After publishing my reading list from 2019 and again in 2020, it seemed only fitting to continue the trend for 2021. This past year there were some book goals I socialized on Nerd Journey, so we’ll see what goals vs. reality were and discuss potential reasons for discrepancies. Unless otherwise specified, the books below were consumed via Audible. My stream of consciousness approach to reading has continued this year too. I’ll share a little about each book and why I read it and finish the post with my top 10 favorites.
After getting really into Pixar and loving Ed Catmull’s biography (Creativity, Inc., my favorite book of 2020), I continued that trend. In early January I found To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy. As a bonus, it was narrated by Bronson Pinchot. This is one of those stories where the right phone call at the right time changed someone’s life. Lawrence shares the story about how he left his employer and went to work with Steve Jobs to help Pixar become profitable, become a public company, and rise to a titan in the 3D animation film industry. Before reading this one, I didn’t really understand what was involved in a company going IPO (i.e. the work it really took). It was interesting to hear about the transformation of Pixar from a CFO’s lens. I liked hearing how Lawrence fought for everyone’s name at Pixar (all departments) to be part of the ending credits of their films. He certainly knew how to model leadership for his employees.
A logical next read continuing this thread was Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. After hearing so much about Steve Jobs from the books on Pixar, I wanted to learn more about him. This is the only book I’ve read entirely about Steve Jobs to date. The author is a journalist who personally knew Steve Jobs and interviewed him many times. Jobs really knew how to market ideas, products, and companies. I don’t know how you maintain a spot as CEO of Apple and contribute so much to Pixar, but he did. It’s pretty amazing how much of his own money went into Pixar and that it might not exist today without those efforts. From what the book shared, it seemed like Jobs was a little bit socially awkward and maybe didn’t always realize he had offended people in the way he spoke to them.
Then I stumbled onto The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger. It was interesting to hear the story of how Iger started at ABC and rose to eventual CEO of Disney. In the book, I really liked the way he spoke in detail about some of Disney’s acquisitions during his time there like Pixar (including his friendship with Steve Jobs), Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox. He talks about why the acquisitions made sense for the company and how he approached each one while at the same time continuing to strengthen the Disney brand. I specifically remember a story about him having to fire someone and how hard it was but that it was better to be honest, to the point, and not drag something like that out unnecessarily.
Every book so far this year touched Pixar in some way, so why not continue that trend? George Lucas owned them for a while, so it seemed only logical to go with George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones. Even though he did own Pixar for a while and sold it to Steve Jobs, I enjoyed hearing about how Star Wars came to be (writing the script, casting calls and selections, and filming it). I got this mental image of George Lucas sitting in an office at a desk staring at a blank page, trying to figure out how to write the best “treatment” possible for his film. I didn’t realize before reading this book just how difficult it is to pitch a movie idea and get funding for it.
It was around this time my (then) 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia. Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz and Jonathan Shaywitz was a logical choice. You might think you know what dyslexia is, but until I read this book I really didn’t understand what it is and isn’t. It’s an unexpected difficulty in reading in an otherwise intelligent human. The author actually provides some tips to detect dyslexia in people of various ages. One of the things dyslexics often do is use the wrong word in a sentence. For example, my daughter might say “give me that sack of paper” when she actually meant (in her head) “give me that sheet of paper.” I didn’t know that was something a person with dyslexia might do without realizing it until reading this book. If you have even the smallest inkling that you or someone you know has dyslexia, this is a great read.
After this episode of Nerd Journey with Brad Christian, my next read was Mastery by Robert Greene. I really enjoyed hearing about the great masters (of a specific craft) throughout history and how they became experts in their field. Brad mentioned in our episode the idea of a life’s task. Greene gives readers some tips on how to figure out what that is as well as the motivations you need to become an expert in a specific field and how to figure out the right field to be your “niche.” I listened to it once all the way through and then listened back to the part about finding your life’s task to take some notes. There are specific phases one needs to go through on the journey from apprentice to master, but Greene says your loyalty throughout your career is to your life’s task and not to a company. That definitely resonated (and was confirmed by several guests on Nerd Journey).
This year I was granted the blessing of a mentor to help me navigate my way through successful participation in the CTO Ambassador program at VMware. One of his first recommendations was to read High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard. Burchard talks about determining your primary field of interest and then arranging your schedule to use 80% of your time to create prolific quality output within that field. The book discusses the 6 habits of high performance (clarity, energy, necessity, productivity, influence, and courage). Interweaved are stories about people the author helped adopt these habits, tips for sticking to them, and his personal journey of landing on these six habits after a client challenged his methodologies as a success coach. I would encourage anyone to take time to try and write down what your primary field of interest is and reasons for your selection. Burchard gives some great tips on how to do that in the book. If you read Mastery as mentioned above, you will find that your primary field of interest is really a component of what Greene calls your life’s task. Many thanks to Dale McKay (my mentor) for encouraging me to read this one.
We had picked up a second book on dyslexia to get perspective on helping our daughter called The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock L. Eide and Fernette L. Eide. I started reading it in paper form and had made it about halfway through but had not yet finished when I decided to use an Audible credit to help me finish it and reinforce some of the advice contained within. When my wife picked this one up at a bookstore, I really liked the approach of a positive take on dyslexia and a focus on the advantages. This book did not disappoint. It talks about MIND strengths of dyslexics – Mechanical, Interconnected, Narrative, and Dynamic. There are examples and stories inside the book along with a definition of the strengths and tips to support dyslexics in reading, writing, through school years, and beyond. While reading the book I recognized the strengths in my daughter (like the narrative strength and ability to remember stories really well) and was sure to point them out to her.
The Audible membership I have entitles me to some free titles. I noticed My Dyslexia by Philip Schultz around this time. Honestly I need to go back and re-read this one, but I enjoyed hearing someone’s story of being dyslexic, struggling, and ultimately becoming very successful (as a writer in this case). It was a short listen but gave you the real perspective from someone who has been through it. Those are the kinds of stories we need to hear.
Next on the list was Deep Work by Cal Newport. It was recommended by Josh Duffney, and Audible’s algorithm thought it would be good for me based on historical listens. This takes the idea of spending 80% of your time creating prolific quality output like Brendon Burchard mentioned in his book to a whole new level. The idea is to carve out uninterrupted time to focus on the important, high impact work, and in doing so, your output goes way up. This was the first time I read it, and I remember nodding along to and getting excited about a lot of the concepts discussed. At the same time, I also thought (at the time) some of the techniques were not extremely flexible in nature and didn’t really know how much of it I could implement. I don’t think I took a lot of notes the first time I listened to it, but I did really enjoy it. I’ll go ahead and mention that I read this again in October to prepare for a series of Nerd Journey episodes on the topic of deep work (7 episodes to be exact, starting with Episode 141 and ending with Episode 147).
After consuming several nonfiction self-help type books, I decided to switch back to the biography track. Continuing the theme that started with Pixar and progressed to Disney, I remembered Bob Iger spoke about what it was like to acquire Marvel in his biography. I found Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel by Bob Batchelor. I knew little to nothing about Stan other than he had a lot of cameos in Marvel movies. I didn’t read many comic books as a kid, and it was fascinating to hear how Stan created Spider Man, The Fantastic Four, and many others while getting the inside track on what it was like to compete with DC Comics. After hearing some of the stories in the book, we’re lucky Marvel survived (because they almost went bankrupt at one point). This was a very good one that I highly recommend if you’re a Marvel fan.
Next it was on to another recommendation from Josh Duffney – Give and Take by Adam Grant. I really enjoyed the way Adam Grant wrote this book and had never given any thought to how my reciprocity style in different situations can have all sorts of impacts. Grant talks about the idea of an otherish giver as opposed to a selfless giver. It turns out the otherish giver ends up giving time in ways that energize and in ways that align with impact and core values (which helps them stay energized as opposed to depleting their energy, helping them go on to earn more). It’s not the time commitment of giving that really depletes our energy but rather the ways in which we give. Let that sink in a little. I read this close to the time Tom Hollingsworth was on Nerd Journey to talk about burnout (catch that episode here), and the impact of giving on burnout fascinated me, inspiring this blog article. Grant knows how to share impactful stories to help make a point, and the way he writes keeps you interested. This is a great read that keeps you engaged until the end.
After my last read, Audible recommended other books by Adam Grant, so I chose Originals by Adam Grant next. This was also a good read, but I don’t remember as much about it as I do from Give and Take. It’s written in that same style that keeps you engaged. The story of Meredith Perry, eventual founder of uBeam who wanted to invent wireless charging technology, and how she changed her approach to asking others for help (i.e. needed help designing a transducer vs. needed help building wireless charging technologies) is one that really stands out to me. That idea of taking a creative idea and figuring out how to get others to support you in making it a reality is a great lesson for all of us.
Next on my list was So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. Scott Lowe and I discuss the concept of Newport’s adjacent possible in this podcast episode. He encourages us to go deep and keep being curious until reaching the edge of a specific area of our field. In this way we build up career capital (the work put in to master something in a specific domain) which allows us more autonomy in future roles and entry into a new areas of specialization. Newport shares the difference between a passion mindset (thinking only of what a job will give you) and the craftsman mindset (value that you can bring to the job and others around you), encouraging us all to adopt the latter. We should think about what career capital is valuable in a specific market and remember that valuable skills lead to valuable opportunities. I love this book’s focus on honing and sharpening your craft.
Kudos to Josh Duffney for encouraging me to read The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin next. For me, it was hard to read this and not get a little more motivated or inspired to do more creative work. Maybe it’s the reason I still love co-hosting Nerd Journey. If you already do some sort of creative work and have lost the spark or the desire, this is a must read. I’ll also say that being creative can take many forms and is absolutely doable within whatever realm you’re already working. Godin shares many reasons why we should be doing creative work that is generous and seeks to make a positive change in the world. And he encourages us to go a step further by shipping our work. Do it, and make it available for others to see…even if we don’t know whether it will work, resonate, or produce any kind of outcome. The idea of developing a practice is to give you a process to follow which enables you to get out of your own way and do some of your best work without focusing on the outcome. And we shouldn’t abandon the practice even if it never produces the outcome we thought we wanted.
I remember reading An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson a while back (focused on Engineering Management) and really enjoying it. When I found out he had a new book about the individual contributor’s path and that it was on Audible, it was easy to say yes to reading Staff Engineer. Larson interviewed a number of individual contributors in the software industry for the book to get different perspectives on what the Staff level means across organizations, asking them the same set of specific questions. There are lessons on leadership inside for all of us as well as examples of what a Staff-level project might be in terms of impact and work involved. One of my favorite things included in the book was that each person interviewed for the book shared recommended reading for the rest of us. While this is slanted more toward the software development industry, there are lessons inside that apply to many fields and roles.
I kept running across The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle in Audible recommendations and decided to read it. Coyle shares the idea that talent requires deep practice to develop (perhaps slightly different than deliberate practice that we have heard in other books but somewhat similar). Deep practice requires energy, passion, and commitment. The rules of deep practice are as follows:
- chunk it (a time period that can be short but focused on something specific)
- repeat it (keep practicing to stay near the edge of your capabilities, and know that quitting will set you back)
- learn to feel it – seek a struggle with distinct actions by picking a target, reaching for it, evaluating the gap between the target and your reach, and return to the first step
The energy from deep practice can often come from something called ignition. If you’re not sure what that is, check out this article in which I discovered my own moment of ignition.
Every now and then I decide to ditch whatever is on my Audible wish list for something else. I remember finding The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen after a family get together with my niece and nephew (one a teenager and one not far from it). What hooked me from the beginning is that the book was written by a neuroscientist (also a parent of teenagers) seeking to create a book that could be consumed by anyone. I didn’t realize just how underdeveloped the risk analysis and judgment capabilities are for teenagers (i.e. human brains during this time are more powerful but also more vulnerable than any other time). The author advises that we can be the frontal lobes for our kids until theirs are fully developed by simply staying involved and helping them think through situations without getting upset or reacting emotionally. Something as simple as providing a quiet place to do homework shows them we care enough to stay involved. I liked how the author emphasized continuing to tell your teenagers stories of other teens making poor decisions and the consequences of those actions. Telling them enough stories about incidents like this will help them remember what to do when faced with a difficult situation instead of focusing only on how not to get into trouble. My daughter will be 13 this year, which probably means I need to re-read this one again soon. I feel like this should be required reading for parents and teachers.
I stumbled on The Art of Possibility: Transforming Personal and Professional Life by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander through recommendation from someone at work. Ben is an orchestra conductor often called upon when helping his wife Rosamund (a psychologist) with clients. I liked their approach to giving alternative frameworks of meaning to situations in which we might find ourselves. What if you took the time to consider what assumptions you’re making (even those you don’t know you’re making), for example? How might that change the way you respond or react? My favorite part of the book (which I spoke to Scott Lowe about in this episode of Full Stack Journey) is the story of Ben giving his students an A on the first day of class. He then made each of them write a letter from their future selves sharing how they kept their A. It was this exercise in possibility that allowed many of the students to break past their own previously conceived limits.
My next read was one Dale McKay recommended – The Way of the SEAL by Mark Divine. Divine shares that we need to win in our mind first before the battles are fought, pointing out that today’s business environment is a VUCA environment (one filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). He goes on to share a number of principles throughout the book that can help us combat VUCA environments with the first one being to find our why / purpose and what we stand for / beliefs we will not compromise. Divine states that we should each develop a mind gym, a place we can go to strengthen our minds like we would our bodies. He encourages using a daily practice of box breathing to help focus our attention and become more self-aware. The principles shared can help you develop as an individual and as a leader (contains a section on leadership). The question after reading a book like this is whether you’re willing to go where others won’t and “embrace the suck.”
After hearing this get recommended by several people around the same time, I landed on What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith next. My boss told me about a friend of his that reads this book every year because it’s that helpful. After reading it once I would agree. There is so much information inside it’s challenging to absorb it all in one read. One of my favorite pieces of advice from the book was about feedback. Sometimes we ask for it, and when people give it to us we start an argument. The most appropriate response to feedback is to say thank you (and nothing else). There’s also this concept of a stop list that was interesting. Make a list of the things you want to stop doing just like you would make one for things you would like to start. Correcting a behavior often means you should stop doing something you used to do.
I was doing great until August. I had read so many nonfiction self-help books and got to the point where I needed a break from them. I stopped in the middle of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There because I felt I had reached a limit. There were so many suggestions I couldn’t possibly implement them all, and I needed a break from it. I went for the hard stop in the middle of a book (which I don’t often do) and decided to revisit biographies. I feel so much less pressure when I read a biography because it’s not a list of recommendations. You can listen to the story of someone’s life and glean the lessons from stories that resonated. And maybe, in a way, it helps filter the content so you only capture what is most important instead of trying to capture everything.
I stumbled upon The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey as I was searching for something different to read (again veering off the wish list for something else). With Federer being my favorite tennis player of all time, I really enjoyed hearing how he got into tennis and grew as a player to be one of the best of all time. I didn’t realize he had such a hot temper as a kid (which he eventually learned to control and then release emotion upon winning / losing). Weaved into the story of his life is the story of other great players like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick. It was also extremely interesting to hear about his wife and how she helped him manage the fame (good times and bad). Roger had trainers and coaches who would switch up routines which kept him from getting bored and sharpened his skills even further. I wrote about the lack of middle ground that was given to Roger by the press in this article.
Next up was Hogan: A Biography by Curt Sampson. I remembered reading it a long time ago and decided to see what I remembered. Ben Hogan didn’t have the greatest life as a kid, but he eventually became one of golf’s greatest players. He was a quiet perfectionist, someone who knew how to practice and probably out-practiced everyone else on the professional golf tour. After winning a number of tournaments and breaking into winning majors, Hogan had a terrible car accident (which could have easily killed him but still injured him badly). He rebuilt his swing and became perhaps even more accurate with his shots than before the accident. One of my favorite stories from the book was when someone asked Ben Hogan how much he would charge for a lesson. He told them $500. When they asked why it was so expensive he told them “that’s how much it will cost me in the next tournament if I stop to help you.” He might have been considered quiet and a little sharp around the edges by some, but that’s how focused the guy was on practice.
The only physical book I read this year (i.e. not in audio format) was A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring by John Wooden and Don Yaeger. In the introduction John Wooden shares his definition of a mentor and makes the point that we can each have a mentor while being a mentor to someone. Stop and think about that for a second. In the first part of the book, John Wooden shares some of the things learned from 6 different mentors in his life and how they have shaped his outlook and approach to coaching. In the second part of the book we get to hear about 6 people Wooden mentored over the course of his life and career and gain a little insight into just how big of an impact he made. If you’ve ever played on a team for a great coach, this book will make you smile. If you haven’t, maybe you can be that coach for someone.
When someone publishes an autobiography and narrates it on Audible, I love it. Play Nice but Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader by Michael Dell and James Kaplan fit the bill nicely. What better way to hear Michael’s story than straight from him? The book flips back and forth between stories of Dell’s early days and stories closer to present day (i.e. taking the company private, making acquisitions, seeking counsel and advice for approaching the board of directors, etc.). Stories like leveraging public records to get a list of all newly married couples in a specific area because they were more likely to buy newspaper subscriptions, using his college dorm room as storage for his computer business, how his company was originally given its name, how Michael found the right people to help his business reach the next level at each junction, how leaders weigh decisions of being a public vs. a private company, and paying a visit to Carl Icon to prove a point were some of the most memorable and made for an excellent read.
This was around the time I re-read Deep Work by Cal Newport to prepare for a series of Nerd Journey episodes with John White. I really liked John’s perspective on using the ideas as a framework more so than a strict set of rules that should apply to anyone in any job. Talking through it with John helped me realize I needed to become a little less connected during my work day. And after seeing the depth of notes John took from the book, I became more diligent taking notes on the books I was reading, even the biographies (which contain so many lessons that apply across domains). And I can honestly say I remember the books better as a result.
When you’re on a roll, you keep rolling. So I kept rolling with biographies and picked A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis by Pete Sampras and Peter Bodo next. Sampras says he knew how to lose matches, but he had to figure out how to dig deep to win. The pressure of defending after winning his first major really got to him, and Pete lost a big match that taught him many lessons. Sampras says the biggest opponent in any match is the self, the part of you prone to doubt, hesitation, fear, and the impulse to give up. I love the fact that Sampras wasn’t part of the game to win personality contests. He was in it to compete at the highest levels, and he carried himself well in both victory and defeat. Some might say Sampras handled the fame differently than others, not showing much emotion. He figured out how to raise his game in the big moments while playing within himself. Even though I was a huge Agassi fan back in the day, I have a new found respect for Pete Sampras after reading this book. I really liked what Sampras said about one of his greatest rivals Andre Agassi –
Andre was the showman. I was the craftsman. Andre always brought out the best in me and pushed me. – Pete Sampras
This month I went back and finished What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. It’s certainly another book that would be well worth a re-read at some point. The author tries to give us a sense of perspective from the last part of the book. What advice do you think your 95-year-old self would have for you on a personal and professional level? It’s an interesting thought. Combine this with what Goldsmith calls the great western disease of “I will be happy when….” Take the time to be present and thankful for who and what you have in your life right now, and consistently repeat this as you get older.
I also picked up Peak Mind by Amishi P. Jha. The author studied the science around our attention (its power and its fragility) including 3 analogies that help explain the way we use attention (the flashlight, the floodlight, and the juggler). She explains that we live in an attention economy, how attention impacts our memory, how attention is often split without us realizing it, and how we can practice mindfulness techniques to improve our attention and reap some great rewards. The author did a number of experiments with the military to prove some of her research findings, and it was completely fascinating to hear about them. If you’ve ever been physically present at an event but have no memory of it, perhaps your attention was not properly focused. I read this one and took a lot of good notes along the way. The consistent message is that the daily practice of mindfulness (12 minutes per day) can improve our attention and focus. I paused this read at one point and actually finished in late December.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to coach one of the best athletes in the world, The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney is for you. That, and Hank Haney narrates the audio version! Before reading this I knew little to nothing about Tiger Woods other than promos on television. Haney shares his own background in golf and how he became a teaching pro, and we get details on how professionals hear about golf coaches (through reputation and friends). Hank coached Mark O’Meara for a time and was even recommended to other professionals by Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson (who had heard of his reputation). Tiger called Hank after recommendation from O’Meara. This was after knee surgery, and Tiger knew he would have to rebuild his swing as a result. It was amazing to hear how Tiger Woods was in most every interaction all business, someone who could never really let his guard down. Hank was with Tiger through Earl Wood’s death (which really had an impact on Tiger), the scandal that affected his marriage, and going through rehab for drinking. Just before having another knee surgery Tiger won some incredible major tour victories while enduring extreme pain in his knee (which I never knew). Hank also tells the story of why he quit coaching Tiger Woods after that second knee surgery. It’s one thing to coach an elite athlete and quite another to resign from coaching them (which wasn’t an easy thing to do). I really enjoyed hearing Hank and Tiger’s stories.
Next I found Invention: A Life by James Dyson (also narrated by James Dyson). If you had built over 5000 prototypes of a cyclone vacuum cleaner and still had not succeeded, would you keep going? We should all be happy James Dyson didn’t stop at 5000. James studied at the Royal College of Arts and learned that art and design can be inventive, functional, and exciting. An instructor helped James make the connection between art, science, design, and engineering. James gained some experience working on things like the sea truck through the help of Jeremy Fry of Rotork and eventually developed the ball barrow (a version of the same ball we see on Dyson vacuum cleaners). I never knew that James not only built a vacuum cleaner with cyclone technology inside but also had to improve upon the precision of the cyclone for it collect the proper amount of dust particles to act as a functional vacuum. James loved working on practical inventions. We get to hear the story of how James nearly failed to get Dyson off the ground (first a mishap with patents and then a lengthy legal battle that nearly destroyed him but didn’t) and the story of Dyson’s growth as a company over time. Did you know Dyson built their own motors, is headquartered in Singapore, at one point built an electric car, built ventilators during the pandemic, and has done work to revolutionize the way farming is done? It was amazing to learn about all the work Dyson as a company has done and the man and family behind it. It also sounded like Dyson has built an amazing corporate culture. This one ended up being my favorite book of the year for 2021.
When you have your own invention you have to pursue it…to prove to yourself it’s a good idea and especially if you have a hope of revolutionizing the market. – James Dyson
The Top 10
It was not easy to narrow the list down to only 10, but here they are.
- Invention: A Life by James Dyson
- The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin
- A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis by Pete Sampras
- Give and Take by Adam Grant
- The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney
- A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring by John Wooden and Don Yaeger
- To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
- The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen
- The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey
- High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock L. Eide, Fernette F. Eide
Plans for 2022
If you’re wondering where my reading list might take me in 2022, check out this Nerd Journey episode where I report in on 2021, describe my strategy for reading in 2022, and share some books that sound interesting.