7 life-changing business books

Not all of these tomes was written about the workplace, though the lessons they offer can permeate and heighten your professional and personal successes.

A business major recently asked me to recommend business books that had changed my life.

I can name plenty of great books, but books that changed my life? That means those books had to make a lasting impact on how I think and act—and that makes the list much shorter.

Each of the following books meets that standard. In certain situations, I immediately flash back to a particular book and think, “I know exactly what to do,” which sounds like a great definition of “changed my life.”

1. “The Talent Code,” by Daniel Coyle

We’re all trying to learn new skills and improve old skills, and Coyle uses the science of performance to provide a great blueprint for getting really good at, well, anything.

Every time I try to learn something new, I follow his REPS approach: Reaching and repeating; Engagement; Purposefulness; Strong and speedy feedback. It works—every time—and more quickly than any other approach I’ve tried.

Successfully try new things, and you’ll try even more new things, and your life will be infinitely richer, whether professionally or personally.

2. “Devil in the Grove,” by Gilbert King

Two things to know:

1. This is not a business book.

2. I’m a white boy born in the southern U.S. in 1960.

I’ve been to diversity seminars. I’ve been through diversity training. I’ve even conducted diversity training. But nothing changed the way I think about people who are different from me—whether in race, religion, background, or simply how they look or act—the way King’s book did.

I thought I was reasonably enlightened. I wasn’t. “Devil in the Grove” is a fascinating, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching story that should be required reading for everyone.

3. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

We all want to follow our passions. Newport argues we often get it backward, at least at first: Passion follows from skill and expertise, because the better we get at something, the more we like it.

That’s because of a cool feedback loop. When you improve you feel satisfied and fulfilled. That feeling motivates you to keep trying to improve, and when you improve more, you feel even more satisfied and fulfilled. So, you keep working and improving.

In the process, you learn to enjoy and sometimes even love doing just about anything. You just have to try.

For example, some years ago I needed to get back in shape. Bad knees made running impossible, so I—grudgingly—started riding a bike. At first I hated it. Then I got in slightly better shape and could ride a little faster and farther, which made me feel a little better about myself. That motivated me to keep riding. Over time, I kept getting faster, kept getting fitter-and now I love cycling.

The same is true with speaking. I hated it at first. As I got better, I liked it more. Now I really enjoy it.

All I had to do was get that feedback loop going. You don’t always have to find your passion first. When you try-and really try to get better-passion is very likely to find you.

4. “Confidence,” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

I’m shy and insecure. For a long time I tried to overcome it by trying to change my personality and somehow willing myself to be more confident.

You can guess how that worked out.

Chamorro-Premuzic takes a different approach. He shows how confidence is built through success involving another cool feedback loop. Improvement builds confidence. Competence builds confidence. Success builds confidence.

So forget the “self talk.” Admit your failings and work hard to improve them. In time, knowing you’ve been there, done that, and done it well creates genuine confidence. Genuine confidence can never be taken away, because you’ve earned it.

5. “The Effortless Experience,” by Dixon, Toman and Delisi

No matter what our role, market, or industry, we’re all in the customer service business.

Instead of tossing out theories and platitudes, Toman and Delisi provide dozens of practical tips. There’s definitely an art to customer service, but there’s also a science—and “The Effortless Experience” provides testable and repeatable ways to improve the most important function of any business.

6. “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg

We are what we do, and what we do is based on our habits. Duhigg shows how to take bad habits and turn them into good ones—and how organizations can change their habits, too.

Want to be happy? Change your habits. It’s that simple. (And, of course, that complicated.)

It’s worth it, though, because changing a habit really can change your life.

7. In Search of Excellence,” by Tom Peters

I worked in manufacturing for a Fortune 500 company in the 1980s and 1990s, and this book was my competitive advantage within the company.

I didn’t have to rely solely on internal training or mentors. Peters gave me a different way of thinking. Even today, although some of the companies described in the book have since failed, the lessons are still relevant.

If you’re feeling adrift and overwhelmed and feel the urge to get back to basics (and who doesn’t from time to time?) “In Search of Excellence” is your book.

(Tom’s book probably changed your life, too. If you’ve ever benefited from advice by Collins, Drucker, Blanchard, Deming, or other management thought leaders, you can thank Peters, who basically ushered in the era of the modern management guru.)

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.


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