21 Books Worth Reading

Brain synapses

The great thing about reading on a variety of topics is that it helps us expand our thinking while it contributes to our ability to discover patterns across different disciplines. It's a process that supports our value as individuals and contributes to the strength of a group.

In Learning Habit weekly, I share what I'm reading along with a curated list of articles and resources for making sense of things, making do with what is at hand, and examples of making it we can learn from.

Why different disciplines?

This method of learning is based on the liberal arts subjects of study in schools and apprenticeship studios of the first millennium after Christ in the West.

Its classification originated directly from the works of the rhetorician Martian Capella who, in the fifth century, determined there were seven bodies of knowledge people should learn. Capella separated them into three literary and four scientific studies:

  • He selected the basics of political, linguistic, and philosophical studies to form the basis of the literary studies of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic
  • For the sciences, he selected arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (astrology) and music

Were we go on to study jurisprudence, theology, or arts at the time, this would be our curriculum between the ages of fourteen and twenty. In fact, it was still mostly the case in my course of studies.

Later I was able to specialize in linguistics — the origins and the mechanics of languages — then marketing, communications, technology, research, etc. etc.

Becoming whole thinkers again

As we debate the role of technology in our lives, we are also facing an enormous shift in the types of jobs we will have in the future — near and longer term. Hard to know exactly which jobs, aside from those we are creating right now.

So the idea is to become whole in our thinking again, no matter where we work. The benefits include learning to ask better questions, expanding our imagination to apply it to problem solving, appreciating empathy to build a shared understanding.

Agility, flexibility, and creativity can be learned.

Twenty one books to get started

In no particular order of importance:


Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler, founder of behavioral economics who lists Daniel Kahneman and Adam Tversky among his mentors.  “When we have adapted to our environment, we tend to ignore it,” says Thaler.

Which is why Kahneman and Tversky focused on changes, “changes are the way Humans experience life.” “Psychologists tell us that in order to learn from experiences, two ingredients are necessary: frequent practice and immediate feedback.” These two statements alone have multiple ramifications for anyone trying to communicate or engage in a transaction with anyone. Which makes it all of us.


Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt. The book's premise is that instead of trying to cover all bases, we should use a small set of simple rules, “shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information.”

See also why simple rules produce better decisions.


How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life's good breaks by Max Gunther makes for a quick and powerful read. We underestimate the role of luck in our lives, and in so doing, we miss out on opportunities. Learning to go with the flow takes things to a new level in this book.

See also my review of the book and the role of luck in our lives.


The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship by David Whyte is a thoughtful and soulful exploration on finding the central conversation that holds the three most important aspects of our lives together. “We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way,” he says.


Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life whose premise is that how we pay attention determines what we experience in life. A bigger question we seem to wrestle with every day is how to balance a need to know — to read, learn, stay up to date on technology and business — with a desire to be, to enjoy life to the fullest by being present.


Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Sir Ken Robinson. Being creative is not  only a matter of inspiration. It requires skill, craft in the control of materials, and a reciprocating process of critical evaluation. A fascinating look at how we got where we are and the tools to re-think where we go from here.

See also how using the relationship between imagination, creativity, and innovation we create our world and how culture influences creativity.


Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be is a strong follow up to last week's choice because in it Goldsmith provides a simple (not easy) system we can use to keep ourselves accountable.

See also the Trouble with “Good Enough.”


The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by award-winning psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Through a select selection of ancient wisdom Haidt helps us arrive at the conclusion that we can now answer what might be called the Holy Question “What is the meaning of life?”

More on Finding a Valid Hypothesis for What is the Meaning of Life?”


What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith.

  1. Section one is about why people resist change, the false beliefs that obstruct change and how people have overcome those limiting beliefs.
  2. Section two is about the twenty most common harmful habits in interpersonal relations, with brief illustrations of how to handle them.
  3. Section three is about the change process — how to make that change visible to others, how to enlist others in the process of making the right change and making it last.
  4. Section four highlights important rules of change and other analyses and insights to help complete our understanding of why and how to make effective, lasting change.


Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by Neuroscientist David Eagleman is a good companion to The Person and the Situation (see below.) It tackles the topics of conscious control vs automated programs, nature vs nurture.


The Person and the Situation by Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross has as its central thesis how humans tend to describe behavior in terms of personality traits while the research clearly shows that the situation is a more accurate explanation for the behavior.

In the new forward Malcolm Gladwell says the book offers a way of re-ordering ordinary experience:

We see things that aren't there and we make predictions that we ought not to make: we privilege the 'person' and we discount the influence of the 'situation.'


Under the Hood: Fire up and Fine-tune Your Employee Culture, Stan Slap explains the difference between understanding your employees and understanding your employee culture.


Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Laszlo Bock, an inside look at Google's People Operations practices.


The Power of Thanks: How Social Recognition Empowers Employees and Creates a Best Place to Work Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine say social recognition also helps to create engaged workers.


Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected by Tania Luna and LeAnn Renninger say most of us pick control and predictability and share a core framework for how surprise works, including examples of how to leverage the positive power of surprise in both the personal domain and in business.

See also The Power of Surprise.


Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration — Lessons from The Second City by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. Rather than providing a recipe, the book outlines many situations and scenarios where a Yes, And mindset can be helpful to individuals and organizations.

Most grand ideas don't start grand, and many of the best inventions come from happy accidents and thoughtful pivots off mistakes.

More on the book


A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. We ask lots of questions when we are children… then questioning falls off a cliff. What happens and why? For the book, Warren Berger, a journalist, interviewed and studied hundreds of the world's leading innovators, designers, and creative thinkers to analyze how they ask fundamental questions, solve problems, and create new possibilities.

See also is knowing obsolete? and other powerful questions.


A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer with Charles Fishman. Grazer has made movies about astronauts trapped in space (Apollo 13), scholars who crack ancient codes (The Da Vinci Code), and geniuses with troubled minds (A Beautiful Mind.) The films he's made have won Oscars, dazzled audiences, and earned more than $13 billion.

The book goes beyond curiosity to touch upon learning, storytelling, listening, confidence-building, persistence, ambition, authenticity, determination and so much more are all in service of building human connections.


Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader — focuses on Jobs' personal growth and his relationships rather than products or events. It contains good insights on his thinking about products and business decisions and sheds light on his final years with cancer and the work on the iPhone and iPad. I love the parts describing relationship with Ed Catmull.

Catmull says:

“You can't go to the library and find a book titled The Business Model for Animation,” Steve explained. “The reason you can't is because there's only been one company [Disney] that's ever done it well and they were not interested  in telling the world how lucrative it was.”


Thinking and Deciding by Jonathan Baron is about learning to think “more rationally, that is, in a way that helps us achieve our goals.” The book is based on answering three main questions:
  1. How should we evaluate thinking, judgement, and decision making? By what standards?
  2. How do we think? What prevents us from doing better than we do according to normative standards?
  3. What can we do to improve our thinking, judgement, and decision making, both as individuals and as a society? It then introduces a theory of the nature of good thinking and of how we end up thinking poorly.


How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams has failed at a lot of things — from investments to inventions to computer programming. But he managed to turn his failure at office work into a giant success. 

Along with his story are some points that challenge conventional advice.

See my review and more on the math of success.
Each week I share what I'm reading and why. If you'd like to fire on all cylinders, get Learning Habit weekly delivered to your inbox for free every Sunday.
[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]