One book can change your whole life. It just has to be the right one for you at the right time in your life. During my final year as a student, I read three books that I believe have drastically improved my productivity and mindset. They came to me at the right time in my life. I’m fairly confident that if you are a student or a recent graduate, you will see a similar transformation in yourself when you read these books. I’ll go over how my way of thinking was impacted, my favourite lesson, and some good quotes from each book. At the end of each summary, I will post a link to the book. This will be an Amazon Associates link which means, that by purchasing the book through it, I receive a minor profit at no extra cost to you. Shopping through my link would be a kind way to support Engineering Worth because I only recommend books that I believe will truly impact your life. Even if you don’t purchase any of the following books, I’ve tried to write this article so that you will still get some value out of it. Without further ado, let’s get into the review.
1. Deep Work - Cal Newport
Surprise, surprise! At the top of my list is Deep Work. Honestly, this book was a game changer for my productivity. I even made a video that was inspired by it that you can check out here. I feel as though I have implemented deep work multiple times through out my life without even knowing what it was. However, it was not something I deliberately practiced. In Newport's own words,
Before reading this book, the quality of my study sessions were varied. Some days I would study alone in the library with no noise, and other days I would study at home with the music on. I had no idea that if you studied without distraction for long enough that your brain would fall into a state of flow. I learned that the ability to perform deep work was a SKILL that you could develop and improve. Now, I have made deep work a normal part of my daily routine. I wake up and start working without distraction for at least 2 hours. As a result, I've noticed that my ability to focus for long periods of time has been improving. I believe that the ability to work deeply has contributed to the minor success of Engineering Worth and has allowed me to accomplish a lot more than I would have otherwise.
Before reading the book, I never knew about “attention residue". Sure, I knew multitasking was bad but I never really thought about it on a deeper level. For example, imagine that you are working on a difficult homework problem. Suddenly, your friend asks you a question. You think about it, answer it, he thanks you, and then leaves. You try to get back to your work but you forget where you were. Now you have to spend time refocusing and getting back into the zone. I think this is a fairly common, and relatable example. But, think about how many times this happens through out the day in various forms. Your phone beeps to notify you of a new text message. Your attention shifts. Your computer alerts you of a new e-mail. Your attention shifts. Your co-workers start chatting in front of you. Again, your attention shifts. The “attention residue” from each individual incident adds up and severely effects our productivity for the day. Allowing these incidents to occur habitually will actually hinder you from learning how to work deeply. Try to stick to one task for as long as possible and without distraction in order to build up your ability to perform deep work.
Essentially, these are the main reasons one should practice working deeply. Deep work allows you to get good at difficult tasks and do it as frequently as possible.
Newport argues that many of today’s knowledge workers are not actually being productive. Instead, they are being busy but they believe they are being productive. During the industrial revolution, productivity meant manufacturing the most amount of goods. A factory that produced a lot of goods in a day was more productive. However, Newport believes that “extracting value from information” is the new meaning of productivity and this requires going deep. Many knowledge workers aren’t made aware of this new definition or aren’t given an environment to support it. As a result, they resort to the old definition of productivity: producing a lot of stuff. This is what Cal refers to as being busy. Knowledge workers believe that being busy is equal to being productive and it simply is not.
2. So Good They Can’t Ignore You - Cal Newport
Truthfully, this list could have just been all of Cal Newport’s books. This book, like the others on this list, was revolutionary for me. Essentially, this book is all about how to get a job that you love. It's the antithesis of sayings like “follow your passion” or “do what you love and the money will follow”. Cal argues that finding a job that you love is a function of the qualities of that job and not the job itself! This is a powerful shift in thinking. Cal found that people who loved their jobs had the following traits in common:
- They had lots of autonomy over how and when they did their work
- They were supporting missions that they really believed in
I completely believe this to be true. Let’s assume, that for any job I do, money wasn’t an issue.
I would love to be a musician. I could create music whenever I felt like it, go on tour, and just live a rockstar’s life. I’d have autonomy and control over my work, and my mission would be healing and entertaining people through my music.
But, I would also love to be a doctor. Imagine if I was such a good doctor that people gave me the freedom to work on my own schedule. I could help the patients that I felt needed me the most and try to really make an impact in the world.
But, I would also love to be an amazing engineer. What if my skills were so good that I could work for any company, and work on important issues like providing clean water to those in need? This seems like an equally exciting opportunity.
See, I could have a lot of potential passions and careers that I feel I would thrive in. I would love them all. One of the main messages in Cal’s book is that it’s not about doing what you’re passionate about but becoming passionate about what you do. His title says it all: become so good that no one can ignore you! Develop your skills to the point that people are willing to give you autonomy, and control. Become the best at what you do, so that you can actually contribute to missions that you’re passionate about. Maybe, as an engineer, you want to help provide clean water to those who need it. Without the proper training, and education how could you possibly contribute to this mission in any meaningful way? Interesting careers aren’t handed out, they’re built.
So, how do you build an interesting career? This is where my favourite lesson comes in: career capital. Cal argues that you need to build up what he calls "career capital” and exchange it for these traits. How do you build up career capital? Become good at what you do. Work under someone else, learn, practice your craft, and get better everyday. If you get good enough, you can cash in your career capital for desirable traits. For example, I may work at a mechanical engineering firm for a year and build up some skills. Then I may move on to another company in a higher position. I may do this for 3-5 years before I feel like I’ve built up a lot of capital and decide to start trading it in for valuable traits. Perhaps, I will start my own company with all the knowledge and skills that I have gained. That’s one way to achieve autonomy and support a mission that I believe in. But, there are no short cuts to these traits. You have to build up the capital.
This quote beautifully distills one of the overarching messages of the book. Passion alone is not enough to obtain an interesting career. You have to build a compelling career for yourself through hard work and patience. You may be the smartest kid in your class, or work the hardest but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have an “interesting" career when you graduate. You have to start by playing your role in society, and maneuver your way to a career that you love. Compelling careers are rare but possible. You just have to know how to get there and this book is a beautiful map.
3. Better Than Before - Gretchen Rubin
The first book you read on habits will change your entire life. For me, that book happened to be “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin. Rubin sorts everyone into 4 different personality types:
"Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.
Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
Rebels resists all expectations, outer and inner alike."
This classification of people really changed the way I thought about myself. It helped me understand my motivations for sticking to a habit. For example, some people love having a gym trainer. They feel way more motivated to go to the gym when they know someone is waiting for them. They love the external accountability and these people would fall under the category of “obligers". However, this would NOT work for me at all. I hate external accountability and it just doesn’t motivate me. Instead, I’m motivated by my own justifications and my own values which makes me a “questioner". Now, I understand what I need to do in order to make certain actions a habit. I need to find a justification for the habit that I truly believe in. I believe that going to the gym will make me healthier, stronger, and more confident. Exercising everyday, regardless of how I feel, would help me build up self-discipline which is an important trait to have in life. This is what motivates me to go and stick with it. Ever since I’ve read this book, I have been looking for good justifications to pursue each habit that I want.
This was something I had never thought about before. I used to justify a “cheat meal” or an unhealthy snack just because I had worked out for the day. However, as Gretchen Rubin would say, this “undermines” my good habit. The habit and my reward are at odds. Instead, it’s better to find a reward that reinforces the habit. I talked about this in my “How To Build Good Study Habits” video. For example, buying a tablet in order to take better notes is a good reward for constantly attending class and doing your homework. The reward reinforces the habit.
I think this quote perfectly summarizes the entire premise of this book. What works for me may not work for you. What works for you may not work for me. However, Gretchen Rubin has gifted us with a body of work that helps you find out what DOES work for you and how to start changing your habits so that your actions reflect your values.