The non-fiction books that inspired me…and may inspire you as well

Almost a year ago I started reading more non-fiction books again. From the books I’ve read so far, here’s a selection of the ones that inspired me most. As a design strategist, I mainly read books covering the following topics: technology, psychology, design and business strategy. In this article, I summarize each book and mention what were the most important insights to me. If you have already read most of the books discussed in this article, if you don’t like reading or if you don’t find the time to read books, this article can give a good overview of the most important insights. And if you are still looking for books to add to your reading list, this article might serve as an inspiration. 

01. Made to Stick – Chip Heath & Dan Heath

This book caught my attention as I was interested in learning more about storytelling and how I can apply that skill in my daily job as a UX Consultant. The great thing about this book is that it is not one of those serious non-fiction books. On the contrary, it teaches the reader about storytelling by using amusing real-life examples.

In the end, I did not only learn more about storytelling by reading this book, but it also made me realize that storytelling is one of the most important skills to inherit. This because when we share an idea, we forget that we have all sorts of insider information that the people listening to your idea, don’t have (Heath, C & Heath, H; 2007). As a consequence, when you tell a story you have already framed the problem and understand its relevance, but forget to repeat this for the people listening to your idea. Chip and Dan Heath not only acknowledge this ‘curse of knowledge’ in their book, but they also explain how you can make your story more concrete and focus on the essence of the idea you would like to convey.

02. Prediction Machines – Agrawal, Gans & Goldfarb

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a positive hype for some time now. But there’s a downfall to this. From my experience, the rumors about what AI can do, cause companies to think that this is the magical solution to almost all innovation challenges. But is it really that simple? The whole AI hype got me confused between what’s fact and fiction. To get a better understanding of the topic, I started reading Agrawal, Gans and Goldfarb’s “Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence”.

What I really liked about this book is that it explains such complex technology in a simple manner. So simple that, according to the authors, artificial intelligence does in its core nothing more than making predictions (Agrawal, Gans & Goldfarb, 2018). Looking at AI in such a simplistic manner makes it, in my opinion, easier for businesses to understand how to adopt the technology with purpose instead of using technology for the sake of technology. If your tech-jargon is not up to date, no worries. This book is easily digestible for all breeds of business people. Moreover, the book is also interesting to read when you do have a technical background. This because it helps you in empathizing with people that don’t have a technical background, the assumptions they make about AI and how you can easily explain it to them by comparing it to the simple mechanism of economics.

03. The Culture Map – Erin Meyer

If you regularly work with people from different cultures, this book is definitely a must-read. Erin Meyer discusses what you should take into account when you have to collaborate with someone who has a different cultural background than you have. The book is based on the following eight scales:

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  • Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
  •  Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time

Each chapter discusses one of these scales and gives examples of how several cultures are mapped on the scale in order to visualize the concept of cultural relativity. According to Erin Meyer, this concept entails that “when examining how people from different cultures relate to one another, what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures. It is this relative positioning that determines how people view one another.” For example, if you would have to say whether France is more low-context or high-context in communicating, there is not one right answer. For someone who’s from Germany, France is more high-context in communicating (Meyer, 2014). However, for someone from Japan, France is more low-context in communicating. This concept of cultural relativity was definitely the biggest learning for me when reading this book and that’s also why I recommend you to read the book.

04. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

Initially, I started reading this book, because I got interested in behavioral economics. Behavioral economics is “economics done with strong injections of good psychology”. In my opinion, this field is very interesting as it is related to user-centered thinking and could also contribute to, for example, successful go-to-market strategies. Most of the learnings in the book are explained through scientific research, which I personally found really interesting but it can also make it complex to digest.

What was interesting for me to learn, is that understanding behavioral economics starts with understanding that everything is relative. As humans, we not only tend to compare things with one another, but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily (Ariely, 2008). Because of this, you can influence which decision people make by using a decoy. This phenomenon is also called “the decoy effect”. For example, you have product A and product B. Product A scores better on attribute 1 (e.g. quality), but product B scores better on attribute 2 (e.g. beauty). As the two products score high on two different attributes, it becomes difficult for consumers to compare and make a decision between the two. However, by adding another product, product A-, which is a worse option than product A but very similar to it, it becomes easier for consumers to compare and thus make a decision. This because product A- not only suggests that product A is better than product A-, but also that product A is better than product B. Introducing a decoy (product A-) thus makes it easier for consumers to make a relative comparison and makes it more likely that they will purchase product A. All in all, this example illustrates the power of behavioral economics, which makes it, in my opinion, a very interesting topic to learn more about.

05. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari is mainly known for his book Sapiens. However, a more recently published book of him, 21 lessons for the 21st century, does not focus on exploring the past, but rather focuses on exploring the present. The book discusses, among others, the technological and political challenges we are currently facing, such as data privacy, fake news, technology influencing the labor market, climate change, and immigration. What I found really interesting about how this book is written, is that Yuval explains what is happening right now by relating it back to history, which illustrates that history really repeats itself. Also, he discusses how we as a society should maintain our collective and individual focus in order to assure ourselves of a politically, economically and environmentally sustainable future.

One of the chapters in the book which I find particularly interesting discusses education and why this should change in the future. Yuval argues that too many schools focus on cramming information, whereas people are already flooded by enormous amounts of information (Harari, 2018). So, in his opinion, the last thing a teacher needs to give his or her pupils is more information. Instead, Yuval states that education should teach the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world. This and many more interesting reconsiderations are discussed in the book, which makes it a must-read for understanding what’s going on these days and what we may need to do differently in the future.

06. Start with Why – Simon Sinek

This book is well-known and may already be on your reading list. However, I wanted to include Simon Sinek’s book in this post as I was positively surprised by how relevant it still is. Simon’s theory focuses on the Golden Circle, which consists of three layers, going from ‘what’ to ‘how’ to ‘why’ (Sinek, 2009). Before reading this book, I had already heard about Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle theory. But what I did not know, is that the Golden Circle corresponds precisely with the three major levels of the human brain. More specifically, ‘what’ corresponds to the neocortex as that’s the part in our human brain which is responsible for rational and analytical thought and language. In addition, ‘how’ and ‘why’ correspond to the limbic brain, which is responsible for all our feelings, human behavior and decision making. What’s interesting is that this also explains where ‘gut decisions’ come from, they just feel right because the limbic brain that controls the decision-making also controls our feelings. If you take this further, it also explains why latent needs exist. People find it hard to express these needs as they are in our limbic system.

Another interesting insight for me was how Microsoft and Apple are used as examples throughout the book. Note that this book was written in 2009, a year in which Steve Jobs was still CEO of Apple and a year in which Microsoft’s main business was still product-driven (Windows) instead of service-driven (Azure). According to Sinek, Apple had a clear sense of ‘why’, whereas Microsoft had lost its sense of ‘why’ and focused too much on what they were doing and how they were doing this. Nowadays, you could almost say that the situation has turned around for both brands, especially for Microsoft. Revising the mission (the sense of why) was a crucial part of Microsoft’s successful transformation. Looking back at this transformation, personally confirms to me that Simon Sinek’s theory does not only work on paper but also in practice.

07. Nice girls (still) don’t get the corner office – Lois P. Frankel

First off, writing this a day after International Women’s Day, I’d like to say that even though this book’s target audience consists mainly of women, I personally think the content can also be insightful for men. This because the book gives a concise overview of the challenges women face in their careers. In addition, I personally find that there are tons of books about the issues women face in their (corporate) careers, but not a lot of these books tell you exactly how to tackle these issues. Luckily, ‘Nice girls (still) don’t get the corner office’, does. Already if you look at the structure of the book, you can see that the book is very practical oriented. The book starts with a self-assessment in which you have to indicate the degree to which each statement (in total 49 statements)is true of you. Consequently, the results indicate which chapters of the book are most relevant to you. Each chapter in the book discusses several challenges women face. Again, these challenges are described in a very concise way (1-2 pages) and come with 3-4 tips on how you can tackle them.

The biggest insight for me is when Frankel discusses the misconceptions women often have about obtaining a successful (corporate) career. The first misconception is that overcoming the nice girl syndrome means you have to be mean (Frankel, 2014). Frankel states that this is far from the truth as “being nice is necessary for success”. In addition, you need a wide variety of responses that complement being nice but also assist you in achieving your adult goals. The second misconception is that acting like a man helps in making a career. However, it doesn’t help, according to Frankel, as putting up an act can lead to mistrust. More importantly, women bring a unique set of behaviors to the workplace. For instance, research shows that women exceed men in four out of five EQ factors, including self-awareness self-regulation, empathy, and social skills. Therefore, Frankel states that it is important to capitalize on your high EQ in order to “win the game of business”. All in all, this book really made me aware of the challenges women have been facing in their careers and I would be lying if I would say that I don’t recognize some of the situations covered in the book. However, that’s why I find it even more important to read books like these and talk about the challenges women face in their careers.

To conclude, I hope this article inspires you, either by adding one of these books to your reading list or by having some insights in this article as food for thought.

This article was published on LinkedIn
Author: Josephine Scholtes
Published: March 2020


Agrawal, A., Gans, J., & Goldfarb, A. (2018). Prediction machines: the simple economics of artificial intelligence. Harvard Business Press.

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational. New York, NY: Harper Audio.

Frankel, L. P. (2014). Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office. Unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers. Hatchette, New York.

Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Random House.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House.

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. Public Affairs.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin.