Of all the books I read in 2016, the below five changed and formed me the most both professionally and personally.
I incorporated all of these books into numerous articles, which I’ve quoted from below. I also tried to give you a taste of not just why they were great but also what they argued, so you can learn from them even if you don’t read them. Enjoy!
1) Deep Work, by Cal Newport
Georgetown University professor Cal Newport’s concept is simple: focus is the new IQ. “Deep work” helps us quickly master complicated information and imparts the fulfillment of true craftsmanship. As I sum in The Underlying Reason You Can’t Focus, the activities that are personally and economically rewarding in modern society are highly specialized, irreplaceable skills and intense, self-controlled focus. If you can’t develop rare skills and the capacity for deep thinking, says Newport, machines and/or human competition will beat you and take your job.
And yet most people have lost proficiency in deep work. For example, busyness has become a “proxy” for productivity. Newport explaiIn the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
His remedy to our distraction addiction is a series of deep work tactics, such as minimizing social media, batching work, giving yourself less time for things, embracing boredom—you know most of his tips. But until you read this book, you will not be convinced enough of the need to work deeply to incorporate these simple changes into your daily work.
Deep Work has, I hope, irrevocably changed the way I manage my time and get things done. If you feel like you’re treading water in your business, incapacity for deep work is likely the reason. This book, and your commitment to implement its recommendations, is the solution.
2) Grit, by Angela Duckworth
2016 was my first full year of self-employment. I started with self-congratulations; my first Forbes article was How I Became My Own Boss by Age 25. When my honeymoon with myself wore off, I needed grit.
“Enthusiasm is common,” writes Duckworth, “Endurance is rare.” She argues that passion is just the opening scene in a much longer, larger narrative of our life purpose. Too easily, too quickly, we give up before we get there.
Grit separates the fulfilled, high-impact, resilient individuals from the excited but flighty rest of us. Indeed, Duckworth has found that a combination of passion and perseverance is more important to scholarly success than IQ.
One particularly influential part of Grit, for me, was Duckworth’s emphasis on forming rather than stumbling on our calling. As I write in The Psychology of Professional Purpose, “We fantasize that callings fall from the sky. In truth, we fall into our callings over time.” Duckworth notes that the famed chef Julia Child didn’t even consider a cooking career until middle-age; she just loved French food. Child’s persistent interest clued her toward her calling.
I expected non-stop passion from my freelance writing work. What I learned is passion fades but, with commitment, purpose prevails. By the way, Duckworth’s voice on the audio version is mesmerizing!
3) The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of them Now, by Meg Jay
The New Yorker blurb reads, “Meg Jay takes the specific complaints of twentysomething life and puts them to diagnostic use.” This is exactly true: psychologist Meg Jay is in the rare position of not just writing about millennials, as I do, but having millennials as patients. In other words, she’s seen and heard everything. Her every word feels relevant.
For instance, Jay’s patient Ian explained a common millennial sentiment of directionlessness: “I feel like I’m in the middle of the ocean. Like I could swim in any direction but I can’t see land on any side so I don’t know which way to go.” As I summarize in How to Find Direction and Learn Your Professional Purpose, if we start moving and choosing, we fear that we’ll accidentally go the wrong way. So, Ian admitted, “It feels safer not to pick.”
This option overload paralyzes nearly every millennial I’ve met, and certainly me. Jay’s solution to define a route for our careers and relieve our anxiety is to develop identity capital – a spin-off of grit. It’s the things we do “well enough, or long enough, that they become part of who we are,” Jay explains. But it can’t include things we didn’t give a fair shot. We develop identity capital by process of elimination and patient commitment to giving new options a fair shot.
Lots of millennial literature touts the benefits of millennials having multiple careers throughout their lifetimes. But The Defining Decade made me question if leaping around beats a singular, sustained, liberating decision.
4) The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr
Nicholas Carr exhaustively but compellingly sums up the research to date on how the Internet compromises our ability to retain information, think deeply and creatively, make good decisions and focus.
The Internet requires a debilitating amount of “mental coordination,” says Carr. Each time we encounter a link, ad, banner, image, popup or navigational choice, “we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our pre-fontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it.” The result of this chronic, low-grade decision-making is “our brains become not only exercised but overtaxed.”
Because we can’t recognize what’s most important amidst other distractions, we lose the capacity to make sound decisions, I write in Why Knowledge Workers Are Bad at Making Decisions. Instead of wielding information to make choices, many of us become “mindless consumers of data,” Carr explains.
The Shallows was so meaningful to me because I could relate. Carr discusses how he loved the Internet when it first appeared but, over time, realized it made him a shallower, less effective thinker and writer.
I recently reread some articles I wrote the year after I graduated college and realized that many of them were better than the articles I’ve written more recently, several years out of college. It’s for many different reasons, of course, but an unavoidable one is the fact that I was rushing through them, more easily bored and more reliant on others’ ideas; I sought out quick answers rather than good questions. This, I became convinced after reading The Shallows, is thanks to the Internet.
5) Essentialism, by Greg McKeown
Essentialism is the art of prioritizing. And at the heart of prioritizing is elimination. As I explain in How to Simplify Your Career, Greg McKeown argues that tradeoffs are the inevitable essence of prioritizing.
This is why McKeown discourages well-roundedness. He advises us to apply “tougher criteria to life’s big decisions” so we can weed out less important paths. In this sense our brains work like a search engine, he says: If we Google “good restaurant in New York City,” we’ll find an overwhelming array of results. But if we Google “best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn,” results will be more specific and meaningful.
So McKeown suggests asking targeted questions like:
- What am I deeply passionate about?
- What taps my talent?
- What meets a significant need in the world?
“There won’t be as many pages to view, but that’s the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We’re looking for one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution,” McKeown explains. With exercises like this, he teaches us how to do more with less.
After reading Essentialism, I’m ruthless with “No,” and nothing in my professional life has suffered. If anything, I’ve gained time, control and peace.