The best books for upsetting your orientation

Chet Richards Author Of Certain to Win
By Chet Richards

Who am I?

I never had a real career. Closest I came was the Air Force Reserve for 27 years. Along the way, I built fighter-vs-fighter computer models for the Defense Department, served as an advisor to a Saudi Air Force prince, led a team that designed a replacement for the Air Force’s A-10 tankbuster (which was never built, unfortunately), sold C-130 transport aircraft in Saudi Arabia, taught statistics in business school, became a yoga instructor, and did PR work in Atlanta. Starting in 1975, I collaborated a little with a retired Air Force colonel, John Boyd, creator of the infamous “OODA loop.” I was never a published author in the US, although I am in India, Portugal, and Japan. 


I wrote...

Certain to Win

By Chet Richards,

Book cover of Certain to Win

What is my book about?

War is nothing like business. Countries go to war to compel opponents to do things they’d rather not: Change governments, cede territory, etc. Businesses, on the other hand, try to attract customers to their products and services. In his monumental study of warfare, Patterns of Conflict, Boyd described a strategy that had been remarkably successful: Use an advantage in the tempo of decisions and operations to seize the initiative and exploit it before the opponent could figure out what had happened. He also described a set of cultural attributes that enabled the most successful militaries to do this.

I noticed that a number of companies highlighted by Tom Peters in Thriving on Chaos used similar principles. Many conversations later – including between Peters, Boyd, and me  I had the concept for this book. 

The books I picked & why

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Essentials of Statistics for Business & Economics

By David R. Anderson, Dennis J. Sweeney, Thomas A. Williams, Jeffrey D. Camm, James J. Cochran

Book cover of Essentials of Statistics for Business & Economics

Why this book?

Here’s some bad news for non-STEM people: You’re going to have to learn a little about statistics. Otherwise, at some point, you going to get, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “fooled by randomness.” An example: Suppose you’ve been a sales manager for a long time but recently you failed to close a string of prospects. How unusual is this? It could be just a run of bad luck, or is it time to make some significant personnel moves? Basic knowledge of statistics can help. If your math is rusty, you might want to take a stat course for non-math majors. Otherwise, here’s a book that I used with my MBA students that features scenarios from businesses.  


Light in August

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of Light in August

Why this book?

I have colleagues in the STEM fields, on the other hand, who brag about not having read fiction since sophomore lit. This is a mistake. Faulkner observed that the only worthy subject for the poet and novelist is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” They must portray “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Novels, then, can help you develop an intuitive feel for empathy and so for human behavior. Where the heart leads, after all, the mind will follow. Much of this comes, of course, from personal experience, but great novels can add depth to our inventory of experience and so produce a deeper understanding of the “heart.” Faulkner has a reputation for being difficult. Ignore it. Here’s a master storyteller at the top of his game. Just pick it up and read it. 


Tao Te Ching

By Lao Tzu, Gia-fu Geng (translator), Jane English (translator), Toinette Lippe (translator)

Book cover of Tao Te Ching

Why this book?

There’s a class of books sometimes called “ancient texts” or “accumulated wisdom.” The idea is that they represent distilled knowledge that was passed down orally for hundreds or thousands of years before the invention of writing froze them in their present forms. To represent this collection, I’ve chosen the Tao Te Ching. It’s short — 81 brief chapters — and talks about things that concern us today, like how to handle anxiety and how to lead groups of people. But a word of caution: These texts will repay serious study and contemplation, but don’t take them too seriously. For one thing, compare two translations and you’ll wonder if they’re working from the same ancient manuscript. And for another, embrace the notion that once you think “this is it,” then it isn’t it (another ancient idea to ponder). 


Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology

By Frederic Martini, Judi Nath, Edwin Bartholomew

Book cover of Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology

Why this book?

Your parents always told you to “Sit up straight and don’t slouch when you walk.” Why is this good advice? What are all those bumps along your back and what does it mean if they start to hurt? What is “aerobic exercise” and is it better for you than weight lifting? How do cuts heal, and how does the body fight infections (and pandemics)? What does our brain do while we’re asleep? An anatomy & physiology text can provide the answers to those and thousands of other questions about something we inhabit 24 hours of every day. Here’s one I used in my yoga training. Textbooks tend to be expensive, however, so you may want to look around — there’s even a “For Dummies” book on A&P, which looks pretty good, especially at one-tenth the price of a textbook. 


Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

By Robert Coram,

Book cover of Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Why this book?

In both war and business, size and technology are pieces of a winning strategy, but not the biggest factors. Otherwise, the Fortune 500 would never turn over! To figure out what’s missing, Boyd added insights from thermodynamics, quantum physics, physiology, and mathematics to Sun Tzu’s philosophy of winning without fighting, or, if that proves impossible, to win before fighting. The result was a revolution in the design of fighter aircraft and a doctrine of warfare that has been adopted by militaries from the US Marine Corps to the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Coram was a reporter and novelist before turning to biography, and his story of Boyd and his life, both personal and professional, is a page-turner.


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