Most career advice books stink. But these 5 are worth at least a glance

We’re only a quarter of the way through 2021, and there are some fantastic new releases that you need to get your hands on ASAP to boost your career success. There’s something for everyone in this roundup, so grab your coffee, and dig into one of these books.

Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind) by Rebecca Seal

My first recommendation is Seal’s handbook, Solo, helping you learn how to work from home (or anywhere) alone. Timely in its release, Seal delves into how solo work was thrust upon many of us because of the pandemic, and how it’s affecting our mental health. We’re still hard-wired for in-person connection, after all. 

Yes, you may prefer to be solo for work, but others merely see it as a necessity they tolerate. For example, creatives need it for focus and inspiration, while problem-solvers need it for intense thinking and uninterrupted analysis. The good news is you can change your perceptions and experiment with how you work. It’s quite a practical little guidebook you can keep on your desk for your next coffee break.

What I like the most about her writing is that it’s part memoir and part strategy. It’s an easy read because of this, and the personal anecdotes make it enjoyable to learn all the different ways we can survive solo work. It’s like reading a podcast – personal stories, research, and interviews woven together in a beautiful tapestry of thoughts on working alone. 

“A World without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload” by Cal Newport

Productivity junkies will recognize Newport’s name and jump head-first into his latest. Those of you not familiar with Newport will be interested in noting that he doesn’t have social media accounts. He’s an expert on focus and what he calls “deep work,” and now he’s helping us take another look at a necessity in the workplace: email.

A World without Email characterizes how modern knowledge workplaces operate as a hyperactive hive mind workflow. You may be working in one if when the central point person in these email chains – the manager – steps away, then all threads (and work) grind to a halt. Newport also goes to great lengths to explain why email is making us miserable. Let me tell you it was a relief to understand this psychology.

Possible solutions were a fascinating part of this book, like a twice-daily Scrum meeting in-person or on Zoom that lasts no more than 15 minutes, followed by a 2-4 hour uninterrupted stretch of work time. Newport’s book (for managers and knowledge workers alike) will get you questioning how you work and whether you might need to break up with your inbox (at least for a few hours at a time). 

“Put Happiness to Work: 7 Strategies to Elevate Engagement for Optimal Performance” by Eric Karpinski

Positive psychology has finally made its way into the boardroom thanks to Karpinski’s new book, where he pushes back against the notion that work-life balance is all employers need to be concerned about. Within the term itself, the understanding is that work isn’t for fun or happiness; that’s for life outside of work, and thus, not an employer’s responsibility. 

While many of us are guilty of dismissing happiness as a “nice to have” rather than a precursor to success, Karpinski puts research and a decade of experience behind why it matters to people, culture, and the bottom line. Balancing out his enthusiasm for happiness in the office, Karpinski tempers his arguments with realism. Not everyone can be happy at work all. the. time. Good news on that front: Short bursts of happiness sprinkled throughout the month are all that really matter to employees and, in turn, their engagement. 

Put Happiness to Work is a choose-your-own-adventure-style book for leadership. You can move between the seven strategies depending on what your team needs most right now. And I have to admit, I wanted to look into the counterintuitive strategies first – like putting negativity to work. So I bounced around between chapters and the book didn’t lose any of its luster when reading this way. Time-strapped leaders looking for strategies to implement with their team can pick this book up and easily find inspiration and simple strategies that work.

Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair by Kim Scott

Just Work is a timely, important, and humble response to Scott’s prior work (Radical Candor) and her experience with it not being effective for all people. The book teaches us, first, to treat ourselves with compassion and, second, how to respond to workplace injustice no matter your role – person harmed, person causing harm, person observing or leader. Scott also explains how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes so you can start to identify these issues early and work toward prevention. 

The personal stories in her book are engrossing. She’s a natural at bringing you along on her professional journey and shining a light on things that were not ok but that are so common, we can all relate. I often felt like she was talking directly to me and that somehow we had parallel work lives a few years apart. The sad truth is many people experience work injustices. We just don’t always label them correctly. But should we have to just make do with the status quo, with putting in our dues, with being harmed? Scott says no. We can all do better. 

Her writing is very thoughtful, very detailed, and makes you pause and ask questions about your own workplace. Scott does an excellent job at showing us how to navigate the subtleties of different situations. We don’t often know what someone else was thinking and what their intent was – malicious or simply a case of unconscious bias? Neither is acceptable, but how do we know what we’re dealing with and how to respond? Her advice is amazing. She provides options. She gives us permission to forgive ourselves if we didn’t respond well in the past. And she encourages us to think next time and to choose a response that is right (for us). Because sometimes we do need to pick our battles at work. 

“Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work” by Jeff Schwartz and Suzanne Riss

There’s a reason I put this book last in my list of recommended reads. If you made it through the article to this point, then you have the focus and tenacity needed to read this book. Work Disrupted is a far-ranging, thought-provoking conversation about the future of work, and it is grounded in some serious research. I read this book in chunks, when I had the mental capacity to really pay attention.

Schwartz and Riss respond to automation alarmists by sharing stories of how tech changes jobs instead of eliminating them. It’s not about asking how many jobs the robots will displace. It’s about asking different questions and preparing for the necessary mindset shifts. Beyond the technology advances and learning to navigate new jobs and new skills, the authors delve into even broader topics, like the gig economy. They advocate for new laws to protect these workers and give them social supports and minimum wage protection. 

One of my favorite aspects of this book was how human it was, in the face of all the technology and complicated economic and societal research. The authors explain that our lives should be evident in our work. Getting to know our colleagues better while working from home this past year with kids and dogs in our Zoom calls is an indication of how we can move forward with technology to humanize work.