Three Books I Wish I Read Before Getting an MBA

Community & BATNA, People & Action, Relationships & Entrepreneurship

This is a piece about what I wish I had known about people, business and school before I got an MBA. This not a piece about whether to get an MBA. There are plenty of those to read, and I think Ryan Peterson, founder of Flexport, says it best here (jump to 12:54):

Community & BATNA

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Hirschman, Albert O. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Harvard Univ. Press, 2007.) is an investigation of how individuals within communities can express their dissatisfaction. It is also, implicitly a study of rebellion and suppression. I mean rebellion in the broadest sense of the word, not only speaking of revolution, but more benign and common rebellions like walking out of class or a movie theater.

In the book, Hirschman discusses commercial transactions, consumer markets and employment relations. These topics are clearly relevant to the study of business. He does not explicitly discuss startups, but read through this lens, it is clear that a startup is an exit of sorts. It is also a fantastic book on negotiating (BATNA stands for best alternative to the negotiated offer) and a great exercise in thinking how far people will go or what tactics one can use to induce greater affection. Definitely worth a read for anybody about to enter the cult of business school, and great preparation for the world beyond the graduation ceremony.

People & Action

Interaction Ritual (Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual. Allen Lane, 1998.) is a much more personal book than Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, but no less incisive. A deep study in behavior between people, this book, unlike Hirschman’s is a series of essay. On Facework, Alienation from Interaction and Where the Action Is are unparalleled guides to how humans present, how social games are played, and why gamesmanship and adventure are so thrilling.

Facework, an incredibly important topic to understand implicitly, is difficult and sometimes counterproductive to practice explicitly. As a tool for analysis and reflection, it is immensely helpful for dissecting motivations, behaviors and desires. The level of facework performed by most MBA students is performed at such a high level, it would be laughable or out of place in many other environments, but among such experts it is almost an art. Like a professional ballroom dancer with the right partner, it can be dazzling to watch, but similarly, an expert at ballroom trying to do hip hop or contemporary, would be a spectacular failure.

Alienation is also an important concept that follows nicely from facework. The ideas outlined in this essay are key to social group formation, and “playing the game.” Somebody with social grace would be said to make people feel comfortable and accepted with the particular facework they present. Some of my best classmates were master at avoiding and deploying subtle alienation to great effect, shaping and steering social groups. Better to understand how this is ship is steered than to be stuck in the galley rowing.

Finally, the concept of action, a term I had only known from high school poker, is terrific. Goffman, a former card sharp, delves to the bottom of the appetite for risk. Why do some people seek risk taking? How do those engaged in safe behavior attempt to pain their role as heroic action seekers? What is the purpose and point of action? This was my favorite essay of the book and it is hard to do it justice, so I’ll just say it is a must read.

Relationships & Entrepreneurship

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Ferrante, Elena, and Ann Goldstein. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Book Three: Middle Time. Europa Editions, 2015) is one of the four Neopolitan Novels, and the only fiction I have included. It is a multifaceted series that could be recommended for any number of lists, but I have included book three here because it gets at the stage of life that many in business school will find themselves. On the threshold, between early career and middle-managment. Late twenties or early thirties are, a period of family formation, picking a career path and allowing yourself to let go of the nearly unlimited possibilities of youth.

It also plumbs the depths of friendship and what it means to have a relationship that creates many conflicting emotions: inspiration, envy, empathy, fear, self righteousness, this book has it all. In business school, you will meet a lot of people, who at first blush, appear very similar (prestigious undergrad, consulting/banking background, aspiring careerists) on the surface, but in getting to know people you find their nuances. This book is a fantastic lesson in interiority, and humbling to read.

Honorable mention

Zero to One (Thiel, Peter. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Virgin Books, 2014.) is a business classic at this point. While I intentionally didn’t pick management or business books for the other three picks, I couldn’t avoid suggesting this one. It’s the only business book worth reading, because it isn’t very much of a business book.