9 Books to Add to Your 2021 Reading List, According to Career Coaches

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With the way the last year played out, books served as an essential resource to help people living through the pandemic continue to learn from stories of leadership, reflect on challenges, build resiliency and even escape from the news, even just for a little while.

For your next read in 2021, CNBC Make It spoke with career coaches and experts for the top books they think everyone should add to their reading list this year.

1. "Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation"

By Anne Helen Petersen

Claire Wasserman, founder of the Ladies Get Paid career-development community and author of a forthcoming book, says this book is a good way to reflect on the shifts in social and work culture that have contributed to the burnout epidemic.

Stemming from Petersen's viral BuzzFeed article in 2019,  "Can't Even" examines how millennials reached the current state of burnout due to forces including capitalism and changing labor laws, and how burnout impacts various aspects of living, including how people work, parent and socialize.

Wasserman adds these are crucial themes to consider during the pandemic and beyond.

2. "Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life"

By Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

The authors, both part of the design program at Stanford, discuss how the same kind of design thinking responsible for innovative technology, products and spaces can be used to build your career and life.

Wendy Braitman, a certified career coach at the outplacement firm Randstad RiseSmart, says she's used a lot of the exercises included in the book with clients as they figure out their next job move or major career transition.

3. "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less"

By Greg McKeown

This book discusses how essentialism can be channeled as a discipline to regain control over how you use your time and energy — at work and in life. McKeown explains that it's not necessarily a productivity or time management strategy, but rather an outlook that can help readers do less, but better.

"It's a 'decluttering your life book' that's helped me tremendously," says Jackie Mitchell, founder of Jackie Mitchell Career Consulting. "It's about doing things that make sense, which could be small things, that help you get to where you want."

"I read it in one weekend — I couldn't put it down," she adds.

4. "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead"

By Brene Brown

Sarah Sheehan, co-founder of the career coaching app Bravely, considers herself a "huge Brene Brown fan," and recommends her 2012 book, which she's found helpful to read during the pandemic.

In the book, Brown rejects the idea that vulnerability is a sign of weakness, and instead argues that it is a measure of courage. Vulnerability, she writes, can come from both a place of fear, as well as a place of empathy that can spark innovation and creativity.

"It really drives home why vulnerability can be transformative in all areas of our life," Sheehan says. "For those who can't find the time to read right now — me! — I also recommend her podcast."

5. “A Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”

By Steven B. Sample

Alexi Robichaux, CEO and co-founder of the professional coaching platform BetterUp, considers this "one of the most under-rated leadership books."

In the book, former college president Sample, who turned the University of Southern California into one of the most highly rated universities in the country, challenges many of the traditional principles of leadership and offers alternative ways to empower workers. For example, he suggests, among other things, that leaders should sometimes compromise their principles, not read everything that comes across their desks and always put off decisions.

"It's a fresh and breathtaking view of leadership as it diverges from the traditional leadership model," Robichaux says.

He adds the book helped him when was a first-time manager 10 years ago in addition to other reading he did on the subject: "No leadership book is be-all and end-all, but it's a good counterbalance where you're encouraged to think more radically about what you're trying to affect. We used it at an offsite with the leadership team recently and geeked out over two chapters."

6. "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman"

By Robert K. Massie

Another book Robichaux recommends is this biography of Catherine the Great, whom he considers "one of the most inspiring people in history."

The narrative biography covers the German princess who became empress and ruled over Russia for 34 years — longer than any other woman in Russian history — through her own determination.

"Of course she was a princess and already privileged when she went to Russia, but she turned the country around as someone who overcame every social stigma in her world," Robichaux says. "It's an inspiring tale of leadership and sheer force of will."

7. "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance"

By Atul Gawande

In this book, a surgeon writes about how doctors strive to close the gap between best intentions and best performance in the face of numerous challenges throughout the medical field, including working in dangerous environments, ethical dilemmas and the influence of money on modern medicine. Gawande discusses his own medical failure and triumph, and what success looks like in a complex and risk-filled profession.

This recommendation comes from author and Earnable founder Ramit Sethi. "I love books where the very best deconstruct how they do it and acknowledge the luck, mistakes, hard work and way they think about perfection."

8. A book by an author with viewpoints different from your own

Instead of one specific book, Akhila Satish recommends picking up a book from an author who has vastly different viewpoints than your own.

"While you certainly don't need to agree with that author by the time you finish the book, you will at least have broadened your perspective," says Satish, CEO of leadership training program Meseekna.

She recently read Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone," a memoir of a child soldier, and is working through "Behind the Kingdom's Veil" by Susanne Koelbl about life in Saudi Arabia. She chose these titles, she says, because they offer a different author's perspective beyond her own lived experiences.

Satish adds she recently read a book written by a senator whose views she disagrees with politically, but she felt was an important choice during a tumultuous election year. 

9. A good work of fiction

Finally, given the challenges of living through a pandemic, painful social justice uprisings and a bitter U.S. presidential election, Wasserman says every reader deserves to enjoy a work of fiction in 2021.

"We just need escapism," she says. She currently has "Luster" by Raven Leilani on her bookshelf.

The novel follows 20-something Edie, a Black woman living in in Brooklyn, New York, who's trying to figure out her life when she moves into the home of the New Jersey family man she's dating, who is White and whose wife has agreed to an open marriage. The married couple have an adoptive daughter Akila, who is also Black, and Edie must make sense of this new household dynamic.

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