4 Books That Transformed My Professional Life

“Thank you for calling! My name is Becky. How may I help you?” I repeated this script more times than I cared to count each day as I worked in inbound sales during my last two years of graduate school. My sister wondered how I could still talk to her after being on the phone all day. It was definitely the right job for an extrovert and possibly an introvert’s worst nightmare.

RELATED: How to Turn Your First Job Into a Career

The job offered great pay and flexibility for a graduate student, but it was about more than just money. The company placed a special emphasis on developing their employees, and we even won prizes at the end of the year for reading certain books that would help us cultivate a successful career and life.

Not only did I win some fun t-shirts and socks (yes, socks), I also read four books that made a real impact on my life. These books gave me tools to navigate the world of “adulting” successfully.

1. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

Good to Great” explores why some businesses do well and others don’t make it, but its principles can apply to all areas of life. Case in point: the Hedgehog Concept.

In an ancient Greek parable, a fox tried many ways to catch a hedgehog — sneaking up on it, pouncing, outrunning it — but nothing worked. Why?

While the fox had many strategies, the hedgehog did just one thing consistently: Defend itself! It didn’t have to be smarter, faster, or sneakier than the fox. It just needed to keep doing one thing well.

I realized I needed to find my own “Hedgehog Concept” — something I loved, that I could excel at and make money while doing. I know the two things I love to do are speaking and writing about things that matter, so I try to seek opportunities that will allow me to do one or both of those things consistently. I think a lot of our 20s is just learning what our Hedgehog Concept is (and more often, what it isn’t)!

2. “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh

Once, I had a job that sounded great: I got to help students on work-travel visas from all over the world with everything from housing and work issues to cultural experiences. However, in reality, I was often stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to accommodate the students’ wishes and also abide by company regulations. My stress level was off the charts. 

Years later, I worked in a call center, which didn’t sound as exciting, but my supervisors and coworkers were the kinds of people who watched my dog after surgery, helped me move, and even gave me a free refrigerator when my new house didn’t have one. The people made the job great. As a result, I had no problem giving them my best, and I did extra training in my spare time to get even better at my job. I felt safe, respected, and supported.

Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, which has a quirky, fun culture in which employees (and their dogs) are treated like family. In “Delivering Happiness,” he shares how he learned what kind of business culture he wanted to build. Before Zappos, he had started another business and watched the culture go downhill before his very eyes when they started hiring people too quickly and caring more about skill than culture fit. When reading the book and reflecting on my past experience, I realized that work culture was even more important to me than job responsibilities in determining if I would be happy at a company.

Every organization has a culture. Whether you’ve just graduated or are building your career, an important question to ask is “What kind of world do I want to build? What kinds of people do I want to build it with?”

3. “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman

Have you ever wondered why some teachers or bosses seemed to always get the best out of you, while others make you feel like your I.Q. had dropped 20 points? 

In her research for “Multipliers,” Wiseman discovered that good leaders get more than 100% from the people around them, while ineffective leaders get as little as 20%. Ineffective leaders aren’t only tyrants or micromanagers, they’re also well-meaning “accidental diminishers” who overwhelm their teams with nonstop ideas or sudden changes. To quote the legendary football coach Darrell Royal, “you can’t be aggressive and confused at the same time.”

I like to come up with quick solutions to problems. I get impatient with deep analysis, and I want to move quickly so I can feel like I’m being productive and taking action. I realized after reading “Multipliers,” though, that my fast pace can overwhelm others around me who are analytical and like to spend time in deep thought before saying anything at meetings. My “accidental diminisher” behavior was preventing the company and me from getting the full benefit of their expertise.

Reading “Multipliers” will help you not only identify why you’re not doing your best under a certain professor or supervisor — it will help you stay on the lookout for your own “accidental diminisher” behaviors as you step up to lead in work, your family, and in all of life. 

4. “Humility” by Andrew Murray

Okay. “Humility” isn’t a business book, but it’s one of the most crucial books for success in both work and life.

The CEO of the last company I worked for had unwavering loyalty from his employees. We were proud to do our best for him. Why? It wasn’t because he was the smartest or the best at a specific skill. It was because of his humility.

Our administrative assistant was putting up tables for an outdoor celebration on an especially windy day. I walked out to help and found the CEO down on his hands and knees helping her tape down tablecloths.

The book was a great reminder that that’s the kind of person you want to work for. And that’s the kind of person you want to be as you take on leadership roles in life.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you see reality clearly, find your Hedgehog Concept, seek a culture that shares your values, or become a strong leader if you don’t do everything in humility. Humility is the door to healthy relationships and contentment in every season.

Content Survey (Inline)

We want to know what you think!