In 2019, I posted my reading list here and some reasons for the choices. In early 2020 I began to wonder if I could keep up the same pace or perhaps even accelerate it. When you tell family and friends to get you Audible gift cards for Christmas, you end up with a lot of books that can be consumed. Unless otherwise called out below, each book was consumed via Audible. Oh yeah…you should know when you go through the list that I tend to jump between books in a stream of consciousness fashion. I’ll try to explain some of the reasoning behind each choice. And you’ll have to wait until the end to see what my favorite book of the year was.
After having just finished some books by Gene Kim, it seemed fitting to go back and read some books by Eliyahu Goldratt on The Theory of Constraints. I started with The Goal. Having read it previously when I worked as a Systems Administrator in the manufacturing industry, it had greater meaning this time through since some of the lessons within were the basis of what was presented in popular books on DevOps. Be careful how you use the word constraint, my friends. Though this is focused in manufacturing, I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of industry.
Continuing on the Goldratt train, I picked up It’s Not Luck next. We see the same characters from The Goal in it, but it takes place several years later after the people who first worked directly under Alex Rogo went on to run companies now under the UniCo umbrella. We see how Alex has gone from a plant manager back in The Goal all the way up to dealing with the lack of profitability of UniCo’s subsidiaries. The Evaporating Cloud technique is not one I had previously heard of for conflict resolution but is quite interesting.
The logical next choice for me was Critical Chain (again by Goldratt). I had also read this before, but it had been a quite. The story is about Dr. Richard Silver and his class on project management that was part of a university MBA program. Some of the students were part of a think tank at a specific company tasked with shortening product release cycles. I’m no expert on project management, but this one was very intereting.
The last book for January might seem completely odd, but I chose Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. This was the book we used for the only Philosophy class I took in college, so I decided to revisit the ancient philosophical ideas within. This is another one of those books presented as an intricate story that all begins when a girl named Sophie receives a mysterious letter from a philosopher named Alberto Knox. It’s one of those books you have to read multiple times to really soak in the information, but it’s interesting to learn about how philosophical thoughts and principles changed over the years.
I managed to find another Goldratt book that was new to me called Isn’t It Obvious. It is another fable, but it speaks to the applicability of theory of constratints to the retail industry. Think about the logistics of how much product to keep stocked on store shelves so as to minimize excess inventory at stores. It took some iterating for the characters in the book to get it right, but it had some good lessons. It’s so ironic that the people in these stories who don’t want to pursue a specific job or career are often the ones most qualified to help solve the problem. And in the end they get persuaded to do so.
A friend of mine recommended Getting Naked by Patrick Lencioni, so I decided to check it out next. The title might sound odd, but I assure you it is a business fable. It’s a story about a consulting firm who acquires one of its biggest competitors and a man who has to figure out what made the acquired company so successful. The things he learns completely change his outlook on consulting and customer relationships. It’s short but an excellent read.
I find myself often socially engineered by Audible’s “you might also enjoy” list. That’s how I landed on The Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni. After all, I liked the one from February. This one is about an executive that ends up turning a restaurant around and learning a number of lessons along the way. In the book, the protagonists helps the restaurant employees connect purpose to what they do, and it is like a breath of fresh air for those people. If your boss hasn’t helped you do this, the job you’re in may seem boring and draining. It’s another short one but definitely worth the read.
Next up I stumbled upon Dad, Here’s What I Really Need from You: A Guide for Connecting with Your Daughter’s Heart by Michelle Watson. I follow the fathers.com blog and saw Michelle had written an article with a link to her book. If you’re a dad with a daughter (regardless of age), this is a great read. I knew dads were a big influence on their daughters, but this book helped me see just how much and provided some ways to approach things differently in my relationship with my daughter.
I decided to get back on the Chip and Dan Heath train at this point by reading Decisive. It’s all about how to make better decisions, and I definitely recommend it. The authors talk through the villains of decision making and how we can combat them. Strategies like asking yourself what a friend would do, the hypothetical post-mortem, and setting tripwires are all excellent strategies. If you prefer to read the cliff notes, you can find a great summary here.
Continuing on with Chip and Dan Heath, I went with The Power of Moments next. The authors talk about the elements that create defining moments and then break down some ways (based on research) we can create our own defining moments. I especially like the tactic of breaking the script. There’s a great summary of the book posted here if you prefer the highlights.
At this point I couldn’t not complete all the available Heath brothers books. The only one left was Upstream by Dan Heath. The author talks about ways we tend to focus efforts on fixing problems downstream when we should be looking upstream. It’s more challenging, of course, to do upstream work. But I like the fact that this is wrapped in systems thinking because working upstream means you are tweaking something with downstream effects. Have a look at this book summary for more highlights. It’s certainly worth a read.
In May things got fierce. My next read was Fierce Conversations by Susan Craig Scott, M.D. I had read Crucial Conversations last year and then stumbled upon this one. The author gives some practical tips on how you can have meaningful conversations that allow connecting with people at a deeper level. One of my favorite stories in the book is the story of how an upper level manager deals with an employee named Jackie. All of Jackie’s employees can’t stand him / her. But Jackie’s manager is able to communicate the problem in a way that puts the responsibility on Jackie without allowing the conversation to get emotionally heated. Because of the way this manager went about having the conversation, Jackie ended up completely turning things around. Now that I write this I probably need to re-read it.
A friend recommended I read The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey based on an interesting conversation we had. It had nothing to do with me wanting to pursue tennis and everything to do with the mental side of peak performance. Gallwey talks about the self as self 1 (the critical and over analyzer) and self 2 (the self with the innate ability to do things) and how we often cannot quiet self 1 so that self 2 can perform well. It focuses on tennis but has some good lessons.
Around this time I had a pretty big anxiety spike. I ended up reading Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind by Jennifer Shannon LMFT to see if there were some good tools to use to combat it. The author talks about the monkey mind as a part of our brain which is trying to keep us safe (that “danger” button that gets pushed when we run into something uncomfortable). But in fact, our desire to quickly escape feelings of anxiety in seek of safety is what makes the cycle continue (i.e. continuing to feed the monkey). If you have ever felt anxiety, this is a fantastic book that I would recommend reading a few times.
The next logical choice was The Inner Game of Stress by Tim Gallwey, Edward Hanzelik MD, and John Horton MD. You’ll notice the same author from The Inner Game of Tennis paired with two doctors to write this. They talk through tools people can use to combat stress and share some anonymous patient cases and how using inner game tools helped those patients. I really enjoyed it, and we even did a book review episode on Nerd Journey if you would like to hear more about it.
I had run across Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone earlier in the year and decided to dive into it in July. I remember helping paint my in-laws’s new house while I listened. One of the most useful things they talk about in the book is the idea of switchtracking. Imagine giving someone feedback on something but there being a deeper issue that they use to divert the topic of conversation or that triggers them. I saw that happen in a real conversation not long after I read the book but didn’t know there was an official term for it. This is another good one that can help you be a better listener and learner.
Next up was The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. As it turns out, this was another book review episode on Nerd Journey. While every business fable can be a little magical, the power of learning through stories should not be underestimated. It’s worth the read (and pretty short). It was interesting to me to read and observe an executive team through the CEO’s eyes. I feel like I gained some addiitonal insight here.
This was a really busy month for us, and my daughter was starting to worry about all kinds of things. My wife had said one of her friends read
Raising Worry-Free Girls By Sissy Goff MEd LPC-MHSP. I enjoyed learning about some of the age-specific worries that are specifically things that happen to girls (a likely blind spot for dads). The author’s concept of the worry monster was pretty intriguing. It was like an extension of Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind with a lot of additional techniques to help children. And I wasn’t mindful enough of how much a parent’s response can contribute to a child’s worry.
Again I was socially engineered after liking the previous book and landed on Why Smart Kids Worry by Allison Edwards. But it was for the best. I didn’t realize worry can be more intense when your child is extremely intelligent. This book had more tools to help children manage the worry. The one that seemed to help my daughter the most was brain plate. I took a lot of notes while reading this one and the previous book, and if you read this one, you will find there are a number of tools you can try to help your child (maybe without having to pay a therapist).
When people recommend books, I tend to pay attention and try to work them in. My fitness coach recommended Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey. If there was ever a book that made me want to work out, this is it. I had already been exercising several times per week, but this book made me want to even more often. I didn’t realize you should try to perform your most mentally taxing task after exercise because of the brain power boost gained from it or how exercise could help people with ADHD focus better and prevent memory loss. It was a fascinating read and one of my favorites this year.
I love professional tennis and decided to dive into Open by Andre Agassi next. I grew up watching this guy play tennis, and it was interesting to hear the story of how his father tried to turn him and his siblings into tennis playing machines. Andre was the only one who was able to get there. I don’t think anyone on earth could have beaten Agassi on days his mental game was on point, but at times it floundered, causing him to lose focus. It was interesting to hear about how Agassi’s coaches changed over the years and the reasons for those changes as well as the relationship he developed with a pastor named J.P. and his trainer Gil. There was a lot of language in this one, which I ended up pushing past because I wanted to hear his story. I still enjoyed the story very much.
My wife asked me if there was some book I could read on dyslexia because she thought after helping my daughter do 100% virtual school this year that she may have some kind of processing issue. I stepped up to the challenge and read Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn. I didn’t realize how challenging social and emotional learning is for people with dyslexia (espcially kids who may have it and don’t know it). Interestingly enough, the book talks about explicit multi-sensory reading instruction, which is the best way to teach anyone to read (and especially useful in its approach for those with dyslexia), but it is not widely taught in schools. One of the biggest takeaways was learning about something called twice exceptional. In this scenario a child excels greatly in all areas except reading / writing but goes unnoticed because he / she is such a high achiever, making it much harder to accept the processing issue of something like dyslexia. The example given sounded very familiar to what we’re seeing with my daughter. Time will tell as we investigate further.
I changed the channel back to tennis and picked up Arthur Ashe: A Life by Ramond Arsenault. This was my longest Audible read of the year at over 32 hours. I knew he had a stadium named after him at the US Open campus in New York and a few other nuggets, but his story was amazing. I never knew he was the first man to win the US Open once the open era began in 1968. Ashe was a mental giant on the court and probably could have won way more matches and majors, but he had a number of interests that kept him occupied (like helping the civil rights movement along). It was a story of struggle and triumph that I really enjoyed.
I stumbled upon a book called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything Joshua Foer about a journalist who first writes an article about and later goes on to win the world memory competition. One of the memory athletes encouraged Josh to train to compete, and after researching some of these apparently long forgotten memory techniques, he goes on an adventure in memorization that changes his life. It was a fantastic story of deep learning and research that I loved.
In the Joshua Foer book, he mentioned working with K. Anders Ericsson. I remembered that name mentioned in some of the other books I had read and settled on Peak by Robert Pool and K. Anders Ericsson next. Ericsson studied people at the peak of their field and wanted to figure out what the similarities were which led people to develop these expert-level skills. It’s all about deliberate practice. Even though we are practicing something, it may not be in a way that helps us learn or improve. He talks about learning objectives being skills and not knowledge. Skills should be taught to help us develop mental representations (which can only be developed after you do something repeatedly, fail, and get feedback). A clear mental representation allows you to be more of an independent learner. As I type this out I realize I need to read this one again soon because it was awesome.
Reading the previous two books naturally led me to The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (also narrated by Josh). I didn’t know this was the guy the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer had been written about but had seen the movie. It was so interesting to listen to how he learned chess from a coach that began with a few pieces at a time rather than the entire board of pieces at once (an approach grounded in deliberate practice, of course) and how he dealt with the pressure of competition. Then he goes on to talk about how he started studying Tai chi and eventually ended up becoming a push hands champion in that field. He talks about the concept of embracing loss and how only through losing to a better opponent could he become better. Josh talks about how the best athletes know how to recover quickly so they can reach peak performance again when the time comes and even goes into how he has helped others through his consulting business structure their day to reach optimal creative performance. This is a great read, and there is a podcast with Josh being interviewed by Tim Ferris at the end that was a nice bonus.
Maybe this stemmed from watching a lot of Disney+, but I stumbled upon The Pixar Touch by David A. Price next. This is the story of how Pixar came to be starting with Ed Catmull’s dream of creating an animated film using computer graphics. The story takes you through Ed’s time at the same university as people like Alan Kay and the folks who later founded Adobe, meeting and working with Alvy Ray Smith, working with expert story teller John Lasseter, getting acquired by LucasFilm, and how Steve Jobs would eventually help Pixar be profitable and later become part of Disney. It’s a good history of the company as well as the tech they worked on from beginning to end. I never knew they were initially a hardware company or that Steve Jobs acquired them from George Lucs. I highly recommend this one.
After enjoying The Pixar Touch so much, I went with Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull next. I have to say this is my favorite read of 2020. Ed opens the book talking about how Toy Story was the fulfillment of his dream of making a computer animated film and that he suddenly needed to figure out what he would do next. The story is a number of memoir-like experiences Ed had throughout his career which eventually led him to become a high level executive at Pixar and later Disney. He shares a great deal of management wisdom with readers by talking about how to foster and protect a creative culture, how to empower everyone to contribute ideas and give feedback, how to be a good manager, and how to help people reach their potential. Regadless of whether you are an individual contributor or manager, this is a fantastic read. In the last chapter of Creativity, Inc., Ed talks about the Steve Jobs he, John Lasseter, and the employees of Pixar knew to highlight how much working with the Pixar team changed Jobs from his early years in the tech industry. And he also talks about how Jobs became one of his dearest friends.
Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these won’t make the managing of a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal. Excellence is. – Ed Catmull
The Top 10
It’s hard to narrow down to just 10, but here’s the list of my favorites.
- Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
- Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey
- The Pixar Touch by David A. Price
- Peak by Robert Pool and K. Anders Ericsson
- The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
- Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything Joshua Foer
- Arthur Ashe: A Life by Ramond Arsenault
- Why Smart Kids Worry by Allison Edwards
- Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind by Jennifer Shannon LMFT
- Dad, Here’s What I Really Need from You: A Guide for Connecting with Your Daughter’s Heart by Michelle Watson