Category Archives: Book Reviews

Books for Entrepreneurs: Essentialism

Greg McKeown’s infamous book, Essentialism, has been on my reading list for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard about it, but those who mentioned it always spoke of its life changing effect.

When you read a lot of business and personal improvement books like I do, you get used to people waxing lyrical about how things will never be the same after adopting strategy x. This may turn out to be one of those rare occurrences where it happens to be true. The constant doing more, but achieving less. Never feeling satisfied or that the day was meaningful.

As I began reading, I was relieved to discover I already had quite a few essentialist habits. I discovered the underlying cause of friction I felt on many projects: my broadly essentialist approach versus the non-essentialist approach being taken.

This meant that in addition to completing the task itself, I had to work out the true intent and purpose of the project. Where some people are happy to just complete any task (usually just taking the easiest route to something approximating done), I have never accepted mediocre as the target to aim for. Instead, I would rather take longer to work out how to provide a valuable outcome.

But although I was embracing essentialism in many areas, in others I was getting woefully distracted. My personal life, especially, was in free-fall at the time of reading this book. In no small part this was due to the mental exhaustion that came with battling work tasks handed to me that were governed by non-essentialist principles.

So how has this book helped me? Largely by giving me the confidence not to accept a task without getting those in charge of the project to clarify their thinking about it first. Sometimes, the person handing out that task is me. As a freelancer or entrepreneur, understanding essentialism is vital for avoiding burnout.

It’s hard to ask difficult questions sometimes, but it gives me the boundaries to not only do good work, but also valuable work.

The best part of this is that I ultimately freed up valuable creative energy to expend into my personal life and projects. I developed a new infrastructure for 2017 that allowed me to be location independent and travel.It also gives me the framework to consider carefully my side projects and see which ones are ready to move from hobby to business and which ones simply need to be cut from my life, no matter how enjoyable they seem on the surface.

For the first time since reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I have experienced a fundamental shift in what I believe is achievable and what my life needs to look like to get there. The confidence comes through in the decision making process. Whilst success is never guaranteed, I am giving myself the best possible shot at living a meaningful life, rather than a purely busy and productive one.

With challenging economic and political times ahead, Essentialism is one of the books I would recommend for anyone who wants to make the most of future opportunities in the changing workforce.

Essential books for entrepreneurs: The 12 Week Year

As someone who implemented David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology back in 2009, I’m no stranger to the review process. The weekly review is the element that keeps the system running. Over the years, I moved from just a weekly review to also implementing monthly and quarterly reviews. To top it off, an end of year review and goal setting day seemed to be a significant amount of personal time given to strategic thinking and planning.

Yet somehow, I still didn’t always achieve my most important goals.

The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran is an interesting take on how to achieve greater success and results, rather than being purely a productivity system.

Near the beginning of the book, Moran offers up this truth: there are always more ideas than you can effectively implement. Any entrepreneur or freelancer trying to build a business will have experienced this. It is more often than not the source of that subtle source of procrastination – with so much you could do, where do you start?

“The number one problem is a lack of execution”

Moran’s answer is to begin by getting rid of the annual goal setting process. His underlying reasons for this actually make a lot of sense. With a whole year ahead, it is easy to overestimate what you will do and fill your plan with projects that will never come to fruition. Twelve months feels like a long time, whereas twelve weeks is in the foreseeable future. You can complete a major project in twelve weeks, but you are less likely to attempt three or four that then linger with the faint whiff of failure associated to them.

Instead, the twelve week year is designed to give you a tactical framework to shift your mindset. It is a system that creates accountability, deadlines and focus on key opportunities.

By working only on activities that focus you on the main goals for that twelve week sprint, rather than a longer term vision, he argues that you will achieve as much – if not more – than you would with a set of yearly goals that continually get deferred until the final quarter.

The 12 Week Year does not dismiss vision and longer term strategy entirely. It is essential to have some higher level overview to determine which projects are the vital ones for the next twelve weeks.  The subtle shift is changing the emphasis so that a failure in the current twelve week cycle can’t be ‘made up’ later on in the end of the year. Instead, daily habits and actions build momentum to achieve the ‘end of year’ success in a quarter of the time. To make sure the days are planned with tasks that are actionable and measurable, rather than drifting through towards some vague goal, is essential to staying on track. It becomes about clarity and adding value, rather than simply completing a task list.

My one major criticism of the book is that it doesn’t give enough emphasis to the potential dangers of burnout. Renewal is hugely important, especially when you are working for yourself and there is no forced cut off time at 5pm where you forget about the day. As an entrepreneur it is more likely that your projects feel more like passions, which in turn means you are more likely to push on to the point of exhaustion.

This book encourages the reader towards working frequent cycles of high intensity activity, but doesn’t address the dangers of this in a balanced way. Working consistently on a project at a high level requires more than giving yourself  ‘a weekend off’ at the end of the twelve weeks to recover.

However, I’ve used The 12 Week Year to complete a significant number of projects that have been hanging around on my yearly goals list for a while now. The techniques have been proven to produce results. For anyone starting out who needs to take charge of their own career, or for those who want to finally achieve things they’ve been dreaming of for years, I would thoroughly recommend this book.

It’s quitting time: How Jon Acuff’s Quitter changed my life

I first read Jon Acuff’s Quitter 3 years ago on vacation. I even wrote a review on it.

I loved the book. It had many useful insights. So, did I come home from that sunny beachside view, walk into the office and hand in my notice?

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No, I did not.

Why? Not because I didn’t want to. At the end of the book, when you feel the glimmering possibility of quitting your day job for your dream job, there is a pop quiz. One that gives you an idea of whether or not you’d make it in the real world.

I answered the questions and, despite knowing doing so wouldn’t give me the answer I wanted, I answered them honestly. The result? I was putting in some work, but not in enough areas to enable me to quit. I was annoyed with the outcome, but only because it was telling me what I already knew. It wasn’t giving me a quick out. It wasn’t giving me any kind of false hope.

The false hope is a common flaw of many business / self-help books. Their purpose is to sell you a concept. The promise that the book will change your life forever if you just follow their new approach or idea. Life isn’t that simple. Especially when it comes to quitting a stable, good job in a tough economy.

So I went back to work, but I also looked seriously at my side projects. My passion projects. Instead of keeping them as hobbies, I made them into real, practical things. Hobbies are great, but they don’t come with obligations and deadlines. You don’t hustle on a hobby. Writing for fun is the best thing ever, but I had to understand the difference between that and writing things that would allow me to follow my dreams.

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Every year since that first experience, during my two weeks looking out over the ocean, I read the book and took the quiz again. Each year, my score got a little higher. It was slow, but it was progress.

Then one day, without that sunny view, I could feel the change in the air. It was a normal Tuesday morning, but something tickled the back of my mind. I grabbed the book and before work, I took the survey. I got a score of 65. That seemed pretty good. Higher than ever before. I flicked to the scorecard to double check.

The answer: it’s quitting time.

Still, felt like I had some work commitments and loose ends to tie up. It seemed like the decent thing to do. I also see there was a little bit of fear involved with quitting. A reason to put it off for a little while longer.

Now, after so many years of wishing it was time to quit, I finally have.

In four weeks, it will be my last day with my present company before going it alone for a while. It will be tough, but it is the most exciting thing I have ever done. Persistence has paid off and Quitter gave me the framework to create my best chance of success, rather than an impulsive leap into the unknown.

Thanks Jon!

You can find my original Jon Acuff’s Quitter review here.

7 books that changed my life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I just haven’t been reading enough. It is one of my goals for the year, but in amongst everything else it just seems to keep slipping. I find myself really struggling to get into anything new.

Which led me to pondering the question of which books have really touched my life. Perhaps if I can understand the things I’ve loved in the past, it will help me better choose what I want to read now. Once I started thinking about, it was tougher than I thought it was going to be. After all, how do you define such an impact? In the end, everything I selected met the following criteria: I have read them multiple times; they led to me doing something new or different and when I think about them, I instinctively feel they are comforting and familiar.

Only one on the list is non-fiction, so I’ll start with that.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

Perhaps this is the book that has had a direct impact on my daily life more than any other. I read it at least twice a year. I fall off the waggon about as often. But since I first read it, I have been able to organise my life and achieve way more than I would have otherwise. It allows my brain to feel less frantic in the work world, which is a gift in itself. Mind like water is still the goal.

Aiden Chambers, Dance On My Grave

I remember getting this book from the library when I was about thirteen or fourteen, venturing into the teen section. I didn’t really spend much time in the teen section as I moved straight to adult fiction fairly quickly. Yet this book about crazy, unpredictable, teenage love and the lengths it will make you go to when you lose it, opened my eyes. It also gave me the defining moment of what I wanted to have done after my own death, because I thought how useful:

“popped into the burning fiery furnace and reduced to manageable proportions, to whit: five ozs of fine grey ash, suitable for the making of egg timers”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Perfect writing, and memories of eating mint matchmakers at Christmas while reading story after story. I still do it most years. I’ve always been a little bit in love with the Holmes of the books, rather than the caricature of TV and film (Jeremy Brett excluded, obviously).

C.S Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

I am forever grateful to my parents for buying me the complete Chronicles of Narnia as a box set.

Still right here on my bookshelf

Still right here on my bookshelf

Mainly I’m grateful because I read The Magician’s Nephew first rather than The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, so the magical wardrobe made entire sense to me. I’ve been getting annoyed with people who haven’t ever since. It was probably this that gave me my first love of fantasy and the concept that reading could make you escape into another world. Probably still couldn’t read the scene where Aslan is killed without crying, either.

Anne Rice, Interview With A Vampire

A quick jump into much darker elements of fantasy. My Dad had a copy of this on the bookcase and it was probably the first of many things I read when I was too young. There were pretty strict controls over age appropriate TV in my house growing up, but books were (mostly) fair game. If anything, this book taught me the importance of voice; the narration throughout this book feels so authentic, you feel like you are there.

Barbara Vine, A Fatal Inversion

Interestingly, I think I watched the TV series of this before the book. Certainly whenever I read it, I picture the actors, even though they don’t really resemble the descriptions in the book. That being said, I have honestly lost count of the times I have read this. There is no doubt it influenced my dreams for impossibly long, hot summers and aspirations of freedom. Not murder though.

Mostly.

Michael Connelly, The Poet

Finally, this book was a gift for my 21st birthday. By then I was neck deep in an English degree and books had been sucked of all joy. I really didn’t enjoy reading at all. I couldn’t just read any more, I had to analyse. It was a bloody awful time. Then my Mom & Dad got me this book (have you got the sense yet of how big a thing reading was in my house growing up?) and it had nothing at all to do with anything that could be related to a course. It was a modern thriller and a way back into enjoying crime. I read it in more or less one sitting. It made me remember why I loved reading for reading’s sake, not just to pass an exam. It also got me back into enjoying crime fiction and mystery after a time away.

So, I’ve just taken that trip down memory lane and I’m not sure if it helps or not. It certainly doesn’t narrow things down to author or genre. I suppose I’m just looking for characters I can engage with, voices that are authentic and plots that I can’t predict. I’ve also realised I’m in much the same slump as I was back at university. I spend so much time editing these days (both work and personal) that I feel like I’m just seeing the words, never the story itself. It’s probably going to take a really good book to shock my brain out of that state again.

I just hope I find it soon.

Anyway, I can obviously recommend all of the books above if you haven’t read them already. If you have anything that you think can break through the ice in my brain, then leave a rec in the comments and I’ll gratefully take a look.

 

Book Review: The War of Art

I had heard much talk of Pressfield’s The War of Art, but it always remained tucked on the back of my to read list. Then, as serrendipitous conversation with a colleague led to her lending me the book. Suddenly, all those reviews about it being a game changer made complete sense.

 Most of use have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

The concept is simple: resistance. We all feel it, we all succumb to it. This book is for anyone who has dreams – hopefully big dreams – that never seem to get closer to being tangible. I’m not talking pie in the sky, wishy washy vague aspirations. I’m talking about those people who know there is something more important they should be doing, perhaps something they were put on this earth to do, yet never actually moving forwards. Because resistance gets to us all.

The Book is itself divided into three ‘books’ and the first one ‘Resistance – defining the enemy’ is perhaps one of the easiest things I’ve ever read. I positively devoured each page, recognising myself staring back in among the words. Pressfield has mastered the art of the bite size chunk. It is both brutal and inspiring at the same time.

Book Two ‘Combating Resistance’ was a bit slower, less immediate, with more to digest in each section. I found myself naturally pausing more and thinking about what was being said, rather than having an instantaneous response.

Book Three ‘Beyond Resistance’ is more spiritual in some ways, but also more empowering. Whilst it explores the concept that we might have a reason for being, a talent for want of a better word, breaking past our own fear and being that true self is not automatic. It is still up to us to do the work. To take those first steps, to follow through and finally to complete. It doesn’t sugar-coat anything; just completing once is unlikely to be enough, it is in persistence and continued moving past resistance that the the higher ground can be found.

This book is an easy read in the grand scheme of things. More importantly, for those teetering on the edge, it has a knack for providing a mind shift towards getting off your backside and achieving the best you can be.

war of art

I can’t wait to read Turning Pro.

Book review – Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Warning: mild spoilers ahead if you’ve got no idea at all about the book

There has been so much hype around Gone Girl that I was a bit hesitant about reading it. I’d managed to successfully avoid being spoilered, even though there was some pretty heavy marketing for the film. General rule of thumb for me though is that the more people like it, the less I do. Call me a rebel.

However, I actually really enjoyed the book. Without giving too much away, the only part that I didn’t massively like was the ending, but I think that is often the case with many books for plenty of readers. A completely satisfying ending is something which is exceptionally hard to pull off. For the last 50 pages or so, I could not see how the characters would be able to reach a resolution that maintained the tension that had been so expertly crafted through the rest of the book.

On saying that – I’m not sure I could imagine an alternative ending given what had happened up until that point, so I’m hardly in a position to criticise.

The most interesting bit about this book for me was the fact there wasn’t a single likeable character. Deliberately so. No good guy to root for. It takes some skill to keep the tension high when all of the characters are lacking in redeemable features and you don’t know which one you want to come out on top. This was compensated for by the use of a tightly plotted narrative instead, with plenty of twists and turns. There were a few parts where I didn’t want to read what happened next, because it made me feel anxious about how nasty things could get. Reading is about experiencing the whole range of human emotions, not just the good ones, and effectively creating this sensation is the mark of great writing in my opinion.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would, as long as you don’t mind unlikeable characters and edgy tension. If you like your books to be happily ever after with some redeeming romance, then it’s probably not going to be for you. It’s also quite long in comparison to a lot of thrillers, so you might want to make sure you’re prepared to be in it for the long haul.

I give it 4 out of 5 stars on my imaginary ratings system.

 

My Top 5 Books of 2014

These are my top 5 books that I have read in 2014, not necessarily that were published in 2014. Sometimes I’m late to the game, but just because something isn’t brand new, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth mentioning. Every year I intend to read more than I actually do, but this is the first time since I was at University that I have taken advantage of the library on a regular basis. It’s the perfect way to try something you’re not sure about, which has led me to some complete gems over the past twelve months.

So, without further ado…

General Fiction

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

The Girl

This book was immensely enjoyable, but hard to describe. Larger than life characters and even bigger plot, this book was so carefully crafted that the suspension of disbelief – even in the face of insurmountable odds – never wavered. I dare anyone not to root for the main character from beginning to end. From Soweto to Sweden, the comedy is punctured by some dark moments, but a reminder to never, ever underestimate someone because of who you believe they are.

Fantasy

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

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My sister is a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson and she’s been trying to get me to read his books for years. I finally got round to doing so earlier in the year, and I’m glad I did. I think Mistborn is a perfect entry point into his writing, and you can read my original review here. For any would-be writers of fantasy, it is also a great tool for understanding the importance of world-building and how to get the balance right between background and plot.

Self Help / Personal Development

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

 

I found this book by way of his Ted Talk, via the Productivity Book Group podcast. As a person not naturally given to positivity (I tend to think of myself as a hardened realist), I’ve been trying very seriously over this past year to work on my mindset as much as anything else. Insightful without being patronising, this book has delightful anecdotes, interesting research and some basic, simple tips to help people take the steps towards the benefits of being more mindful.

Biography

My Spiritual Journey by Dalai Lama

Spiritual Journey

This falls into the category of random library find. I gave a brief review of it earlier this year. It was humorous, insightful and gave a picture of the man I had heard of (who hasn’t?), but didn’t really understand. Spiritual without being preachy, there was no attempt to hard convert to Buddhism here, as there so often is with books containing religious figures. It was simply a fascinating window into the life of a man who has travelled a very different road to most of us.

Business

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

7 habits

In the interests of honesty, this was not the first time I had read this book. It was probably one of the first books I had read on business/personal development, probably a decade or so ago. Back then, I just didn’t get it. I found it too dense, too remote, too hard to plough through. The only thing I remember taking away was the concept of mission statements. I opened it again this year and it was a completely different experience. I was finally ready for it, I think. I’m a big fan of organisation and productivity – both personal and business – and I try to follow the principles of Getting Things Done by David Allen. Now that is engrained in my life (six years and counting), I think the maturity of my own process allowed me to understand the bigger picture approach that Covey prescribes. Proof that sometimes, you have to go back to something twice to get a true understanding of the content.

Now I’m starting to plan my reading for 2015 – if anyone has any contenders then feel free to pop them in the comments below. I’m always up for a challenge!