Kickstart Your Summer Reading with These 5 Books on Motivation

Jane Sarles Larson
Jane Sarles Larson

Stack of motivational books.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably love reading the latest and brightest business books out there on motivation like I do.

“Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely

Book by dan arielyI’ve found several books on human behavior this past year that you might find interesting as well. Here are my top five motivation books to add to your summer reading list.

With 70% of his body covered in third-degree burns from a magnesium flare explosion, 18-year old Israeli Dan Ariely embarked on a three-year journey of recuperation.

During this remarkably painful period, he began to reflect on “what it is about life that motivates people and causes us to behave as we do.”

“Predictably Irrational” is his extraordinary account of bravery and fear, healing and agony, separation and love. Ariely eloquently takes us through his recovery and how it shaped his thinking which ultimately led him to become one of the world’s preeminent thinkers in behavioral economics.

Ariely explores the premise that “individuals make repeated mistakes—without being able to learn much from their experiences.” Behavioral economics (judgment and decision making) draws on aspects of both psychology and standard economics where the idea of “rationality” evolved.

To be rational simply means that human beings are “capable of making the right decisions” for themselves. Yet Ariely’s observations and academic research posits that human “irrationality” demonstrates a departure from the ideal state and that irrational behavior happens repeatedly or predictably.

What can be learned from his book? The fact that we all make mistakes gives us opportunities to improve the way we make decisions. We can achieve what we desire by being open to and seeking out the “tools, methods, and policies that can help all of us make better decisions.”

“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

Book by charles duhiggTony Dungy, the first African-American NFL coach who reached the play-offs for ten consecutive years and won a Super Bowl, used coaching techniques founded on the science of habit that eventually turned woeful teams into the winningest teams.

Dungy’s strategy shifted his team’s behaviors until their performances were routine. He wanted his team to learn a few key moves and get them right every time. Dungy did it by getting his team to recognize their existing habits and accept new routines.

Today, his approach is widely used throughout the league and throughout sports.

The problem, according to Duhigg, is that our “brains can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits.” Despite this fact, he believes that habits can be changed if we know how they work.

Duhigg describes the “Habit Loop” where triggers set off routine behaviors which are reinforced with rewards. Sounds a bit like a rat in a maze, but the point is we can take charge of how we function at home or in business.

“Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work,” says Duhigg. Good news for those of us who want to lose weight, quit smoking, be more productive or put a ding in the universe.

“Give and Take” by Adam Grant

Book by adam grantIn his first ground-breaking book, author and Wharton professor Adam Grant skillfully defines and draws parallels between the success factors of those who are “takers” and those who are “givers.”

He explores the characteristics of highly creative people by studying and researching their collaboration, networking, negotiation, leadership and influence habits.

Givers tend to work in ways that contribute to their own success—and the success of those around them. “Takers” (those who take more than they give) work more independently and are not as concerned about their colleagues’ success. And finally, “matchers”—those who give only as much as they are given.

Givers recognize that anyone can develop talent if motivation is present. Research shows that people who have “grit” (passion and perseverance toward long-term goals), by virtue of their interest, focus and drive—achieve higher performance.

Then there are the “takers.” Takers want to be the smartest people in the room. Sometimes they are. But they’re not likely to be receptive to expertise from others, especially if it challenges their own beliefs. (How smart is that?) Ultimately, this isn’t in the best interest of an organization as in the case of Ken Lay and the Enron debacle.

Achieving extraordinary success through a balance of give, match and take leadership is a craft developed over time with intentional focus and a willingness to change.

“The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz

Book by Barry SchwartzBeen to the doctor lately? Have you noticed that many doctors seem to be guided by their patients rather than the other way around?

In author Barry Schwartz’s words, “it’s more like going to your hair stylist. You have to let the professional know what you want out of each visit.” When did this all change? When did patients get the autonomy to make choices about their healthcare? Are you okay with that? This is the paradox of choice.

Schwartz notes that choice is “essential to autonomy, [and] is absolutely fundamental to well-being.” As the number of choices available to us continues to increase, he believes the autonomy and liberation this brings are powerful and positive. However, he cautions that as the “number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects begin to appear.”

Deciding and choosing has an impact on our level of happiness. We always think we want choice, but when we actually get it, we may not like it. And it’s not as simple as a “yes” or “no” in making a decision. There is risk aversion, missed opportunities, trade-offs, comparisons and regret aversion that also enters into choice-making which further complicates the process.

So what do we do about choice? In his last chapter, Schwartz adeptly summarizes ideas on how to tackle the psychological distress of too many choices with 11 steps—which, oddly enough, feels like more choices.

“Drive” by Daniel Pink

Book by Daniel PinkBuilding from the work of behavioral psychologists Henry Harlow and Edward Deci, Daniel Pink explores the changing face of motivation among today’s knowledge workers in an ever-changing business climate. What differentiates knowledge work from other forms of work is its primary task of "non-routine" problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking.

For centuries, companies have operated as non-profit or profit maximizers. However, there’s a slow shift towards the open-source or social-benefit principle—meaning that a company is animated by a public purpose or mission.

Pink says this has high appeal to knowledge workers who are motivated from within (intrinsically) to create or contribute to a cause bigger than themselves. These new entities are “purpose maximizers.”

With jobs becoming “more complex, more interesting, and more self-directed,” and “less routine and other-directed,” the rules for motivating a workforce has changed as well.

Having autonomy, mastery and purpose is expected by today’s workers. Traditional cash incentives (external motivators) can have a negative impact on overall performance, whereas an appeal to a more heuristic path to motivation can have surprising results.

It’s interesting to keep in mind what Deci says about motivation—it’s “not something that gets done to people – rather it’s something that people do.”

The challenge is figuring out how to find the right balance of environment, resources and motivators to keep people happy, productive and engaged at work.

Jane Sarles Larson

Jane Sarles Larson

As the Research Manager for ITA Group’s Marketing Strategy, Jane is on the forefront of market research and thought leadership. Her interest in neuroscience and how it applies to human behavior and engagement has led to the development of ITA Group’s approach to motivation called Motivology. Her 30+ years of international advertising, sales and marketing experience is second only to her knowledge of dark chocolate.