01/23/2014 06:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Need Career Advice? Turn to Books that Shaped Work in America


I had an elementary school teacher, Sister Marion, a Catholic nun, who once told me: "Read everything and anything. No matter what, you are bound to learn something."

I've been reminded of that recently as I make my way through the U.S. Department of Labor's evolving list of Books that Shaped Work in America. Whether it's a novel, a "how come/how to" or a play, there are passages in every one of the selections that I find to be terrific words of wisdom, applicable career advice and even important rules to remember for everyday living.

As the list of titles we add to the list grows, I will share more in future blog posts. But for now, I think these five are real gems . . . and another example of the great rewards of reading:

"Always define WHAT you want to do with your life and WHAT you have to offer to the world, in terms of your favorite talents/gifts/skills . . . not in terms of a job-title." - Richard Nelson Bolles' What Color is Your Parachute?

"You'll do what you think you want to do, or what you think you ought to do. If you're very lucky, luckier than anybody I know, the two will coincide." - Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose

"There's a cure for everything except death." - Luigi Bartolini's Bicycle Thieves

"The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can't make men work for money alone--you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way." - Cameron Hawley's Executive Suite

"When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines the kind of men we are." - Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback's anthology The Words of César Chávez

Finally, two marvelous books on the list have, I think, the best career and life advice ever:

For career advice, you cannot get better than this, from Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit:

"The ideal thing is to find a job which always expects a little more than you can deliver, but not so much that you get snowed under. A job should always keep you straining at the limits of your abilities."

I must admit, after reading that, I've passed it along to others (and did not credit Mr. Wilson).

And this, the ultimate "life quote" from Dennis Lehane's 2008 book The Given Day, which combines history and fiction to paint a portrait of America's changing political and social landscape at the end of the first World War. I ask myself this question everyday:

"Do you know the primary difference between men and gods? . . . Gods don't think they can become men."

Sister Marion would be very proud.

Is there a line from literature that inspires or motivates you, and shaped your view of work? Suggest the book for inclusion in the U.S. Department of Labor's list of Books that Shaped Work in America.