The 39 Pivotal Books That Shaped My Career
I am an avid reader. One might say ravenous. There are very few nights that I don’t read for 30 minutes prior to going to sleep. So in the 44+ years I’ve been reading, you might imagine there’s a fertile ground for some pearls. There’s also plenty of room for manure. Such is Pareto’s Principle.
Here then are the 39 books that have shaped my career, some fiction, most non, in alphabetical order so as not to prejudice any particular merit judgement. They are all worth a read.
1. 1984 By George Orwell
I cannot thank the Eastern Cape Education Department enough for making this one of our texts for my matric exams (in 1984.) I keep coming back to this book. From a statement about communism and it’s effect on economy during my younger years, to the surveillance nations of today, we have a lot to learn from this novel published in 1948. More recently Room 101 is playing on me as a business opportunity…
2. The Back Of The Napkin by Dan Roam
“Any problem can be solved, and any product sold, using simple pictures.” This is the premise behind this deceptively simple book. This will lead you to vomit crap powerpoint on customers less, and whiteboard more. The methodology behind the principle is rich. You don’t need to be able to draw more than a circle, a line, and basic geometry. Then you’ll learn how we see, and using this knowledge, along with your knowledge of your customer, be able to draw relevant pictures to solve problems and sell yourself. Invaluable. There is a follow on book, but if you get the principles from this book, that one is just practice.
3. Beyond Bulletpoints by Cliff Atkinson
Finally someone who understands that big business runs on Powerpoint (and Excel) and has a practical methodology (and macros) to use those tools and create a presentation like a movie script. Your presentations will never be the same, nor will they have bulletpoints, ever again.
4. The Bible
From the tragedy of Job and eroticism of Song of Solomon, to the laments and ectacies of Psalms and truths of Proverbs. The practicality of James, to the promise of Romans and Ephesians. The empathy in Corinthians. The leadership of Nehemiah and the courage of Esther. The immutable laws of the universe come alive through the stories of very real men and women. Start with the gospels.
5. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Most of our decisions are made in the blink of an eye. Moreover, we can demonstrably measure decisions in our body prior to conscious thought. A fascinating look at decision making, both to support our own decisions, as well as helping others make theirs.
6. Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull
What an amazing book. Written by someone who strategically went beyond the common wisdom to create about the most creative company out there, Pixar. Great lessons in humility, empathy, collaboration, authenticity, and the truth’s that “your baby is always ugly,” and “there is no individual genius.” Just how do you capture serendipity?
7. Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High by Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson
WHERE was this book for the first half of my career? (And marriage?) Turns out that those who cut through conflict, drive consensus, and never get cross, all use tools. A technique. You can learn that too… …and should.
8. Drive, the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
If you work for a manager that believes monetary rewards and punishments are what motivates people, you work for someone whom a) hasn’t read this book and b) is stuck in the industrial age. If you are someone who motivates people, like your children, team, youth group by extrinsic rewards, you haven’t a) read this book and b) are stuck…. The book draws from studies commissioned by the US Federal Reserve amongst others, and will forever change the way you approach motivation. Gold.
9. Eagle in the Sky by Wilbur Smith
Beauty and the beast, a story of redemption for the irredeemable. The truth of loyalty in Love, in camaraderie, in patriotism. The split second that rewrites your life, and the sight you can only get through blindness. Searingly beautiful, his second best work.
10. The E-Myth by Daniel Gerber
Holy crap! Every person who is tired of working for “the man” and believes they can charge less on their own, and earn more, because they don’t have the diseconomies of the business, needs to read this. As does every start-up entrepreneur. Every small business owner. Every contractor. Every consultant. If you provide services to customers, you would do well to read this. Understand how to automate processes to become a turn-key ‘business’, understand the three roles in every small business, understand your strengths and how to delegate your weaknesses. Understand how to work on your business, rather than in your business.
11. First Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham
What separates great managers from good managers? This book lays it out for you. Getting your team to answer just 6 questions will give you insights into their engagement, directly correlated with their happiness, your customers’ happiness, their productivity, and your management. I read this shortly after becoming a manager at Microsoft and it changed my life… …and those of my team.
12. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
Have you ever had the fortune to be part of a great team? One where you held each other accountable? Where you could argue ferociously about something because it was a safe environment? Where your team mates sacrificed early mornings, late nights, and individual recognition to achieve a common outcome? Few of us have. This disarming allegory gently opens up the truth of great teams, and allows you the opportunity to build one.
13. The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Essential reading. It shows how the average person can benefit from labour arbitrage in the same way that a large corporation can. It identifies how you can outsource or automate all of the tasks that take you away from doing what you love to do. Be careful because you may just quit your job and start a lifestyle business. Which would be awesome. And no, there’s no such thing as the four hour workweek, this is a good title that has been tested for effectiveness. Now, a brand. (Don’t read this before Maverick)
14. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Get everything by DA, but this is the original. Turns your beliefs on their head. Makes you question, then understand the real reason people make decisions. Pokes fun at religion, belief, itself, and if nothing else this will make you laugh until your sides hurt. The answer is ’42’ (now you know)
15. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Wisdom from 1936. Although the examples are horribly dated, and written in a vastly different world, the principles remain the same. I don’t care what career you’re in, apply the lessons from this book to succeed. Oh and no-one is born with the ability to speak, or learn names. Everyone is born terrible with names. Learn to remember, and use people’s names.
16. Influence, the Science of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
There are 6 unconscious principles of persuasion. If you’re not aware of them, people are influencing you unawares, and your influence is unlikely to be more than average. If you are aware of them, you are in a much better position to be the most effective negotiator, educator, manager, parent, sales person, leader, aid worker, carer, pastor, facilitator, person that you can be.
17. In the Line of Fire, Answering Tough Questions When It Counts by Jerry Weissman
This is the second book by Jerry that you should read. Drawing examples from presidential debates, both successful and disaster, he guides you on the principles of successfully answering questions. Hostile questions, leading questions, ruse questions, and that worst of all, the rambling, going nowhere, 3 questions in one question.
18. Irrationally Predictable by Dan Ariely
Brilliance from one of social psychology’s foremost professors. No-one makes a rational decision. Also we all cheat and lie far more than we even admit to ourselves. Even know ourselves. Understanding this behaviour is another arrow in your bow of persuasion.
19. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Drawing lessons from Lean manufacturing, this book shares principles good not only for startups, but for your life.
20. Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson
What’s not to love about this story? Raw, vulnerable, relatively honest, and entirely irreverend. Here is a man who has build corporations dismantling the establishment. He became a billionnaire the hard way, before the power of Moore’s Law, computers, and the Internet. “Screw it, let’s do it!” Great mantra.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Is it predestination, or will. This is a fantastic expose of loyalty, leadership, and choices that we would do well to heed today.
22. Maverick by Ricardo Semler
GET THIS BOOK!! It will change your perspective on management, valuable processes (few) and wastes of time (many), (dis)economies of scale, status, hiring, competition, redundancies, and a whole lot more. If you read one book from this list, this is that book.
23. The Martian by Andy Weir
Just how resourceful do you really believe you are? “I’m going to science the shit out of this.” Until you’re seriously up shit creek without a paddle, how would you ever know? Prioritise, then solve one problem at a time. Do it with a laugh at yourself.
24. The New Strategic Selling by Robert B. Miller et al
This is crucial for anyone new to strategic selling. If you don’t know the difference between the economic buyer, the user buyer, or the technical buyer you need this book. If you contribute to proposals, RFI’s, RFP’s, or any large sale you need to read this book.
25. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
This book was both explanatory and liberating. If you’ve ever wondered why some people with similar or perhaps even less talent than you succeed, this book will open your eyes to the myriad components to success. From your birth date (true story), to location, parents, culture, talent, the “10,000 hour rule” and more. It explains so much, but don’t use it as an excuse, rather be liberated that you too can succeed at whatever you want. Chances are what you want is reflective of all of the components to success in your life.
26. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
If this doesn’t set you free, and radically change every aspect of your life, perhaps you’re more cynical than is healthy. Accept the now, experience the now, understand the power of now. I’ve just finished this book and already seen the impact on my life. You will too.
27. Presenting to Win, the Art of Telling Your Story by Jerry Weissman
Here’s a man who taught president-elects how to handle media engagements, then taught CEO’s how to pitch in their IPO roadshows. If there’s someone who knows a thing or two about presentations, this is that man. We all present, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, but we all present every day. This book is gold.
28. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Still working on these, but yes, if you can think Win:Win, Begin with the End in Mind, Sharpen the Saw and all the others, you too will be highly effective. This is one of the original self-help books, and still one of the best.
29. Sharpe’s Rifles by Bernard Cornwell
Actually any of the Richard Sharpe stories will do. Lessons in simplicity, authenticity, transparency, and strategy in leadership. History brought to life vividly.
30. Show And Tell by Dan Roam
Another one by Dan, and this one is for all those that want to put presentations together without the time investment, or design training from the methodologies proposed by Nancy Duarte, or Cliff Atkinson. Four very simple approaches to your presentation depending on your audience. The PUMA method will revolutionise putting together a presentation in a flash.
31. Slide-ology by Nancy Duarte
Presentation magic from the consulting company that created Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” world changing movie. The narrative, underscored by compelling visuals, and the amount of preparation it really takes to achieve an outcome in a presentation are all lessons from this beautiful book
32. A Sparrow Falls by Wilbur Smith
Book four in the original Courtney series. “Real men don’t earn salaries, real men pay salaries.” Storm Courtney. Powerful stuff.
33. The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith
I Love most of Wilbur Smith’s writing. He broke me into adult fiction at 12, and at 15 I read this great novel. A leonine leader, a hunchback prophet, a torn seductress, and a fierce antagonist. Told over two great timescales this taught me that you can be betrayed by everything, your friends, your Love, your God and still prevail. In fact you must still prevail.
34. Theseus and Ariadne by Catullus
Another gem from school. The bard plagiarised horribly from here to write Romeo and Juliette. Already a retelling of the Greek myth by a Roman author, this story of illicit love leading to tragedy is probably wired into our DNA.
35. To Kill A Mockingbird by Lee Harper
Another classic you probably read at school. This book is so much more than an anti-racist statement. It talks to the game people play, influence, presence, and courage. The lessons learned in when to speak and what to say I’m still learning.
36. The Trusted Advisor by David Maister et al
Whoever would have thought you could factorise trust. But there it is T=(C+R+I)/SO. Once you understand this concept, you move from consultant to Trusted Advisor. And whether you’re a parent, teacher, car saleswoman, or technology consultant, being the Trusted Advisor is where you want to be. This book is mandatory reading.
37. Unleash The Power Within: Personal Coaching to Transform Your Life by Tony Robbins
Ok, hold the cynicism until you’ve read, or at least started, this book. I found it transformative from page one. Learn the surprising limiting beliefs holding you back, and how to remove them. Draws from psychology, NLP, religion, and experience with over 300 million people from cultures all over the world. There is a reason that world leaders, captains of business, olympic sports people and others turn to Tony when it counts. Can you be that world leader too? Yes, but see Outliers above too.
38. The Way of Conflict by Deidre Combs
This book came at a dark time in my life and turned on a lightbulb. “If you know the enemy you know yourself, the victory will not stand in doubt. If you know heaven and know earth, you may make your victory complete.” Sun Tzu. This book allows you to know yourself, the (conflict partner) enemy, heaven and earth. It draws on elemental wisdom (earth, water, fire, air), psychology, and religion to help you move people along the path of conflict (or negotiation, education etc) When you are stuck because your good people skills don’t work all of the time, this is the book you need to shine the light.
39. Zero to One by Peter Thiel
What is the one thing you believe which everyone else considers insanity? I believe that you can get engaged on your first date and have a successful marriage. This book steps through object lessons in what it takes to move from zero to one. From no idea, no staff, no funding, no business, to a fully formed, performing one. I listened to this, but plan to read it too.
I had no idea there were so many, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. But each of these books changed me in some way. Small, and large ways. Isn’t it amazing that we can summarise the wisdom of the ages, and the insight of genius, into an accessible, consumable format. The book.
There is so much to learn. Any one of these books may affect you. Read just one perhaps.
What are the books that shaped your career? Your life?