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10 Best Books About Excellence


Booker T. Washington said excellence is doing a common thing in an uncommon way. Going to school, going to work, raising kids, playing golf: all of these things have been done before and are done by millions every day. To excel in one of these areas means to do the exact same activity, but to do it better than anyone else. We’ve chosen 10 arenas of everyday life and made our pick for the best book on excellence in that area. Some are how-tos and some are stories of people who achieved excellence, but all of them can inspire you to be the best.

  1. College: How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less by Cal Newport.

    Let’s start with excelling in college. For uncommonly high grades, this book reveals the uncommon strategies that the smartest students use to study smarter, not harder. It’s full of tips to help you write the best possible paper, give the best answers on exams, make the best use of your time, and more, all culled from interviews with excellent undergads.
  2. Personal life: Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence by John Wooden.

    Coach Wooden’s terrific book could have gone into either the sports or leadership categories, but the extent to which the man strove for excellence in all areas of his life makes him a reliable source for how to do the same in your own life. Once you begin to follow his “pyramid of success” guidelines and you start to stand out from the pack, it will become handy to have his advice on excellent leadership, as well, because people will begin to look to you as a role model.
  3. Military: Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945 by Martin Blumenson.

    You probably aren’t called upon to be excellent at leading men into battle, but as an example of a person who demanded excellence, Gen. George S. Patton was too important to pass over, and this is the best book about him. No one knows more about Patton than Blumenson, who penned three books on his life. In it you’ll find the story of a champion swordsman, an unrelenting leader, and one of the greatest generals the United States has ever had.
  4. Business: Inner Excellence: Achieve Extraordinary Business Success through Mental Toughness by Jim Murphy.

    While we might be expected to turn to Donald Trump or Dale Carnegie for advice for excelling in business, sports coach Jim Murphy earns our pick for the best manual on rising above the pack in your work. Using principles that have helped Navy SEALs and pro athletes, Murphy teaches you how to achieve excellence by doing what you’re passionate about, focusing your energy, and getting in “the zone.” It all involves becoming mentally tough so that you can maximize your potential.
  5. Sports: Stillpower: Excellence with Ease in Sports and Life by Garret Kramer.

    Garret Kramer’s style is similar to Murphy’s, only this book is intended to help you excel in sports. Professional athletes and sports psychologists rave about Stillpower, crediting it with transforming their games and saying it holds the key to excellent performance in many other areas, as well. He explains the difference between willpower and “the zone,” how to think clearly, the power of perspective, and more. The premise is that inside you hold the key to being excellent; all you have to do is trust your instincts.
  6. Arts: On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

    Of course, many different fields constitute the arts, but being writers, we have a soft spot for this form of expression. The classic On Writing Well has been reissued for its 30th anniversary, and it is still the best guide for achieving excellence with the pen. If the advice seems simple, that’s the point: simplify. Other books may teach you more about style, or more about what writers are made of, but following the rules in this book give you your best chance to be an excellent writer.
  7. Culture: Modern Bushido: Living a Life of Excellence by Bohdi Sanders, Ph.D..

    Hollywood has made much of the Bushido, or samurai way of life, most of it focusing on its martial aspects. But at its core, Bushido is a code of moral principles by which warriors lived, while pursuing excellence in all things. With Modern Bushido, Sanders offers an in-depth look into the life of a samurai, and how you too can conduct yourself with character, honor, and integrity. Although dishonest dealings can be a way to the top, these traits are the surest ways to achieve excellence.
  8. Teaching: Conversations with America’s Best Teachers: Teacher of the Year Award Winners Give Practical Advice For the Classroom and Beyond by J. William Towne.

    Becoming an excellent teacher is difficult to quantify, but the National Teacher of the Year Award often goes to teachers who are uncommonly passionate, creative, or hard-working when it comes to their students’ education. For this book, former dropout J. William Towne sat down with 18 recipients and finalists for the award and asked them how they conduct their classes. What they told him can make good teachers great, and great teachers excellent.
  9. Biography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglas.

    We could have made every book on this list a bio, but other than the book on Patton, we limited ourselves to one. Beginning life as a slave, Frederick Douglass rose from the humblest of origins not only to being a free man but to a life of accomplishment as a speaker, writer, and statesman. This is the first of his three autobiographies, and it reveals the character of a man driven to be better than society tried to allow him to be, and who ultimately became one of the finest figures in American history.
  10. Politics: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

    Being president has been done 28 times since, but Abraham Lincoln is often viewed as the standard of excellence for Commanders in Chief. Team of Rivals delves into one of the things that made Abe so great: his focus on the greater good. Goodwin tells the story of Lincoln’s choice of three political opponents to posts on his cabinet, men who hated him but were won over by his humility and steadfastedness. It is the story of a man who rose above the clamor of partisanship to find common ground for progress, and a man whose like is sorely needed today.


This article was first posted in Best Colleges.