News & Opinion

Inside the Longlist: Big Ideas & New Perspectives

Blyth Meier

January 07, 2019


Our marketing director Blyth Meier takes readers inside 2018's best books in the Big Ideas & New Perspectives category.

Now in our 12th year, the 800-CEO-READ Business Book Awards celebrate the year’s books that help create more humane, diverse, modern, and effective businesses, stronger communities, and—something we all desperately want—a better world. How we, as a society, go about creating that better world is, of course, up for healthy debate. The eight categories our awards spans look at the many ways to strive toward ‘better’: from being a more vulnerable leader and a more inclusive manager to making marketing efforts more authentic. One of the debates we have been tracking in the genre is two sides of the same ‘better’ coin; does the world become better by changing my own personal, everyday actions that will then (hopefully) ripple out into the world or do we see bigger results by working towards systemic change in our organizations and institutions? Should people ‘lean in’ or should countries? The answer of course, is both. We need to push at these entrenched problems from both ends if we want to see real progress. It is true that some problems call for more from one side than of the other, but abandoning either would be irresponsible and defeatist.

I had the pleasure of serving as the juror for both the Personal Development & Human Behavior and the Big Ideas & New Perspectives categories this year, and I started to call the latter “Systemic Development” in my head. I see the five books here as an essential pairing to the five in the other category. I hope you enjoy this big-picture look at our current world, our struggles, and the various approaches to better.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, Spiegel & Grau

If your New Year’s resolution was to delete your social media accounts (or at the very least take a step back from the banks of the raging river that is your social news feed), but you are still yearning to grapple with the disorientation of our current age, this book is for you. After his epic deep dives into the past and future of our species, Yuval Harari turns his researcher’s gaze squarely at our current place in history, breaking down the major issues facing our world and dominating partisan debate with clear-headed, objective methodology for analyzing, understanding, and deciding our responses. In a time of ever-widening partisan divide, Harari’s book is essential reading for our elected leaders and engaged citizens alike.

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey, Crown

The last few years have seen a flood of books related to the increasing automation of the workplace, and we’re just beginning to calculate the big and small societal reverberations from this machine learning revolution. Very soon, we may live in a world with not enough jobs for people. How could we, as a society, deal with a staggering four-fifths of our adult workforce being permanently unemployed? Especially in this country—where people are defined by our professions, and being industrious is nearly a national religion—what does that fall-out look like? An old idea that’s getting new life from both the left and the right is just giving people money, a.k.a. universal basic income. In light of experiments being run across the world (Canada, Kenya, India, Finland, Scotland) and closer to home (Alaska, California, and Hawaii), Lowrey’s book wonders if the only response to a radical shift in our employment opportunities is an equally radical restructuring of the social order. What would our world look like if the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was taken care of? Like many big ideas in politics, the largest hurdle here is not the budgetary math, but the limits of our imagination.

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change by Ellen Ruppel Shell, Currency

In the past, we have benefited from innovation both as consumers—in access to new goods and technologies that improved our quality of life—and as workers who got paid in an expanding number of jobs to make things. What happens when that breaks, as it has now—when innovation, in the form of automation and AI, not only doesn’t create new jobs but is actively destroying them? Give People Money offers one solution with universal basic income, but we don’t go to work just to make money. We go there to make meaning, to build an identity, to find our place in the world. Ellen Ruppel Shell does not equate good work, which has inherent value in the world, with a good job—which often doesn’t—and suggests we can all agree that “good work can be and often is precious beyond its market value.” Looking at what the future of “the job” may be, Ruppel Shell takes the traditional building blocks of the business book genre apart for investigation—from who creates jobs to what makes jobs meaningful—and offers a comprehensive examination of how we can keep people engaged and continue to make meaning through our work in a global, digitized economy in which the private sector no longer guarantees long-term employment, or even any jobs at all.

New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—And How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms, Doubleday

Many of the books on our longlist—and especially in this category—grapple with the myriad ways our world is shifting in this young century we inhabit. Here, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms focus their energies on understanding the nature of power and how the internet-connected world has birthed a power structure that is decidedly new. This non-hierarchical, radically democratic form of power is enabled by the activity of the crowd, moving peer-to-peer regardless of position. The authors do not shy away from the complicated nature of this new power (which, should be noted, is not called ‘good power’), exploring why old power may actually produce better outcomes in some situations, and when to switch between the two or blend them rather than usurping old power altogether. Ultimately, the book is a reflection of the shifting norms of the power of collective voices in our society: “Indeed, what is a new expectation: an inalienable right to participate.” That expectation, in all its messiness and complicated promise, is the root of democracy.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, Knopf

As a former McKinsey analyst, Aspen Institute Fellow, and TED Talk speaker, Anand Giridharadas uses his insider status in that rarified world to draw back the curtain on the “entrepreneurship-as-humanitarianism” approach to changing the world. During this time of unprecedented inequality, he challenges the viewpoint that one can address societal ills while preserving the system that brought them about. If philanthropists really want to address poverty, why do the businesses that made their foundations’ fortunes fight against workers rights? If CEOs advocate for stable democracies overseas, why do they avoid the taxes that would strengthen our government at home? If entrepreneurs bill themselves as the ultimate “changemakers” in our society, why do they claim that fundamental change in our public institutions is impossible? Laying bare the myths and failings of elites across the political spectrum, Winners Take All provides a clarion call to challenge the current power structures and re-engage in the habit of democracy.

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