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‘The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer’, by Steven Kotler

If you are struggling merely to cope with the day-to-day pressures of lockdown, a book that explains to you in meticulous detail the wearying, difficult, time-consuming steps needed to achieve seemingly impossible goals may not be for you.

Steven Kotler, author of several books exploring how athletes, writers, inventors and entrepreneurs achieve peak performance, this time offers an intense, and at times intensely irritating, guide. Merely reading about his own routine is exhausting. He rises at 4am to start writing, for instance. When he wants to practise a new speech he runs through it under extreme conditions that stretch credulity: short of sleep, at the end of a long day, after a heavy gym session, he rehearses while scrambling up cliffs with his dogs.

That said, there is much that is interesting, and even useful, in this primer. It is also a layperson’s guide to the neurochemistry and neurobiology of motivation, learning, creativity and “flow”, the ecstatic, addictive state of super-productivity for which creative types and athletes yearn. Along the way, he recycles the wisdom of researchers and thinkers from Nietzsche, via Carol “Growth Mindset” Dweck and Angela “Grit” Duckworth, to the late educationalist Sir Ken Robinson.

Kotler is refreshingly candid about the dangers of setting yourself “moonshot” goals without mapping out the interim steps, down to the humble daily to-do list. Perhaps, on reflection, there is no better time than now to start implementing his detailed “meta-strategy for peak performance”. As he writes: “One little win at a time, that’s how this works.” See you on the moon.

‘Laziness does not exist’ by Devon Price

Ushering in a new year often includes the uncomfortably familiar task of coming up with a resolution. Embarking on said goal, whether it be exercising more or focusing on personal projects, is almost always rooted in the desire to become happier, healthier and more productive. As that old chestnut goes: “New year, new me!”

But more often than not it’s “new year, same me” because by the end of January most resolution-makers, however ambitious they start out, will give up on their goals leading to guilt and self-blame.

It is this inextricable link between self-worth and productivity that Devon Price, a social psychologist and professor at Loyola University Chicago, sets out to dispel as a societal myth.

Price takes readers on a journey to dismantle the “Laziness Lie”, a cultural indoctrination with origins that are believed to date back to colonial America. The author traces the past into the present showing readers how modern television shows and films (even those as beloved as Parks and Recreation) perpetuate a societal belief that success directly correlates with how much work one is perceived to have done. 

Price incorporates interviews with psychological experts, friends and former students to show how attempts to counter laziness result in emotional and sometimes even physical harm to wellbeing. There are also exercises for readers to re-evaluate their own relationship with work and actively unlearn negative associations with laziness. 

If learning how to be more productive in the new year is part of your resolution, this is not the book for you. But if understanding why you think you need to aspire to that goal and how to learn “to be more comfortable with being less productive than society” says you ought to be, it is definitely worth a read.

‘Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection’, by Marissa King

“The structure of someone’s network is a map that tells what their life has been like up to this point and where they are going,” writes Marissa King in the latest book on the always fascinating topic of networks and networking. Like many such popular social science books, the Yale professor of organisational behaviour, also links to a website — www.assessyournetwork.com — where you can map your own connections and establish whether you are mainly a “broker”, a “convener”, or an “expansionist”, like the late banker David Rockefeller, whose Rolodex famously ran to 100,000 contacts.

Each category, King explains, has advantages and disadvantages. Expansionists may look enviably well connected, for instance, but they find it hard to maintain social ties. Some of the examples in this book will be familiar to anyone who has looked at network theory — from the number of stable contacts it is possible to maintain (150, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar), to Mark Granovetter’s research into the unexpected strength of “weak ties” in facilitating professional advances. But King’s book is also a useful guide, updated for the latest research, including her own, to mapping, exploring and developing your existing social links.

Social Chemistry is also an unintentional chronicle of the social disconnection of the pandemic. Its tales of office networking, conferences, travel and parties constitute a nostalgic trip through the old normal — and a reminder of the consequences of diminished connectedness. King reminds readers that touching, or being touched, can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. Meanwhile, studies show that after 150 days without seeing each other, friends’ feelings of closeness drop by 80 per cent.

‘Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone’, by Sarah Jaffe

Many of us will have slumped in a festive haze in front of Bridgerton, the Netflix series set in Regency England. It tells the story of wealthy families whose principal preoccupations are balls, marriage and sex. Once the rich were the leisured class, now they valorise working long hours. 

In her latest book Sarah Jaffe, a journalist, documents the importance of work to identity and emotional lives. Work Won’t Love You Back unpicks the growing cult of work as a passion. If you do what you love, goes the mantra, you never work a day. This ethos posits co-workers as family. One video-game company, described in the book, brands itself a “fampany”.

Security, the author writes, “has been traded for fulfilment . . . the compulsion to be happy at work . . . is always a demand for emotional work from the worker. Work, after all, has no feelings. Capitalism cannot love. This new work ethic, in which work is expected to give us something like self-actualisation, cannot help but fail.”

The pandemic has exposed this myth, making the book a timely read.

‘The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses and Corporate Bullshit’, by Martin Lindstrom

Anyone who has ever worked in a big corporate structure will be nodding along and underlining every page in this book as management consultant and branding expert Martin Lindstrom recounts extraordinary encounters with his clients. He exposes and then offers a plan for eradicating internal nonsense — the sorts of risk-averse protocols and admin tasks that show a company has lost all sight of common sense.

There are lots of good examples and farcical anecdotes here, culminating in an ultra-secretive office where Lindstrom’s trip to the toilet during a meeting requires the meeting to be halted — and a member of the client’s staff to accompany him throughout.

Taking aim at our obsessions with busyness and technology, Lindstrom makes a powerful case for “H2H” — human to human — dealings, ditching the old B2B and B2C type of divisions. “Common sense requires a sense of real pause. And real perspective.”

He gives excellent case study examples — including AP Moller-Maersk, the Danish shipping group, and the Dorchester Collection luxury hotel group. Both apply the simple “treat others as you would like to be treated” test, and find customer experience and satisfaction is transformed. And the Ministry of Common Sense? That’s an actual thing, pioneered inside the bank Standard Chartered, in which a designated employee starts to fix the nonsensical things that are holding up people and processes. Lindstrom offers a step-by-step guide to doing the same in any company. “Why should what we do in business be any different from what we do in life? How is that common sense? It’s not.”

‘How To Work Without Losing Your Mind: A Realistic Guide to the Hell of Modern Work’, by Cate Sevilla

This book gets off to a bit of an angry start. But don’t let the overuse of phrases in full capitals put you off. Sevilla’s bad experiences at work, and those of others which she describes are relevant and the advice that follows is practical and can be immediately applied.

Take dealing with a bad manager, for example. Sevilla, a former editor in chief at The Pool, a now-defunct online magazine, has also worked at Google and Microsoft. She helps the reader differentiate between a manager who has good intentions, but is just not very good, and someone who essentially wants to destroy you.

There are tips on how to build a better relationship with the former — whether it be being explicit about what you need, asking your manager how you can best help them, or setting clear boundaries. But if your boss is the devil, then the advice is to fast track to Chapter 10 on how you should go about finding your next job. Sometimes the situation is just not fixable, so, Sevilla suggests, the only option is to save yourself.

Across 10 chapters, the book also addresses the myth of bringing your “whole self” to work, how to stop comparing yourself to others and how to avoid burnout.

Arguably some of the advice is just common sense, but many of us at some point have probably experienced workplaces where the culture is toxic and we lose sight of how to get past that. This book does well to remind readers of the action that can be taken to reduce stress and be happier in our jobs — and it’s set up so you can dip into chapters depending on which advice you need.

‘The Long-Distance Teammate: Stay Engaged and Connected While Working Anywhere’, by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel

There is much we know now about working outside the traditional office environment and although this guide is an overview on how to make remote work both productive and meaningful, it is not another repetitive text about working from home.

Eikenberry and Turmel, co-founders of the Remote Leadership Institute, have a long experience in writing books about communication at work and teamwork. The main goal with this latest one is to help people see the ways they can engage with each other and their work and feel connected socially and emotionally even when distanced physically.

The authors present real-world examples based on a new perspective on what remote work can be and the book is interactive, with exercises and guidance focused on how to be a great teammate while working at a distance, such as routines to help reduce stress and how to adjust your communication style and behaviour to the fact that you’re not face-to-face.

It also tackles three important issues: navigating our personalities; growing the skills to be productive; and communicating effectively — all from a distance.

It goes without saying that working from home is very different to being in the office, but the book demonstrates how to maximise the benefits and use these differences positively to help you to get your work done, build satisfying and productive relationships, and maintain a healthy career path when the contact with line managers and colleagues is not constant.

‘The Six New Rules of Business: Creating Real Value in a Changing World’, by Judy Samuelson

The timing of this book is prescient given the challenges thrown up during the past year, and while its title doesn’t leap out, it is a concise and interesting read.

Samuelson, vice-president at the Aspen Institute, and founder and executive director of its business and society programme, argues that business — its talent, investment, problem-solving skills, and global reach — is needed to solve some of our biggest problems, from climate change and inequality to equipping workers for a new world of work and creating value beyond profit.

But it can’t be done within the “old rules” of business, where only profits and shareholder returns matter. “Short-term noise in the markets and simplistic financial models,” she writes, “ensured that a range of critical business issues that were threats to social stability and the biosphere stayed confined to the ethics classroom.”

But she believes a profound change in attitudes is taking place where “new rules” are forming a new business vision. She sets out these six rules and the cost of ignoring them in a book designed for executives and those who advise business leaders.

Chapters address how businesses should redefine risk, responsibility and purpose and how the voices of employees are key to successful business in the future. For example, under the old rules, labour costs should be kept to a minimum, but under the new rules “employees are critical business allies in a changing world,” Samuelson writes. “They identify future risks and see the opportunity embedded in new norms around sustainability and social responsibility.”

Later chapters look ahead and highlight where the status quo remains and old norms need “breaking down”. “Design for the future,” she writes, “requires business models that value the real contributors — including workers and nature.”

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