Becoming a professional is a lot like having kids: You’re never quite ready. No matter how hard you studied or how many part-time jobs you held, you’re going to feel lost.
Rest assured, though, that everyone felt that way once. The difference is that some have had years of experience, learning their strengths and building relationships. They’ve established some self-confidence. There are no shortcuts to that stage, unfortunately. But there are tools that can make the early stages of your career easier and more productive. They’re called books, and frankly, I wish I’d read more of them before launching my career.
Like many young people, I thought I knew everything needed to navigate the professional world. Life quickly showed me otherwise. I struggled for the creative ideas others seemed to gush, said stupid things, and made more than a few relationship-related mistakes.
Had I read these books, I could’ve learned those lessons the easy way.
1. “The Creative Curve“ by Allen Gannett
I fell prey to the myth big-data entrepreneur and author Allen Gannett spends his book debunking: I wasn’t “creative enough.” I remember watching my colleagues come up with brilliant strategies, seemingly on the spot. Meanwhile, I twiddled my thumbs and wished I was them. The truth is that I could’ve developed the same ideas if I’d simply viewed creativity as a learned skill.
Gannett argues nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to creativity. What makes his book powerful, though, is that it offers an actionable formula for developing creativity. Through repeated consumption, imitation, community interaction, and iteration, anyone can create artistic works they’re proud of. Creative success requires takes years of work, Gannett makes clear, which is why it’s best to start early.
2. “The 4 Keys“ by Andrew Sillitoe
Another mistake I made was assuming that work had to be my life if I was going to succeed. I neglected other key areas of my life. According to Andrew Sillitoe’s “The 4 Keys,” I should’ve given equal weight to my professional life, body, relationships, and mindfulness.
But Sillitoe does more than preach: The business psychologist’s book offers an actionable 90-day reset plan. Its tangible steps help burnt-out businesspeople and young professionals achieve what they want, both inside and outside the office. With engaging stories from his C-suite consultant experience, Sillitoe’s book gets closer than any other to a true work-life balance formula.
3. “How to Win Friends and Influence People“ by Dale Carnegie
I’ll admit to another mistake: I thought “old” books didn’t have much to offer today. What convinced me wrong was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Published in 1936, Carnegie’s book still tops book lists for good reason: Relationship-building is, and always will be, the key to business.
The first thing you’ll notice is Carnegie’s infectious optimism. After giving a “motivational speech” about the reader’s career, Carnegie dives into six strategies to win others’ respect and friendship. Carnegie’s book also offers 12 ways to change others’ minds, as well as nine tips to change people while minimizing interpersonal tension. Although you, like The New Yorker contributor Jessica Weisberg, might find some of it outdated, you’ll become a better friend and networker by reading it.
4. “I’m Not Done“ by Patti Temple Rocks
I see plenty of young people waltz into workplaces as if their youth and tech skills are all that matter. In truth, older workers’ experiences make them incredibly valuable and knowledgeable.
Marketing expert Patti Temple Rocks argues that ageism is the least addressed — and most damaging — form of workplace discrimination today. After explaining how ageism harms people and companies alike, she helps professionals recognize and eliminate their ageist biases. Although ageism might sound far away for those entering the workforce, it’s a reminder that we’ll all face it unless we jointly take action.
5. “Lean In“ by Sheryl Sandberg
Young woman or not, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” is a must-read. Building on a 2010 TED Talk, Sandberg explains how women — and, frankly, most young people — accidentally hold themselves back. Although “Lean In” has been criticized as unrealistic for working mothers, its advice is perfect for people who question their resilience.
Through personal anecdotes and compelling research, “Lean In” positions itself as part feminist critique, part practical guide. In addition to negotiation techniques and mentorship tips, Sandberg share specific ways women can balance professional achievement and personal fulfillment. Perhaps most importantly, it contains tips missing from most woman-oriented books: advice on how men can support women at home and at work.
I can promise you two things: You will make mistakes, and you will learn from them. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to repeat the others’ mistakes. Books may not be a shortcut to competency, but they can certainly make the journey more comfortable.