Sorting out career and work is an ongoing puzzle for many of us. The good news is there's an easy dozen of brilliant books on the topic.
Here’s our curated and compact list of the five most insightful books on work, each with its own frame and angle. All of our picks, as of this writing, score 3.9 our higher (out of 5) on Goodreads. Whether you’re fresh out of school; smack in the thick of it, but questioning your choices; looking for new purpose in your field; or a dyed-in-the-wool angsty career floater, one of these titles contains at least the very beginnings of the answer you’re seeking.
Pivot: The Only Move That Matters is Your Next One--Jenny Blake (2016)
“Embrace fear, insecurity and uncertainty as the doorways of opportunity that they are. Build first, then your courage will follow (not the other way around). Just start taking small steps, rooted in your strengths.”—Jenny Blake, Forbes interview
Goodreads Score: 3.9/5
Pivot is an increasingly relevant book in a world where careers have become less linear and more scattershot. Billed as a “personal playbook for career change,” you'll find exercises to get the ball rolling towards transition and several real-life stories of successful career pivots. (Blake herself left a job at Google to start her own business as a career consultant.) The book follows the analogy of a basketball pivot in which you “plant, scan, pilot, and launch” as a strategy for change.
Who It’s For: the risk averse; anyone well established in a field but wanting to shift to another; anyone wanting to make any kind of scary change in career or life, but lacking a game-plan; anyone with a penchant for sports metaphors and clear-cut strategies.
The Gist: Remember you are working from an existing base of strengths—connections, experience, and interests—no matter how major the career shift, you’re never starting at zero.
Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together--Pamela Slim (2013)
“The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
Goodreads score 4/5
Slim addresses the contemporary problem of identity angst in the gig economy. The more fluid and fractured your work history, the harder it is to create a cohesive narrative of your “career.” But this is exactly what you must do to find the niche where you’ll be at your happiest and most potent. This book lays out an 8-step path and contains exercises and real life illustrations including success stories of nonprofit founders.
Who It’s For: Anyone roaming a non-traditional career path, collaging a work life (freelancers and entrepreneurs); or anyone struggling to create a personal brand / “purposeful” narrative that they can explain clearly to themselves and others.
The Gist: Don’t suffer for other people’s definition of success; discern what success means to you in your own personal story. There is a meaningful spandrel throughout your work life even if it’s not glaringly apparent. The more you take the reins on your own work life, work quality, and story, the more likely you are to leave leave a powerful body of work behind you.
What Color is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career Changers--Richard Nelson Bolles (1970-2018)
“Job-hunting is all about human nature, and in its essence is most like another human activity that we call dating.”
Goodreads Score 4/5
If there’s a holy scripture of job hunting, this is it. Bolles’ manual, now in its 40th edition and published in 22 languages, guides the reader in self-reflective exercises and offers practical tips on the material elements of resumes, interviews, etc. Practically an institution in its own right, What Color is Your Parachute is also backed by a whole flotilla of online resources. This classic manages to stay relevant, popular, and well-received through incisive yearly revisions, even after Bolles’ death in 2017.
Who It’s For: Anyone looking to light out for new territories, or in a quandary about where they belong in the public sphere; anyone seeking clear best-practice advice in the current market—relevant across ages, job types, and rank.
The Gist: Introspection, self-examination and initiative are vital to defining your job hunt and life path. Networking, relationships, and proof of previous quality work are your greatest allies in your job search, so begin there.
Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity--David Whyte (2001)
"We shape our work, and then, not surprisingly, we are shaped again by the work we have done.”
Goodreads Score 4.2/5
David Whyte is a beloved poet who has carved out a niche speaking to Fortune 500 company employees and leaders. In this book he explores the concept of work as part of our whole person.
Who It’s For: Readers with a literary and contemplative bent looking for something deeper than the typical “career advice” book; anyone content in their field but wanting a deeper connection to their work; anyone suffering from burnout or identity crisis; classical literature and Rilke fans.
The Gist: Work, as much as any recognized spiritual practice, is a path to personal growth and discovery.
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation--Parker Palmer (2000)
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Goodreads Score: 4.2
Palmer did an about-face career change himself after suffering a severe depression. This book is written from the base assumption that a higher power exists, that we all have a vocation or calling in life— something impressed into who we are from the time we were children. Most of us have been led away from our true passions in life by authority figures trying to fit us into slots.
Who It’s For: Anyone feeling a sense of meaningless or mediocrity in their current work; anyone wondering what they were meant to do, mulling over the road not taken, or dealing with depression or burnout; anyone who believes in a higher power.
The Gist: Contributing to the well-being of others inherently gives humans pleasure and meaning. Your vocation is found at that unique place where your gifts and the world’s needs intersect.
Have another favorite book on career? Drop us the title so we can share with our followers.