5 Books on Doing Great Work

by | Aug 8, 2017 | approachable leadership

The Backstory

Michael Bungay Stainer (author of the great book The Coaching Habit) recently asked me to list my Five Essential Books for Being a More Approachable Leader. He featured them on his blog Box of Crayons a couple of weeks ago. Everyone who follows our AL blog knows how much I geek out on Approachable Leadership. So of course I was honored and happy to oblige. You’ll have to go visit his post to get the low-down on those 5 books. But I think you’ll be glad you did. You might even be surprised by a couple that made the cut.

Making that list was really fun for me. I enjoyed thinking back on some of the books I’ve read and looking for connections between them. That’s what led me to write this post.

Many of my favorite bloggers/podcasters regularly feature book recommendations and books they’ve read. I especially pay attention to recommendations from folks like Michael Bungay Stanier (who I mentioned above), Brett McCay at Art of Manliness, Ryan Holiday, Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, Tim Ferris (and his many podcast guests), the team at Farnham Street, and Eric Barker over at Barking up the Wrong Tree (who has a new book out himself). These are my favorite posts to read. I discover lots of books this way (plus a few I can scratch off my list).

I’ve been on a bit of a reading tear. I read a lot when I fly, and I’ve been doing too much of that. But to make lemonade out of my travel schedule, I’ve decided to share my own reading list for the year. You can find the full list here. But today – inspired by Mr. Stanier whose brilliant podcast is about doing great work – I’d like to focus on 5 books I’ve read this year on doing great work.

5 Books on Doing Great Work

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

This one has been on my “to-read” list for a long time. I wish I had read it before. While on its face this is a book for artists like writers or painters, the substance can be applied to any professional. The big takeaway is that once you “go pro” in whatever you do, you have to do it every day (otherwise you’re being an amateur). The enemy of professionals is “the resistance.” Or all the things that distract you from your art or work. Pressfield’s story is inspiring but also sobering… going pro means a lot of work and there are no shortcuts. I really enjoyed this book but definitely left it feeling that I have a lot of work to do against “the resistance” in my own work.

Make It Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Rodiger, Mark McDaniel

This book blows up a bunch of myths about adult learning and offers a number of practical suggestions on the research-backed way to train and teach adults. It destroys myths like you should teach based on different “learning styles.” And that “cramming” is an effective way to learn. Instead you must adopt spaced, interleaved and varied practice. Forced retrieval and reconsolidation of prior learning. It also recommends using reflection and elaboration. As a teacher and training designer, I’ve been aware of these principles for years. But having everything laid out (especially with all the research about why it all works) was really valuable. This is a must read for those of you who teach or design training.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

So far the best book I’ve read this year. I should have read it years ago when it was first recommended to me. It is terrific. As soon as I finished, I made a bunch of Flashcards to study and cement the lessons taught (this was before I read Make it Stick, which recommends the same process 🙂 ) The core idea is that a business has one purpose: to find – as quickly as possible – something a customer will buy to solve a problem. It does this by running fast experiments to test hypotheses about how to solve the customer problem. The process of designing and testing those hypotheses is the magic of the model. It is a business strategy book, management book, and leadership book all rolled up into one. But how does it relate to great work? This whole model is about figuring out what solves a problem as efficiently as possible. Too much time and effort gets wasted on things that ultimately have no value – and that’s not great work. If you want to wring every ounce of value out of your work effort, this book is a must-read.

Draw to Win by Dan Roam

I heard about this one during an interview Michael Bungay Stanier did with Dan. When you start seeing some bad stick figure illustrations from me you can thank this book. I really enjoyed it. I actually spent the night after I finished it drawing for the first time in… let’s just say decades. Which was pretty enjoyable as I’m a somewhat visual person, especially in presentations. (I was an early adopter of Prezi, and love to “think” on a whiteboard.) Roam suggests that 2/3 of our brain is designed to process visual information. The big takeaway is that the person who draws the best picture wins. I plan to add more drawing to my toolkit after reading this. And after reading this next book, chances are good you’ll get to see some of them 🙂

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

This one has also been on the list a while, and seemed like a natural follow up to Dan Roam’s book. The big takeaway here is that in today’s world we should always be showing our work. Not just the finished product. All of the work. By curating the things we are working on day to day, we get feedback all along the creative process. And it also helps keep us honest about doing our great work. Versus giving into the “resistance” – hate to have to tweet that you spent the last 3 hours on social media! You may have noticed that I’ve been posting pictures of my work with the hashtag #showyourwork. You can thank this book 😉

How to use these books to start doing your own great work

Most of us try to avoid bad work. But if you’re like me you can easily get sucked into doing not-great work. And this can kill your motivation and make you feel like you are spinning your wheels. These 5 books look at different ways you can ignite passion in your work, think a little more like an artist, and bring more of yourself to your work. And the more you fight the resistance, get efficient and targeted about your work, and apply your whole brain to your effort, the more great work you’ll produce. Let me know what you think about these books and share with me what you’re up to in the comments (and show your work!)

So get to reading and do more great work!