From Latin: Col (together) and Laborare (to work)
A selection of books to learn about how human brains work, and how we can more effectively work together.
Thinking about thinking
Learning to learn
Working in groups
Understanding how to work with ourselves and those around us is vital to accomplishing pretty much anything of consequence of value.
As individuals it’s easy for us to lose time to distraction or live less-than-fulfilling lives. Understanding and managing ourselves is only part of the puzzle, though, we’ll accomplish little if we attempt to work in isolation for extended periods of time.
Forging ambition into an ability to execute and drive results - in whatever domain you work in, is difficult. To achieve great things we have to both manage ourselves, manage others, and have a broader appreciation for how people work.
Several of the books in this section either dive straight into, or touch on, psychology. This is a domain that is notoriously difficult to study and is at the center of the replication crisis. Readers should approach the claims in many of these books with a healthy mix of skepticism.
The ideas contained within these books are nevertheless important to understand as even those that haven’t replicated well have become part of the canonical understanding many folks operate with. Some quick googling of the studies, books, authors, and theories contained here will give the reader a sense of the state of academic (dis)agreement.
The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter provides such a fantastic and foundational view of how humans learn, influence one another, and work together in groups that it deserves a category unto itself.
The central argument of the book is that social learning, the ability to determine who to learn from and how to learn quickly, is the major differentiating factors between humans and other animals/great apes. This argument is unintuitive (we often believe we have some other forms of greater intelligence) and yet critical for understanding our strengths and weaknesses as a species. If you read one book from this list it should be this one.
Thinking about thinking
Mindfulness is a book written by a research psychologist for more general audiences. The book is a digestible summary of techniques (and studies on those techniques) focused on bringing more intentionality to daily life. The author conducted many studies in retirement communities showing that taking on responsibility and focusing more consciously on daily activities could ward off cognitive decline. The book is an easy read that helps you explore the inside of your own mind - which is perhaps a more mutable place than you would have thought.
The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It was a particularly useful book for me to read. In short: We’ve been conditioned to think that stress is something bad that will harm us. Many of us look to run from stress: In the moment when our heart rate goes up and we think something is wrong and our instinct is to try and calm down. The author shows that this may be entirely wrong and provides directly actionable advice on reframing stress and making it work for you. A must read for anyone in a high performance role.
Thinking, Fast and Slow. Thinking has become a classic amongst investors because the authors pioneered work showing ways in which cognitive biases cause us to make what may seem to be irrational or unexpected choices and tradeoffs - in particular relating to risk. The book goes deeply into biases and shortcuts the human brain crafts to make certain processes automatic - and explains both the upside and downside of this subconscious automation.
The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race is a brisk tour through a simplified view of how Dopamine impacts human behavior. The book is quite oriented to popular audiences and I can’t say I buy every claim that the book makes, and the popular literature is probably overly concerned with writing about dopamine, but the thought provoking arguments made here are especially useful for someone who is ambitious to read and consider.
Learning to learn
The most important skill is learning: It’s like asking a magic genie for more wishes - it’s the skill to unlock all other skills.
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance was recommended to me by a friend years ago, and while the book is nominally about learning to play tennis the lessons are more widely applicable and the book (and author) have developed what seems to be somewhat of a cult following since the 1970s. The book advocates a self-aware, mindful, and non-judgemental approach to learning and improvement. It’s a quick read and readily applicable.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is a widely read adaptation of the author’s academic work for more general audiences. The research discussed here is the origin of the often cited “growth vs fixed” mindset paradigm. The book cautions readers against putting too much emphasis on our expectations of innate ability (e.g. intelligence) and rather advises us to focus on working harder and building skills with practice.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones are two similar books outline systems to develop better personal management systems and - perhaps obviously - habits. Despite the very self-helpy nature of the texts I found both contained good suggestions that were rather immediately implementable. You probably only need to read one but I enjoyed both.
Focusing is really hard. There’s some overlap in this section with the “habit” themed books above - and the content is similarly self-help-oriented but I’ve found them valuable.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is the best thing I’ve read in this category. It’s a deeply enjoyable book with a holistic take on how and why to focus. It has very tactical advice on saying no and doing less, but it also motivates an entire worldview that I find helpful. This was good enough the first time that it is on my list to re-read.
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life has some good insights and tips in a similar vein - mostly notably on how to reduce external distractions. The book could probably be condensed a bit and I found parts of it repetitive but the core messages were useful to hear and there are some good practical suggestions.
Working in groups
Working well with others is simultaneously an overused phrase and an underappreciated skill.
Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It is one of the books I most commonly recommend to folks who are working to improve their ability to influence others. The author, a former hostage negotiator, teaches a number of memorable techniques to help an interlocutor see problems from your perspective and move towards a commonly agreeable solution.
Years ago as the organization I was responsible for scaled up my manager at the time recommended The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. This is a classic “manager” book by a classic management thinker - and it reads a bit old school but the advice contained within was immediately applicable and helpful.
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency is more of a history book and set of stories than a clear guide for management principles. The book provides a novel look at how leaders operate through layers of management, and how critical those deputies are to success.
I read Don’t Think About Purple Elephants in one 45 minute sitting. The simple concept of the book is to change how you speak about (and thus frame) behavior you want to change. The book is practical, short, and has direct applicability. The book may also stimulate further thinking about what other sort of framing changes could be made in our daily interactions with people to elicit the behavior you’d like to see.