Spring has arrived just in time, and with it, a busy calendar of graduations, celebrations and memorable commencement speeches. You can’t help but admire the optimism, inspiration and soaring rhetoric of these addresses, even if much of this is fleeting and dissipates as the graduates return their caps and gowns. Still, with so many young people heading off to new jobs and new adventures, we all have a stake in their success. How can we ensure that the oft-spoken words of wisdom have a more lasting impression? Well, we can start with a few good books.
“Hold Fast to Your Dreams.” A laudable sentiment that often gives way to the mundane practicality of a day-to-day career, starting at the lowest rung. I think the better take is to hold on to the willingness to imagine and dream. That task should be easier with The Imagination Machine, by Boston Consulting Group’s Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller, a new lively, well-illustrated book focused on the power of imagination and “cognitive diversity” in fostering new ideas and solutions. From product ideas (who knew that Play-doh was originally a wall-cleaning product?) to complex problems like climate change and inequality, every organization needs lifelong learners and imagineers to thrive.
“Question the Status Quo.” Ok, sure, but first investigate the “understory,” reduce side-taking, and “complicate the narrative” with active listening. So advises business journalist Amanda Ripley in her smart, engaging book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. The chapter on how blue and red state voters hosted each other in their homes and eventually found common ground was fascinating. Of course, maybe the status quo should be blown up by asking the basic “why.” I loved Better, Simpler Strategy by Harvard Business School Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee and the “value stick” approach of mapping the most a customer will pay to the lowest price suppliers will provide or the minimum compensation employees require. Every manager should think about product and service “complements” and every new professional should read this disarmingly powerful book.
“Don’t Follow The Rules.” Fine, but first, what are they? For that, you’ll need The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right by HBS grad Gorick Ng, a career adviser focused on helping first-generation, low-income students navigate their careers. This is the book we all wanted as our younger selves. Ng’s smart, practical and direct advice (“Yes, you should ask questions at every Zoom and in-person meeting.”) will have every manager — and parent — reading along and vigorously nodding up and down. This is easily the most valuable career-oriented book I’ve read in years.
“You Will Accomplish Great Things.” Yes, but achievement is more than awards and money and making a living is different than making a life. For more on that, I recommend a classic: Rabbi Harold Kushner’s Living a Life That Matters. During the pandemic, we’ve all had time to think and reassess priorities. Kushner advises that the tension between conscience and success not only is healthy, but incredibly necessary. Never stop asking why and how you matter to the world. Every library has essential books that are worth returning to again and again. This short and profound book is among them in mine.
So what to do as follow up to an inspiring commencement speech? For those young graduates near and dear, you might just start with a book as a good and thoughtful gift.
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.