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Super short book reviews for creative minds.
Recommendations welcome ︎

Meaningful Work

by Shawn Askinosie


“Our greatest joy is our sorrow unmasked.”


Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul was recommended by a friend (on two separate occasions) during a period when I was frustrated with my job. The introduction promises a guide to finding more fulfilling work—specifically, how to identify one’s vocation and apply it to their own business. The author, Shawn Askinosie, covers diverse topics from visioning to direct trade. A self-described “social entrepreneur,” Askinosie walks a fine line between professional and personal advice that is probably most applicable for newly-founded small businesses.

The author opens with a story about his father’s sudden death and closes with a love letter to silent retreats; it’s an unexpected narrative to say the least. Revolving around Askinosie’s connection with a small abbey (the location where his father passed away), he details his journey from 20 years as a criminal defense attorney to founding an artisanal chocolate business. I really enjoyed the way he weaved in life-lessons and business strategy from start to finish, but it was difficult to stay interested the entire time. I stopped to read some other books along the way (it took me almost seven months to finish a 7-hour audio book); however, I can see myself wanting to revisit this book if I ever start my own business or find myself struggling to find meaning in my day-to-day. Askinosie is extremely spiritual and leans heavily on religious overtones to explain the way he wrote his life rule (and business plan). I definitely enjoyed his spin on “growth” and how Askinosie Chocolate is intentionally kept small (ie: more effective in the lives of people it touches vs far-reaching). I always appreciate when an author reads their own book, especially when they’re wrestling with difficult concepts about which they’re extremely passionate. Listening to him was pleasant and made this the most peaceful read of my year so far.

Final Score: 1 golden ticket

finished July 2019

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Loonshots

by Safi Bahcall


“You can tell a leader by counting the number of arrows in his [butt].”


Loonshots is a long, tedious read that was informative enough, but difficult to finish. At just over 10 hours on Audible, I purchased this book based on its positive reviews and recent publication. The subtitle was intriguing: “How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.” The historian in me loved the marathon from start to finish. The designer in me cried the whole time. The best part of the book was the appendix, which came in the final fifteen minutes of listening.

Safi Bahcall is a physicist (I think; even after spending 10 hours listenening to his story I STILL DON’T KNOW FOR SURE), but he seems to know a little bit about a lot of stuff—most of which is way over my head. I enjoyed learning about Vannevar Bush and his organizational stratagem for procuring the greatest minds in the world during WW2. The other examples of “Loonshots” in the book were less interesting to me—from pharmaceutical researchers to photography inventors… I just couldn’t draw the proposed parallels. I was determined to finish the book, but about 3/4 of the way through I had to take a break (I started up The Girl With All The Gifts, which was fantastic and a welcome respite from Bahcall’s tome). But, even after becoming less interested over time, my biggest complaint was... the narrator. Dude sounded like Mr. Peabody and tried way too hard to keep me interested.

Final Score: 2/5 stars

finished July 2019

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Leaders Eat Last

by Simon Sinek


“Leadership—true leadership—is not the bastion of those who sit at the top. It is the responsibility of anyone who belongs to the group.”

Leaders Eat Last sat in my library for almost 5 years before I finally cracked it open. Someone recommended I read Sinek’s Start With Why prior to LEL and that turned out to be bad advice (for reasons I can’t recall, I did not enjoy SWW). Friends: don’t start with why. I’m pretty amazed at how relevant LEL is today (especially the second half). It’s only half a decade old, but the commentary on politics, economics, news outlets, and corporate hierarchy feel like indictments on 2019. For that reason alone, I’ve been recommending this book to friends.

I’ve gleaned far more practical tips and insight to leadership from other recent reads, so I was a little disappointed. Sinek makes up for the lack of hands-on suggestions with vivid recollections of leaders in crisis and anecdotes from honorable (and dishonorable) corporations whose owners and CEOs bucked (or set) trends. My most memorable takeaways from LEL have to do with the scientific effects work environment have on our brains (chapters 6, 7 and 22). I also appreciated his hypothesis on the anthropological reasons corporations have moved away from concepts like “we before me” (chapters 11 and 12). His revised chapter on Abstraction (chapter 24) was also poignant.

Final Score: 1.5 thumbs up.

finished June 2019

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Never Split the Difference

by Chris Voss


“How am I supposed to do that?”

This was an impulse buy. Audible recommended this as soon as I finished No Hard Feelings and the description hooked me: “A former international hostage negotiator for the FBI offers a new field-tested approach to high-stakes negotiations—whether in the boardroom or at home.” I’d never heard of Chris Voss, but his bio says he’s a KC guy, so I assumed it would be a masterful read (I was not wrong). It clocks in at just over 8 hours of reading, but it took me at least 12 because of how many times I paused to take notes. Each chapter includes a recap that I found extremely helpful.

Voss shares easy-to-understand negotiation tactics, always backed by real-life examples—usually with stories 100x heavier than I expected. It feels ridiculous to compare asking for a raise with talking a bank robber out of killing a hostage, but the extremism of these life and death situations kept my attention and have helped me retain the lessons so much better than I expected. Starting with easier strategies and working up to more difficult scenarios meant I always felt like I was learning. Easier concepts include mirroring (chapter 2) and labeling (chapter 3) and I found that simply putting a name to the tactics I’ve previously employed helped me understand them better. The final chapter includes a short section on creating a “onesheet,” which helped me see how all the tactics could be applied at once.

Final Score: 5/5 stars

finished May 2019

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No Hard Feelings

by Liz Fossilien & Mollie West Duffy


“I don’t want my salary to be a distraction to me while I’m in this role.”

I finished No Hard Feelings over the course of a week. I mistakenly listened to the entire thing in my car and missed out on a ton of note-taking, so I should probably reread this within the next six months. It’s less than 5 hours start to finish, so if you enjoy potent doses of reality-checks it’s a pretty impactful read. The authors, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, take turns reading passages and I enjoyed the tag-team effort (for whatever reason, it kept me on my toes). Mostly, this book tackles the importance of embracing emotion at work, but I found it to be increasingly helpful at dealing with all sorts of situations, including asking for a raise, investigating new work opportunities and landing freelance clients.

The morning I finished NHF, I tweeted my initial reaction and got some kind responses. There’s not much else I can add, but I will say in the few months since I’ve finished this book I have seen an improvement in my mood and my relationships at work seem to be doing much better.

Critics (Me) say: “It’s the most helpful business book I’ve ever read.”

finished May 2019

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The Making of a Manager

by Julie Zhou


“The best outcomes come from inspiring people to action, not telling them what to do.”

The Making of a Manager popped up on my Instagram timeline. And then my Twitter timeline. So I bought it on Audible—if only to stop the madness. It ended up being one of the more insightful books I’ve read this year. Julie Zhou, a longtime employee of Facebook, reflects on her quick rise to the manager position and shares multiple stories about how she’s embraced a role that may have been given to her too early. Since I’m not a manager myself, I found the book equally eye-opening and overwhelming. More than once I said out loud, “I wish MY manager did that!” But there were just as many moments where I thought, “I would hate to be in that situation.” So, while I can’t write to the effectiveness of her approach to specific managerial scenarios, I definitely gained a lot of respect for my own manager (and his manager) by way of Zhou’s anecdotes.

Chapters are long and the narrator bugged me (she read the entire book with an unsettling eagerness—as if she was pleading with me to believe everything she spoke), but overall I’d recommend this to managers, especially those in large companies, with multiple direct reports. I’ll try and reread this someday—that is, if I last long enough in a corporate environment to become a manager.

Final Score: 6/10 likes

finished May 2019

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Born Standing Up

by Steve Martin


“Through the years, I’ve learned there is no harm in charging ones self up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

I added this to my queue while reading the intro to So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport (Steve Martin is credited with that quote, referring to his own stand-up career). Born Standing Up is almost 12 years old and I really want an updated version that highlights recent successes—he’s won a couple Grammys, performed on Broadway and written a Disney movie all since the book was published.

I enjoyed Martin’s first-hand account. It was a short read (just over 4 hours) with portions of his life flying by at seemingly rapid paces, but I didn’t mind its brevity. I’ve always admired Steve Martin—not so much his stand-up (sorry, I just don’t get it; I guess you had to be there)—even more so now, understanding how earnest he was to make people laugh. His willingness to try new things (magic, banjo, writing, acting) was one of the unexpected inspirational qualities he impressed on me. If you like him at all, I think you’d enjoy listening to him read you his autobiography.

Final Score: 4.5/5 stars

finished May 2019

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Design Is a Job

by Mike Monteiro


“Never work for free.”

I got this PDF as a free download when it was first released in 2012. I saved it on my desktop and (shamefully) never opened it. I always intended to, but really hate reading books in PDF format. So, I downloaded it on Audible with a free credit and promised I’d finish it over the course of a couple flights. I hung on to Monteiro’s every word and took furious notes as soon as I realized how valuable it was. I’m so disappointed with myself for not reading this seven years ago, when I was freelancing and charging a fraction of what I was worth. This book is about 4 1/2 hours long and should be mandatory reading for designers looking for client work. I absolutely loved it.

Some major points I remember (without trying to decipher my notes) include: Only you know the value of your time; charge what you’re worth. Working with others makes you better and is necessary to grow both as a designer and a professional. Run meetings efficiently and make decisions effectively; prove your worth to your client in how you handle administrative tasks, as well as design decisions. Design can’t speak for itself; you have to advocate for it.

Final Score: 2 thumbs way up

finished April 2019

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So Good They Can’t Ignore You

by Cal Newport


“Don't follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become, in the words of my favorite Steve Martin quote, ‘so good that they can't ignore you.’”

The full title of this book is So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love which is more than a mouthful. I read Deep Work by Newport first (and loved it) but SGTCIY surprised me (in a good way). When I tell people what I do for a living, people generally comment on how great it is that I’m doing something I’m passioniate about (which is true). However, it’s often clear those same people don’t understand I’m actually good at it, too. It’s interesting how quickly non-designers associate design with the superfluous. This book was validating in so many ways, especially with my career path.

The biggest takeaway from this book is that “doing what you love” is not contingent on a preexisting passion. The timing of this realization was too perfect (I was going through a major slump at work when I began reading this) and I intend on reading it several more times throughout my professional career. It’s hard to pick a favorite section, but “Becoming a Craftsman” (chapter 7) held a lot of great quotes and justification for Newport’s hypothesis. For example, according to his research, “If you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.” While I highly recommend reading this book, you can catch some talks he’s given on this subject before if reading isn’t your thing.

Final Score: A+

finished March 2019

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Deep Work

by Cal Newport


“If you don't produce, you won't thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.”

I really enjoyed Deep Work because it gave me practical suggestions for being more productive. A lot of the things Newport labels as good practices for productivity were things I’ve done for years, but without putting a name to it I was kind of clueless. Sometimes I’d be productive at work, other times I’d be completely distracted—without any understanding as to why. So many factors are at play—environment, time of day, tools, commitment… Having someone point out the variables that keep me at my peak performance level was eye-opening.

I work on an open-concept floor, which we’ve been told is helpful for collaboration and flow of ideas. I wish whoever is in charge of facilities would give this book a listen. Rather than rail against distraction, Newport embraces the reality of our busy lives and lays out four rules that help produce healthy habits for productivity. I’ve recommended this book to a few friends who have mentioned failing to complete tasks or getting too overwhelmed with their to-do lists. This book will help you focus and achieve a higher level of success in an information-based economy.

This book earns Titus’s seal of approval.

finished March 2019