Future of Work

10 novels that will make you smarter about business

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
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Future of Work

When we talk about “business books,” we’re typically referring to works of nonfiction.

But if you’re looking to learn about leadership, entrepreneurship, or career development, there’s no reason to limit your browsing to one section of the bookstore. Some of the most memorable and inspiring lessons on these topics come from fiction.

Think tales of a failed consultant who travels the world to pitch his product; an aspiring journalist who answers to a tyrannical editor; and a group of boys who create their own society after getting stranded on a deserted island.

No matter your passion or profession, these stories will entertain while teaching you about business.

‘Then We Came to the End’ by Joshua Ferris

Ferris’s satirical novel takes place in a Chicago advertising agency in financial turmoil. As one after another employee gets laid off, the remaining staff turns to gossiping and office politics.

The book offers keen insights into the way that even the most irritating coworkers can become your best friends — and how even the most soul-sucking work can be fulfilling on some level.

‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ by Mohsin Hamid

According to billionaire tech investor Chris Sacca, everyone in Silicon Valley should read this novel. A twist on the traditional self-help book, it tells the story of a man who grows up in a Southeast Asian slum and becomes a business tycoon.

Possibly more realistic than any nonfiction rags-to-riches account, the book paints a picture of the ambition necessary to become a successful entrepreneur, especially in less than favorable economic conditions.

‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

This literary classic is less a conventional tale of a business endeavor than it is a series of lessons in leadership. A sailor named Ishmael joins a crew of seamen on a whaling expedition, led by Captain Ahab. (Fun fact: Starbucks coffee company was named after Starbuck, the ship’s first mate.)

Ahab is charismatic and determined when it comes to capturing the whale he calls Moby Dick. Yet ultimately he undermines himself by failing to listen to his crew and dismissing the dangers involved in the journey.

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

On the surface, this novel is about the spread of British colonialism in a fictional Nigerian village and the village leader’s fight to save his community from the influence of Christian missionaries.

Yet the story also raises questions about what makes a successful leader, and what happens when the leader’s ambitions conflict with the group’s interests.

‘A Hologram for the King’ by Dave Eggers

In the wake of the US recession, self-employed consultant Alan Clay is facing the possibility of foreclosure and his daughter dropping out of college because he can’t pay her tuition. When the book opens, he has traveled to a Saudi Arabian city to pitch a holographic teleconferencing system to the king.

As he waits for the king to finally arrive, Clay’s struggles illustrate not only what it’s like to do business abroad, but also how it feels when your work no longer makes an impact.

‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is a 16th-century Spanish gentleman who reads so many tales of romance and chivalry that he appoints himself a knight and embarks on a journey to save the world.

Throughout the novel, Quixote embodies the spirit of an entrepreneur, who insists he can improve society even though his ideas seem unrealistic and significant obstacles stand in the way of his success.

‘Something Happened’ by Joseph Heller

This satirical novel by the author of “Catch-22” is written from the stream-of-consciousness perspective of businessman Bob Slocum. As the title suggests, something has happened to Slocum to undermine his sense of happiness.

It’s a powerful statement on how professional success doesn’t always translate to personal fulfillment — so much so that one Harvard Business School professor recommends his students read it before taking his class.

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

In a series of letters to the visiting Chinese premier, narrator Balram Halwai tells the story of his entrepreneurial journey. The setting is Bangalore, where Balram starts out as a driver for a wealthy family. Eventually (and partly through criminal activity), he moves on to start his own taxi business.

This glimpse inside the psyche of a self-made man shows how powerful the desire for professional and financial success can be — and the lengths to which people will go to achieve it.

‘The Devil Wears Prada’ by Lauren Weisberger

When a recent college graduate lands a job as the assistant to the editor of the fictional Runway magazine, she’s immediately thrust into an unfamiliar world of high-powered fashion moguls. Every minute means a new demand from her boss, whether that’s booking an international flight or ordering a steak lunch.

Regardless of your career background, most everyone will relate to the idea of sacrificing your passion (or your dignity) to get impressive experience on your résumé. Ultimately, the protagonist’s journey will inspire readers to overcome professional challenges that seem insurmountable.

‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding

In this dystopian novel, a group of British boys get stuck on a deserted island after a plane crash. Their survival depends on collaboration and organization.

For people at all levels of a business, the book offers meaningful lessons on the relationship between leaders and followers and the tension between teamwork and individuality.

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Shana Lebowitz is a Strategy reporter for Business Insider.

Image: A woman with a book sits on a bench at the departure area at the Fraport airport in Frankfurt November 14, 2012. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner.

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