The holidays are a great time to catch up on reading, and think beyond day-to-day issues. Here are 10 of our favorite business and productivity books from 2015 that will help you see larger trends–and your own career–in a new light.
Tech writer Ashlee Vance gained access to serial entrepreneur Elon Musk without promising to make him look good, and this biography paints a delightfully nuanced picture. At times he’s a “sci-fi version of P.T. Barnum,” talking of saving humanity while he’s got dessert lingering on his face. Other times, he’s “the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted.” The American economy has long grown based on the dreams of unreasonable people, and Vance argues that Musk is the next in that line.
It’s hard to remember now, but back in 1998, people were claiming that a small plush toy called “Inky the Octopus” was worth $1,000. In this deeply researched and perversely funny book, journalist Zac Bissonnette chronicles the spectacular rise and fall of Beanie Babies and of Ty Warner, their brilliant but unstable creator. The details and Bissonnette’s uncanny timing (he gained access to Warner’s lover’s unpublished memoir shortly before she died) speak to what nonfiction can be as a genre. If this were a novel, you wouldn’t believe it, but Warner’s saga comes across as very sad and true. Bissonnette shows how bubbles form, and explains how reasonable people can be deluded like anyone else.
Gretchen Rubin’s key contribution with this personal productivity book is the rubric of what she calls the “Four Tendencies.” People either embrace or resist some combination of inner and outer expectations, and knowing where you fall on the grid can help you figure out strategies to keep your habits. “Obligers,” who can keep promises to others but not themselves, need accountability partners. “Rebels,” who hate to be boxed in, need someone to play the foil by saying “you can’t do it.” A bonus: Fans of Rubin’s earlier book, The Happiness Project, will enjoy seeing the characters’ lives several years later.
Everyone wants to be a thought leader these days, but in order to become one you need worthwhile ideas, and you need to build a community around them. After all, it’s hard to be a leader if there’s no one following you. Dorie Clark’s book gives practical strategies for both aspects of thought leadership, from writing white papers to starting a podcast in order to have a good excuse for reaching out to influential people. Clark’s particular sweet spot is telling the tales of real people who are not household names, but have achieved thought leadership status in their own niches. It becomes easy to believe that you can do so too.
Many biographies of business leaders follow a certain format: a troubled company is saved by a great man or woman who swoops in and, through sheer force of talent, returns the venture to market leadership. In this book, though, journalist Nicholas Carlson resists this temptation. He argues that Yahoo! has been led by several capable leaders. Marissa Mayer is one of them. None of them has been able to bring Yahoo to greatness, and probably no one ever will. Leadership has its limits, which is good for leaders to know.
The concept of career capital isn’t new, but Jon Acuff brings his unique effervescence to this guide on how to create a Career Savings Account, which will enable you to get a “do over” and re-invent your work or get unstuck. From the profound (“digital bridges burn forever”) to the practical (“don’t microwave seafood in the break room”) this is an all-purpose handbook for winning at work.
Apple’s late CEO was a complicated man. The widespread perception is that he was brilliant and difficult. But if he was so difficult to work with, why did so many smart, nonmasochistic people want to work with him? Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s (Fast Company Editor At Large) biography draws on interviews with Tim Cook and other Apple executives, and with Jobs himself over the decades, to show how he grew from an arrogant hothead to someone who could lure in and unleash enough talent to build one of the world’s biggest companies.
After every airline crash, experts retrieve the “black box” to analyze and publicize what went wrong. The result? Flying becomes continuously safer. Contrast that to medicine, where malpractice claims often include nondisclosure clauses. In this book, Matthew Syed argues that learning from errors is the key to success, but human nature makes such soul-searching hard to do.
A particularly compelling chapter analyzes the “Scared Straight” programs that bring troubled youngsters to jails to show what awaits them. Studies show these programs actually increase crime, but people love them because they form a perfect narrative: the juvenile delinquent convinced by a saddened perp to go right. The lesson: Data should trump narrative. In life and in business, alas, it’s often the other way around.
9. The Effective Engineer: How to Leverage Your Efforts in Software Engineering to Make a Disproportionate and Meaningful Impact
Edmond Lau, a software engineer and veteran of the startup scene writes that he “wanted to increase my impact, but working 70 to 80 hours per week wasn’t sustainable.” So, with an engineer’s focus on processes, he set out to document how to “work less and accomplish more.” This book is aimed at software engineers, but there’s no code. You can benefit from the ideas of leverage, prototypes, and A/B testing–no matter what you do.
While Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin is perhaps too optimistic about which jobs human beings will insist other human beings do, this book is an excellent distillation of the science of what happens during face-to-face interaction. It’s also a solid guide on how to design training that can build up the high-value skills that machines can’t (yet) achieve.