Many of us are in the mood for upgrading our skills at the moment, and while we’ve got a bit more free time than usual, it’s a nice opportunity to spend some of it on learning.
Whether it’s an entire career rethink, or a deep-dive into a specific skill you want to master, you’ll massively improve your chances of success with a bit of research beforehand. Thankfully, there’s some rather clever people who’ve distilled a range of techniques for effective learning that’ll help anyone get the most out of their personal R&D time.
Here’s our list of the best books for career development, on the topics of learning, skills, and business thinking. Some of these are a great primer on learning itself, and some are more career focused.
But no matter what industry you’re in or what expertise you have, these books will help you understand where to focus your attention, how to learn effectively, and how to make better choices for your career.
(We’ve included some links for convenience - there’s no affiliation, we’re not making any money if you click, and you’re just as welcome to request them at your local library instead.)
The best books for learning and career development
1) How We Learn - Benedict Carey
Let’s start at the start. This is the book you wish you would have read before going to uni - but it’s never too late to learn how to learn.
From the moment we’re born, we start learning. The way our brains absorb and retain information is fascinating, and researchers are discovering more about it every day.
Benedict Carey’s guide is a journalistic guide to the science of learning, packed with tips about optimising your environment, routine, health and techniques to maximise your learning capabilities, whether that’s in academia, business or life in general.
(This is clearly an area people are interested in - in fact, there’s a newer book with the same title by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene.)
2) Ultralearning: Accelerate Your Career, Master Hard Skills and Outsmart the Competition - Scott H. Young
This book offers a different approach to ‘learning how to learn’.
The author put himself through an intense learning experiment (studying MIT’s 4-year computer science curriculum in a single year) and this book tells you how you can do similar things yourself, using principles of focusing, experimenting, testing, and so on. Some of it seems like common sense, but there are some techniques for methodical planning and execution of information absorption that’ll really stick with you.
While it focuses on ambitious project-based learning, the lessons within are useful for any kind of education, including the continuous life-long learning many of us will need to do throughout our careers to keep up with the ever-changing world of work.
3) The Art of Learning - Josh Waitzkin
Josh Waitzkin focuses on the long-term discipline of mastering a domain, whether it’s sport, business, language learning, or something else. This one’s about mastery; learning how to be in the top portion of performers in whichever domain you choose. (The author won a national chess championship at the age of nine, and went on to be a world class martial artist - he knows a thing or two.)
It doesn’t shy away from the necessity of being competitive, both against others and against your own mental barriers. It’s quite spiritual at times and is focused on having a powerful mindset, but the mental models and techniques used are inter-disciplinary, and they can translate really well to the career concepts and technical skills you’d make use of in everyday work.
4) The Skills: How To Win At Work - Mishal Husain
‘From first job to dream job’, this guide by BBC broadcaster Mishal Husain is aimed at career-focused women but contains valuable lessons for everyone.
From building resilience to speaking up for yourself to developing expertise and authority, it’s full of the core skills that many of us aren’t really taught anywhere. So instead of learning these the hard way, this book provides a handy head start. It’s like having a friendly career coach guide you along the way. Really useful if you need some confidence and direction.
5) Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World - David Epstein
A welcome rebuttal to today’s reliance on highly specific and specialised skills, this book reveals how a varied education can lead to the same success - if not more - than a tightly-focused one. Are you getting enough range in your career education, or is your focus so narrow you’re leaving yourself with limited options?
The blurb explains the concept nicely:
"From the '10,000 hours rule' to the power of Tiger parenting, we have been taught that success in any field requires early specialization and many hours of deliberate practice. And, worse, that if you dabble or delay, you'll never catch up with those who got a head start. This is completely wrong.”
In fact, we mentioned this in our Top Ten HR Books post, but it’s such a valuable concept with regards to learning, it’s worth revisiting.
6) Rebel Ideas - Matthew Syed
As well as educational diversity, we could all benefit from more cognitive diversity. This is the theory behind Matthew Syed’s bestseller about the virtues of cultivating differing viewpoints, both within yourself and your company:
“The success of organisations, as well as societies, depends on harnessing our differences in pursuit of our vital interests.”
He has a fascinating journalistic style that helps you get a deep understanding of the concepts without overloading you with jargon.
Pair this with Syed’s excellent other work, Black Box Thinking, which is all about how failure, and learning from our mistakes, will make us stronger - both individually and as organisations.
7) So Good They Can’t Ignore You - Cal Newport
You might recognise the author’s name from his other works we reference occasionally - Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. He’s a writer and professor of computer science who’s a bit of an expert on work and careers.
This book goes against the popular mantra of ‘follow your passion’. Newport theorises that it’s your talent and skill, not your passion, that opens the path to a successful career.
Rather than looking for our ‘dream job’, he says, we should focus on being really, really useful - this will open the doors we need to obtain different work experiences. By doing this, we’ll naturally find what we’re passionate about without having to force it.
8) The Squiggly Career: Ditch the Ladder, Discover Opportunity, Design Your Career - Helen Tupper & Sarah Ellis
The age of having the same job for 30 years is over. We now take ’the scenic route’ through our careers, moving between roles, skillsets and companies much more than before. It’s taking a while for our educational institutions to keep up with this concept, but by understanding it now you’ll have an advantage in taking control over your career.
This book is a useful guide to figuring out what you’re really good at, what your values are, what you want to do, and what you want to learn.
9) Designing Your Life: Build the Perfect Career, Step by Step - Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
In this bestselling follow-up to the wildly successful Life Design course, authors Burnett & Evans apply design principles from Silicon Valley to the idea of career-building.
It’s an unusual way to go about it, but by applying techniques like reframing, prototyping and brainstorming to planning out your career, you can make specific and achievable steps to finding a fulfilling career. Not a bad idea at all.
10) The Personal MBA: A World-Class Business Education in a Single Volume - Josh Kaufman
Getting an MBA is one of the most prestigious business qualifications you can get. It’s also really expensive.
Instead, you might want to check out this cheaper alternative - a rundown of the most important principles you’ll learn for employment, leadership and entrepreneurship. Nuts and bolts like sales, marketing and finance are covered, as well as team-building, workplace psychology and cultural stewardship. Worth a read for anyone wanting to reach the next level in their business career.
You might consider pairing this with What They Teach You At Harvard Business School, alongside What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School - which together should - in theory - teach you all the knowledge in the universe. Good luck.