One of the greatest constraints entrepreneurs face is the inability to view things from a new point of view. Returning again and again to a box that's filled only with the ideas and experiences of our past or those of our industry norm is what makes innovation, growth and creativity seem so hard.
But great artists and others we might call creative are often blessed with the gift of envisioning things differently, seeing negative space as the real potential or finding patterns in nature and culture that offer clues to massive discoveries in seemingly unrelated fields. While the traditionally analytical business owner may not view themselves as naturally creative, there is significant evidence that a new view of space and time can be acquired if you’re open to it, and I would like to suggest you must be.
I want to share a list of 10 books, none of which was written this year and none of which could directly be categorized as a business book. These books, however, have helped shape the lens through which I view my business, strategy, challenges and maybe even relationships. They have changed the way I think, and I believe they could do the same for you.
1. The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. While architects are very familiar with this classic work about patterns in architecture, I was blown away by the practical application of this one idea: A pattern is a way to solve a specific problem, by bringing two conflicting forces into balance. I think the study of patterns is such a fascinating way to view business, selling, systems and customers.
2. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell). Originally written by Campbell in the 1940s and famous as George Lucas' inspiration for "Star Wars," this book should be required reading for anyone who needs to tell a story or take prospects on a journey.
3. The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse by Jennifer Ouellette. The Calculus Diaries is the fun and fascinating account of English major Jennifer Ouellette’s year spent confronting her math phobia head on. With a fair amount of humor tossed in, Ouellette shows how she learned to apply calculus to everything from gas mileage to dieting, from the rides at Disneyland to shooting craps in Vegas—proving that even the mathematically challenged can learn the fundamentals of the universal language. This book demonstrates how you can totally change your view of something when you start to look for practical applications. So many people can relate to the math phobia, and I think there are many business phobias that need a new look—hate selling, anyone?
4. 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life by John Kralik. This inspiring book sheds so much light on the act of gratitude in business that everyone can benefit from adopting this practice in one fashion or another.
5. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. This is likely the title most people will be familiar with, as it was recently made into a movie staring Brad Pitt. I like this one because it showcases how you can beat your competition by thinking about your challenges in an entirely different way. It also emphasizes the importance of data over gut feelings.
6. Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte. This visually gorgeous book is one you might find on a coffee table or two, but it's not a book to just flip through. This is something you need to spend time with, as it presents the best examples of visual information design and the underlying principles that make for great design. While it’s easy to see how this book should be required reading for Web page designers, UI designers, statisticians, cartographers and scientists, today every business owner must be concerned with presenting dense information in a clear way. This book shows you how to do that.
7. The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life by Andy Raskin. This entertaining book is the autobiography of NPR commentator Andy Raskin, and it's part humorous, part odd and part spiritual. For me, the best part was an introduction to the Japanese art of sushi. Although I’m not really a sushi fan, this book opened my eyes to this wonderful, patient art. In the end, Rasking realizes that in order to quell his demons, he's going to have to face them and reassess how he looks at his life. That’s what this book can teach many a business owner.
8. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin. Waitzkin is a world-champion chess player and the subject of the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fisher. In this memoir, he reveals how his mental skills with chess can be applied to the more seemingly physically demanding sport of Tai Chi. Waitzkin took the sport up in an effort to experience the process of learning something anew and had no intention of competing, but for five years straight, he was the Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands Middleweight National Champion. In The Art of Learning, he shares how anyone can learn how to tap new perspectives to create optimal performance.
9. Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World by John O’Donohue. This isn’t really the kind of book you sit down and read in one sitting—it’s a book I turn to over and over again when I feel stuck in my thinking. There’s something very magical about the way O’Donohue phrases things. This is a great book for helping me get past my writer's block.
10. Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century by Marc Shoen. This may be the most controversial book on the list as it takes on brain science. A great deal of what tears business owners up is stress, and this book sheds some very new light on what really causes stress. Hint: It has a lot to do with the fact that we’re too comfortable.
Here’s your assignment for 2014: Choose one of these books each month, and dive into it, looking for insights and innovations you can apply to your world.
Think I missed some great books? Add any you think should go on this list in the comments below.
John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
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