Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Book: Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson

Richard Branson - Screw Business as Usual

“Do good, have fun, and the money will follow”

372 pages, ★★★★★

Screw Business as Usual starts and ends with stories about natural disasters. In the opening pages, author Richard Branson’s Necker Island family home catches fire following a lightning strike. Times like this “remind us that stuff doesn’t matter”, he writes. The closing pages describe how a category III hurricane hit Necker Island while Virgin Unite (the charity arm of his multi-billion dollar Virgin empire) was staying there. In each case, Branson writes how opportunity rises in the face of adversity; how destruction clears way for the new; and how every unfortunate event has a ‘good’ side. I couldn’t agree more.

On page 12, he issues the readers a warning: “make sure you’ve read [this book] and can articulate its contents before you consider having this book on lying around on your desk!” (The contents, should they need to be articulated, could be summed up like this: Capitalists no longer face a choice between making money and doing good. Many businesses that “do good” (environmentally or socially) are finding that good deeds boost the company’s profits overall”.) Between pages 200 and 250, he includes plenty of detailed case studies to support his point.

I really like that despite Branson’s massive persona, he still laughs at himself sometimes. On page 21, he hints that he name drops too much, and it’s true. Honestly, though, I expected him to: Richard Branson is a ‘big’ personality known for his outlandish gestures and it would have seemed disappointingly out-of-character if he were too modest in this book. (Just type “Richard Branson” into Google Images for some examples of this.) After admitting he name-drops too much, he proceeds to name-drop throughout this book: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen, James Lovelock, Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore are mentioned many times each. Page 230 adds Ray Anderson, Jochen and Ted Turner to the list of superstars he has close connections with. He laughs at himself on this and on several other occasions. I like the self-aware, self-mocking Branson that we see in this book.

I also really like the emphasis on “doing good”. This is clear not only from his many not-for-profit groups, which work worldwide in many different sectors, but also from his willingness to “do good” even if “doing good” means breaking the law! Twice, he breaks the law and the law changes for him, not the other way around. Once, at he beginning of the book, Branson breaks an old law that made it illegal to mention “venereal disease” in public. Branson felt it was a serious social problem at the time, and that the law was preventing useful health information from reaching the public. So he broke the law, got arrested, then took Her Majesty’s Government to court. (They apologised to Branson and then changed the law!) Later, the end of the book, Branson’s group tells factories in South Africa to ignore the law on racially-segregated toilets, which resulted in many black workers having to urinate, dehumanisingly, in gutters. This time, too, the law changed for him, not the other way around!

I learned a lot from this book. I learned that Peter Gabriel was signed by Virgin Records in 1983. I also learned that Virgin’s staff must love their jobs—Branson holds parties for Virgin Atlantic staff tropical island house and writes them personalised letters of invitation. In these letters (one is copied into the book), I learned that Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to introduce fully-non-smoking flights, and was also the first airline to have entertainment screens on the back of every seat!

Branson tells us all to love our jobs. He gives examples of businesses that do this very well, such as a greengrocery chain in Sussex that hires “local heroes”—people who love their job and their produce, and aren’t there “just for the pay check”. I’m really pleased to say that I’m one of those people 🙂

This quote fits perfectly with this book’s philosophy:

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

― Randy Komisar, Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur

(I am still yet to review Randy Komisar’s book, Monk and the Riddle.)

In one respect, Screw Business as Usual reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Both books straddle the non-fiction and biography genres. Both books tell tales of opportunity and what makes people succeed. In particular, the story about Peter Avis in this book seemed very similar to a scene in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book, Branson writes about Peter Avis, who, like Branson, is also dyslexic. While Branson has long talked quite openly about how his dyslexia shaped his thinking, and how it inspired the clean, easy-to-navigate customer experience that Virgin’s companies offer, Avis found dyslexia very debilitating throughout school and early adulthood. Avis, unlike Branson, didn’t come from such a supportive background, and his dyslexia went unnoticed for many years until someone cared enough to help him solve the problem. Malcolm Gladwell gives a similar example in his book (which I haven’t reviewed yet), where a child might be “blessed with confidence, acting skills and bursts of creativity” if they come from a rich background; but diagnosed with ADHD if they come from a poorer background. What’s more interesting about Branson’s stories, though, is that they’re from his own life—and his own friends—not from unrelated case studies.

In conclusion, Branson says that unrestrained capitalism (“Greed is Good”) versus the flower power peace-and-love of the 1960s have merged to form a new era of capitalism, and Richard Branson labels, “Capitalism 24902”. (Read the book to find out what that means.)

This is a rare, high-quality business management book. It’s laced with personal examples, which are always much more interesting than random case studies, and I love the message he sends out in this book. Recommended for anyone who admires great people. ★★★★★

Book: SuperFreakonomics

Sequel to Freakonomics.

Crowd-pleasing. More Freakonomics.
320 pages, ★★★★★

SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as:

  • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
  • How much good do car seats do?
  • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
  • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
  • Are people hard-wired for altruism or selfishness?
  • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
  • Which adds more value: a pimp or a Realtor?

SuperFreakonomics pleases the same audience as Freakonomics (excitable rebellious young males—the Top Gear crowd). In fact, when I first read this book aged 21, the idea that volcanoes, stratospheric aerosols and specific types of clouds can have a huge influence on global temperatures fascinated me. I liked it so much that I copied basically the entire chapter on climate change completely unknowingly into an ‘important’ university essay. I began researching contrails and cloud-brightening ships obsessively, and even applied to do PhD projects on climatology. That’s how much this book inspired me!

This book inspires other young people, too. Best of all, SuperFreakonomics gets kids reading. ★★★★★

Also consider: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (similar level, more sociological); and The Big Short by Michael Lewis (advanced level, more about finance than economics).