“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” – Haruki Murakami
Writing is one of my great loves. Of course, can someone love writing without loving reading? I’m not sure, but safe to assume that reading is also one of my great loves!
One of my favorite things to do is peruse “must read lists.” Not necessarily so I can read what everyone else is reading for the sake of it, but to see if there are any books that will expose me to new thoughts and ideas. I am always looking to “think different.” I want to see if I can apply an “outside” technique or model to the industry I’m working in, or just to see if something can fit my own personal life!
Sometimes, we find solutions in the unlikeliest of places. In an HR context, this is a necessary skill for HR pros to learn. We must stay agile. We must stay open minded. We must always be looking for unorthodox answers.
So, to keep with that theme, here’s my list of five non-HR books all HR peeps should consider reading!
1. Essentialism by Greg McKeown
“Now let me ask you this: Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilized? Have you ever found yourself majoring in minor activities? Do you ever feel busy but not productive? Like you’re in motion, but never getting anywhere?
“If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the way of the Essentialist.” – Greg McKeown
This book entirely changed not only my view on how to work, but on how to live. Greg McKeown argues that a vast majority of what we encounter in a day is non-essential. A non-essentialist mindset is one that argues “yes, I can do that!” A non-essentialist lives by the mindset that “more with less.” This means never saying “no” to a meal despite your plate runneth over. These non-essential items, projects, ideas, actions, thoughts, requests, etc. suck people’s time, energy, money, emotions and offer very little return on investment. An Essentialist, however, lives by the mindset “less, but better” because they know that doing more with less often results in less! We only have so much time, money, and energy, and Essentialism is a way to sort through what’s truly important, and what isn’t. Essentialists are meticulous with what they give their precious time to, because time is the one thing we lose forever once it’s gone.
HR Connection: HR practitioners are bombarded EVERY DAY with non-essentials. It’s up to us to figure out what is truly worth our time so we can do less but better. It’s immensely difficult, but once implemented, McKeown argues that our lives will be transformed for the better, and we will add more value to our lives and to our organization. It’s a radical notion, yet all ideas that changed the world are.
2. The Art of Living by Epictetus
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” – Epictetus
I’m not shy in professing my love of Stoicism, the philosophy that espouses that we should focus our energy on mastering those items that we can control, most of all, our own minds. Epictetus isn’t the founder of the philosophy, but he is one of the most prominent figures in the philosophy’s long history. Born into slavery in ancient Rome, Epictetus eventually overcame his difficulties to become teacher to Marcus Aurelius, future emperor of Rome, and a stoic himself. The Art of Living is a newer condensed translation of his works (the Enchiridion and the Discourses) by Sharon Lebell. This was the book that got me into stoicism as a philosophy and as a way of life. It’s short, portable, and a quick read FULL of wisdom that is easy to understand. I keep a copy next to my bed because being stoic is difficult. I often fail, and that’s OK! Rereading portions of this manual every night gives the reader an opportunity to refocus and to relearn this timeless insight.
HR Connection: HR needs to remember to keep a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. We cannot control how the C-Suite views HR. We can’t force the importance of HR’s role on them. However, we CAN control how we think about HR and how we practice HR! By controlling our own management style and owning it, we can go about our business in a productive, strategic way. Over time, we will make GREAT strides by being ourselves. Eventually, others will take notice.
3. A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell
“When American history was first written, it featured and often celebrated politicians, military leaders, inventors, explorers, and other ‘great men.’ … A Renegade History goes deeper. It goes beneath what the ‘social history’ portrayed as the bottom. It tells the story of ‘bad’ Americans – drunkards, prostitutes, ‘shiftless’ slaves and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society – and shows how they shaped our world, created new pleasures, and expanded our freedoms.” – Thaddeus Russell
I was a history major in college. I LOVE history. All the history! As I got older, I craved new interpretations and new histories I never heard before. Enter, Thaddeus Russell. His book A Renegade History of the United States tells stories about the American “misfit.” The main theme isn’t that these renegades should be in charge of the country, or their way of living would be better. It’s simply to tell their stories and how they helped shape American culture for the better in certain areas. It’s a thought provoking and fascinating look at portions of American society that have never gotten much attention from this point of view.
HR Connection: While it isn’t an exact parallel, I find many similarities between Russell’s thinking and the disruption movement that’s been undertaking HR management over the past decade or so. Disruption is about changing our way of thinking. It’s about recognizing that there are different ways to interpret challenges and how to approach those challenges. Thought influencers like Adam Grant, Steve Browne, Dr. Melanie Peacock, Jennifer McClure, and so many others have helped usher in a new way of thinking. Old ways of thinking will not solve new challenges, so we must always reinterpret and rethink how we approach things, just like Russell.
4. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” – Cersei Lannister
I am not a big fiction reader (unless comic books count as fiction). However, much like my love for comics, my inner nerd controls my destiny when it comes to high fantasy epics! Like Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones (book one of Martin’s seven book magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire) is set in an alternate medieval world of swords, kingdoms, and magic! Unlike Tolkien’s works, however, Martin’s world is much less black and white. Fantasy novels tend to focus on absolutes – these are the good guys, and these are the bad guys. The bad guys always lose due to the good guys’ code that never waivers. Martin shuns this line of thinking because the world is much grayer. Good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. Good people can become evil, and vice versa. People scheme and plan to position themselves to win. At the end of the day, loyalties waiver and absolutes are anything but. The only absolute is that dragons are pretty damn cool!!!
HR Connection: I know what you’re thinking, maybe. “HR isn’t anything like A Game of Thrones!!! For one thing, there’s a lot less gratuitous violence and nudity.” While technically true, hopefully, I’d argue the principles Martin focus on match up pretty well to how HR needs to approach our work, especially in two main areas. First, the world is gray. We should live in that world and navigate accordingly. So throw the policy book out the window!!! You won’t find every situation in there, and even if we did, we can’t fit every little scenario into the fine print. It isn’t fair and won’t work well. Second, HR needs to be strategic. This notion has been played to death, except, HR is still seen as transactional by a lot of CEOs and HR pros themselves! To truly add powerful value, HR needs to think more like a Lannister and less like a Stark! No, don’t be a backstabbing jerk – if that’s how you play the game, you’re doing HR wrong (and life). What I mean is, we need to think several moves ahead. We need to set the trends, not merely read them months after new trends emerge. We need to position ourselves as forward-thinking challenge solvers to problems the C-Suite didn’t know existed! And hopefully, HR can find some dragons to swoop in on!
5. No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh
“Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh is a true treasure of this world. A Zen Buddhist monk exiled from Vietnam during the war in the 1960s, his teachings transcend religion. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and everyone in between can read his works and not feel preached to. He takes traditional Buddhist thought and philosophy and makes it accessible for everyday life. I chose this book to highlight because as I’ve written before, the World is suffering. But in keeping with the Zen proverb that “the obstacle is the path,” Hanh teaches us that suffering can become the nutrients we need to grow and blossom. By taking this gentle, empathetic approach, Hanh teaches that our minds can lessen our suffering by adjusting how we think and believe.
HR Connection: HR is fun. It can be a dance party! HR is also difficult. It can feel like going half a round with Mike Tyson, because that’s about as long as anyone of us would last in the ring with him! We must remember to transform our suffering into productive means. We must also remember that others suffer, too. Be empathetic and nonjudgmental in your approach. Try to find the lotus in the mud that bogs us down. It’s there if you look hard enough! Life is going to be muddy. We need to accept that fact. Yet, without mud, there can be no garden, thus no life.