Desert Island Books: 6 Books That Have Shaped My Journey

While trawling the internet in search of Harry Potter costumes for my sons for World Book Day, I found myself thinking about which book I would have chosen that has influenced me and my decisions – not a dissimilar question to one we often ask our candidates when looking to understand the key incidents that have impacted their lives.  We ask them for six.  Don’t ask me why, it just seems the right number to tell a good story.  What started as an interesting distraction gained life when I realised that certain books have played a not insignificant part in shaping my thinking, helping determine the path I have taken, and transitions I have made.  While they aren’t necessarily the top six I have ever read, and certainly not the most fashionable, nor the ones which would have won me ‘best outfit’, I was struck by the power of the right book at the right moment, which seems appropriate today.

The first book I remember actually reading, if not understanding, is The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. Aged 8, on holiday at some non-descript cottage in the Lake District, I remember my Dad handing me the book with its vivid front cover of a dragon sat on a big mountain.  More than that though, I remember the joy of diving in to a new world that felt so real and yet was totally in my imagination.  So reading became a hobby, alongside sport.

A fascination with the military, and more specifically the SAS, came with my A Levels and I was next transfixed by Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab when supposedly studying.  This time it was the discipline, commitment and the shared identity of the guys to their regiment and team around them that held my attention. How hard they worked had a huge impact on my focus, my exams and my decision to go to University.

Coming out the other side, I was waiting for my girlfriend to do some last minute shopping for our holiday to Tunisia when I found myself drifting into a place I had never been before but now can get lost in for hours: the non-fiction section of Waterstones. This time, the cover that stood out adorned M. Scott Peck’s Golf and the Spirit – Lessons for the Journey. Using the game to illustrate how we often struggle against ourselves, and with the course as an analogy for the journey of life, he explores ways of successfully managing the emotional and spiritual aspects of the game, alongside the psychological. I had never thought that way before and what followed was a paradigm shift in how I looked at the world and my place within it.  Even if my performance often remained the same.

Like many of those we meet at EPP, when my playing career ended it dawned on me that I didn’t have a plan.  Avoiding that reality for as long as possible, I found myself in Singapore airport face to face with 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. I had no idea that it was one of the most famous self-help books about personal change at the time but it gave me great comfort on the flight home that there were things I could do in my search for a job, an identity and a future that I had control of. I read the whole thing on the journey and the first habit, be proactive, had a huge impact on how I approached my transition when I got home – even down to the language I used to myself – and enabled me to be positive and optimistic about what was to come: the future I could create for myself.

What Colour is Your Parachute by Richard. N. Bolles came next, providing me with a practical guide for job hunters and career changers when I found myself back at a crossroads. It demystified the entire job-search process for me at the time, although in writing this, the only thing I remember is his advice to always send a thank you note, which hasn’t been high on my list of key candidate behaviours since finding myself on the other side!

In the last 5 years as I set up Elite Performance Partners, I have read many more business and leadership books, combining my passion for performance with the theory behind what some of my peers had learnt while I was on the pitch. My Tunisian travel companion, now wife, despairs as another one lands through the letterbox and rues the day she let me walk away from light fiction. If one was to stand out from the crowd it would probably be Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, recommended to me by a sports leader I greatly admire.  In essence a history book about Abraham Lincoln and how he appointed his fiercest rivals to key cabinet positions, it’s definitely a slow starter thanks to the detailed and rich narrative but, in my view, worth the effort.  Like all the books on this list, I didn’t realise the impact it was having as I read it, but many creaking shelves later it still represents the best, most detailed and real written example of leadership I have encountered.  150 years on, the principles remain fundamentally the same and I found myself wanting to send my kids off to school this morning with a distinctive beard as opposed to a distinguishing scar.

Posted by: David Slemen
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