Every once in a while, we read a book that doesn’t just transform the way we see the world, it also changes how we live our lives. For the past 10 years, I’ve been asking business leaders and students which book has most influenced their actions. I give them one rule: it must include rigorous evidence. Pure self-help and autobiographies are out; so are books by leaders dispensing advice. (Experience isn’t a substitute for evidence. If it were, obeying the laws of gravity would make us all physicists.)
I’ve compiled a list of the most frequently mentioned book for each year, with one additional rule: no author can appear twice. Here are the top picks, and how they’ve made a difference:
2004: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
Yes, there’s such a thing as too much freedom. Readers have learned to limit their choice sets to minimize indecision, regret, and misery. We’ve also figured out whether we tend to be maximizers (searching for the best option) or satisficers (looking for good enough). Since maximizers tend to do better but feel worse, we’ve learned to satisfice when decisions aren’t of colossal significance. But we haven’t abandoned our love of lists that rank things.
2005: A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
We think left-brainers reign supreme with their analytical and quantitative skills, but here’s a provocative case that right-brainers will rule the future. Arguing that the MFA is the new MBA, Dan anticipated (and fueled) the growing importance of factors like design, storytelling, empathy, and meaning. When Oprah spoke at Stanford’s commencement, she gave it to every graduating student.
2006: Mindset by Carol Dweck
It’s a rare read that has as much impact on parents as it does on managers. The memorable takeaway from this gem is that we need to stop praising ability and intelligence, and start applauding effort and persistence. That way, when our children and employees fail, they won’t give up because they think talent is fixed and they lack what it takes for the task at hand. Instead, they’ll pursue growth, doubling down to develop the requisite skills to succeed.
2007: The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton
After reading this guide to building a civilized workplace, leaders around the globe have introduced policies to prevent jerks from getting hired and selfish managers from being promoted. They’ve also created better poison control practices, aiming to bring out what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. And what’s not to love about a quiz to find out if you’re a certified asshole? It’s the Asshole Rating Self-Exam (ARSE).
2008: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
It may be the ultimate feat of storytelling from our favorite storyteller, and it helped us appreciate the role of luck and opportunity in success. Leaders have worked to privilege the quality of ideas over the status of the person generating them. They’ve also become more attentive to people who haven’t benefited from cumulative advantage. Those poor hockey players who weren’t born in January.
2009: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
So an average of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice might help you become an expert. But what should you do with that time? One CEO called this book the world’s most valuable guide to developing skills and leaders. We’ve been able to grow our own capabilities and bring out the best in others through deeper practice, stronger passion, and more masterful coaching.
2010: Switch by Chip and Dan Heath
Change is probably the toughest hurdle in our work and our lives. The Heath brothers gave us the tools to overcome it. I’ve watched many executives apply their framework to shift sticky beliefs and behaviors: motivate the elephant by shrinking the change, direct the rider to follow the bright spots, and shape the path by rallying the herd.
2011: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The only psychologist to win a Nobel Prize in economics showed us why our decisions go awry and common sense isn't common practice. His insights have been directly applicable to making better choices, avoiding unnecessary risks, and understanding ourselves. As Kahneman put it, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”
2012: Quiet by Susan Cain
It shattered the myth of the extraverted ideal, and has chipped away at the stigma of being an introvert. We’ve seen workplaces come to value quiet leaders, schools create more supportive environments for quiet students, and parents learn to accept and nurture their reserved children. My favorite reaction was from an extravert: “I just realized why my boyfriend is so boring. He’s an introvert!” And then “He’d probably be a lot more interesting if I actually let him talk.”
2013: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Women read it first, but it’s been life-changing for both sexes. Women have been moved to sit at the table and stand up for leadership opportunities at work, seek out an equal partnership at home, find a mentor by not asking for one, and negotiate for themselves as they would for their close friends. Men have become aware of their gender biases; they’ve become champions of diversity in the workplace and more supportive, actively engaged partners at home. (Warning, tough guys: this book may cause an irresistible urge to start doing laundry and a persistent awareness that the world would be a better place if we had more female leaders.)
2014: A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
The year isn’t over yet, and this just came out in September, but in my world it’s already the runaway winner for impact on action. Starting from the premise that “talent is universal but opportunity is not,” this book offers an abundance of small actions that we can all take to make the largest difference for those in need. Readers are shifting where they give their money, volunteer their time, and dedicate their energy.