These are the most influential books in Silicon Valley

These are the most influential books in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley attracts a colorful mix of characters, from physics PhDs to chess champions, from product designers to master advertisers. A recent study tried to quantify what the typical successful founder looks like, and it’s, surprisingly, a diverse 47-year-old without a computer science background — not the expected almost teenage and hoodied New England engineer.

This is hardly surprising as top founders and investors need to have a close relationship to reality. They need to think beyond the current cultural paradigm to what’s outside, what’s next and what’s timelessly true. To do that, the greats cultivate systems and lateral thinking and reading extensively and broadly supports that.

Stereotypes aside, the titans of technology do usually have one thing in common — they love to read.

I’ve seen a few books popping up again and again in interviews, on personal blogs, in Medium posts and as recommendations on Twitter. These books always seem to reveal hidden patterns of thinking and deep truths about human nature.

Most of the books in this list are nonfiction — and biographies dominate the pack by a mile. And if our famous founders and investors read fiction, then it’s almost invariably the science kind.

Recommended by:

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street fame 
Patrick Collison, founder of Stripe 
And Warren Buffett

Charlie Munger is one of the greatest business minds of our time. He is mainly known for being Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the largest financial services company by revenue in the world, and as Warren Buffett’s right-hand man. He is so much more than that.

Munger is a polymath and an independent spirit. Through his studies in economics, history, biology, physics, and psychology, he’s narrowed in on what he calls beneficial mental models. These mental frameworks are often counterintuitive but always powerful lenses to look at the world. They have allowed Munger to understand complex situations and disentangle reality — while becoming a billionaire in the process.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack is a treasure trove of Munger’s writing, speeches, and quotes and shines a light on a lifetime full of cutting through the noise to get to the essence.

Recommended by:

Fabrice Grinda
Noah Kagan
, founder of AppSumo
Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList

Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman” is an autobiographical series of stories and anecdotes from the life of the Nobel prize winning physicist.

Richard Feynman was, similar to Charlie Munger, a renegade thinker. Not only that, he was a renegade character.

The running theme of his life was that he had no time for formality. He looked at life with piercing lucidity. He also deeply hated pretension, rituals and most of the blindly accepted norms of his time. Everything had to have a deep, scientific reason behind it, or Feynman wouldn’t buy it. From the way people drink tea to the naming of birds, Feynman opted out of established wisdom. He was also a lover of life — a notorious womanizer, a safecracker, he played the bongos, painted, and also contributed quite a lot to the science of biology.

His life is an endlessly fascinating example of how defying convention and thinking laterally can open up the world.

Recommended by:

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator 
Elon Musk

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, continues the list of Silicon Valley’s favorite polymaths. He didn’t just lay the foundation of a revolutionary state, he was also a prodigious scientist and inventor of a wide list of useful things like the lightning rod, swim fins, bifocals, the long arm the glass armonica, a library chair, the Franklin stove and sorely, but usefully — the catheter.

To be able to juggle all these world-changing activities, Franklin set up his own productivity system and describes it in detail, making his autobiography probably one of the first self-help books ever written.

Elon Musk’s take on the book: “Franklin was pretty awesome.”

Recommended by:

Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList

Evolution sounds like some sort of newt creature slowly crawled out of a pond, put on slacks and went to work on the 7:30 train. It’s an idea that’s been consigned to explaining how the occurrence of tiny mutations has had the power to shape life on earth and nothing more. 
Matt Ridley begs to differ.

Through skillful analogy and a host of examples from every field imaginable, Ridley illustrates how the powers of evolution are at work in every system involving change and iteration. From the rules we’ve devised for human interaction to the intricacies of markets, evolution is at play. The book shows how incredibly complex systems are built from the bottom up, iteration by iteration, interaction by interaction, without the need for a designer. Ridley rebels against what he sees as an acceptance of a kind of creationism, of top-down thinking, this time not religious, but just as scientifically bankrupt.

AngelList founder and “philosophical influencer” Naval Ravikant is a huge Ridley fan “4 of my 20 favorite books are written by Matt Ridley.”

Recommended by:

Fabrice Grinda
Matt Mullenweg
, CEO of Automatic, Father of WordPress

The Black Swan” is one of the most influential books on probability of our age. The main idea is that every aspect of our lives, from our history to technology to the appearance of life itself is heavily influenced by ‘Black Swan’ events. What is a Black Swan event in probability? It is s very low incidence but high impact event, like a devastating meteor (for the dinosaurs) or a devastating financial crash (for the humans).

The best analogy to describe this phenomenon in the book is the “Turkey fallacy”. If a turkey thinks probabilistically about its survival chances close to Thanksgiving and looks at historical data, it will observe that in 100% of the days leading up to Thanksgiving it has not died once, and so the probability is outstanding that he’ll be alright on Thanksgiving. The “unknown unknowns”, the information that remains hidden from the bird, have made sure that the Turkey becomes the victim of a tragic Black Swan event. Normal probabilistic thinking breaks down around these high-impact, low-frequency events.

Recommended by:

Naval Ravikant Bill Gates

Mark Zuckerberg

This is a history of everything, at least in how it relates to human beings — our success, our cultures, and our civilizations. Few other books are so ambitious in their scope and even fewer succeed to make a case as compelling as Sapiens by Yuval Harari.

One of the main arguments of the book is that the killer app in the survival and flourishing of homo sapiens was the discovery of stories. They allowed us to weave bonds of cooperation between disparate tribes, trade, go to war and construct elaborate religious and mythological connections between people. Harari has a series of controversial takes on historical developments, peppered with a bit of romanticism for hunter-gatherer days, but, somehow, every tangent he explores is a gem of lateral thinking and boundless intellectual creativity.

Recommended by:

Kevin Rose, founder of Digg
Ryan Holiday, ex. CMO American Apparel, author
Naval Ravikant

This book is the diary of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and contains his personal thoughts on living a good life. It was never intended to be published, but somehow became one of the most important reference works of Stoic thought. Constantly looking to optimize, the tech giants in the Valley have seized Stoicism, an ancient philosophical practice, which some are calling “an operating system for your mind”.

Marcus Aurelius chronicles a life of discipline, of self-control, of taming one’s desires and of avoiding the traps of luxury and the ego. A life well lived for the Stoics is a life where the cultivation of virtues is more important than the pursuit of happiness or pleasure. Happiness for the Stoics was superseded by the idea of eudaimonia, of being in order with the world and at peace as the result of right action. Happiness, therefore, is merely a coincidence of a life well lived — not the goal.

Recommended by:
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn
Naval Ravikant

Now a classic of the cyberpunk genre, “Snow Crash” is set in a part utopian, part dystopian future, depending on how much you like anarcho-capitalism. Microstates ruled by corporations are the new form of government and a computer virus is literally killing programmers. Paced like a comic book, this light-hearted sci-fi story is a love it or completely-miss-the-point-of-it kind of novel.

This book is part of Silicon Valley lore, as it was an obsession of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman when it came out in 1992, according to his friend and PayPal founder Peter Thiel. The internet wasn’t anything close to what has become and social media was non-existent, but the book planted the seed of a sprawling social network in Hoffman’s mind. An idea that Hoffman turned into SocialNet in 1999, a flop, but the company set the stage for his 2002 hit — LinkedIn.

Recommended by:

Mark Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape

Annie Duke is an ex-poker champion turned probability populariser. “Thinking in bets” is the culmination of her knowledge in making decisions under uncertainty, and she translates this wisdom from the world of high stakes poker into the world of investing.

Mark Andreessen describes this one as a “compact guide to probabilistic domains like poker, or venture capital. Recommend for people operating in the real world.”

Recommended by:

Mark Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape
Luis Von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo
Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automatic, Father of WordPress

Written by PayPal co-founder, venture capitalist and straight talker Peter Thiel, this book does not pull any punches. It is the synthesis of decades of experience and astronomical success in Silicon Valley. The book condenses what Thiel has learned about what it takes to build your own unicorn.

Thiel argues that not only is a monopoly a good thing, but it is also the right target for a company desiring to revolutionize an industry. The rest of the book is populated with Thiel’s unique and often controversial ideas about what it takes to disrupt a market. Profoundly libertarian, Thiel throws shade at hipsters and “unaligned lab drones” alike, so if you’re looking for a kumbaya guide to building a business, look elsewhere. Thiel is that steely-eyed guy aggressively quoting Nietzsche at a party, not Steve Wozniak.

What are some of your favorite, course-altering & life-changing books?

Originally published at fundsquire.co.uk on March 11, 2019.

These are the most influential books in Silicon Valley

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