matt tillotson

The “Shift List”: Books That Altered My Course

A good book creates a shift.

The shift can be as small—just your mood—or much bigger, changing your perspective forever. This is a list of books that created a shift in me. Call it a “Shift List,” and pronounce it carefully in polite company. 


Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins

The next time you don’t feel like working out, flip this book open to pretty much any page. You’ll learn your excuses are invalid. 

Goggins is a Navy Seal Veteran and super-endurance athlete. His upbringing was full of abuse, violence, and tragedy, and he uses that dark energy to push through physical and mental boundaries most of us would never even consider crossing. 

Although the book is quite dark at times (and full of colorful language!), the overall message is that we are capable of far more than we think, and the greatest opponent we will ever face in life is our own minds. 

(You can read my book notes for Can’t Hurt Me here.)

The New High Intensity Training, Ellington Darden 

Many of us, when we think about fitness, imagine long workouts before the sun comes up, or after it goes down. We’ve been taught—by marketers—that we have to grind and grind to get ourselves lean and strong. 

But maybe that’s not true. What if an hour or two a week were enough? 

In this book, Ellington Darden details a workout system he helped create in the 1970s called High-Intensity Training (HIT). With HIT, you work out hard, but briefly. Each resistance exercise is limited to one set, taken to muscle failure, and the main goal is to move the weight slowly and with perfect form.

HIT aims to maximize your muscles’ time-under-load in order to trigger hypertrophy, the process under which muscle grows in response to physical challenge.

HIT workouts generally last 30 minutes or less, and are performed one to three times per week only.

The book lays out the principles and process of HIT, and includes the colorful history of the program’s development and deployment in the 1970s.

You’ll even learn why HIT was too much for the mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger. 


Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain 

Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s wildly entertaining autobiography and treatise on food and the restaurant industry. This is the book that kicked off his persona and led to the TV empire he created before his death in 2018. 

Bourdain was a fantastic writer and storyteller. Underneath the stories of drug-fueled nights on the job and flaming-hot takes on food industry and those in it, Bourdain tells a messy, beautiful story about a man who followed his passion and battled his demons all along the way. 


City On Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg

1970s New York City. A fascinating time in the city’s history, full of pessimism, theft, vandalism, bombings, and arson. The city was decaying into to a-past-its-peak dystopia (check out this photo collage), culminating with the blackout riots of 1977.

Hallberg’s thousand-page novel converges the storylines of a diverse set of characters, culminating with the blackout riots which occurred on July 13, 1977.

Some criticized the book for being too long and indulgent. But I love Hallberg’s writing style and the setting for the story. New York really was a dirty and sometimes dangerous place in the 1970s, and reading about just a few of the people making their way though that time, in various stages of their lives, terrific. 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

The story starts with a simple premise: a man in the Soviet era displeases his party, and finds himself prisoner in a Moscow hotel, where he spends the majority of his life. But far from being confined by his circumstances, Alexander Rostov live a rich, full life, with love, tragedy, loss, and redemption. 

The writing itself is terrific, but the real takeaway for me is that even life lived on a small scale—a confined, seemingly punitive existence—can still be a big. 


A Higher Call, Adam Makos 

A Higher Call tells the story of two men on the opposite sides of World War II—Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler. 

Much of the story is told from Stigler’s point of view, detailing what happens when normal people find themselves involuntarily serving the side of unbelievable evil. 

The two mens’ lives intersect in the air, on the battlefield, and many, many years later as part of an extraordinary reunion.  


Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, Dave Barry

Sure, a lot of these stories are dated now. But the rhythm, exaggeration and surprises that define Barry’s writing taught me to appreciate humor and reading while I was growing up. Few newspaper columnists were better at pointing out life’s absurdities without trying to dunk on an opponent. Instead, Barry laughed with people, often placing himself in situations which allowed him to serve as court jester and the target of his own greatest mockery. 

As a bonus, here are two of my favorite Barry columns of all time:

Dave Barry’s Hurricane Preparedness Guide 

Post-9-11 column: “Just For Being Americans” 


Quiet, Susan Cain

Open floor plans! After-hours “voluntary” social events! Endless brainstorming sessions! Corporate America is built to develop, deploy, and reward extroverts and extroverted behavior. 

But half of us are introverts, to varying degrees. That means we build our energy in private, and expend it in group settings. Introverts can and do successfully navigate social situations—often we even enjoy them. But social situations have to be balanced with “Quiet” time to properly think and recharge. 

Susan Cain looks at extroversion culture and lays out a path to allow introverts to protect their energy and thrive in a culture that expects us to be socially “on” all the time. 

(You can read my notes on this book here.)

Win Bigly, Scott Adams

You will now be asked the impossible: take a deep breath, and for just a moment, set aside whatever feelings you have about Donald Trump. 

Win Bigly is a very informative book about persuasion, told through the lens of 2016 Trump campaign. Dilbert creator Scott Adams wastes no time supporting or opposing Trump’s political positions (Adams claims to be far-left) but instead details how persuasion works and how Trump used it to create one of the more stunning political upsets in American history. 

If you sell, if you’re a marketer, if you need to persuade anyone of anything, this book is incredibly useful.

Bonus: here’s a synopsis of the persuasion techniques discussed in the book. 


Money: Master the Game, Tony Robbins 

Most of us will never walk on hot coals with Tony, and I have no interest in jumping up and down at one of his many seminars. His other books failed to grab me and take me to new heights. 

But this book is different. He interviews wealthy investors who really open up about their money strategies, and in the end Robbins distilled all that information into a straightforward plan to protect and grow your nest egg. 


Have a Little Faith: A True Story, Mitch Albom 

Tuesdays with Morrie rocketed Albom beyond the Detroit Free Press sports pages of my youth and into another stratosphere as a writer. But I prefer Have a Little Faith. 

The book juxtaposes two experiences: that of an older Rabbi and young, African-American pastor in Detroit. Through the contrast Albom weaves together larger truths about faith and life for a cynical culture that definitely use more faith. 


Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss 

Chris Voss has seen your Harvard-fueled negotiating tactics and is having none of it. A veteran hostage negotiator for the FBI, Voss lays out negotiating strategies based on a belief that man has two systems of thinking: our animal mind, which is fast, instinctive, and emotional, and our rational, logical one. 

Voss believes the animal mind drives the bus and leads our logical thinking, rather than the other way around. As a marketer, I agree with him. 

What follows in his book are strategies for winning the emotional side of negotiating, which he frames not as a battle, but a process of discovery. 

(You can view my book notes here.)


Joe Sugarman double-header: The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook, and Triggers 

Sugarman’s AdWeek handbook is an adaptation of his part biographical/part analytical “Advertising Secrets of the Written Word.” The book details discusses ad writing from A to A to Z, including how to be a good writer in general, to the process of strategizing, developing, writing, and editing successful ads. Along the way, Sugarman weaves in stories about his businesses,  which grew first in mail order on the strength of his long-form copywriting and storytelling skills. Sugarman often sold items others couldn’t by telling colorful stories about products and the inherent flaws. (His “ugly thermostat” ad is a personal favorite). 

Later, Sugarman made another fortune in infomercials, selling Blu-Blocker sunglasses (20 million pairs of them, to be exact). 

Another Sugarman book, Triggers, is more clinical, laying out 30 sales tools to persuade, influence, and persuade prospects, whether selling in person or in developing advertising copy. I’ve completed a cheat sheet to Sugarman’s triggers, and you can read them here. 

Here’s a link to a rundown of Sugarman’s psychological triggers, and here are my book notes for The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook

If none of these books catch your interest, here’s a more complete list of everything I’ve read