeness contained within: Jobs’s strategy behind taking Pixar public prior to the release of Toy Story - he wanted Pixar to have plenty of cash on hand going into negotiations with Disney over a multi-picture deal. If Michael Eisner pushed too hard Pixar could threaten to walk away and fully bankroll their own films.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Innovation and entrepreneurship are all the rage at business schools right now (all the cool kids are doing it!). When it comes to talking/thinking about startups and innovation having this book in your head is like turning the cheat codes turned on.

Example of the awesomeness contained within: There’s a quick segment about the difference between creating value and capturing value where the US airline industry is contrasted with Google. In 2012 Google made $50 billion in revenue and kept 21% as profits, and the entire US airline industry brought in $160 billion in revenues, but due to their awful margins (.2%, or 83 cents profit on a $400 round trip… ouch) Google is worth three times more than all of the US airlines combined.

And if you liked this, be sure to check out Paul Graham’s essays. Hell, read them all and treat it like a book of its own.

Actually, Graham’s stuff is too good to leave out from this list, so let’s throw him in too:

(Almost) all of Paul Graham’s essays

Paul Graham is a co-founder of Y Combinator, the prestigious startup accelerator that has produced Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit, just to name a few. He’s been posting essays for nearly 20 years now, and they tend to be fantastic. To help you out, the ones I’d start with are Taste for Makers, What You Can’t Say, Keep Your Identity Small, and How to Make Wealth. You’ll notice these are far less about startups or technology than they are about how to think in general.

Example of the awesomeness contained within: here’s a great paragraph from What You Can’t Say.

Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable. Natural selection, for example. It’s so simple. Why didn’t anyone think of it before? Well, that is all too obvious. Darwin himself was careful to tiptoe around the implications of his theory. He wanted to spend his time thinking about biology, not arguing with people who accused him of being an atheist.

Ok, that’s all I’ve got. If you want to chat let’s talk on Twitter.

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