(MoneyWatch) The new year brings new plans, new goals and a plethora of new books. But before you load up your shopping cart with the latest hardbacks, make sure you don't miss the best of 2012.
On average, I read more than one book (all non-fiction) a week. Some represent good investments of time, but many were not. I've slogged through 60 or more books to find the best ideas. I've written about the best economic books of 2012, and here are four standout business and leadership books I read last year:
Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. Don't let the cover fool you. Sure it's a book about fitness, but at its core this is a leadership book -- it's about how you can lead yourself. Rich Roll, the author, found himself overweight and out of breath on the eve of his 40th birthday. Dissatisfied, he did something nearly miraculous: He became an ultra-endurance athlete, engaging in physical feats that seem beyond human limits. This is his story of that unusual transformation, and every page is gripping. You get to experience the journey he finds to uncover the athlete, the leader and the man within himself, and as you do you will start to question the limitations you have set for yourself. It is a fascinating and inspiring journey that may leave you asking more from yourself (In fact, since reading the book I've done two triathlons and am training for a half "ironman" competition in a few months.)
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. This is a massive book (think Harry Potter-sized proportions) that poses a fundamentally a simple question: Why have some nations thrived and others suffered decades of sub-par growth, poverty and famine? Is it culture, the weather, geography or a range of other factors? For instance, what separates poor North Korea from prosperous South Korea? It's not the 38th parallel -- that's just an artificial line on the ground. It's the same thing that separates rich Nogales, Ariz., from poor Nogales, Mexico, namely, man-made political and economic institutions that either create prosperity for the people as a whole or, alternatively, for a handful of corrupt leaders.
"The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities," according to the authors. MIT economics professor Damon Acemoglu and and Harvard University economist and political scientist James Robinson. "Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions -- with no end in sight. The differences between the Koreas is due to the politics that created these completely different institutional trajectories." Whether you run country or a company, it comes down to the leadership at the top. Politics create and shape economic regulations. As we face serious political differences in our own country, the lesson in "Why Nations Fail" provides makes the direction we take critical to our long-term survival.
Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. This is not a time management book, but it will save months, if not years, of your life. My weakness is that I get an idea for a business, a book or product and then I become obsessed. I create the entire venture in my mind and revel at how wonderfully it will turn out. Sound familiar? Six months later I bring a finished and highly polished creation to the market and hope people like it.
Ridiculous, says author Peter Sims! His advice is to methodically take small, experimental steps in order to discover and develop new ideas. "Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan a whole project out in advance, trying to foresee the final outcome, they make a series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning from lots of little failures and from small but highly significant wins that allow them to happen upon unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes," he says. Before you even think about writing a book, starting a company or producing a documentary, read this book or at least listen to my interview with Sims.
Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. If life is nothing more than the decisions we make, our daily habits determine our health, wealth and happiness. I've long been fascinated by why we do what we do. What separates those who are successful from those who continuously struggle? Luck? Being born into the right family in the right country at the right time? Yes, for some. But how does that explain successful people who came from nothing?
This has been the subject of nearly every self-improvement book since the 1937 classic, "Think and Grow Rich." To a large degree, our often unconscious daily habits determine our success. "The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, raising exceptional children, becoming more productive, building revolutionary companies and social movements, and achieving success is understanding how habits work," the author writes. This is an excellent book that provides the science of success.