Happy New Year! We made it! Sort of…
This was a strange one and we all needed to find ways to adjust. Just as our cabin-fever-ridden ancestors before us, we turned to the classics to get us through – broken zoom calls with grandma’s chin, compulsive Amazon shopping, and the timeless teachings Joe Exotic. A few of us even turned to books (in between episodes of The Last Dance).
So, I thought I’d share What I Read in 2020 to offer some suggestions for 2021 (just in case things don’t completely normalize on Monday).
This year’s list is much shorter than years past, but potent. Each book on this list rocked my world harder than the last. The categories include: Self Improvement, Self Reflection, Leadership, and Just for Fun. You may notice that the Self Reflection is the longest – getting stranded in a Floridian condo by yourself for 2.5 months with nothing but a weekend duffle bag will do that to you… But that’s a story for another time. 🙂
Will 2021 be better than 2020? Who knows. But, if the key to happiness is low expectations I think there’s hope for all of us.
View previous lists here: 2019, 2018, 2017
Top 2020 Books:
- Stillness is the Key – Ryan Holiday: (288 Pages)
- The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel Van der Kolk MD: (464 Pages)
- The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle: (246 Pages)
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport: (304 Pages)
- Essentialism – Greg McKeown: (288 Pages)
- Turning Pro – Steven Pressfield: (146 Pages)
Essentialism – Greg McKeown: (288 Pages) There are no solutions, just trade offs. We have more options and are forced to make more decisions than ever before. This book provides the perfect roadmap for making better decisions in work, relationships, and daily life. The essence of the book is, “The relentless pursuit of less, but better. Pursued in a disciplined way.” Learn how to make better tradeoffs and exponentially improve your outcomes in the areas that matter.
The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle: (246 Pages) Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Forget the 10k hour rule, or the assumption that greatness is determined at birth. What we think of as “talent” is an imperfect understanding of where skills come from. Coyle breaks down the chemical processes at play in our brains when skills (talent) are being created and illustrates the keys to deliberate practice – the true key to expedited skill development in any field.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport: (304 Pages) This might have been the most fun I’ve had reading a book. The premise: Following your passion is a terrible way to find work you love. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it. This should be required reading for every college graduate, or anyone fretting about what to do with their life. This book will change the way we think about our careers, happiness, and the crafting of a remarkable life.
Turning Pro – Steven Pressfield: (146 Pages) I read this book in 1 sitting! It succinctly compares the mindset of an amateur to the mindset of a professional. It combines elements of stoic philosophy, and Seth Godin’s principle of “the dip” (or “the Resistance” as Pressfield calls it), and explores fear in a way that I found more approachable than Brene Brown (see below) to ultimately provide a guide for becoming truly exceptional in your chosen field. I couldn’t put this book down!
The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin: (288 Pages) Reread. Josh is a “chess prodigy” who is the basis for “Searching For Bobby Fischer,” a world champion in martial arts, and currently learning foiling (extreme surfing). Here he breaks down his process for learning anything deeply. This is an in-depth tutorial on deliberate practice – the key for creating “talent” as illustrated in Daniel Coyles, The Talent Code. This book will teach you how to learn anything!
Tribe of Mentors – Timothy Ferriss: (624 pages) Reread. Tim reaches out to top performers (from Navy SEALS to Venture Capitalists to Musicians and Actors), and has them answer a variety of life questions that he himself was grappling with (“In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?”, “When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)”). So this book is actually written by the best in the world (Maria Sharapova, Ben Stiller, Arianna Huffington, Bear Grylls, Tim McGraw, and many more!). No need to read this cover to cover, but I did. This might be his best book since the 4-Hour Workweek.
What They Don’t Teach You in Harvard Business School – Mark McCormack: (288 Pages) This is the perfect organizational handbook for any new sales rep or young business professional. A perfectly curated breakdown on networking, structuring your day, sales & marketing, running a meeting, deal structure, and negotiation. Recommended by the business wiz himself, Ramit Sethi, this book is barebones tactics and strategies.
Stillness is the Key – Ryan Holiday: (288 Pages) Holiday’s best book yet and my favorite book of 2020. All great leaders, thinkers, artists, athletes, and visionaries share one indelible quality. It enables them to conquer their tempers. To avoid distraction and discover great insights. To achieve happiness and do the right thing. That quality is Stillness. I read this book twice, back to back, in April and will reread each year going forward.
Everything is F*cked – Mark Manson: (288 Pages) When gold medalist figure skater, Gabby Daleman, and Forbes 30/30 chef and entrepreneur Jeff Mahin insist you read 1 book (in separate conversations, completely unprovoked, within 24 hours of each other) you buy the book… This one delivered. After listening to the audiobook, I immediately ordered the hardcopy and reread it. Manson shows us why we’re hardwired to be unhappy, but provides the tools to reverse these habits. This book made me laugh out loud and feel doomed at the same time. As the description states: “It’s another counterintuitive romp through the pain in our hearts and the stress of our soul.” But ultimately, it’s a book about hope. Enjoy. 🙂
The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel Van der Kolk MD: (464 Pages) Trauma is a core part of all of our lives. This book challenges everything we know about trauma – how it impacts our behavior, our health, and our life trajectory. After reading you’ll see yourself and your own behavior, choices, and problems fundamentally different. This was the book I recommended most in 2020.
The Drama of the Gifted Child – Alice Miller: (136 Pages) Why are many of the most successful people plagued by feelings of emptiness and alienation? As kids, we become who we believe we need to be to survive. Miller writes, “When I used the word ‘gifted’ in the title, I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb…. Without this ‘gift’ offered us by nature, we would not have survived.” The Drama of the Gifted Child helps us to reclaim our life by discovering our own crucial needs and our own truth. Fascinating book that was recommended on podcasts by Tim Ferriss, Neil Stauss, and several others this year.
Be the Person You Want to Find – Cheri Huber: (228 Pages) Just as “Don’t Shoot the Dog” (pet training) can be used to evoke better behavior from your coworkers and friends by understanding your own behavior, this short workbook illuminates how our personal history and internal self talk play influence our behavior with friends, spouses, coworkers, and family – and how to improve outcomes by understanding our default mode. This book could easily be in the Self-Improvement or Leadership categories.
Good Chemistry – Julie Holland: (320 Pages) Psychedelics have become a big part of conversation among high-performers seeking to gain an edge by turning inward. Holland explores the science of connection in human experiences from the spiritual to the psychedelic from the level of science and biology. The key is oxytocin—a neurotransmitter and hormone produced in our bodies that allows us to trust and bond. It fosters attachment between mothers and infants, romantic partners, friends, and even with our pets. The implications for our happiness and health are profound. We can find “oneness” in meditation, in community, or in awe at the beauty around us. Or, we can use a catalyst – psychedelic medicines – to connect with the self, with nature, or the cosmos. This book explores the use of these tools for forging deeper attachments with our own souls, to one another, and even to our planet, helping us heal ourselves and our world. (I stole that from the book description. 🙂
Daring Greatly – Brene Brown: (320 Pages) Women LOVE Brene for her work on vulnerability. As a male, her work hits on a lot of raw, uncomfortable nerves, and pokes at core social norms. Her core idea is encapsulated by Elenor Roosevelt’s, “Do something everyday that scares you” quote. But Brene takes this a level or two deeper by explaining how vulnerability is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity. Yeah, it’s super touchy-feely… A great read to push guys out of their comfort zone, but I found it to be tough work – less “conquering through grit,” and more “winning through vulnerability.”
The Captain Class – Sam Walker: (368 Pages) What creates a great team? Sam Walker looks at the 17 greatest teams of all time and found 1 single correlation, the captain — a singular leader with an unconventional set of skills and tendencies (not the Derek Jeter’s of the world). Not the star. Not the coach. Not the GM. Walker identifies the seven core qualities of the Captain Class—from extreme doggedness and emotional control to tactical aggression and the courage to stand apart. The Captain Class will challenge your assumptions of what inspired leadership looks like.
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius: (256 Pages) Reread. Marcus Aurelius (the guy from Gladiator) was the ruler of Rome and commander of the army when Rome was at its peak. He is considered to be the last of the 5 great emperors. This book is his personal journal. Despite having more power than God, Marcus relentlessly pushed himself daily to be more compassionate and forgiving, and to constantly improve. Above all, he focused on suppressing his ego. This book is written in plain english (it’s his short-hand scribbles to himself), and is packed with actionable advice for daily living. It feels more relevant in 2020 than it was 2000 years ago. This new translation by Gregory Hays is the best I’ve read. Thanks Jim Pellow for the gift!
Collective Genius – Linda Hill & Greg Brandeau: (320 Pages) Why can some organizations innovate time and again, while most cannot? Leading innovation takes a distinctive kind of leadership that unleashes and harnesses the “collective genius” of the people in the organization. The authors share how to create an environment where people are both willing and able to do the hard work that innovative problem solving requires.
Just for Fun:
The Third Door – Alex Banayan (320 pages): Reread. At 18, Alex skips studying for his freshman biology final to instead ‘hack’ the Price Is Right. He games his way on to the show and finds a way to win the whole thing! This story alone was incredible and hilarious. But he doesn’t stop there. He takes his winnings and goes on a quest to track down Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, and dozens more of the world’s most successful people to uncover how they broke through and launched their careers. This book reminds me what it takes to accomplish big goals, make it to the top of any field and how to do what you love. Shout out to Robyn Shamma who lived this book by completing her childhood dream of WINNING the PIR in 1980-something. 🙂
Hell Yeah Or No – Derek Sivers: (126 pages) I love Derek’s work so much that I pre-ordered several signed copies of this book – let me know if you’d like one! Here Derek distills 67 short (1-2 page) life lessons, including “Are You Present-Focused or Future-Focused,” “There are no speed limits – the standard speed is for chumps,” and “Let pedestrians make the walkways: making decisions as late as possible.” This book was fun, and makes for fast reading, but long contemplation.
Bobos in Paradise – David Brooks: (284 Pages) I’m a huge fan of David Brooks (he’s the only reason I subscribe to the NYT…). Here Brooks coins a new word, Bobo, to describe today’s upper class—those who have wed the bourgeois world of capitalist enterprise to the hippie values of the bohemian counterculture. His historical look at the evolution of today’s upper class – from one of Pedigree/Family lineage (think Roosevelts, Kennedy’s), to one of Intellectual meritocracy (think Musk, Koum – founder of WhatsApp) was fascinating. With the introduction of the SAT in the ’60’s we’ve seen a core shift in our value structure. Brooks maps this new value structure onto our daily living and explores the comical contradictions and social repercussions. Fun read.