My Three Favorite Books For Professionals (Or Anyone)

If I were to create a book group for professionals at any level, whether you’re just starting out or you’re leading a firm, I wouldn’t use books written about management or leadership, or books written for their respective industries. Instead, I’d pick the three general non-fiction books here, on which I’ve built a large part of my practice.

The Upside of Down by Megan McArdle

At some point in our careers, we all have to deal with failure. But even more often, we have to deal with the way that the worries about failure hold us back from taking the actions we know we need to. In this book, Megan McArdle reframes the way we see failure, from something bad that we do to a data point that helps us learn.

There are a lot of books out there right now about a similar topic: resilience, grit, or a growth mindset. But this book is different. To start, it’s an easy read — I plowed through it in a few days. The stories are entertaining and illuminating — you learn something new with each one, and they’re not all drawn from academia. They cover a variety of scenarios, from her own personal life, to job searching, to business and government.

Successful professionals aren’t used to failure. They were the “smart” kids in school who turned success as students into successful careers. But to make it to the next level for themselves and their firms, they often need to overcome some sort of risk aversion. Whether it’s about business development, a management conversation, or a client project. I find myself coming back to the anecdotes in the book often, and more importantly, teaching the lessons to my clients.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

As a consultant, changing people’s behavior is core to the business. But most people aren’t very good at it. Change management is well-tread territory, but most books on the subject deal focus on organizations or deal mostly with the role of leaders. Switch gives a framework anyone can use to lead change, whether they’re at the bottom of the organization, dealing with their spouse, or leading a social movement.

The Switch framework looks at balancing both the rational and the emotional sides of the people you’re trying to change using the metaphor of an elephant (emotional) ridden by a rider (rational). It’s easy to understand, research based, and practically applicable. Sometimes, when I’m stuck on a problem, I’ll take it out to help me think through what I’m missing. Many change programs focus on the mechanics of communication, rather than the messages that lead to change and the messengers that deliver it, and Switch helps you see through those ommissions.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Years ago, I read the New Yorker article that became The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, but I put off reading the book. This was a mistake. Professional practice in nearly every field has become so complicated that the individual expert (what Gawande calls the Master Builder) is being replaced by teams of interconnected specialists.

Gawande looks at the way this is affecting medical practice, his profession, and tries to draw lessons from other professionals that had to deal with the same issues. His finds that the real need is for innovations that improve communication and adherence to best practices, not new technologies. And the most effective process innovation in every field where near-perfect quality is important, from high-end restaurants, to commercial construction, to flying an airplane, is a checklist.

Once you realize how powerful a checklist can be, you start to see where they’d be useful all over professional practices. In medical offices, law firms, or consultancies, but also in your daily life. You also see that the checklist really isn’t about the tool, it’s about the culture change that comes from using it.

The book not only makes the case for creating a checklist, but also lays out the process. It makes clear that designing a good checklist is hard, and gives tips for how to do it. Getting people to actually use a checklist is even harder, and the case studies give you a template for rolling out your own. My first reaction after reading the book was “I should have done this a decade ago.”

So what do these books all have in common?

First, they’re practical in their application. Each of them deals with a problem that we all face regularly. They provide a simple framework for thinking through the problem, one that you can intuitively understand and apply. And they’re relevant no matter where you are in an organization. You don’t have to be a leader or have formal authority to put them in place.

Second, the books are interesting reads. They combine a mix of anecdote and data to tell a story, and involve the authors own experiences in the learning process. Stories make them come alive for the reader, but they’re all backed by solid research and data. The stories also help you to get others onboard with the ideas, even if they haven’t read the book.

Finally, these books aren’t really business books, but they can be easily applied to business situations. They can be applied just as easily to any individual or organization, from yourself, to your family, to your community, to your firm. And because the frameworks are so accessible, you can easily reference them in a variety of situations.