We, like everyone, now read most of our news, research, opinions and ideas online—through articles, blogs, social media posts, and digital debates. But we find that reading a good old fashioned book (yes, even when it’s read on a tablet!) is when we truly become informed about a topic in a way that inspires our life and work. We’re avid readers, often bringing up recent books we’ve read as we talk through strategic challenges in our work and inevitably spending some of our meeting time swapping book ideas. As the year comes to a close, we wanted to share ten books we’ve read this year (though most were published before 2016) that have made a lasting impact on us—in how we view and perform our work, and how we live our lives. This list is for anyone who shares our passion for sustainability, food, agriculture and/or entrepreneurship, and is looking for some good books to curl up with this holiday season.
Here’s our list! 1-5 are Saloni’s, 6 we both read and loved, and 7-10 are Kathy’s.
- Let My People Go Surfing (Including 10 More Years Of Business Unusual) by Yvon Chouinard
- The Dirt Cure: Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child by Maya Shetreat-Klein
- The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Ranchers Are Tending the Soil to Reverse Global Warming by Kristen Ohlson
- Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough
- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
- The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz
- The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age by Reid Hoffman
- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
We’re always looking for book suggestions – what have you read lately that we should pick up!?
Let My People Go Surfing (Including 10 More Years Of Business Unusual)
By Yvon Chouinard
What is it about? This book was written by the founder of Patagonia and was originally published ten years ago as the philosophical manual for the company’s employees. Yvon Chouinard revised the newest edition this year, and I think it is more inspiring than ever for all businesses—but in particular, those committed to sustainability, social and environmental change, and activism. Naomi Klein wrote a poignant forward to this new release, describing the book as “The story of an attempt to do more than change a single corporation—it is an attempt to challenge the culture of consumption that is at the heart of the global ecological crisis.” Chouinard talks about a number of his philosophies, including (1) his obsession with quality over cost minimization (a strategy that ultimately led to Patagonia’s success), (2) his company’s commitment to operating with as little harm as possible on the planet—sourcing organic cotton, focusing on durability and repair of goods rather than encouraging people to constantly upgrade, and (3) even going so far as to tell people NOT to buy a new Patagonia jacket if an existing or used article of clothing could do the trick. The last section of his book is about Patagonia Provisions, Chouinard’s newest venture, focused on changing the way we produce, source and consume food.
Why did we love it? We see businesses as key drivers of change. This book is a bit of a kick in the pants for anyone who believes this as well. Most of what happens to our nation’s food, soil, lands, and environment is out of our individual control. But Chouinard reminds us that much is within our power as citizens, shoppers, community members, and business owners—if we push hard enough and think innovatively enough. If you own a business with a strong commitment to health, sustainability, and the environment—don’t cut corners! Know your core values and what makes you exceptional, and don’t compromise on these values just to drive a sale. He would argue that doing this is great karma and great business.
I highlighted so many passages in this book that I lost count—here are just three of them.
“Who are businesses really responsible to? Their customers? Shareholders? Employees? We would argue that it’s none of the above. Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business.”
“The Zen master would say if you want to change government, you have to aim at changing corporations, and if you want to change corporations, you first have to change the consumers. Whoa, wait a minute! The consumer? That’s me. You mean I’m the one who has to change? The original definition of consumer is ‘one who destroys, or expends by use; devours, spends wastefully.’ It would take seven Earths for the rest of the world to consume at the same rate we Americans do. Ninety percent of what we buy in a mall ends up in the dump within sixty to ninety days. It’s no wonder we are no longer called citizens but consumers.”
“Many people think that small-scale farming can’t compete with large agribusiness. If you believe that, you may as well believe that no small business of any kind can compete with large corporations. It’s true you can’t compete at their game and by their rules.”
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The Dirt Cure: Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child
By Maya Shetreat-Klein
What is it about? Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD is an integrative pediatric neurologist whose book explores how recent changes in the production of foods are harming kids’ gut microbiomes, immune systems, and brains, and contributing to disease. Her philosophy recognizes the importance of healthy soil, fresh and natural foods, and the healing power of nature, and she has used it to help chronically ill patients worldwide.
Why did we love it? I was a bit tired of hearing about leaky guts by the time someone recommended this book to me. But a few chapters in, I was converted. For many, the book is primarily a nutritional “how to” guide for parents on feeding their families. For me, it was more a manifesto on how the gradual changes in our nation’s approach to food production have profoundly shifted what is considered “normal” when it comes to health and our immune systems. It was a powerful reminder of how interconnected and complex everything is—in our bodies and in the environment—and that we should all cast doubt when science tries to over simplify something as nuanced as health. For example, it is easy to believe the version of “science” that suggests a conventional carrot has the same exact nutritional value as a carrot grown in rich, fertile soil that is untreated by chemicals. But Dr. Shetreat-Klein argued, based on in-depth research, that a carrot’s nutritional value cannot be measured by a handful of specific metrics alone (calories, Vitamin A, fiber). The macro and micronutrients, many of which cannot be displayed on a nutritional label, of that carrot are all part of how healthful it is, and all of this is driven by the soil, sunlight, water, and countless other factors that went into growing it. Similarly, in our bodies, traditional medicine may dictate that you see specific specialists when different things are wrong, the author demonstrates how the body is a single, dynamic, interrelated entity. I put the book down reinvigorated by the work of the good food movement and doubly committed to feeding myself and my family in ways that respect our bodies, the land and the sustainable farmers that grow our food.
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The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Ranchers Are Tending the Soil to Reverse Global Warming
By Kristen Ohlson
What is it about? This book is about the complex, beautiful, intrinsic thing that is our soil. It is not just what we walk on, or what holds plants upright. It is teeming with fungi, bacteria, etc., etc., etc. It is also essential to managing carbon levels in the planet. Ohlson argues that thousands of years of poor, uninformed agricultural practices have leaked 80 percent of carbon from the world’s soils, suggesting that the alarming carbon levels in the atmosphere today are as much due to soil depletion as methane and carbon emissions. She makes a strong and well researched case for “our great green hope”—investing in our soil to absorb that carbon and ultimately save our planet.
Why did we love it? One review said it very well: “At last, soil has been included in the conversation about food. And you don’t need a degree in soil sciences to see how the web of life below the surface that infuses soil—is soil—is strongly affected by the various webs of life that occur aboveground, for better and worse.” –Deborah Madison. For me, the reverse was just as true—at last, soil and agriculture have been included in the conversation about climate change. Soil is not as sexy as the next new ecological technological revolution; but this book makes a convincing case that it is where we should invest our resources. It also reminded us that while it has become core to the new, progressive food movement to vilify modern, industrial agricultural and the pesticides, fertilizers and GMO plants that have come along with it, humans have been destroying the soil from the very beginning of agriculture. Once fertile lands became inhabitable deserts due to farming practices long before the birth of modern agribusiness. But Ohlson describes inspiring stories that are demonstrating new ways of doing business—from the U.S. to Africa to South America—resulting in what is ultimately a hopeful book.
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Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
By William McDonough
What is it about? We hear it all the time—“Reduce, reuse, recycle.” And this is a well-intentioned phrase—minimize your waste! This book espouses a different mentality altogether: moving from a “cradle to grave” manufacturing model that dates to the Industrial Revolution and casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, to a “cradle to cradle” model.
The authors, an architect and a chemist, seek to eliminate the concept of waste altogether, while preserving commerce and allowing for human nature. So instead of paper bags over plastic bags, they might advocate for edible bags! Much of the philosophies and ideas put forth in the book about how we can rethink manufacturing draw from nature. As an example, a tree produces thousands of blossoms to create another tree, not in a way that is wasteful but in a way that produces food for animal consumption.
Why did we love it? Countless reasons, but for me two stood out. The first was that it made me in awe of nature and the seamlessness and efficiency of natural processes. Second was that it inspired me to challenge what has become very standard thinking about how things are made, used and discarded. “Business as usual” does not have to be the case, a point they made effectively in describing several compelling examples of corporations that are not just doing less harm—they’re actually doing good for the environment and making more money in the process.
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Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
By Ashlee Vance
What is it about? The author, Ashlee Vance, provides a deep and unprecedented view into Elon Musk’s life—his childhood, upbringing, ascent into entrepreneurship and his professional failures and successes. It is the most in-depth and personal account of Musk’s life to date, as Vance spent over fifty hours in conversation with Musk himself, and received input from almost three hundred people to paint a vivid portrait of one of our generation’s most provocative entrepreneurs.
Why did we love it? In many ways, Elon Musk’s life and companies (Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal) run counter to some of the concepts described in The Soil Will Save Us and Cradle to Cradle. But even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything Elon Musk has set out to do, I was swept up and inspired by him as a passionate visionary in what sometimes feels like a sea of entrepreneurs who have cashed out on technologies and websites that don’t add tremendous positive value to society. Musk has invested the majority of his own money (which he made as a founder of PayPal) into Tesla and SpaceX, two companies rooted in Musk’s deep concern about the future livability of this planet. Both began with rocky starts (and neither is out of the woods financially, or have yet changed the world as Musk intends for them to), but Musk’s unwavering perseverance and unwillingness to pivot is an inspiration.
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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By J.D. Vance
What is it about? J. D. Vance, a self-described “hillbilly” from Middletown, OH turned Marine and Yale Law School graduate tells the story of his family, his childhood, and how he became one of very few in his community to achieve such high levels of education and income.
Why did we love it? At a time when we couldn’t stop hearing about the “Rust Belt” and the “Echo Chambers” of coastal versus rural Americans, this was a much needed book. First, it was a reflection on the catastrophic loss of the American dream for so many in this country—a loss that many Americans are not aware of or sensitive to. Second, it was a stark reminder of how little people in the U.S. who come from different backgrounds and perspectives know and understand each other.
The work we do—building local food systems—is unique in that it often bring together incredibly diverse groups—rural and urban citizens, corporate professionals and farmers and policy makers, long standing and new farmers. We finished the book moved by J.D. Vance’s story, his descriptions of his family and community, and energized by the privilege we have in our work to straddle and bring together different U.S. cultures in a way that many of our friends do not.
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The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
By Dan Barber
What is it about? Dan Barber is the executive chef at Blue Hill, one of Manhattan’s first farm-to-table restaurants. The Third Plate is his vision for good food, a future that goes well beyond where the movement has taken us thus far. It is in part a mea culpa, a recognition that he and many farm-to-table chefs have cultivated an appetite for local food that is “often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” While this plate may be an improvement to the corn-fed-meat-centric plate of the conventional American diet, it is still crafted from a consumerist point of view that does not consider the “whole system of agriculture.” If the second plate reflects what a farmer believes he or she can successfully sell, the third plate reflects what our landscapes can sustainably provide: a diet that includes soil-nourishing small grains and non-prime cuts, among other things. Barber relates his ideas through stories, candidly from his own experiences, colorfully from producers around the world who are raising sustainable food in surprising ways, and constructed thematically around soil, land, sea and seed.
Why did we love it? Last weekend I helped out in the kitchen of a tiny restaurant that hosted our church Christmas party. It was a simple menu of ham, grits, a few other sides and plenty of pies, cakes and cookies. It wasn’t a particularly lavish menu, but I can still conjure the taste and texture of those grits—possibly the most memorable thing I’ve eaten all year. The owners mill their own grains, purchased from an organic farm in the region that grows varieties from non-GMO heirloom seeds. Nothing about this business has been easy. Before being introduced, the farm was about to stop planting heirloom wheat because there was no market for it. Before opening the restaurant the owners spent months learning how to mill artisanal grains and bake with fresh flour. And today their line of packaged products is slow to find consumers familiar with how to use and store freshly-processed whole grains. Yet their efforts are paying off. The restaurant is crop planning with the farmer to provide a stable market, and the amazing breads, rolls and biscuits they turn out underpin a menu that has earned them two James Beard Award nominations and a loyal clientele.
I left the restaurant grateful for these intrepid business owners, and for Dan Barber’s vision spread through a fun, approachable book that can make it easier for farms and restaurants like this to grow and serve food for the third plate. For those of us doing sustainable food systems work, it’s a complementary book to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and likely to be as influential.
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The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
By Ben Horowitz
What is it about? Ben Horowitz is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who made his fortune founding and selling a business to Hewlett-Packard. What happened between founding and selling is the story of a startup that rose and fell through the dot-com bubble like a Bactrian camel. It’s also the story of a leader who never gave up—of entrepreneurial grit on a massive scale. As Horowitz relates the details of his incredible career, he shares uncomfortable wisdom learned in the trenches of mistakes, failure and eventually success, but it’s not your typical entrepreneur success story. Chapter titles such as “Demoting a Loyal Friend,” “The Right Way to Lay People Off,” “Is It Okay to Hire People from Your Friend’s Company?” and “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going” may give you a sense for his uncommon advice.
Why did we love it? Yes, there are a lot of books about the tech boom and bust, and I’ve heard more than a few people say that Silicon Valley has little relevance to those of us building businesses in sustainable food and ag. My parents didn’t know anything about that when they gave me the book. They watched Horowitz on a talk show describing the tough issues he had faced as an entrepreneur, and found them so similar to situations I had shared about my life as a small business owner that they thought the book would be valuable to me. They were so right! I devoured this book, finding his blunt anecdotes and examples spot on even though my businesses are vastly different than his. Anyone leading a small business knows how hard and lonely it can be. This book is a helpful companion on that perilous journey through the Hard Things.
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The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age
By Reid Hoffman
What is it about? In the 15 years that Gallup has tracked employee engagement, there has been little change in the percentage of employees that report being “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work”—characteristics that are very closely tied to overall company performance. That percentage has remained at roughly 30%, which means that for a very long time the vast majority of employees have been not engaged—“They show up and kill time, doing the minimum required with little extra effort to go out of their way for customers”—and about 15% are actively disengaged—intentionally undermining their co-workers and companies (Gallup.com). Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and his co-authors, write about an arrangement for employer-employee relationships dubbed an “alliance.” Following a three-part framework, they purport alliances make room for greater honesty between employers and employees about the terms of engagement, and the result is greater employee engagement that drives company growth and financial success.
Why did we love it? I am fascinated by employment models. I have worked in three big companies, have had at least a dozen bosses and been a boss to dozens of staff. In my career I have experienced and caused others to experience the best and worst examples of management. In the worst cases it wasn’t entirely the fault of those directly involved. Problems often stemmed from a cultural mindset that created mismatched expectations, and hard feelings and bitterness crept in when those expectations were not met. Today I run a small business with a staffing model structured to allow flexibility to pursue a range of interests in work and life. It is an ever-evolving model—some aspects work well and some not so well—but that it works at all is because each team member values these same things and operates at the highest levels of engagement. So while The Alliance is (once again) about Silicon Valley where of course everything is different—and the book has been criticized for over-asserting the ability to create the level of trust needed for a true alliance—I found it helpful in shaking off an old way of thinking about employment and even more wholeheartedly embracing a staffing model in which we make promises to each other that we can keep.
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Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
By Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
What is it about? This is the first book from Ericsson, a psychologist whose research was popularized as the so-called “10,000 hour rule” in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In his own telling of the research, Ericsson goes a level deeper in explaining that it is not just putting in the time, but deliberate practice that trains mental representations which enable almost anyone to perform difficult tasks skillfully and seemingly effortlessly. He uses examples from music, sports, chess, and even a hot-dog-eating contest to illustrate the remarkable achievements made by “normal” human beings through focused training, stretch goals and the guidance of experts to help them get better.
Why did we love it? My book club took a much needed break from geopolitics and What’s Wrong with America to read something inspiring, which could have an immediate impact. We decided on this self-help book, and many of us were filled with optimism about the potential of these ideas to help us become better parents, teachers, managers, amateur athletes and just about anything we had dismissed as out of our reach because we lacked innate talent. I for one determined to become a better keyboardist (formerly known as typing), so that I could finish a blog post like this in 20 minutes instead of 2 hours. It also got me thinking about ways to give the team opportunities to practice as we work together. We liked this book so much that we next read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit which had a similar message, and his most recent book, Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, is in the queue. If it’s good I’ll tell you about it next year!
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