By some estimates, you need about 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert. But you can shorten this learning curve with a mentor. The problem is how to convince them to mentor you.
Fortunately, books are amazing alternatives, and they cost you almost nothing. You just need to ensure they are worth your time.
At 43, I’ve read hundreds of self-help books. Many great ones, others not so great. And if I could go back in time, here are the 7 must-read books I would advise to my past self…
1. Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor
This is the book that finally helped me understand motivation at work. It is essential if you are a leader, and well worth reading if you just want to be a great team player. Exceptional motivation is the secret ingredient of the most innovative companies.
Based on Self-Determination Theory, the book suggests we are best motivated by 3 innate and universal psychological needs: play, purpose, and potential. However, our performance decreases if we focus on indirect motivators such as emotional pressure, economic pressure, or inertia.
Many leaders believe that tactical performance — the ability to execute against a plan — is the only way to get results. But they forget that adaptive performance — the ability to diverge from a plan — is just as important, especially for innovation.
These are just a couple of insights from this dense book that I read 2 times, slowly and carefully. After I read this, I quit my job to find a company that was more in line with these principles. And now I start each workday with a big smile on my face!
2. Quiet by Susan Cain
This book highlights what makes introverts great, in a world dominated by extroverts. If you are interested in personality traits, you will be delighted. The book gives countless insights backed by scientific studies.
First, it explains the difference between shyness and introversion. While shyness is a fear of negative evaluation, introversion refers to the tendency toward becoming over-stimulated and the need to be alone to gain energy. Extroverts, in contrast, like more stimulations, which explains why they usually perform better in stress-inducing situations like public speaking.
However, it turns out introverted people can think deeper and more creatively. Unexpectedly, they are also great leaders, as they encourage their teammates to be proactive and think by themselves.
As an introvert, this book helped me make peace with myself, and enjoy the unique qualities of extroverts, such as their relentless optimism. After reading this book, you will never see introversion in the same light again.
3. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Did you know memory championships were a thing? This book is about a journalist who decided he would penetrate the underground community of memory enthusiasts who compete to become memory champions.
While covering memory championship events, the author eventually discovered that having a great memory is not born but made, which persuaded him he could become a champion himself. This started an inquiry about how memory athletes train their memory. In the process, you learn that 90% of modern memory athletes use a technique called the memory palace.
Warning: reading this book can get you addicted to memorization techniques. At some point, I had to study for work-related certification exams, which led me to explore the memory palace technique in depth. I became a memorization enthusiast myself and I still use the memory palace technique almost every day.
4. The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
If you are an entrepreneur, it is paramount to know if your ideas have potential or not. Sadly, people rarely give honest feedback. They won’t tell you if your idea sucks because they want to spare your feelings, especially when they see how excited you are about your idea.
The worst person to ask for feedback is your mum, who loves everything you do. However, even your mum can give you useful feedback if you ask the right questions.
First, you need to refrain from revealing that this is *your* idea so that people are not afraid of getting critical about it.
Secondly, instead of asking for opinions in the future, ask for facts from the past. People are biased when it comes to hypothetical situations, especially if you ask if they would buy a product, but they usually don’t lie about what they have done in the past.
Lastly, it helps to see if they can take an immediate decision that puts their skin in the game, like paying in advance for a product or recommending yourself to their friend.
I now thrive to use these principles when creating new products. And I even joined one of the author’s communities: Write Useful Books.
5. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
When it comes to career advice, you’ve probably heard about the “follow your passion” principle. According to this principle, the best way to be happy at work is to identify your passion and make it your full-time job. Many entrepreneurs are guided by this principle.
However, according to author “Cal Newport”, that’s not how you achieve happiness at work. It is the other way around. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable.
You don’t need to wonder if your job is your true passion. Just become so good at it that nobody can ignore you. That way, you gain more control over what you do and how you do it, which in turn increases your happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. This is the craftsman mindset against the passion mindset.
This book was influential to me because I’ve always felt uneasy about the passion mindset. In my case, I work as a software engineer. I would be glad to become a full-time writer, but I don’t hate my software engineer work. It’s what I wanted to do when I was a teen. And I think I would miss programming if I was to become a full-time writer 🙂
6. Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens
As a productivity addict, I’ve always been fascinated by prolific writers. Niklas Luhman is a German sociologist among the top social theorists of the 20th century. He has published more than 70 books and almost 400 scholarly articles on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love.
Unfortunately, he has passed away but the book “How to Take Smart Notes” covers his note-taking system, which Luhman credited as the main source of his prodigious output. In German, this system is called “Zettlekasten”, which translates broadly as “box of notes”.
You can picture a “Zettlekasten” as an interconnected web of paper notes. Sönke Ahrens, the author of the book, gives the different rules that govern this system.
First, there are different kinds of notes, like:
- Fleeting notes which are day to day notes you take on the fly
- Literature notes that are taken from books or other sources
- Permanent notes that are written in your own words
And the book explains the specific rules that govern each note. For example, permanent notes must be “written in a way that can still be understood even when you have forgotten the context they are taken from”. The final goal is to have a web of permanent notes, which you can assemble to create an original piece of work.
This book influenced me a lot as I’m trying to use modern tools like Obsidian as a Zettlekasten to link all my notes in a way that promotes creativity and insight.
7. Coaching for performance by Sir John Whitmore
Finally, “Coaching for performance” is a book that can help you understand how to best support people on their projects. Since 2017, I’ve used co-coaching (a more involved form of accountability partnership) to help me get motivated and consistent with my goals. And this book has helped me tremendously to structure the check-in meetings we do together.
The basic structure follows the GROW acronym, which stands for:
- G: Goals
- R: Reality check
- O: Options
- W: Willpower
And the book gives specific questions you can ask your partner for each of those items.
Also, one of the most valuable insights I found in this book is the fact that you must promote *awareness* and *responsibility* to your coachee or co-coaching partner.
Counterintuitively, when you coach someone, you are not supposed to suggest solutions. Instead, your partner must find their own solution. This will make it more likely that your partner will take action since we always prefer to follow our own advice. Also, it will ensure your partner does not get overly dependent on you. Of course, you can still ask if your partner wants a suggestion if they are really stuck. But this must be done as a last resort.
I hope you enjoyed having a glimpse into these books. As I mentioned, they had a major impact on my life. I hope they will also help you in your productivity and self-improvement efforts.
Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash