The holidays are near, which means, for many of us, a short break before the New Year. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of the most useful books I’ve read this year. They’re all engaging and well written, and cover topics that you can apply to training, project management, and interpersonal relationships. If your holidays include a winter break, they’re worth a look.

Brain Rules

If you were at the Learning Solutions conference this year, you may have had a chance to hear John Medina speak. He’s worth listening to. In Brain Rules, Medina talks about how different situations affect the brain and learning, and what you, as an instructor (or as a learner) can do to create the best possible conditions for learning. This book includes tips on the best ways to sequence a lesson to gain and keep students’ attention, reminders on the limitations of long and short-term memory, and information about how exercise, sleep, and stress affect learners’ performance. Medina includes all the most relevant studies in cognitive psychology and synthesizes them into one easy-to-read, compelling book.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers offers a lot of food for thought. Two of his chapters, in particular, have special applicability to training. In one, he discusses categories, and how they affect the people they describe. Even when the categories are assigned simply for convenience (like some class cohorts), Outliers shows that the categories can have effects for years after they were originally assigned.

In another, he explains how long it takes people to really learn complex skills – about 10,000 hours. That’s a sobering thought. If they’re learning those skills on the job, it implies that you can’t contain training in the space of a single course, or even curriculum. The importance of supporting informal learning strategies and tools was clearer to me than ever before after reading this chapter.

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop

I’ve been a fan of Clifford Nass’ work for the last 10 years. Being familiar with his research, I was certain that he and Corina Yen would use the book to describe experiments where subjects interact with computers as if the computers were human beings. That was the premise of The Media Equation, and a number of his published papers. But this book surprised me, because while the authors do discuss the experiments, the focus of this book is on what their findings reveal about how people interact with one another. The Man Who Lied to His Laptop offers hints about how to influence others, the best way to offer feedback so that the recipient can act on it, and what cues people use to identify the individuals they find trustworthy. In this book, the computers-as-social-agents construct takes a back seat, and the story that emerges is all about interpersonal relationships.  

The Upside of Irrationality

In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely explores topics centered on what motivates people. The book shows that bigger pay incentives don’t necessarily inspire greater work effort, that people don’t assess the value of their own work very accurately, and that asking people to make even very slight modifications to an established work product allows them to value the work product and their own contributions more. More importantly, it shows the conditions that cause people to arrive at their irrational conclusions. Dan Ariely’s entire book is excellent, but if you’re a manager, or work on any kind of employee incentive programs, the first half of the book is a must-read.

Crucial Conversations

Do you have a project that is more challenging than it needs to be because of a difficult customer, colleague, or boss? Chances are, when things go wrong, the circumstances follow a recognizable pattern. Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, has a lot of practical advice on how to cut through the drama, and keep yourself and the people you need to interact with focused on the goals you all have in common. The book provides some reliable methods you can use to recognize and change bad patterns, and begin to develop more productive communications with the people you work with or work for.

Happy Holidays

So, that’s my list of the top five business books I’ve read all year. They’re the ones I’ve highlighted, written notes on, and returned to again and again. If you have some spare time during the holiday break, or happen to get a bookstore gift card, I highly recommend them all. In the meantime, I wish you all the best this holiday season.

Bibliographic and publisher information

Ariely, F. (2010) The Upside of Irrationality. New York: Harper. (Publisher’s price for hardcover $27.99, for paperback $15.99. Amazon: Hardcover $11.20, paperback $10.87, audio CD/audiobook $26.59, Audible Audio edition $20.95, Kindle $9.99. Barnes & Noble: Hardcover $17.54, paperback $10.98, audiobook $31.49, Nook $9.99, Nook Enhanced $18.99)

Gladwell, M. (2011) Outliers. Boston: Back Bay Books. (Publisher’s price for hardcover $27.99, for paperback $16.99. Amazon: Hardcover $18.44, paperback $11.19, Kindle $9.99. Barnes & Noble: Hardcover $18.44, paperback $11.19, audiobook $28.78, Nook $9.99)

Medina, J. Brain Rules. (2009) Seattle: Pear Press. (Publisher’s price for hardcover $29.95, for paperback $15.00. Amazon: Hardcover $18.11, paperback $10.20, audio CD/Audiobook $23.07, Kindle $7.16. Barnes & Noble: Hardcover $18.11, paperback $24.99, audiobook $22.12, Nook $8.10)

Nass, C. & Yen, C. (2010) The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships. New York: Your Coach In A Box. (Publisher’s price for hardcover $25.95, for paperback $16.00. Amazon: Hardcover $10.38, paperback $10.88, audio CD/audiobook $26.98, Kindle $18.99, Audible Audio Edition $17.95. Barnes & Noble: Hardcover $24.66, paperback $10.77, audiobook $26.98, Nook $18.99)

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, S. (2011) Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill. (Publisher’s price for hardcover $30.00, for paperback $18.00. Amazon: Hardcover $18.43, paperback $12.24, Kindle Edition with Audio/Video $9.99, Kindle Edition $8.98 (bundled with Crucial Confrontations), Kindle Edition without bundled content $8.09, audio CD/audiobook $18.48, Audible Audio Edition $10.95. Barnes & Noble: Paperback $12.36, Nook $9.90)

Note: All prices as found online December 14, 2011. Formats not shown (e.g., paperback, e-book, etc.) were not found on publisher websites. In some cases, certain formats were available as pre-orders. Publisher prices provided for comparison when shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.