4 life-changing books

As a coach and as a facilitator clients come to me with all manner of issues they’d like to help them resolve. Companies may need a training programme designed that helps their staff cope better with pressure, individuals may want to work on achieving a happier life, executives often reach a ceiling and ask for help making a career change or increasing their confidence. I’ve helped my clients with all of these things, and more this year, but I didn’t do it completely alone.

Luckily for all of us, some of the greatest minds in social and organizational psychology publish accessible books which bring together their many years of research with a practical approach. 2016 has been a terrible year on many accounts, but not in terms of these deeply investigated books on topics that seem to bother us all. So, I’d like to share with you my top 4 list of new-books-I’ve-read-this-year-that-have-helped-me-and-my-clients I hope they can help you too.

If you’re not sure where you’re going in life: Designing Your Life

designlifeWe all go through this at one time or another, some of us spend most of our life drifting from one thing to another under the guise of a focused career, perhaps attaining success, but perhaps never making conscious long-term decisions. But what would it be like if we took a step back, thought deeply about where we want to go and applied a tried and tested process to making that happen (allowing for new iterations and ideas along the way)?

As a Design Thinking facilitator, I was immediately attracted to the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful life” (published Sept 2016) by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans of Stanford University Design School. These two Stanford professors have been running the (extremely popular) Design Your Life course at the university for the last 15 years, and now instead of trekking over to California, we can get some great tools from this book.

Based on the Design Thinking process, the Life Design process the authors propose has 5 basic principles: Be curious, try stuff, reframe problems, know it’s a process and ask for help/radical collaboration. Each one of these helps us to break with the norms of how we might go about implementing a career change. Throughout the book the authors tackle what they call “Dysfunctional Beliefs” head on, breaking down some of the commonly head (but incorrect) ideas we hold. I’ve spent the last few years dealing with some of these with my students so for me it was a breath of fresh air that these guys were saying the same thing, and coming up with many more.

Essentially (as you might expect) this book provides a process through which you can redesign your career and/or life and encourages you to explore many more options in a much deeper way than you would normally. The book is practical and can give you a boost forward by combining Design Thinking ideas such as bias towards action (the just bloody do it attitude), trust the process (just bloody do it even if you’re not convinced that this part will help) and failing fast and cheaply (prototyping or trying options out before committing).

You can combine reading the book with coaching or coaching with applying the process of the book. I’ve worked through the exercises in the book both for myself and with some of my clients and can recommend this creative approach to getting your life plan together.

If you feel under pressure and don’t know how to deal with it: How to Perform Under Pressure

pressurebookThis is another classic issue many of us have dealt with throughout our careers and lives. That feeling of having too much to do and too little time, of dealing with nerves in potentially life-changing moments, of feeling overwhelmed by your current situation. While there may be no clear solution for these problems (unless you want to redesign your life – in which case see above) there are many proven ways to deal with them to mitigate the negative impact and maximise your chances of success.

I found this book as I was preparing a course on facing pressure for a corporate client, it grabbed my attention because, unlike most publications on the area, it focuses on pressure not just stress. “How to Perform Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most” (published Feb 2016) written by coaches and PhD’s in Psychology, Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry, combines first hand research with, empirical analysis and their observations made throughout their workshops and training sessions.

The book is split into 3 parts: what pressure is and how it affects us, short-term pressure solutions and long-term pressure reducing strategies. If you have worked at length on this already or read a lot on social and behavioural psychology, you may find that there is nothing you haven’t already encountered in other areas, the main difference here is that it is all grouped together and focused on reducing pressure.

The authors’ decision to include a “quick fix” section in the book (based on their research) helps the reader to start to make changes immediately before diving into the more complex commitment requiring long-term approaches. Having said this, I’ve found the tools proposed and the topics discussed in all three sections, very useful in starting and maintaining client momentum on facing pressure.

Although intended to be business focused, there is a great deal of emphasis on American sports, for a European reader this can get too much, I found myself glossing over any mention of the NFA or the NBA (and there were a lot). If you can deal with this or do the same as me, grab the book and start applying the ideas, they don’t all work for all of us but even a handful can make a difference.

If you want to overcome self-doubt and develop a more confident you: Presence

prescencePresence is one of those abilities we all want but find difficult to nail down. Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy describes it as, “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential.” She goes on to clarify, “our search for presence isn’t about finding charisma or extraversion or carefully managing the impression we’re making on people. It’s about the honest, powerful connection that we create internally, with ourselves.” Cuddy’s take isn’t a long spiritual journey (although she admits that’s another way of getting there) it’s practical clues and ideas taken from her social psychology research.  Sound good? Read on…

Like many facilitators in the areas of communication and confidence, I’ve been making good use of Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your Body language shapes who you are” for the last few years – with excellent results, I might add. So, when her book “Presence: Bringing your Boldest self to your Biggest Challenges” came out in Jan 2016, I had it on Amazon preorder. It didn’t disappoint and unsurprisingly went a lot further and deeper than the TED talk.

Throughout the book Cuddy explores what presence is and how you can get it. Combining her research and personal insights with interviews and anecdotes from actors, performers, entrepreneurs and business leaders. Stating with your authentic story and shutting up and listening, she moves through some of the presence inhibitors, such as that all too familiar feeling that “I don’t deserve to be here”. Feeling like an imposter is something that affects most of us at one time or another – when I left my “normal” job and started facilitating, coaching and consulting, I felt it all the time. So, this chapter is enlightening in many ways.

Power is also a big theme in the book, in the sense that when we feel powerful, we feel free, in control, unthreatened and safe, so thus we are more attuned to possibilities rather than threats. Cuddy distinguishes here between power over (social power) and power to (personal power) noting that unless we feel personally powerful we cannot achieve presence.

Around the middle of the book Cuddy gets to the part we’ve been expecting: her research on how the language of the body shapes who we are, eventually advocating a “fake it until you become it” attitude. The research here is fascinating and in a very practical way has helped a lot of people increase their confidence and presence. Simply put, if we take a powerful position for a few minutes, our testosterone levels actually increase and we feel more powerful, similarly the more we smile even if we don’t feel it (as long as it’s not a grimace), the more we make others smile and the happier we become ourselves.

Cuddy suggests small incremental body language changes that slowly become more natural to us combined with power poses before important events. Noting that it may feel like we are faking it to begin with but provided we start from our authentic selves, as we become more accustomed (and therefore more powerful) our presence will become a natural part of us.

If you want to increase your chances of success: Grit

gritThese days it sometimes feels like there’s a quick fix for everything and we should be rapidly and smoothly moving up in the world, without feeling like we’re fighting a bit to get there. You may have read that once you find your passion, it’s plain sailing from there on, but what if it’s not about talent or innate ability but more about what you do with it? The good old fashioned hard work that it takes to succeed, the need to stick to your guns for a while to achieve what you want?  What if what you really need is grit?

Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania University published her book “Grit: The Power of Pasion and Perseverance” in May 2016  (by the way, she also has an excellent TED talk on the subject). As you might guess from the title, her main message is that if you are striving to succeed, your best chance involves a special blend of passion and perseverance (i.e. grit).

As a coach I’m often faced with clients in the middle of a change process who feel they’ve reached a plateau and are tempted to give up (and if I’m honest, I’ve recently experienced the same thing with the lengthy professional certification process) my job is to accompany them through the hardest times of maintaining grittiness. Often they have the feeling that they should be moving faster, that if they really were meant to achieve this goal they would have done it by now, but this book tells us that’s not the case. Cultivating success takes time and effort (sorry for the disappointing news here!)

Duckworth’s book has 3 parts, first an explanation of what grit is and why it’s important, second a look at how to grow grit from the inside out and third how to grow grit from the outside in. She provides a “How gritty are you test” developed through a wide range of clinical trials and then delivers the great news that this is not set in stone, that we can learn to be grittier and help others achieve this using various techniques.

She notes that one of the key ingredients of grit is genuine interest, “Nobody works doggedly towards something they don’t find intrinsically interesting.” So its not about forcing yourself or your kids to do something you/they don’t care about. “Before hard work comes play” she notes, “before those who’ve yet to fix a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must good around, triggering and retriggering interest.”

Other components of grit, according to Duckworth, include practice, purpose and hope. She dives into each of these, exploring what exactly each involves, how to build them and how to incorporate them long term. So this is not a book for those wanting a quick solution or an easy route, but at a time when much of what is behind success has been superficialised into quick-wins and divided attention, this book stands out for telling us what we’re not that keen to hear: that getting to the top involves hard work.

About Katie Annice Carr

Creativity, Communication and Leadership facilitator, coach and consultant.