Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Book Notes)

I recently finished reading the book Chatter, an excellent book on the power of positive and negative self talk. This topic is very relevant as much of my time spent with clients is helping them identify and overcome limiting beliefs. They want to break free from stories that have hold them back and no longer serve them. They need help moving forward.

Here are my two biggest lessons from the book: the power of journaling and using distance self-talk.

The Power of Journaling

Chatter author Ethan Kross writes:

Although journaling has surely been around nearly as long as the written word, it is only in the past few decades that research has begun to illuminate the psychological consolation it provides. Much of this work has been pioneered by the psychologist James Pennebaker.

Over the course of a long and distinguished career, he has shown that simply asking people to write about their most upsetting negative experiences for fifteen to twenty minutes—to create a narrative about what happened, if you will—leads them to feel better, visit the doctor less, and have healthier immune function. By focusing on our experiences from the perspective of a narrator who has to create a story, journaling creates distance from our experience. We feel less tied to it.

I’ve seen the power of journaling in my life and the lives of others. For example, my wife did a study abroad in Israel for four of the six months we were engaged. This period was really hard on me. Due to the time difference, there was never a good time for us to speak. And when we could speak, our time was limited as there was one phone for her classmates to share.

To say I didn’t handle this period well is an understatement. I’ll spare the details, but as the weeks went by, I grew anxious and depressed. I knew this was an incredible opportunity for her, but I started to resent her for being gone. I knew that if I didn’t pull myself together, I risked permanent damage to our relationship.

After discussing this with my dad, he invited me to journal. He told me that if I wrote down everything I was experiencing, every single day, I’d find the strength and peace I needed to get through this period. It worked. Journaling gave me a place to pour all my feelings, which allowed me to put a halt to the constant replay. Journaling helped me self regulate and see things more clearly.

When my clients are experiencing persistent negative feelings, I invite them to journal. They’ve seen similar benefits.

Using Distance Self-Talk

This was a new lesson for me. (Note that the author defines chatter as negative self-talk.)

The ability to “step back” from the echo chamber of our own minds so we can adopt a more objective perspective is an important tool for combating chatter. One way to create distance when you’re experiencing chatter involves language.

When you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, use your own name to coach yourself through a problem. Doing so is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, and less negative emotion.

Another way to think about your experience from a distanced perspective is to imagine what you would say to a friend experiencing the same problem as you. Think about the advice you’d give them and then apply it to yourself.

I love that Kross invites us to imagine what we might say to a friend experiencing the same challenge. I’ve found this approach effective with clients as we’re often harder on ourselves than those we care about, and it reframes the problem to be more solvable.

Overall, I thought Chatter was a great book that explores a topic we experience all the time but don’t talk about enough.

Alexander Hamilton and the Art of Discretion (Episode 11)

For the podcast version of this article, visit Apple, Google, or Spotify Podcasts

I first read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton in 2014, having previously studied the lives of his contemporaries, specifically, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. I had a glimpse into his life and how many historians remembered him, but Chernow’s account totally opened my eyes.

This man was far more than the first treasury secretary of the United States. His accomplishments include:

  • Supporting Washington as his chief staff aide during the American Revolution and commanding three battalions during the decisive battle of Yorktown
  • Architecting the Federalist Papers which played a pivotal role in defending and ratifying the U.S. Constitution (he wrote 51 of the 85 essays)
  • Founding a national bank and building the financial system that established the country’s credit
  • Creating the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York Post

Born in Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean, Hamilton’s father left him when he was a boy. Not long after, his mother died of yellow fever and his cousin, who was entrusted to watch over him, committed suicide. Without a doubt, of all the founding fathers, Hamilton’s rise to power is by far the most improbable.

Over the years my admiration for him only grew as I watched Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical and studied more of his life. A few months back, I decided to tackle his biography once more. The biggest lesson from reading this book, at least as it came to a close, is that of discretion.

Hamilton was a genius. Full stop. Yet, despite being a genius, or maybe because of it, he didn’t know when to keep silent. He spoke his mind at all times and this came back to hurt him on countless occasions.

In a letter to his son, sent days before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton wrote that he had “prepared for you a thesis on discretion. You may need it.” Here’s a portion of the letter.

“A prudent silence will frequently be taken for wisdom and a sentence or two cautiously thrown in will sometimes gain the palm of knowledge, while a man well informed but indescreet and unreserved will not uncommonly talk himself out of all consideration and weight.”

To quote Chernow, “This…sounds like the confessions of a man who had never learned to be discreet himself.” It’s been said that all advice is autobiographical, and Hamilton must have been talking to himself in a way, reflecting on times where his indiscretion had harmed him.

The dictionary provides two definitions of discretion:

  • The quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offense or revealing private information
  • The freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation

One can argue that had Hamilton shown more discretion throughout his life, had he behaved or spoken in a way that avoided causing offense to others, he wouldn’t have left behind such a long list of impressive accomplishments. Possibly, but a few moments of discretion could have spared him the hatred of many, and likely would have saved his life.

And what of Aaron Burr, the man who shot and killed Hamilton in their infamous duel? Burr was the antithesis of Hamilton. He rarely revealed how he felt on a given topic. He had the well-earned reputation of doing whatever was politically expedient. Burr was hard to read and many struggled to know where he stood.

Yet, as odd as it sounds, Burr ultimately paid a price for having too much discretion. Years of concealing how he felt and striving to be all things to all people took a toll. He finally reached the point where he couldn’t hide his true feelings towards Hamilton anymore and he lashed out. He had let his anger and hatred for Hamilton fester until he reached a boiling point and couldn’t hold back any longer.

Despite being the Vice President of the United States, Burr unleashed his rage and challenged Hamilton to a duel. He felt that Hamilton had defamed his character and had sought to destroy his political career. While he had plenty to lose from going after Hamilton, there was no turning back. Burr’s rage had consumed him.

Ironically, it was Hamilton’s death, rather than Hamilton’s verbal assaults, that led to Burr’s political undoing. After the fatal duel, Burr’s career was never the same. Facing potential murder charges, he fled to the South. He later faced treason charges for conspiring to plan the secession of several western states. So, he moved to Europe and didn’t return to New York until after his acquittal. His professional and personal life remained in tatters until his death in 1836.

It’s easy to point out the foibles of leaders who lived 200+ years ago. It’s harder to take those learnings and apply them to our lives to further our own development.

I invite you to consider the role discretion plays in your life. Are you like Hamilton, committed to speaking your mind at all times regardless of the occasion? Or are you more like Burr, constantly concealing your feelings, unwilling to share what you genuinely think until you reach a breaking point?

Much later in his life, reflecting on the duel, Burr remarked, “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Had he been willing to confront Hamilton earlier, had he been a little more indiscreet, they likely could have settled their differences peacefully and without violence. Conversely, had Hamilton been a little more discreet, had he effectively discerned when to maintain silence, his life likely wouldn’t have been taken at age 47.

The world certainly was wide enough for Hamilton and Burr.

As we move forward in our careers, I hope the lesson of these two men stay fresh. Discretion truly is an art.

The 5 Best Books I Reread in 2018

At the beginning of 2018, I made a goal to re-read several of my favorite books. I figured that if they were good enough the first time around, they were worth revisiting. Here are my top five.


The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

As the subtitle states, Holiday’s book outlines how you can turn setbacks into successes. Holiday’s advice is largely inspired by stoics, with Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius being the most influential. Here are three of my favorite passages:

  • “Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power. But every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted…So much power…is frittered away in this manner.”
  • “It’s supposed to be hard. Your first attempts aren’t going to work. It’s goings to take a lot out of you—but energy is an asset we can always find more of. It’s a renewable resource.”
  • “See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The Obstacle is the Way.”


Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

I love this book and wish I would have read it before writing my first book. I now keep a copy on my desk for reference. Chock-full of simple yet elegant insights, Steal Like an Artist is a short, wonderful read for anyone seeking to be more creative.

What is creativity? To me, it’s the ability to imagine, to generate new ideas, to create, and to build something original. I’ve never considered myself creative, but over the last few years, I’ve been trying to build this muscle. Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative type (most of us don’t), I think you’ll enjoy this book and find application for whatever you’re pursuing.


John Adams by David McCullough

I’m a huge fan of biographies and John Adams is one of my favorites. Adams was a polarizing figure throughout the American Revolution and held vicious grudges with several of the Founding Fathers. Despite his many flaws, Adams provided consistent leadership and played a critical role during the founding of the United States.

Biographies help me gain insights into how successful people handle crises, solve complex problems, and pursue interesting careers. Other favorite historical biographies include Truman (also by McCullough), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (by Walter Isaacson) and Alexander Hamilton (by Ron Chernow).


Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Holiday convincingly argues that ego is the main thing holding us back from reaching our full potential. Early in our careers, ego can prevent us from developing our talents, and when we taste success, it can blind us to our own faults. Holiday shares anecdotes from the lives of historical figures who reached high levels of power and success by con­quering their own egos, as well as those who let ego conquer them. These stories drive home lessons that we all can apply.

My biggest takeaway? Don’t focus on what your neighbors, your co-workers, or your classmates are doing. Focus on what you can control. Keep your own scorecard.


The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin

I first read this book in 2015 and found it so insightful I decided to read it again. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is known for saying, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” It makes for a great quote, but it’s completely false. Winners quit all the time, they’re just good at quitting at the right things. Free market systems reward the exceptional, and those who are best in the world at something get compensated 10x more than those who are merely good. Godin argues that we can all be the best in the world at something. To become exceptional, we first need to make sure we’re on the right path, then be willing to push past the point where most people give up.

Five years ago I left the finance world, largely because I didn’t feel I had the talent or desire to be exceptional in that field. I made the decision to forgo two years of income to pursue an MBA and completely switch careers. Several years in it’s clear to me I made the right choice. Knowing when to quit and when to stick isn’t easy, but this book provides a good framework to help with the decision.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

Five years ago I was challenged to read 30 books in a year. I accepted that challenge and wrote about what I learned at the end of the year. I’ve since made it a point to read at least 30 books a year and my life has been greatly enriched by doing so.

I read a lot of great books in 2018. In no particular order, here are my 10 favorites.

10) When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Dan Pink

This is the fourth book I’ve read from Dan Pink, which goes to show how highly I think of his work. There are a lot of “how-to” books out there, but as the title suggests, this is a “when-to” book. Pink explores the science of timing and answers many questions including:

  • How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule?
  • Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores?
  • Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon?
  • Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise?
  • What is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?

Regarding the last question, Pink found that people who change jobs frequently early in career end up making more money than those who don’t. Why? As it turns out, the likelihood that you’re going to start your career in a job that you’re good at AND enjoy is relatively low. Changing jobs early in career gives you more chances to find the right match. He also shared that one of the main reasons starting your career during a recession can be so damaging is that it limits your ability to change jobs and you end up staying somewhere that’s not a good fit.

9. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday is one of my favorite writers. While most of his books focus on stoicism, his first book details how easy it is to manipulate the media. I knew this book would expose the underbelly of media organizations but I was still shocked to learn how it all works today.

8. Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

We read Thinking in Bets for our DoorDash book club earlier this year and I initially wasn’t interested in it. It looked like a book about poker, a subject I don’t particularly care about. But I quickly learned it’s really a book about getting comfortable with uncertainty and making better decisions.

My biggest insight was realizing how often I base the quality of a decision on whether there’s a positive or negative outcome. Good outcome and I deserve a pat on the back. Bad outcome and I’m kicking myself. But in reality, decisions should be evaluated on information that’s available at the time, not on how things play out. When making decisions we often have limited information and an even more limited understanding of the risks. The more we can quantify those factors, the more we’ll end up making good choices.

Whether you read the book or not, think back to the worst decision you’ve made over the last year. If you’re like me, you immediately thought of a decision that led to a bad outcome, even if the decision itself may have been completely sound. Focusing on decision making process over outcome is the right way to do it and will yield to more good decisions in the long haul.

7. Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart by Shane Snow

Shane Snow is an amazing storyteller and weaves in clever anecdotes and thorough research to convey how we can build strong and impactful teams.

6. The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

Fantastic book on how to use defining moments to transform your life and business.

5. Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict

There’s an argument that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all time. There’s no argument that he revolutionized the sport and dramatically increased its popularity since first winning the Masters in 1997. Tiger was lethal in his prime, winning over 30% of the tournaments he entered during a 12-year stretch. He dominated the competition. (Here are his 40 most impressive feats.)

Much of the credit for Tiger’s greatness can be attributed to his father, Earl, who pushed him relentlessly. I knew his dad was intense, but this book opened my eyes to the extreme ways Earl pushed his son. It also opened my eyes as to how hard Woods pushed himself to be the best, and how, in his quest for greatness, he ultimately destroyed his family and frayed many close relationships. The book is outstanding and the Bill Simmons Podcast interview with Chuck Klosterman covers the most riveting parts.

For me, Woods’ rise to greatness stands as a cautionary tale. He accomplished so much, but at what cost? Climbing to the top of your field, whether it’s sports, business, or anything else, requires an almost myopic focus. Before we begin our climb, it’s worth asking ourselves, today, what is the ultimate goal we’re trying to accomplish? Or as Harvard professor Clayton Christensen asks, how will you measure your life?

4. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

A leadership fable that teaches how teams can overcome obstacles to achieve success. I really enjoyed Lencioni’s writing style and was engaged throughout the book.

3. The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi, Fumitake Koga

Earlier this year my friend tweeted, “Marc Andreessen thinks everyone should read this book right now: Adlerian psychology meets Stoic philosophy in Socratic dialogue. Compelling from front to back. Highly recommend.” So I bought it, and, and I’m glad I did. Written as dialog between a philosopher and a young man, The Courage to be Disliked was only recently published in English, but apparently sold over 3.5 million copies across Asia.

I drew a lot of insights, but my favorite lesson is connected to the book’s title. “Real freedom is the courage to be disliked. You’ll never be truly free unless you are willing to be disliked by others. The courage to be happy and the courage to be disliked go hand in hand.”

Amazon shows only 5-star and 1-star reviews, and I can see why. Some principles are simple and obvious, while others (past trauma has no impact on your ability to be happy) are much harder to swallow.  I don’t agree with everything taught, but it gave me a lot to think about. To me, that’s the sign of a great book.

I listened to the Audible version but it’s likely just as good in print. For a more thorough overview, check out this article.

2. Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

I loved this book. Might be the best I’ve read all year. There’s no business angle to Educated but I thought I’d share given that I literally couldn’t put it down.

1. Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord

From DVDs to streaming to original content, Netflix has reinvented itself several times. These reinventions were made possible by a unique culture that differs wildly from its Silicon Valley contemporaries. Netflix’s former HR leader shares the secrets of what makes that culture so effective.

Napoleon: A Life by Paul Johnson (Book Review)

A few years back, my wife and I went on a Mediterranean cruise. One of the stops was Ajaccio, Corsica—the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. We learned a lot about Bonaparte during our tour of the city, and I purchased a biography when we got back. Somehow it sat on my shelf untouched until last month.

Many Napoleon bios are long, some pushing more than 1,000 pages. I wanted to learn about Napoleon, but I didn’t want to go that deep on the French emperor. At under 200 pages, Napoleon: A Life is a relatively short read. Here are my learnings.

Napoleon’s dad died when he was just 15, and Napoleon took his place as head of the family. He did this even though he had an older brother (he was the second of eight children).

Bonaparte joined the French military and advanced quickly, partly because his country was constantly at war. His impact on the battlefield helped him skip multiple ranks as he rose to the top. He became emperor at age 34.

What set Napoleon apart? Mathematics. In the words of the author:

He paid constant attention to the role of calculation in war: distances to be covered, speed and route of march, quantities of supplies and animals, etc… Asked how long it would take to get a siege train from the French fortress of Verdun to the outskirts of Vienna, most officers of the day would shrug bewildered shoulders or make a wild guess. Bonaparte would consult a map and give the answer in exact days and hours.

He was incredibly skilled at reading large and small scale maps. He moved quickly and gave very detailed orders, two things that led to countless victories.

He was also known for his work ethic. Of his stamina, one of his contemporaries said: “He can work 18 hours at a stretch on one or on several subjects. I never saw him tired. I never found him lacking in inspiration, even when weary in body, nor when violently exercised, nor when angry.”

Despite Napoleon’s talents, his decisions were often shortsighted. The Louisiana Purchase proved to be a massive mistake. He sold the French-owned territory for $15 million to the United States, a relatively small amount for 828,000 square miles of invaluable land.

But he was never lacking in confidence. Napoleon said of himself:

Various subjects and affairs are stowed away in my brain as in a chest of drawers. When I want to take up any business, I shut one drawer and open another. None of them ever gets mixed, and never does this incommode me or fatigue me… I am always at work… I work all the time, at dinner and at the theater. I wake up at night in order to resume my work. I got up last night at 2am. I stretched myself on my couch before the fire to examine the army reports sent to me by the Minister of War. I found 20 mistakes in them… There is nothing relating to warfare that I cannot make myself. If nobody knows how to make gunpowder, I do. I can construct gun-carriages… If cannons must be cast, I will see that it is done properly. If tactical details must be taught, I will teach them.

Napoleon is a complicated man. You can’t label him a mercenary, but he’s not a patriot either. I’d call him an opportunist. He was a man who took full advantage of the time he lived in.

Napoleon was a war-time leader and struggled to rule on a long-term basis. He constantly looked for action. He once declared, “Europe is too small for me… I must go East.” He didn’t know when to stop himself and this eventually led to his downfall.

Bonaparte’s unending thirst for power led to the death of millions. Johnson writes, “No dictator of the tragic twentieth century—from Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong to pygmy tyrants like Kim Il Sung, Castro, Perón, Mengitsu, Saddam Hussein, Ceaușescu, and Gadhafi—was without distinctive echoes of the Napoleonic prototype.”

Napoleon may have been a great man, but he was certainly not a good man. Many of the biographies I’ve read leave me wanting to emulate the subject, but Napoleon: A Life pushed me in the other direction. The life of the French emperor serves as a warning of how our greatest strengths, if unchecked, can often become our greatest weaknesses.


8 Career-Boosting Books That’ll Get You Ahead This Year

Despite the many benefits of reading actual books, I’ll admit that for a period I read very little, always using lack of time as an excuse. Sound familiar?

But three years ago, I decided to make this a priority, and I’m proud to say that I’ve read at least one book a month since setting that goal. I’ve found it’s not only given me a competitive advantage in my career, but I’m also learning a lot more than ever before.

As I look to the year ahead, here are the eight books I recommend you pick up.

1. Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss

Over the last few years, Tim Ferriss has interviewed over 200 people on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. His goal in each episode is to analyze these world-class performers to extract the tactics and tools each of us can use to improve ourselves and our success quotient.

Ferriss’ latest, Tools of Titans, summarizes the key lessons from each of those interviews. The chapters are concise and each one focuses on the morning routines, exercise habits, favorite books, time-management tricks, and other insights from the podcast guests. Regardless of your exact pursuits, you’ll no doubt find something in here to help you get to the next level.

Click here to view the full article on The Muse.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2016

We regularly hear about the importance of reading actual books. Despite the many benefits, for years I read very little, always making the excuse that I didn’t have time.

Three years ago, I decided to make reading a priority and I’ve read at least one book a month since. I’ve found reading to be a competitive advantage and I regularly learn new things I wouldn’t be exposed to in any other way.

I read a lot of great books in 2016. Here are my 10 favorites (in no particular order).

1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Originally published in 1984, Cialdini’s classic book is just as relevant today. Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or an analyst fresh out of college, you’re likely trying to become more persuasive. Influence outlines the psychological tactics used by people when influencing us to say yes when we would otherwise say no. These tactics are lumped into six categories which Cialdini refers to as weapons of influence. He shares why TV laugh tracks work, how free samples are effective in increasing sales, and why censorship may actually stimulate demand. In addition to teaching how to gain more influence, this book shares how we can avoid the tricks and tactics used by others to get us to do things we normally wouldn’t.

2. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

The book vividly captures the struggles of an entrepreneur’s life in the trenches. It’s easy to look at a large, wildly successful company like Nike and presume that it was bound for success from the start, but that’s failing to look at the bigger picture. The same can be said of your career. Instead of focusing on the end result of our efforts, consider the importance of strife along the way to achieving a goal. Knight, in fact, faced plenty of obstacles and turbulent times throughout his rise as a leader of the impressive brand. Your missteps are a part of your journey, and this personal account will help you see that.

3. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Do you struggle with distraction? I certainly do. My quest for productivity and efficiency is continually offset by the hundreds of things vying for my attention. Cal Newport argues that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly more valuable in our economy. I recorded an audio clip where I provide a summary of Deep Work, including my favorite passages and how I’ve tried to implement the books principles.

4. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable by Seth Godin

In Linchpin, Godin argues that everyone is an artist now. By his definition, an artist is somebody who does “emotional work.” Work that you put your heart and soul into. Work that matters. Work that you gladly sacrifice all other alternatives for. And in Godin’s words, the only way to get what you’re worth is to stand out, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about. My favorite lesson from this book was understanding how you can change your job without actually leaving it.

5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

When I was at LinkedIn, part of my job was spent facilitating trainings to help people work more cohesively and effectively. At the beginning of each session, I shared Maya Angelou’s quote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

After quoting Maya several times, I decided to read one of her books. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of her five volume autobiography. It starts with her early childhood in rural Arkansas and ends with an unwanted pregnancy that dramatically changed her life. Angelou’s stories are heartbreaking, eye-opening, and inspiring. Her life experiences brought a different perspective and changed how I see others and the world around me. Reading this book helped me to know better. I hope, as she promises, that it will help me to do better.

6. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

previously wrote about why I love this book and books written in a similar fashion, so I’ll skip right to my favorite passages:

  • “Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success.”
  • “Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed… People can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way. The trick, researchers say, is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings.”
  • “Sometimes the best way to learn is to make information harder to absorb. This is known in psychology as disfluency. The harder we have to work to understand an idea or to process a piece of data, the stickier it becomes in our brain.” (Example: our memory is stronger when we take notes on paper instead of a laptop.)

7. Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

I’ve never been an avid tennis fan, but I absolutely loved this biography. While many celebrity memoirs stay at a surface level or only share the part of their life they want you to see, Agassi’s bio is different. He is brutally honest with himself. He bares his soul. You get to know him at an intimate, personal level. And you find that he, like most of us, is a very complicated person. Agassi’s dad forced him to play tennis at a young age. He required Andre to hit more than 2,500 balls a day and one million balls a year. Agassi grew to despise the sport, yet he still played into his mid-thirties when he no longer needed the money. He hates tennis, as he shares repeatedly in the book, yet his identity is integrally tied to the game. I found Agassi’s vulnerability refreshing and empowering.

8. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

As an HR leader, I regularly think about how to recruit top talent. When I watched Angela Duckworth’s TED talk, I was persuaded that grit is the most important trait to hire for. Last year, Duckworth took her research on grit and published a book on the topic. In short, grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. According to Duckworth, grit is a better predictor of success than anything else. Grit wins over IQ, EQ, raw talent, good looks, physical health, and education. Gritty people view unmet goals not as a setback but as an opportunity to learn and grow. Reading this book will teach you how to develop more grit so you can do the things that are most important to you.

9. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

A fantastic biography about a man who needs no introduction. Walt demonstrated how “one could assert one’s will on the world at the very time when everything seemed to be growing beyond control and beyond comprehension.” My biggest takeaway from this book was the importance of finding people with strengths that complement your own. Walt couldn’t have built what he did without his brother Roy. Walt was the creative visionary, while Roy was the steadying hand who helped finance and operationalize Walt’s vision, a role that was vitally important to the growth of the Disney empire. Of Walt’s many accomplishments, his most impressive might be leaving behind a company that continued to innovate well beyond his passing.

10. Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Holiday convincingly argues that ego is the main thing holding us back from reaching our full potential. In our careers, ego can prevent us from developing our talents, and when we taste success, it can blind us to our own faults. Holiday shares anecdotes from the lives of historical figures who reached high levels of power and success by con­quering their own egos, as well as those who let ego conquer them. These stories drive home lessons that we all can apply. My biggest takeaway? Don’t focus on what your neighbors, your co-workers, or your classmates are doing. Focus on what you can control. Keep your own scorecard.

Last year I started publishing a monthly newsletter where I share the top career-related books and articles I’ve read. Click here to check it out.

Why You Should Read Biographies (and 10 to Add to Your Reading List)

I recently had the opportunity to grab lunch with a former executive who led HR at several Fortune 500 companies. Midway through lunch, the conversation turned to the importance of gaining experience. He stated:

There’s no substitute for experience. But if you don’t have firsthand experience, the next best thing is to learn from the experiences of others. That’s why I love reading biographies.

Biographies help us gain insight into how successful people handle crises and solve complex problems. They invite us into people’s lives, allowing us to observe them as they grapple with challenges and make important decisions.

In some instances, biographies can stand as a warning, helping us know what pitfalls we should avoid. They open our eyes to the world, allowing us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This ultimately leads to greater understanding and better decision making.

In short, reading biographies will help you whether you’re an experienced executive or just launching your career. Here are my 10 favorites.

10. Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

Talent is critical to success, but it’s not enough. To achieve greatness in any field you need to couple talent with hard work. And Michael Jordan is the epitome of hard work. It’s been a year since I read his biography and I’m still awestruck by Jordan’s competitive drive. He aspired for greatness at a young age, worked his tail off throughout his career, and demanded excellence of everyone around him. It’s hard to study his life and not feel inspired to exert a little more effort in my pursuits.

9. Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

While many celebrity memoirs stay at surface level, Agassi’s bio is different. He is brutally honest with himself. You get to know him at an intimate, personal level. And you find that he, like most of us, is a very complicated person. Agassi’s dad forced him to play tennis at a young age. He required Andre to hit more than 2,500 balls a day and a million balls a year. Agassi grew to despise the sport, yet he still played into his mid-thirties when he no longer needed the money. His life is a paradox. He hates tennis, as he shares repeatedly in the book, yet his identity is integrally tied to the game. I found Agassi’s vulnerability both refreshing and empowering.

8. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk has been referred to as the next Steve Jobs, though some argue he’s already surpassed Jobs. Musk is the CEO of two companies—Tesla Motors and SpaceX—that are revolutionizing entirely different industries. He’s stated that the goals of his companies revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity. (How’s that for a big hairy audacious goal.) Musk’s story is far from complete, but this biography provides a well-written account of his life to date and his bold plans for the future.

7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This book is the first of Maya Angelou’s five volume autobiography. It starts with her early childhood in rural Arkansas and ends with an unwanted pregnancy that dramatically changed her life. Angelou’s stories are heartbreaking, eye-opening, and inspiring. Her life experiences brought me a different perspective and changed how I see others and the world around me. Angelou teaches that when we know better, we do better. Reading this book helped me to know better. I hope, as she promises, that it will help me to do better.

6. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

A multi-level biography that tells the story of University of Washington oarsman Joe Rantz and the other boys who defeated the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Rantz was abandoned as a child and endured the hardships that came from living through the Great Depression. His story is inspirational, but even more inspirational is the intense unity created among his teammates as they pursued Olympic gold.

5. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson tells an incredible story of a creative, complex, innovative, and enigmatic man who sought to put a dent in the universe. I loved learning about Jobs’ so-called “Reality Distortion Field” that allowed him to bend reality and convince others they could do the impossible. In Isaacson’s words: “[Jobs’] legacy is transforming seven industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing, and retail stores. His legacy is creating what became the most valuable company on earth, one that stood at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and is the company most likely still to be doing that a generation from now.”

4. 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t compare, but this memoir tells a remarkable story. In short, Solomon Northup was a free-born African American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For 12 years he suffered the brutality and hardship that came with being a slave. Within a year of gaining freedom, he wrote and published a firsthand account of what he endured. Northup is an incredible example of determination, resilience, and hope.

3. John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams was a polarizing figure throughout the American Revolution and held vicious grudges with several of the Founding Fathers. Despite his many flaws, Adams provided consistent leadership and played a critical role during the founding of the United States. What makes his biography so rich are the letters he and his wife Abigail wrote to each other. They provide a window into the souls of two great people as they fight for independence and build a new government.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

Frankl’s account of life in a concentration camp is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Frankl persuasively argues that all of us are motivated not by pleasure or happiness but meaning. My favorite quote: “Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning.” I first read this book in 2009 after getting laid off during the financial crisis. Reading it provided perspective on my personal trials and encouraged me to find meaning outside of the workplace.

1. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Louis Zamperini lived an amazing life, and Hillenbrand has penned a wonderful biography. Zamperini was an Olympic athlete who joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier during World War II. After the engines on his bomber failed, Zamperini found himself stranded at sea for weeks. His story is hard to fathom. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out. Unbroken is the best book I’ve ever read.

Nothing trumps experience, but reading quality biographies can give you the insight, inspiration and perspective you need to overcome obstacles and take your career to the next level.

Book Discussion: Choose Yourself by James Altucher

I’m trying something new.

A few months back, I started publishing a monthly newsletter to share the best career-related books and articles I’ve read, as well as a few of my own articles.

In my August newsletter, which won’t be published until the end of the month, I’ll be including Choose Yourself by James Altucher. In my newsletter, I only have room for a brief summary and a few quotes. But with audio, I can take the conversation deeper. 

Here’s the audio clip.

The Smarter Faster Better way to write nonfiction

This is a follow up to my recent rant post, Why (almost) no one reads nonfiction anymore.

A few months ago, I started coaching a handful of product managers at my company. New to this type of coaching, and wanting to model the approach of successful executive coaches, I purchased a book on the subject. With great anticipation I started reading my new book, excited for the lessons I hoped to learn.

Two months later, I’m stuck at page 37. I just can’t get through it. Over the last few weeks I’ve picked it up several times but can only make incremental progress before putting it down. The book is painfully monotonous and the long, drawn-out chapters seem to regurgitate the same message ad nauseum. I doubt I’ll ever finish it.

Alternatively, I recently finished reading Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. Though I loved Duhigg’s first book, The Power of Habit, I was hesitant to pick up his second book, which focuses on the secrets of productivity. The title wasn’t as compelling to me, but I went ahead and gave it a shot.

Smarter Faster Better is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It stands as a model of how great nonfiction can be. Here’s an example of why I loved it so much.

Chapter 5, titled Managing Others, tells the fascinating story of how a General Motors factory—that was once shutdown for performing abysmally—leveraged lean manufacturing principles from Toyota to become one the company’s most productive factories. It also shares how changes in how the FBI makes decisions led to the solving of a high-profile kidnapping case. These stories are beautifully woven together to drive home the key lessons of the chapter:

“Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success.”

Duhigg could have led the chapter with his core thesis and backed it up with facts, figures, and a few anecdotes. This is the approach many writers take.  

Rather, he starts with two seemingly disparate stories that come together as the chapter progresses. Duhigg’s ability to craft an engaging narrative is what makes Smarter Faster Better such a good read. And his approach of leading with story not only makes the book more interesting, it also creates stickier and more memorable lessons for his readers.

This is why Charles Duhigg is a New York Times bestselling author. This is why his book will be highly recommended in my next monthly newsletter. And this is why I’ll buy any book he writes in the future, regardless of the topic.

Authors, take note.