Book reviews

How to Find Fulfilling Work

Roman Krznaric

I stumbled across this book amongst a table of The School of Life books in a store which sold mostly vinyl on Brick Lane in London. I wasn’t planning to buy a book but this one resonated with me so much I had to get it and I read half of it in one day.

The School of Life books are self help books which cover issues from How to Connect with Nature to How to Think Like an Entrepreneur (this is the next one on the list for me).

In How to Find Fulfilling Work, Krznaric explained why we might have chosen or fallen into careers which seemed right for many reasons but which now leave us feeling unfulfilled. He explained the different aspects we might consider when deciding how meaningful our work is, illustrating with examples, people who had found a way to get meaning from their work.

As a self help book, we’re prompted to ask ourselves questions and participate in exercises which consider our work lives so far. We’re prompted to think about what we want from work, to think about options for work which fit with our values and to draw on the opinions of others. Krznaric helps us understand why we’re afraid of change and by the end of the book I was left inspired and ready to make a change myself – which you can read about in my post I’m going for it.






Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg

I just devoured Lean In in four days. Now this blog isn’t really about work, but it is about goals, and your goals might be work related, they might be family related and more than likely there’s a cross over of the two involved in there somewhere. If you’re a woman who goes to work, or you know what, even if you’re not a woman, this book is great reading.

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and she’s had a successful career at Google and the US Treasury. In the book she talks about the obstacles women face at work, including obstacles she personally has faced, and tells us how we can and why we should (if we want to) overcome the obstacles which hold us back. There truly are physiological reasons why women and men behave differently in the workplace, and in the book Sandberg tells us how we might be thinking differently and how we can play to our different strengths.

Lean In includes observations about why men and women negotiate differently, how despite better equality in society, women who are successful at work are viewed less favourably than men who are successful at work because long standing stereotypes lead us to believe women should be “nice”, something we don’t associate with women (particularly mothers) who work – I’m not a mother myself but if you relate this, you might enjoy a blog post by Jessica Valnti called Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies.

Lean In covers a range of topics from having better equality at home, singing your own praises, mentors and sponsors at work to childcare and care of aging parents. Sandberg talks about having a broad long term plan (to travel the world or to work in a particular field) and a more specific 18 month plan an idea sits very nicely with my life planning posts which you might like to read here. A great insight, something I wasn’t aware of but which I can now see all around me is how women, particularly women who are thinking about having a family one day – even years in the future, “lean out”. Women don’t always take opportunities, they try to make space for a family they don’t have way before they need to, missing out on career progression. One of Sandberg’s pieces of advice is “don’t leave before you leave” and she means, don’t make plans for change until you absolutely have to, until the change is actually happening. If you want to progress at work, keep going, keep taking opportunities right until you’re forced to take a decision related to family, because if you don’t, you never know what life will throw at you, and by leaning out too soon you might miss out on five years of doing something you love.

Following the success of the book, you can now join a Lean In Circle near you where you can meet women and share stories, inspire and support one another and I’ll be seeking out my local group. I really enjoyed this book. As a woman who works and just might think about having a family one day, the messages in Lean In were useful, inspirational, and eye opening, I’d highly recommend the book.

The Year of Living Danishly

Helen Russell

I loved this book. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told you about it. A work colleague told me he was reading it on my recommendation, and because I’ve gone on about it so much, when he’s reading, the narrator in his mind is me.

I’m a massive Scandophile, I watched Borgen and the Bridge and I’m without doubt on a hunt for the elusive Danish happiness, in fact, I suspect this has partly fuelled Useful Soup.

The Year of Living Danishly follows the author, Helen Russell, a journalist, as she moves to rural Jutland so her husband can take his dream job at Lego. Throughout the book Russell tries to understand what drives the Danes’ happiness and as a Londoner, she calls out differences in society between the UK and Denmark. As a journalist she naturally builds relationships with interesting people and I enjoyed the stories an anecdotes about her neighbours and life and culture in Denmark.

I always knew the Scandinavians had a better work life balance and I enjoyed the insights into the Danish work place and the work ethic. The Danes have an idea that if you have to work overtime it’s because you’re not efficient enough during the work day, this is so different to in the UK, it’s enlightening. Russell tells us about hygge, a sensation of peace and belonging which we don’t have a word for in the English language. The Danes also love hobbies, filling all the free time they have from finishing work on time by going to clubs and groups. The book inspired me to embrace hygge and take up some hobbies.

In the book, Russell highlights many aspects of society which differ so much from in the UK. By highlighting how different life can be in a society with different approaches to education, work, equality and childcare, Russell really made me think about what I value. As well as making me think long and hard, the book was entertaining, it was so funny I laughed out loud, and above all the book was inspirational. Russell shows that it is possible to drop everything and make a life change.

The $100 Start Up

Chris Guillebeau

I love the idea of having my own business. In The $100 Start Up  Guillebeau explains that we can have our own businesses with minimal start up costs. He shows us how to start small businesses which can generate an income. The book isn’t necessarily about becoming a millionaire, it’s about running a business that affords you the lifestyle you want. Guillebeau acknowledges that many small businesses can fail, but if you’ve only invested $100 (£70), you can afford to fail can’t you?

It’s a tempting idea and Guillebeau gives real life examples and case studies of small businesses which became a success. I can see why The $100 Start Up is a New York Times best seller, Guillebeau makes the possibility of starting your own business a reality, who wouldn’t want to fire their boss and do more of what they love?

I found the stories motivational and I was surprised by how many there were in the book. Guillebeau talks about his own experiences but also interviews many business owners, he’s covered a broad range of businesses so the book gives you something to think about no matter what your passions. The ideas aren’t ground breaking, we’re encouraged to think about opportunities to start our own businesses using or adapting skills we already have as in an example where a waitress adapted her people skills to start a PR business.

There are case studies about reinventing or improving on products and services already in the market and inventing products that aren’t in the market or aren’t quite in the market in the options desired. In one of my favourite examples a couple can’t find a map that they want to buy and as a couple of designers, they develop their own. They have to order a minimum print run and find that there’s demand for the other maps they’ve had printed, their story starts from there.

In The $100 Start Up we’re encouraged to think about our skills, and to think about opportunities to start our own business by solving problems that aren’t addressed by existing products or improving on what’s already out there. We don’t need a lot of money, we don’t need an extraordinary education, the idea of a $100 start up is possible for everyone. I was highly motivated and I’d suggest keeping a pen at your side as you read the book.

Black Box Thinking

Matthew Syed

My husband, who has recently become strangely addicted to Air Crash Investigation, recommended this book to me. Now I understand his new obsession.

Black Box Thinking explains how we can learn from our mistakes if we analyse them differently. The book begins with a fascinating insight into how the aviation industry analyses data from aircraft black boxes to ensure that the errors which have happened once don’t happen again. Black Box Thinking just doesn’t happen in other industries, many errors are brushed off through narrative fallacy, “it was one of those things” allowing for little learning and improvement.

The idea is that if we invest a lot of ourselves into something, a career, a process or some aspect of society, our self esteem is invested in that status quo. Identifying that an error has taken place challenges the integrity of what we’re so heavily invested in, our belief network and our self esteem. This is too much to bear so we’re more likely to try to reframe an error than to admit and analyse the mistake, looking for opportunities to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

In Black Box Thinking, Syed also discusses how breaking large tasks like winning the Tour de France can be achieved through the theory of marginal gains. Breaking the goal into minute areas of focus and making small gains in each area can cumulate into significant improvements, for example making sure participants are rested by ensuring they sleep on the same mattress each night, and making sure participants don’t get sick by hoovering their rooms before bed.

I found the stories in the book to be really gripping. Syed covers real air crashes, failures in medicine, sport and F1. He explains the psychology of cognitive dissonance and how being able to identify when this is at play is the first step in making positive changes. He talks about how rather than reducing errors, blame cultures simply stop people speaking up and discourage learning. He writes about how control groups are required when testing and how this can prove whether initiatives such as free text books in Kenyan schools really make a difference or whether funding would be better spent on worming tablets for children. He shows us how thinking differently can significantly improve on previous outcomes, whether you’re looking to win a hotdog eating contest or to be the next James Dyson.

The book really made me think about how I deal with errors and problems, how I should address them and how I can learn from them. Syed is an excellent, engaging writer, I’d highly recommend Black Box Thinking and I look forward to catching up on Syed’s 2011 book, Bounce.


Strengths Finder 2.0

Tom Rath

Strengths Finder 2.0 is accompanied by an online survey which helps you identify your strengths and talents. The book starts by explaining how we are more aware of our weaknesses than our strengths and discusses how we live in a society which encourages us to invest a lot of time and effort in overcoming our weaknesses. Choosing to focus on our weaknesses means we neglect to make the most of our strengths so we miss out on the potential we have to achieve great things should we concentrate on the areas we’re best at.

It’s a brilliant concept and I can see why this book has sold over 4 million copies. I took the online test and identified my top five “themes” out of the 34 detailed in the book. After taking the test, you get an online report, or you can read more about your own talents in the book. The book contains a detailed description of each theme with ideas about how to make the most of your talents.

The book encourages you to collaborate with people who have talents which complement your own to leverage your success, and I think having a better understanding of your own personality and strengths as well as the strengths of others can help you tackle projects when working in teams, in your family or with your partner. I took this survey with my husband, so having the book I was able to read about his strengths and have a better idea of how he responds to certain situations and how this might differ to my approach.

As well as helping you focus on building potential in your strong areas, and helping you collaborate better with others, going through the process of identifying your strengths can be great for your confidence as well. If you feel you don’t really know what your strengths are or find yourself staring at a blank sheet of paper when trying to list out your talents I’d really recommend this resource. As with any test aiming you pigeon-hole your personality, take it with a pinch of salt, but Strengths Finder 2.0 is a great place to start and the ideas for action are really insightful.

Better Than Before

Gretchen Rubin

I started listening to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast before I read this book so I was familiar with some of the content before I got started. What I didn’t realise is that this is actually her third book, building on some of the concepts she set out in her first two books The Happiness Project (2009) and Happier at Home (2012). Reading Better than Before was a brilliant way for me to review what I’d learnt about myself through the insights of the podcast but let me recap for you if you’re not already familiar with Rubin.

This book is about habits. Rubin helps us to take a look at habits we’ve built and to think about them differently so we can understand where they’ve come from and find a strategy which works to change them for the better. The book isn’t just about changing bad habits though. Rubin also shows us how to build new habits which help us to do the things which make us happy. What’s key is that in order to change old habits and to make new ones, we really need to understand ourselves. We need to understand how we react and what we respond best (and worst) to. Something I found really useful was Rubin’s explanation of the four tendancies. I’d describe these as four categories we can fit our personality types into, the obliger, the upholder, the questioner and the rebel. Personally, I fit into the obliger category, and knowing this helps me to build habits I can stick to because they fulfil my values as an obliger. Habits which work well for an obliger wouldn’t work so well for somebody with a different personality such as a rebel though, and this is why some of us are successful and others aren’t successful when employing the same strategies.

As an obliger I feel very uncomfortable when there’s the possibility I might let somebody down. With this in mind, if I want to build a new habit to go to the gym, a good way for me to stick to this routine would be to set up a commitment with a friend. If I didn’t go to the gym is feel I’d let my friend down so is be more likely to go. A rebel on the other hand employs a “you can’t make me…” approach and is less motivated by a commitment. A better strategy for a rebel might be to leave their gym kit in the car so they can go to the gym on the spur of the moment when they feel like it. A strategy that works well for one person doesn’t work so well for another. It really is a simple but effective theory.

Another strategy I’ve built into my day, is the one-minute rule whereby if something will take no more than a minute you do it there and then. Doing this helps you keep on top of the little things like clutter and emails rather than building up a big overwhelming task list.

I enjoyed Better than Before, I’ve found Rubin’s theories to be effective in helping me know myself better and to be equipped to make positive changes, I’m looking forward to reading her other books.