As long-time AA readers know, I read a lot of books this year.
As we approach the year’s end, I want to highlight the 4 best. These are the books whose lessons have lingered in my mind for months.
Here we go, in no particular order —
Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
This book rocked my world.
An average runner, Colvin says, will distract himself from the fact that he’s running. He’ll listen to music, look at the trees, zone out. At best, he’ll focus on his breath.
An all-star athlete, however, will observe himself the way a coach would. He’ll tune into every nuance of his body: posture, stride, the angle at which his foot hits the ground. “(Elite runners) count their breaths and simultaneously count their strides in order to maintain certain ratios,” Colvin writes.
That makes sense, right? Obviously elite athletes need high performance self-awareness.
But guess what: this practice isn’t limited to runners. Top-performing executives do the same. They observe their daily habits, time management, and social interactions the way an executive coach would. They critique their management techniques the way a runner critiques his stride.
I haven’t been able to get that lesson out of my mind. It’s just one of many powerful lessons in this book. Each lesson illustrates a point: excellence is the result of practice, not talent.
Here’s my full review of Talent is Overrated, definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin
People don’t buy products, Seth says. People buy stories. They buy representations of the person that they want to become.
When they buy organic products, he says, they’re buying a story about health and eco-friendliness. When they buy a brand of sneakers, they’re buying a story that says either “I’m a hipster” or “I’m an athlete” or “I’m too cool for you.”
I think about this book when my friends or I note something they want. Do people really want a high-rise condo, or do they want to tell a story that says “I’m urban and sophisticated”? Do people really want a luxury car, or do they want to tell a story that says “I’m successful”?
Here’s my full review of All Marketers Are Liars. Glance down at the comments section, where an advertising copywriter noted that “People don’t want soap. They want clean hands.”
Good to Great by Jim Collins
Stanford business professor Jim Collins asks a simple question: Why do some companies remain “okay” or “fine,” while others flourish into legendary greatness?
Is it luck? Random chance? Or is there some shared characteristic that separates mediocre from amazing?
Since he’s a researcher, he undertakes a systematic study of historically awesome companies. He then lists 8 characteristics that incredible companies share.
The quality that stick in my mind? Awesome companies ignore certain metrics.
In today’s data-driven world, it’s fashionable for companies (and people!) to track every friggin’ metric.
Want to see how successful your blog is? Track your visitors, your average time-on-site, your pageviews, your ratio of new-to-returning readers, your main referral sources, your most-viewed pages, your subscription conversation rates, blah blah blah ….
Want to lose weight? Track your calories, your carbohydrates, your fat intake, your number of meals per day and your gap of time between meals. Track your cardio exercise, your weight-lifting repetitions, your ratio of moderate- to high-intensity activities, your major and minor muscle groups, etc., etc., etc.
It’s enough to make your head explode.
Some of the greatest companies, Collins explains, intentionally ignore many metrics. Walgreens, he says, decided to focus on only one metric, to the exclusion of all others.
Read my full review of Good to Great here, and check out this book to get the full story.
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers, and I recommend ALL of his books. What the Dog Saw is a collection of short stories in which Gladwell extrapolates mind-blowing lessons from obscure anecdotes.
The chapter that’s haunted me the most is Gladwell’s tale of French artist Paul Cezanne.
Cezanne didn’t show any early signs of talent. He didn’t enjoy early success. In fact, he didn’t even score his first solo exhibit until he was 56.
In hindsight, he’s considered one of the history’s greatest artists. Why did he falter so much for the first 30+ years of his attempted artistic career?
(Spoiler alert!) Perhaps, Gladwell muses, its because he wasn’t born with artistic genius. Maybe “talent” is the result of devoting yourself to a specific craft for decades. (This ties into the central thesis of Talent Is Overrated.)
Here’s my full review of What the Dog Saw.