The best books that helped me think, live, and lead better – without the BS

Who am I?

I am an accidental guru on leadership, as a result of starting Teach First which is now the UK’s largest graduate recruiter. I discovered that the best leaders are not always the most skilled. That set me on a 20 year quest to discover their secret X-Factor: their mindset. I have conducted thousands of original interviews plus studying neuroscience with Harvard and Positive Psychology with the University of Pennsylvania. I also practice what I preach: I have set up 7 NGOs with turnover of £100m, started a bank, and built a business in Japan. It has been a life-enhancing journey of discovery: I hope you enjoy it too.

I wrote...

The Mindset of Success: Accelerate Your Career from Good Manager to Great Leader

By Jo Owen,

Book cover of The Mindset of Success: Accelerate Your Career from Good Manager to Great Leader

What is my book about?

We all have habits of mind which help us navigate life. Mindset of Success shows the seven habits of mind (plus one habit from the dark side) which the very best leaders have. The good news is that we can all acquire those habits to live, think and lead better.

The book combines original research and practical tools to build the habits of mind to help you, including: the recovering pessimist’s guide to optimism; resilience to help you thrive in adversity and even how you can learn courage to step up when others step back. This book is not just for leadership; it is for life.

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The books I picked & why

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman,

Book cover of Thinking, Fast and Slow

Why did I love this book?

When I read this book I suddenly realised that I never really thought.

I was always too busy reacting and responding in the moment, which meant that I failed to slow down and really think properly.

As Kahnemann is a Nobel Prize winner, this book is seriously credible but also easy to read and full of practical insights. The overall thrust is about how we make decisions, or default into a decision.

It shows all the traps we fall into and all the ways in which we can frame decisions positively so that others make the decision we want them to make.

By Daniel Kahneman,

Why should I read it?

34 authors picked Thinking, Fast and Slow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The phenomenal international bestseller - 2 million copies sold - that will change the way you make decisions

'A lifetime's worth of wisdom' Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics
'There have been many good books on human rationality and irrationality, but only one masterpiece. That masterpiece is Thinking, Fast and Slow' Financial Times

Why is there more chance we'll believe something if it's in a bold type face? Why are judges more likely to deny parole before lunch? Why do we assume a good-looking person will be more competent? The answer lies in the two ways we make choices: fast,…

Book cover of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Why did I love this book?

This book blew me away because of one central insight: you can choose how you feel.

Until that moment, I had always thought that my feelings were dictated by circumstances. That is classic victim mentality.

Once you realise that your feelings are your choice, you are empowered to make good choices about how you feel, even (especially) in bad moments. 

Mindset shows you the power of making good choices, and how you can make them. For me, it was a life-enhancing book.

By Carol S. Dweck,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked Mindset as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the renowned psychologist who introduced the world to “growth mindset” comes this updated edition of the million-copy bestseller—featuring transformative insights into redefining success, building lifelong resilience, and supercharging self-improvement.

“Through clever research studies and engaging writing, Dweck illuminates how our beliefs about our capabilities exert tremendous influence on how we learn and which paths we take in life.”—Bill Gates, GatesNotes

“It’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.”

After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this…

Neuroscience: Exploring The Brain

By Mark Bear, Barry Connors, Michael A. Paradiso

Book cover of Neuroscience: Exploring The Brain

Why did I love this book?

Let’s face it, this book is heavy. It is a university textbook, so it requires hard work. But it is worth it.

This is a magical mystery tour into the bizarre wonders of our own brains: why spend a fortune exploring the world when you can explore your own brain sitting in a chair, for free?

By the end of it, I was left ruminating over how we really see and think and over reality itself. The book is your entry ticket to a world of wonder: your own brain.

The book is a massive antidote to all the pop psychology books out there, and will enable you to be a far more critical and insightful reader of such books.

By Mark Bear, Barry Connors, Michael A. Paradiso

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Neuroscience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acclaimed for its clear, friendly style, excellent illustrations, leading author team, and compelling theme of exploration, Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, 4e takes a fresh, contemporary approach to the study of neuroscience, emphasizing the biological basis of behavior. The authors' passion for the dynamic field of neuroscience is evident on every page, engaging students and helping them master the material.

In just a few years, the field of neuroscience has been transformed by exciting new technologies and an explosion of knowledge about the brain. The human genome has been sequenced, sophisticated new methods have been developed for genetic engineering, and new…

Meditations: A New Translation

By Marcus Aurelius (lead author), Gregory Hays (translator),

Book cover of Meditations: A New Translation

Why did I love this book?

Marcus Aurelius was a successful Roman Emperor, living from c 120-180AD.

Meditations were meant to be his private musings on how to cope with life, so they are very revealing about him and his times.

Meditations is also very revealing about human nature, because it shows that most things have not changed in thousands of years and do not change whether you are an emperor or a social media influencer: anger, sorrow, hope, fear are all eternal and universal challenges we face.

His recipe for dealing with life follows the Stoic school of philosophy. This means his solutions are a mixture of the very practical and the somewhat dull and miserable: Stoics did not really approve of fun.

By Marcus Aurelius (lead author), Gregory Hays (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Meditations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nearly two thousand years after it was written, Meditations remains profoundly relevant for anyone seeking to lead a meaningful life.

Few ancient works have been as influential as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and emperor of Rome (A.D. 161–180). A series of spiritual exercises filled with wisdom, practical guidance, and profound understanding of human behavior, it remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. Marcus’s insights and advice—on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity and interacting with others—have made the Meditations required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations…

The Tempest

By William Shakespeare,

Book cover of The Tempest

Why did I love this book?

OK, I admit it. It is a play, not a book. But you can read the play in a book, and it is brilliant.

It is Shakespeare’s last play and he conjures up all his magic to create whole new worlds of mystery and drama. 

If you want to discover anything about the human condition, Shakespeare has said it and has probably said it better than anyone since his time.

This book/play shows the power of words to create new worlds, and it shows the power of imagination to make those words become real in your mind.

Each time I see/read this play I come away inspired by the power of words and the power of our imagination and brains. It is the ultimate treat for your mindset.

By William Shakespeare,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Tempest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Performed variously as escapist fantasy, celebratory fiction, and political allegory, The Tempest is one of the plays in which Shakespeare's genius as a poetic dramatist found its fullest expression. Significantly, it was placed first when published in the First Folio of 1623, and is now generally seen as the playwright's most penetrating statement about his art.

Stephen Orgel's wide-ranging introduction examines changing attitudes to The Tempest, and reassesses the evidence behind the various readings. He focuses on key characters and their roles and relationships, as well as on the dramatic, historical, and political context, finding the play to be both…

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