The Five Books that Changed my Life
Jan 15, 2021
A look at the five books that have had the biggest impact at how I live my life, and in which ways they helped me.
"Books are life's cheat codes"
It is no secret that I love to read. It is also no secret that many of the worlds most 'successful' people are aggressive readers who account at least some of their success to knowledge gained from books.
As a software developer, the obvious answer for my top five books would be technical chronicles, but actually I have found these haven't had much of an impact on me at all. Books that examine ways of living, how we go about our daily lives, approach productivity, interact with others have been overall much more impactful for me both in my working life as well as my personal life.
I wanted to run through the five books that have had the biggest impact on me. Whilst these aren't necessarily my favourite books, they contain lessons that dramatically changed the way I approached the world and in doing so have improved many parts of my existence.
If you do read through any of these, I would be so interested to hear how you got on. Please feel free to give me a shout, it would mean the world ❤️
I remember clearly purchasing this book. Only a few months into my career change journey from labourer to software engineer, I was stood in a small independent shop that me and my partner love. We usually bought plants and candles when we visited, however in this instance this book caught my eye. It sounded interesting. At this point in life I was notoriously dis-organised, easily distractible and flicking through the pages it seemed a great technique to introducing some structure to my life. It was full of diagrams and explanations, and the minimal nature of the way it proposed I started keeping notes visually appealed to me. I bought it home with me, read it cover to cover, particularly interested by the fact the person (Ryder Carroll) who designed it was a Product Designer, and at numerous instances in the book he refers to Software Engineers using the format. It just seemed right for me, an aspiring software engineer to be using a productivity strategy that other engineers were using.
I have been Bullet Journalling for several years now, at one point (last year as a matter of fact) I experimented with digital based productivity apps (Things/Roam/Notion) but none of them were effective as BuJo. Not committing something in pen to paper made the systems feel much more expendable and forgettable. Crossing off my tasks on paper is an important ritual during my day, and it feels good to shut the laptop down and spend some time de-cluttering my mind.
This book changed my life in the sense that it made me begin a journey of discovering how to become productive and it also sparked the idea that I could improve certain parts of my life or character (in this case, my focus and productivity) through learning from books.
"1% progression everyday" is the ethos behind Atomic Habits. The lessons within teach the readers the importance on building habits for progression and creating greatness. It talks about good habit building process', how to make habits stick and the benefits of creating 'systems' to allow you to achieve your goals.
If my memory serves me correctly, I first heard James Clear on a podcast speaking about the idea of the "aggregation of marginal gains", which in essence means small and consistent changes add up to create massive impact. His example examined Dave Brailsford and the British Cycling team. When Brailsford took over the role of Performance Director to a team that was underachieving, he honed in on making marginal gains, by improving everything the cycling team was doing by 1%.
"They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes."
How that is relevant to me, was I adopted a very similar mindset when learning to write code. As long as I was getting 1% better each day, then over time I would get to where I wanted to be. Creating a strict but achievable study routine and building the process of learning specific topics each day helped me undeniably learn to code well quicker. There is no doubt in my mind that the hardest part of learning to code for people is the fact that it is a lengthy process, many give up as they aren't progressing quick enough or able to build the apps they want to be able to build. Progression at this point is hard to see, but focusing on 1% gains every day was an absolute game changer for me personally and undeniably helped me succeed.
As a self-proclaimed introvert, interacting with people has never been something I have excelled at or felt comfortable with. For years I had worked in solitary, and that actually really suited me. I like my own company, I like my own space and at the time dealing with other people was energy sapping and uncomfortable.
When I started software development as a career it become apparent to me quickly that the key to unlocking progression was through being a strong communicator. I still believe that to this day. Therefore, my shyness became a focus point, an area to develop and grow in.
How to win friends and influence people was the first book I read on interacting with people, but for me, the lessons within this book created a fundamental shift in how I dealt with others. Only a couple of months after reading this book I progressed to a "Lead Engineer" on the merit of my 'people skills', I really don't think that this was a coincidence by any means.
A large part focuses on "How to get people to like you", and the secret to this became on to be the most valuable lesson. I have condensed the main points here:
- Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
- Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
Whilst this all sounds fairly obvious, as far as an introvert goes, it is much easier to speak about someone else than it is to talk about yourself. So this is what I focused on. I became the best listener I could be, and folk appreciated it beyond belief. The feedback I get to this day from engineers I manage is that my listening skills and empathy are perhaps my biggest leadership strength.
The teachings in this book are actionable; it explains techniques you can practice over a video call, in your relationship, with the person working in the local shop. If you are less confident about speaking to others, then I strongly recommend you give this book a go.
Making a Manager was the first book I read on management as a practice. I found myself in a very similar scenario to the author, in that I was given a sudden promotion and expected to lead. In essence, I knew very very little about how to manage anyone and at the time, this book was an absolute god-send in picking me up and setting me down on the right path.
Julie was an early designer at Facebook. As the team scaled she was made a manager of people, initially to her dismay, and "Making a Manager" focuses on the lessons she learnt from this point to her role as VP of design at Facebook.
The one beautiful thing about this book is that it is entirely relatable, to a degree that is unlike any other book on leadership I have ever read. It is honest, Julie walks through her mistakes as well as her wins. It helps you avoid traps and pitfalls in a way that no other book on leadership, from my perspective, manages to do. Many other leadership books focus on the ideal of leading, but are impracticable for someone who is lacking confidence and knowledge who realistically is looking for a guide to making good management decisions.
Entering the world of software engineer leadership had a massive change on my life, and this book was the helping hand I needed at the time to set me up for success. For that reason, it is one of the most valuable I have ever read. I recommend it to anyone who has the responsibility of managing engineers, designers or people of any profession for that matter.
Digital Minimalism is the book I have read most recently out of this list. As a practice, it focuses on the idea that an individual should limit their screen time, social media time and de-clutter their virtual world, embracing the physical world and the joys and simplicities it has to offer - physical interactions for instance over digital ones. It shares many of the same principles as minimalism in the physical world.
As a concept, I had been aware of it for some time. Again, I had heard the author, Cal Newport, discuss the lessons on a podcast and initially, I wasn't too interested. I was posting regularly on social media and at that time my following was important to me.
I don't recall if there was a particular catalyst that suddenly lead me to examine my digital usage, or whether it was just a subtle change in attitude over time, but I read the book early last year when I had started a new job at Monzo. Inside I wasn't happy, I felt dissatisfied with the world, my relationship started to suffer because of it and I became not a particularly nice person to be around. My partner approached me and had said specifically that I should cut out social media, that I had become focused on others success that it was making me feel dissatisfied. I denied it for some time, but after a lot of reflection she was absolutely right. I compared myself endlessly with others, unhealthily so.
I read Digital Minimalism shortly after this and the relief and change in my behaviour was instant. I focused more on myself, my own journey and this allowed me to see the things that were important to me. I would be lying to you if I said I didn't fall occasionally into the old trap of comparison, but it is something I am getting stronger and stronger at. I limit my time on social media to 15 minutes a day, and my screen time is consistently less than 1 hour a day, and at this point I am happier and more content than I have ever been in my life.