Whether you’re about to graduate or you’re simply realizing that your current job might not be your dream job, there are a million books out there that claim to hold the answers for you. Their titles include words like “maximize,” “win,” and “secrets of success.” This isn’t a list of those books.
Why? Because the best books you can read for your career aren’t necessarily marketed that way. For those of you with a clear vision who just want to learn the ropes, never fear, I’ve included a book for you on the list, too. But for the rest of us, there’s a world of literature outside the “career” shelf that has a whole lot to offer.
Here are five books you should add to your reading list:
1. Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
Best for: Big-picture thinkers
Written by professors from Stanford and based on a legendary class they teach there, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life isn’t a passive read. It’s a workbook designed to help you think through the ways you can create a life you love – professionally and otherwise.
Burnett and Evans help you apply design thinking (i.e., the way designers approach problems) to your life. The goal is bigger than just your career (though they have a second version, Designing Your Work Life, that zeros in on the work side of things), aiming to help you build a fulfilling existence in every part of your life.
I took a spin through this book myself and, more than anything, it taught me how to pay better attention to what makes me happy and fulfilled — and what doesn’t. Sounds like an obvious move, but it’s harder than you’d think.
Bookshop.org, $25; shop now
2. What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles with Katherine Brooks
Best for: Practical thinkers
You say you want a proven winner? Okay, how about a book that’s been in print for, I dunno, 50 entire years?
What Color is Your Parachute? Your Guide to a Lifetime of Meaningful Work and Career Success debuted in 1970 and has been revised every year since 1975. And don’t let its long run scare you off: the 2021 edition was revised by the Director of Vanderbilt University’s Career Center, and it’s filled with information for the modern day, including virtual interviews, the impacts of COVID-19 and using social media tools in the job search.
That’s why the series has been around so long. It’s all about advice you can apply right now – for example: mail a physical thank you note the day of your interview on top of sending an email. If you’re chomping at the bit and ready to get out there and find your dream job, this one’s for you.
Bookshop.org, $18; shop now
3. Quiet by Susan Cain
Best for: Introverts
Calling all the introverts who are tired being told to “speak up!” and “put yourself out there!” Being an extrovert can certainly make your job search easier, but in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain argues that introverts (think: Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, and an entire third of the population) are both hugely successful and chronically undervalued.
This isn’t your typical how-to guide that will teach you to write a cover letter, but it might do something more important: change the way you see yourself. So grab a cozy reading corner and get ready to be inspired.
Bookshop.org, $17; shop now
4. Becoming by Michelle Obama
Best for: Type-As
Want to do it all? Want to do it all perfectly? Michelle Obama has been there.
A born over-achiever, the former First Lady is a graduate of both Princeton and Harvard Law who always knew she wanted to do big things, and Becoming covers it all. After kicking off her career at a high-powered law firm, Obama served in city government, as executive director of a non-profit, as an associate dean at the University of Chicago, and as a VP at University of Chicago Hospitals.
Her candid exploration of her work ups and downs and the soul-searching it took to put aside the “perfect” career in order to follow her true passions will be eye-opening for anyone perpetually worried about having it all figured out. (Bonus: you’ll also get a first-hand account of what it’s like to meet the Queen of England.)
I was late to this book, but after hearing about it for years I finally picked it up. It’s quick and funny while also managing to be remarkably thoughtful and candid. If you didn’t think you could relate to a First Lady, think again.
Bookshop.org, $19; shop now
5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
Best for: Creatives
There’s no better way to plan big dreams than by hearing from people who’ve done it themselves. And unlike the autobiographies of self-important CEOs, Mindy Kaling will tell you what it took with humor and humility, not ego. Plus, if you download the audio book, you’ll get to hear the story straight from Mindy herself.
There are many careers that exist outside of the nine-to-five world, and books like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (as well as Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Amy Pohler’s Yes Please) are great introductions to what it takes to make it in the world beyond business-casual.
Reading Kaling’s book was a great look behind the curtains of glamour and whimsy that cover Hollywood. If you’re looking for a real-talk account of what it takes to make it in a job everyone thinks is easy, this is a great place to start.
Bookshop.org, $16; shop now
There are many approaches to career planning, and no two successful people will give you the same advice. But perhaps the best move you can make today is to set aside some time to think about what you want out of your work life — and tuck another title under your belt while you’re at it!