Inside the Longlist: Personal Development & Human Behavior
December 01, 2016
The five finalists in the Personal Development & Human Behavior category help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us, to dig deeper and get to work.
The sociopolitical climate in the country and around the world has created a clear and distinct division of the human population in 2016, which has left a majority of our friends and family pondering over a deep and complex question, “What can I do?” The 100-plus books that were submitted in the Personal Development and Human Behavior category this year are thus ever more timely in addressing what we can do—not only to improve our day-to-day and professional lives, but also take a broader look at the behaviors of our fellow men and women, and what makes us all inherently human.
This time of year at 800-CEO-READ is always a bit exhilarating, as the book awards remind all of us that there are an overwhelming amount of brilliant people in our world willing to tackle the responsibility of providing insights and answers to these questions, and in the process pave a few new roads for everyone looking for guidance on the tough journey of self-improvement and positive growth. As it is every year, the hardest part of putting together this list is looking at the stack of books that I’m not able to write about in this article, because every one of them has something that helps with that complex question, “What can I do?” At the end of the long, often difficult process of picking five books that we feel are the most important pieces of work for the year, these five authors stood out for their blend of eloquent writing, meticulous research, and insightful action. We hope that they offer a bit of guidance, and help us all on our journeys to make ourselves and the world a better place.
As a fan of the On Being radio series and blog, I was really excited to see how Krista Tippet’s voice, her ideas and philosophies, would translate into the longer written form of a book. What I didn’t expect was just how timely the messages in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living would be, how they relate to all the things I'm thinking about as 2016 comes to a close. The book is an extremely thoughtful contribution at a time when a lot of people are trying to address how they interact with not only with others, but with themselves and the world around them. As we continue to drift further apart politically and socially, it’s becoming critically important for people to get to core of one of Tippet’s messages in Becoming Wise. “I’m a person who listens for a living,” she tells us. It's a lesson we could all take to heart. If we're going to continue to grow and progress as a culture, we all need to listen more—to ourselves and those around us, certainly, but more importantly we need to listen to those people whose ideas we may strongly disagree with.
Every year, there are a couple of books that we struggle to fit neatly into a category. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time, a book exploring the issue of people exploiting other people, was one of those books this season, and I’m happy that it landed on my desk as the judging came to close. The art of the con isn’t something that is part of most people’s daily thought process. We may question the motives of someone on the street asking for money, or kick ourselves for clicking the spam button on the suspicious emails in our inbox, but we tend to turn a blind eye to the oversized personalities, politicians, and celebrities that are just slick enough to manipulate our trust—and our need to believe in something—into believing false promises. Konnikova does a fantastic job of breaking down that human need to believe in something meaningful, and how easy it is for for people to be scammed or conned because of it. Cross-examining case studies on some to the most fascinating con artists of recent years, Konnikova challenges the reader to analyze why people continue to be so easily persuaded and victimized. At a time when the internet is rife with fake news stories and media outlets are rarely giving people solid facts, I found this book to be an extremely important and relevant piece of work.
We can’t ignore the fact that new technologies, workplace realities, media environments, and news cycles are having an extreme effect on people’s attention, behaviors, and daily practices. An overwhelming amount of people are looking for ways to dig deeper, asking what they can do to get more engaged with their work or more involved in causes to aid their fellow human beings, and yet find themselves stuck filtering through the internet and their social media channels, lost in a vast sea of noise. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport provides extremely valuable insight on developing a deep work ethic to help navigate through the noise, find your purpose, and achieve the goals you care about, but that seem so often impossible to reach. In a climate where distractions are ever present and around every corner, Newport provides actionable ideas to increase concentration and focus to accomplish what he calls "high-priority, high-payoff" work. For anyone passionate about something that seems just a bit out of reach, or intensely intimidating to tackle, Deep Work is the roadmap to help bring those ambitions into better focus and make them a reality.
In a category that can at times be the “feel good” category of the business book world, it is always great to see the amount of authors in the category diving deeper into the world of real psychology and science to give a bit of added weight and depth to the ideas they are presenting. We know it can feel like you are plowing through mountains of fluff to find a few valuable nuggets of insight, but with Amy Webb’s latest book, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, she grabs the reader immediately with the clarity of her writing as she pulls from the scientific research and supports the data with company anecdotes and personal stories. The value of this book comes from Webb’s important insight into awareness, and the action that follows from it. As another staff and family member of mine asked in his review of the book earlier this year: “How do we help ourselves understand what is actually in front of us, rather than blindly assume what we think and tell ourselves is real.” How to Have a Good Day answers that question, and helps us take on the challenge of self-awareness in a world that desperately needs it.
One overarching theme that I have continued to come upon in a majority of the personal development books submitted for the awards in this and past years was an attention to focus and awareness. Every one of the books that really stood out for me this year at least touched on this concept in one way or another. Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within addresses this through the ancient art of efficient and effective meditation, which Chade-Meng Tan refers to as “wise-laziness.” As our work and personal lives become more demanding, it’s often easy to forget and acknowledge the joy that helps get you through the stressful moments in life. The media outlets (new and traditional) that consume a large amount of our time and attention each day have the power to shift our focus, and too often trigger moments of fear and hostility, making our perception of reality skewed and severely flawed. This dangerous cycle often leads us to downplay the positives and overplay the negatives in our lives. Meng reminds us in this well-researched, humorous, and practical book that through mindfulness we all have the capacity to “tap into the natural, infinite capacity for joy,” and that through simple and practical mind-training steps we can all become more aware of joy in the world around us.