As a freelance writer, my business can really slow down in December, understandable since most of my clients have closed out the books on marketing for the year. And while new year planning is underway, the weeks before and after Christmas are still a bit early for those late January emails that start, “I’m wondering about your availability….”
But I still need to keep my instrument sharp. And one of the best ways to do that is to read.
So, a few years back I decided that instead of lamenting the slowdown, I’d use the time to catch up on my reading. And rather than rely on my usual haunts for finding good books — Copperfields, the NYT Book Review, Brain Pickings — I decided to send out an email to a list of random friends and colleagues and ask what they read and liked that year. Four years running, that email has returned a very eclectic mix of titles, and I often read books that wouldn’t occur to me to pick up.
So, in the spirit of the new year, here’s a list of books that have really helped me with goal setting and getting my priorities straight in years past. Hopefully you’ll find something on this list of nonfiction books you haven’t read yet (some are older releases). In any case, I hope at least one of these books sticks well enough to your literary ribs that you’ll find yourself asking a friend or colleague, “Have you read—?”
This book has been out for a few years, so I won’t be too surprised if a lot of readers are familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, I highly recommend it.
In a world where distraction is the rule not the exception (your phone just pinged, didn’t it?) Cal Newport argues that more than ever before, the complex nature of our lives and work projects requires that we find the time to be quiet and think. Newport, a computer science professor at MIT who has produced volumes but is still in his 30s, points out the disturbing irony that while technology has streamlined areas of our lives, it’s also opened the floodgates for endless distractions. The way Newport sees things, we all have bigger, hairier, more complex problems to tackle than ever before but no time to think deeply about solutions.
And that’s not good. Not personally or professionally. But what to do?
If you’re trying to get a project completed Newport suggests you set aside scheduled periods of time for intense focus. If you make a habit of taking the time, you literally change the wiring in your brain by building up your tolerance for ignoring the noise of daily life. So, close the office door, put the phone on silent, get rid of social media (or at least check it only once a day) and just basically stop responding for some period of time while you work and think. It can be as short as 15 minutes to start or as long as a few hours. The important thing is to rewire your habit of distraction to one of focus. It won’t happen overnight, but the results will be evident in the quality of the work you produce and the relationships in your life. Think about it the next time you check Facebook. And then ask yourself if Mr. Zuckerberg is interested in you.
This is another book that’s not a new release but one I think merits mention. I love books that include wide-ranging references to all sorts of brilliant men and women from many disciplines across history.
Ryan Holiday offers glimpses of a wide variety of titans and geniuses from Marcus Aurelius to Amelia Earhart and Steve Jobs to illustrate how the most painful obstacles and spirit-crushing stumbling blocks we encounter can be our greatest teachers. Its perspective is we need to see past the moment we’re suffering through and have faith that this too shall pass. And while the pain and grief of loss are real and have to be experienced, even the most shattering events have the power to transform us into stronger, more resilient, more capable and grateful humans.
This is the kind of book that inspires me to say, even when my ego’s bruised or my heart’s a little bit cracked, “No problem. I got this.”
I’m not usually a fan of this sort of rah, rah book (the kind that tells us that we can’t do everything, but we can do one or two things really well), mostly because that never seems realistic. Most people I know have a million different tasks to complete in the course of a day and, let’s face it, not everything we touch gets our one hundred percent undivided attention.
But I did like this book because it reinforces the concept of deep work and, more important, as a writer, I’ve always had to embrace the idea of the compound effect — one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time — if I was ever going to finish anything.
Honestly, all Darren Hardy is really saying is that if you want to become expert at something, “Finish what you start.” And if you can, focus on what you’re doing long enough and hard enough to do a good job (again, Deep Work!). But here’s the thing about becoming an expert at anything. If the one (project or report or book) you just completed isn’t as good as what you imagined, start again. And finish again. And keep that up for your entire life until you become more than proficient, more than expert but an aficionada. Because you will learn from every day that you put in and you will get better and better over time. That’s the compound effect. And it works.
Dorothy Butler Gilliam
When Dorothy Gilliam arrived in the Washington Post’s white, male-dominated newsroom in 1961, she knew she was in for a struggle. Fresh out of Columbia’s journalism school, her fight to gain respect at the paper would mirror the Civil Rights Movement that was well underway even while the family-owned paper still in no way represented the trials and tribulations of Washington DC’s large African American population.
Gilliam tells story after story of how she was marginalized, ignored and generally treated poorly. The inspiration is in how her treatment solidified her determination to add to the paper’s reporting focus the lives and contributions of African Americans. Gilliam’s beautifully written story is an excellent example of how the cream always rises but not before hard work and persistence pave the way.
Trailblazer reminds us it wasn’t that long ago that we were still a nation struggling with solidly entrenched, pervasive and often accepted racism, and so rather than congratulate ourselves for how far we’ve come, remembering where we were not so long ago should keep us ever vigilant.
I loved this book not just because I have great respect for Shonda Rhimes’s work — I’m a sucker for a good drama/thriller series — but because she’s a woman of color who has made it in a business that is insanely tough for even the most talented and connected (which she was not) to succeed. For me that’s the definition of inspiring.
But I also loved this book because it proves that even when it looks like someone “has it all” — the success, the fame, the money, the deep respect of his or her peers — that person can still feel overworked, overwhelmed, burned out and not sure of her own worth. Shonda Rhimes had four major television shows on the air at once and was working 15 hours a day pretty much seven days a week when she finally stopped and decided enough was enough. She made a promise to herself to say “YES” to things that frightened her and, more broadly, to many things — like stopping at the front door on the way out to work when her youngest child asked her to take a moment and play.
Rhymes is talking about the same thing as Cal Newport — the idea that we need to stop, turn things off and be present. Like Newport, Shonda Rhimes doesn’t think this is easy —quite the contrary. But she does think it’s profoundly important and deeply restorative. All good things to consider for the new year.
I heard about this book through a gifted graphic designer whom I’d worked with on a project. Author Shawn Achor is a respected speaker and self-styled happiness expert who believes that if we can get there, being happy is actually a competitive advantage in both work and life. Achor believes that one way to get to happy is to surround ourselves with three types of people who will offer support on our happiness quest:
Pillars – The people we can count on who we tend to consistently turn to for support and advice. These people know our situations and have our best interests at heart. They don’t like to see us in pain and yet they’re not willing to tell us something we “want” to hear just to alleviate that pain.
Bridges – These are the people who connect us to people and experiences outside of our group or comfort zone — the ones that give us new color, enrich us, give us a new perspective.
Extenders – People who push us to try something new or think differently about a subject we think we know everything about. These are people we trust, so when they push us to take another look, we feel confident they see something we don’t and so taking the leap isn’t quite as intimidating.
If asked, the vast majority of people would not answer, “my happiness” when asked what they most needed to achieve in the new year. It would sound selfish to the ear and frivolous to a mind cluttered with so many other seemingly important tasks and responsibilities.
But Achor has included reams of research to back up his claims that securing our own happiness is actually something legitimately worth working on. He believes that our big potential is infinitely more possible when we reach out and create communities filled with people we support and who support us. That’s how we become happier, more successful and more productive.
I’m a big fan of Brene, have read her other two books and revisit her famous TED talk whenever I need to brush up on my “I’m ok” attitude. Her website describes the book as “… learning and practice that requires brave work, tough conversations, and showing up with our whole hearts.” Easier said than done but something we all give our best shot to pulling off every day.
Brene believes in the power of the tough conversations (as does Shonda Rhimes) that we tend to avoid. This is a theme I think is not only important in any work environment or family, but one that as Americans we seem to find ourselves bathed in daily. Maybe your tough conversation this year will be about how you need more quiet time and fewer interruptions from your boss on the weekends? Or maybe that your government representative needs to step up more or compromise less. Brent is a very strong resource for anyone who is living a complex life (as we all are) and trying to get at least most of it right.
The War of Art is one of my all-time favorite books and the one I always suggest when people tell me they’re feeling stuck — no matter how or in what area of their lives.
Steven Pressfield, a writer who brought us the delightful movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance (and many other books and film scripts), speaks eloquently and with great compassion about the war that rages within every artist over the compulsion to create but the fear that what we create will be irrelevant.
But this book isn’t just for artists. Pressfield speaks to entrepreneurs, athletes and anyone who has a dream that burns within. As Pressfield sees it, since we’re all creators in one way or another and since we all find ourselves locked in pitched battles of resistance around creating, whether it’s a novel or a report for work, we can all learn from this important discussion about how to move past that resistance.
If you’re still struggling with resistance, you can also read Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. These are books that touch the soul, too.
If you’ve read and liked — or not — any of the books on this list, I’d love to hear from you. And don’t hesitate to send along a recommendation. I’ll pass it on the next time someone asks, “Read any good books lately?”
Maggie Harryman is a freelance copywriter who specializes in long-form writing, including case studies, white papers, website content and ebooks for the real estate, finance, technology, medical device and wine industries. She lives in Sonoma County and works throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.