Top CEOs and executives read 50+ books a year. With the wide accessibility of audiobooks and speed reading apps, it’s not an impossible feat. A nearly endless amount of text waits within arms reach at any moment of the day—the hard part is deciding what to absorb. Here are six non-business books that should be at the top of every professional’s business reading list.
Next, read about four inspiring pieces of visual communication.
The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the World by Richard O. Prum
Recommended by Gwyn Cready, Writer
For the last century and a half, Darwin’s lesser-known second rule of selection—sexual selection—has remained completely overshadowed. In his more popular theory, natural selection, Darwin argued that species respond to changes from the outside—climate, predators, food supply, etc.—by adopting useful characteristics over time. Sexual selection, Darwin said, is different and works independently. In sexual selection, female desire for beauty in a mate drives the ornamental changes that males of species often display. Sexual selection, in Darwin’s view, was the only way to account for characteristics like the peacock’s tail. They provide no advantage in the ability of a species to survive or breed, and, may even work against it.
What can grade school science teach us about innovation?
Prum, a professor of zoology at Yale, considers why sexual selection went largely unnoticed. He argues that this overshadowing occurred because Victorians refused to imagine a scientific framework that included aesthetics and female desire.
Prum picks up Darwin’s theory and makes a page-turning argument that his biologist colleagues should reconsider sexual selection. Because he’s an ornithologist, his argument is illustrated with a number of interesting examples from the bird world.
I liked the book because it showed that every framework is worthy of challenge—even (or perhaps especially) the ones that everyone “knows to be true.” It also reminded me that one shouldn’t shy away from laying out an argument to challenge a position the majority holds. There are benefits to being different. Darwin would be the first to concur.
Find “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the World” here.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Recommended by Maeve Ruggieri, Strategist and Writer
This book is a curated collection of Patchett’s non-fiction essays about commitment. Though she’s known for her novels (Bel Canto, State of Wonder, The Patron Saint of Liars, Commonwealth), Patchett’s “bread and butter” over the years has been writing freelance essays for periodicals like Vogue, New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, and GQ. The title of the book is a bit of a red herring—it does have a story or two about Patchett’s current and former marriages. But most of the essays are about commitments of a different kind.
Patchett’s commitment stories are relatable and applicable to any writer, designer, or innovator. She spends a lot of time writing about the creative process. About trusting the process and committing to it—even when it’s a real slog and the last thing she wants to be doing. She writes about embracing risk and looking for opportunities to expand her thinking in the context of her day-to-day work. My favorite story, “The Wall,” describes her process of preparing for and taking the LA Police Academy admissions test—a goal that intimidated her and pleased her father, a retired LAPD police captain. Though the essay provides interesting perspective about the grueling nature of the test, the broader message really called to me: sometimes doing something really difficult—overcoming risk and fear—is a great way to change your thinking.
Find “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” here.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Recommend by Marisa Boevers, Director of Marketing
This biography of General Ulysses S. Grant is chock-full of leadership lessons, both positive and negative. Grant is a both a visionary and a troubled leader throughout the Civil War and his presidency, as he wrestles with problems that will seem remarkably similar to your own.
For instance, although Grant is arguably one of the greatest military strategists, who succeeded in orchestrating multiple armies across vast territory without the benefit of modern technology, he struggles to manage the personalities and politics of both his superiors and his peers. As a result, he ends up making political enemies that nearly ruin his career.
As Grant begins to win the war and move into Reconstruction, he becomes a full-voiced proponent of equality for freed slaves, but fails to take the appropriate actions to manage the resulting culture change for the defeated rebel states. Grant struggles throughout his career to read other people and understand their motives. Although a brilliant strategist and forward-thinking leader, as a people manager, Grant struggles again and again.
A must read if you enjoy history or biographies. But even if that’s not your preferred genre, Chernow’s engaging and detailed writing style will draw you in and provide you years worth of rousing meeting openers.
Find “Grant” here.
Next up, add these to your business reading list:
We can’t wait to get started on these:
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink