Entrepreneurs use their surroundings to inform their businesses, and often books can be the biggest source of inspiration. It’s important to look for ideas beyond the obvious business books like, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Lean In, or The 10X Rule.
Sometimes the most influential books are works of fiction – the titles you read as a child or in your undergrad literature classes.
Novels don’t overtly teach us business lessons or the best way to scale a business; instead, what they teach are life lessons that, when applied to starting and growing a business, can lead to success. Here are the best business lessons that my favorite books have taught.
1. Mutual respect is key.
Most American children who attended middle and high school after 1960 read “To Kill a Mockingbird” – and even more probably read it several times. The novel is a classic example of intolerance, prejudice, and coexistence of good and evil as told from a child’s perspective. The main character, Scout, is aware of the evils of the world like racism and classism, but doesn’t quite understand why they exist. Throughout the story, Scout chastises bullies and even admonishes grown-up racists without even knowing it.
Take away: We all should learn from Scout. An honest approach to employee relations where respect is paramount, and bullying is unacceptable.
2. Don’t underestimate the importance of community.
Heralded as John Steinbeck’s greatest novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” is the tale of Tom Joad and his family’s journey from their farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. “The Grapes of Wrath” deals with moral relativism, inhumanity to man, and holding on to dignity in the face of adversity. But the most important lesson for business owners is the importance of community. The Joad’s first community was their family, but without the help and kinship of their neighbors and friends… the family would not have survived.
Take away: Find your community and give and accept help when it’s needed.
3. The importance of applied knowledge.
One of the most famous Arthurian fantasy novels, “The Once and Future King,” is a compilation of stories about the rise and fall of King Arthur, his court, and Camelot. However, the first part of the tetralogy, “The Sword and the Stone,” is a book no entrepreneur should miss. It teaches the importance of properly applied knowledge. Knowledge is not useful until you can employ it. Arthur didn’t know why Merlin was teaching him about war and leadership. It was useless, until he withdrew the sword from the stone and became king.
Take away: Build a business to which you can apply your strengths and intelligence, once you do you’re at the beginning of true wisdom.
4. Don’t let greed and pride back a bad idea.
If you haven’t read this novel, then you’ve almost certainly seen the movie. In “Jurassic Park”, John Hammond, the owner of a bioengineering company InGen, calls paleontologists Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler to a remote island off Costa Rica to consult on a mysterious project.
There are two glaring lessons entrepreneurs can learn from “Jurassic Park.” It becomes clear very quickly that the Jurassic Park was a horrible idea motivated by scientific hubris. And even if it hadn’t been a bad idea, the project was launched prematurely and without the proper tests.
Take away: Don’t let pride, greed, or the desire to be first motivate an idea that’s inherently bad. And when you do finally create a useful product, always test it relentlessly before the launch.
5. Work for the greater good.
Most people are aware of Upton Sinclair’s previous expose-style novel, “The Jungle,” but his social and political satire, “Oil!” should not be missed (also made into a movie in “There Will Be Blood”). The novel is about the son of an oil tycoon, Bunny Ross, and his relationship with his father’s oil empire. Upton Sinclair was a known socialist, and all of his novels are strewn with his political agenda.
Take away: Don’t let greed and extravagant wealth change you. While spoils and riches might be years away for most entrepreneurs, it’s an important lesson to learn early on.
Don’t get me wrong: I love reading non-fiction business books. But for entrepreneurs, works of fiction can be our textbooks as well. Sometimes, readers need something new. This spring and summer, entrepreneurs should put down the business books and look for lessons on life and business in some of the best fiction books of our time.