This is the time when I traditionally pick my favorite title of the year. Looking back on 2008 (and my sagging bookshelves) I see that I had many new favorites in the past months. This is just a sampling of books that stayed with me long after I finished reading them.

It was only a few weeks ago that I discovered  Geri Larkin, but I think of her as an old friend. I’m equally wild about her Plant Seed, Pull Weed and The Chocolate Cake Sutra. Both are wise collections of life lessons from an author who obviously pays attention.

Another book that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved is Thomas Moore’s A Life at Work which is a thoughtful exploration of the importance of discovering your right livelihood.

Getting a Grip by France Moore Lappe is another special title from the visionary author of Diet for a Small Planet. This one’s a call to action using the power of creativity to solve global problems.

Since I also spent a fair amount of time reading books about storytelling, I found one real standout: Annette Simmons’ Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.  It’s a wonderful handbook on using story in business.

Not surprisingly, my list of favorites includes some fine personal storytelling. A book I couldn’t stop thinking about is Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, which isn’t just a book for teachers. It’s a passionate account of the power of learning.  You’ll wish every child you care about could spend a year in Esquith’s classroom.

Although the competition was stiff, there was one book, which I read early in the year, that beat out all others for first place on my list. That book is Bill Strickland’s  Make the Impossible Possible. Strickland’s personal journey is an inspiration—and so are the ideas that he shares.  

He eloquently tells how a chance encounter with an artist put him on a new path in his teens. Especially fascinating to me is his commitment to merging art and commerce and using both to change lives in dramatic ways. This may be one of the best stories ever showing how commitment to a vision can be the start of something extraordinary. 

When President Obama begins inviting innovators to the White House, I hope Bill Strickland gets a regular invitation.

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves. ~ E.M. Forster

When I first discovered the literature of personal growth and development, there weren’t many titles to choose from. Today there are thousands. I always have a self-help book or two in my current reading pile because there’s so much to learn.

However, the self-help movement has spawned plenty of dropouts. Why don’t all readers find this genre helpful? Here are some thoughts on that.

° Refuse to abandon skepticism. Hanging onto cherished beliefs is a guaranteed way to prevent growth. “I tried that positive things stuff once. Didn’t work,” is the motto of the self-help dropout. Simply reading a single book is not going to produce visible change. It’s more a process of chipping away at limiting thoughts and behaviors that have taken hold over years.

° Exercises are too much trouble. Most of us think of reading as zooming from the beginning to the end of a book. Self-help books invite us to slow down and take a low-speed journey. Exercises are like rest stops along the way, causing us to pause, reflect and apply.

° Wrong book at the wrong time. Personal growth is an evolutionary process and we expand our receptiveness one concept at a time. Sometimes a book arrives ahead of our readiness. When that happens, don’t abandon self-help. Try a different book.

° Don’t have a laboratory to experiment. You’ve got to have context. If you are in a position to try out new ideas and assess the results, you’ll start synthesizing healthier attitudes and behaviors more quickly. That’s one of the secret rewards of self-employment. Running our own business not only requires a high level of self-awareness, but also a commitment to on-going growth and improvement. Best of all, we can try out our new ideas every single day.

A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting. ~ Henry David Thoreau

When you read a luscious book, you probably don’t think about the numerous rewrites made by the author. Likewise, we seldom get to peek behind the scenes at the long and winding road that brought us our favorite technology tools or movies. Many of those stories would be tedious, of course, but I often think it’s a shame that we only become aware of new products or works of art or personal excellence after the hard work has been done. Because we don’t see the rehearsal, so to speak, it’s tempting to dismiss stunning achievement by assuming an extraordinarily gifted mind produced it.

If you’re curious about what it takes to bring an idea to life, I’ve got three great stories to recommend.

Although I’m a huge theater buff, I had never heard of the fascinating documentary Show Business: The Road to Broadway until a friend showed it to me a few months ago. Producer-Director Dori Berinstein had the vision to follow five Broadway shows from inception to debut to the Tony Awards. Along the way, were countless setbacks, side trips and surprising successes. The season she chose included Avenue Q, Wicked and Taboo. Even if you aren’t a theater fan, this film has much to teach and will inspire.

With the passing of Paul Newman, we’ve been reminded that he was a great philanthropist. He was also an accidental social entrepreneur. The often amusing story of the birth and growth of Newman’s Own is recorded in a delightful book (newly out in paperback) called In Pursuit of the Common Good by Newman and his pal A.E. Hotchner. I loved this story when I read it a couple of years ago. You’ll see that being rich and famous didn’t insure a direct path to entrepreneurial success.

Another favorite story of humble beginnings is Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Woods. If you aren’t familiar with this story, don’t wait another minute to track it down. Woods was an overworked manager for Microsoft living in Australia when he took his first vacation in years and decided to trek through Nepal. When he discovered a village school with no books or library, he got the idea to gather books from his friends and offer them to the school. That was a life-changing event which led Woods to found Room to Read, which now builds libraries and fills them all over the world. It’s a wonderful example of what can happen when you follow your passion.


To live so that that which comes to me as seed

Goes to the next as blossom

And that which comes to me as blossom 

Goes on as fruit.~ Dawna Markova


I’ve been reading some books written by exquisite storytellers and thought you might want to check them out for yourself (if you can stand all the pleasure).

I was completely enchanted by Geri Larkin’s Plant Seed, Pull Weed. Larkin, an ordained Buddhist and gardener, has created a lovely handbook of life lessons gathered from her spiritual practice and her work in a Seattle nursery. In fact, the subtitle is Nurturing the Garden of Your Life. Larkin notices the stories around her and passes them along. Lucky readers!

I’m nearly finished with another stunner which has been gracing the bestseller list for some time–and it deserves to be read. If you haven’t discovered The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, run, don’t walk, to your library or bookstore and grab it. The book is a series of letters and each one is a self-contained masterpiece of storytelling from post-World War II London.

A few weeks ago, Ode magazine mentioned the six-word story exercise. The idea is to summarize your life in six words. I didn’t know at the time that the inspiration for that is a book called Not Quite What I Was Planning which gathers six-word stories from the famous and the obscure. It’s such fun to read. Here are a few samples:

Revenge is living well, without you. ~ Joyce Carol Oates

Changing mind postponed demise by decades. ~ Scott O’Neil

Followed rules, not dreams. Never again. ~ Margaret Hellerstein

Secret of life: marry an Italian. ~ Nora Ephron

Try it for yourself. It’s harder than it may appear. Then go read something splendid this week!


You don’t have to have a dramatic story. It’s all in the telling. ~ Chuck Close

Earlier this year, the Las Vegas Sun ran a brilliant piece by Tom Breitling which began, “The economic news is relentless. Home foreclosures. Teetering mortgage companies. Tottering airlines. Brands that once rode high are going bankrupt. Job losses. Dangerous levels of public and private debt. If we’re not in a recession, there’s no denying that our economy does not feel good, which means this is not the time to be paralyzed in front of the TV. Look at the world in a new way, and build value for the future. Which, the way I see it, means it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.”

I thought of that yesterday when I was recording a podcast and was asked about self-employment in turbulent economic times. I responded to the question by saying that the people who will come through this chaotic period most gracefully are those who are creative problem-solvers, who are flexible, who are willing to be frugal when it’s called for, who are wise enough to know that every  difficult situation also contains opportunities. I went on to say—which I’m sure will come as no surprise— that the people best fitting that definition are entrepreneurial thinkers and doers. 

It also is obvious to me that those who are going to experience the least upheaval are those who run lean operations. I’m not the only one who embraces the Small is Beautiful business model, of course. One of my favorite books—with one of my favorite tities—in the past year is Seth Godin’s  Small is the New Big. Godin talks about the advantages of running a one-person operation that he’s discovered for himself. Then he shares a wild array of ideas and examples of thriving small operations. 

The articles were gathered from his blog postings so are mostly quite short. Although this isn’t a how-to book, it’s filled with examples of why-to. There are plenty of delightful stories of tiny businesses who are exceptional and all sorts of miscellany that just makes for good reading. 

I love this book because it can be read in fits and spurts—or in longer doses while waiting for a flight or when some entrepreneurial thinking is needed. I also love seeing the reminder that Small is the New Big sitting on my bookshelf.

I think you’d enjoy having it in your library, too.

How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable? ~ Seth Godin

Mythology and literature have frequently told tales of people who went on a journey and in the process discovered more about themselves. Some of these stories, such as Homer’s Odyssey (written in the 9th century BC) and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (from the 14th century), remain staples in literature classes. What these early writers show us is still true today: travel opens us to new insights as well as new experiences.

A newer story that uses this device is the lovely little book by Paulo Coehlo called The Alchemist. This popular favorite chronicles the adventures of Santiago, a young Andalusan shepherd who leaves home only to encounter obstacles, dangers and a fair share of mystical experiences. It’s one of the more poetic modern tales about the importance of following the dreams of your heart.

As in all stories of courage, we are reminded here that the road to our dreams is not without pitfalls. I carry around with me Coehlo’s insightful words about that truth. “Too often we decide to follow a path that is not really our own, one that others have set for us,” he writes. “We forget that whichever way we go, the price is the same: in both cases, we will pass through both difficult and happy moments. But when we are living our dream, the difficulties we encounter make sense.”

If you haven’t met The Alchemist yet, add it to your reading list and you may just find your own commitment to your dreams growing stronger.