The Book Escape of 2020
This year, SIGH.
This crazy insane 2020. A relentless barrage of maddening news, hyperbolic reactions and a rollercoaster of personal and societal events. Just sucking up all that perfectly good emotional energy, optimism and sanity.
Where to escape from the noise? Books!
At some point this year, I had to intentionally turn off Twitter and get my brain out of that pavlovian reaction mode. And it’s been wonderful!
Book after book, just picking up new reads out of curiosity and seeing where it takes me. Catching up on some oldies (finally!) and diving into notable newly published books. They’ve each been a welcome mental stretch break from the frenetic activity and angst in the world — and the self-absorbed rhetoric of Tech Twitter (sorry tech folks but you know it’s a little much at times).
“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” — Carl Sagan
It’s not travel (which I love and miss) but it’ll have to do as brain vacation in this pandemic year. Here’s my list of mini-escapes for the mind in 2020.
“The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy…the realization that the architecture of the brain differs from one person to the next and that it changes in the course of our lives.” — Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself
TLDR: Incredibly interesting deep dive into the hidden abilities of our brains and how we discovered neuroplasticity
“The future can’t be predicted, but it can bee envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned… Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity — our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.” — Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems
TLDR: a bit wonky but will appeal to those with interest in sustainability and innovation
“One thing that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the leadership discussion is frank acknowledgement that it takes tremendous energy to do it well. Building trust, maintaining high standards and deep devotion, unleashing the potential of more and varied people: these are nontrivial challenges. If you want to excel at them, do us all a favor and please be bad at something else.” — Frances Frei, Unleashed
TLDR: A candid, to-the-point leadership handbook (yes with lots of Uber examples!) arming execs with practical frameworks for building and managing diverse companies
“Our willingness to examine outcomes is asymmetrical. We are more eager to put bad outcomes in context than good ones. Becoming a better maker requires us to try (difficult though it may be) to put those good outcomes in perspective.” — Annie Duke, How to Decide
TLDR: You can’t control luck but you can control the quality of your decisions (investing, strategy, career choices, etc). Great workbook to do with your team or on your own to develop better decision hygiene.
“I have a definition of evil that’s different from most people. Evil doesn’t have to be an overt act; it can be merely the absence of good. If you have the ability, the resources, and the opportunity to do good and you do nothing, that can be evil.” — Yvon Chouinard, Founder & CEO of Patagonia
TLDR: My favorite book from this list. An inspiring personal story, a principled and novel approach to company building, and a founder mentality you will not find in Silicon Valley.
“Nothing raises the stakes in life like having kids. Suddenly, the future matters. Emotions take on an amazing resonance. Love bounces off the family walls and multiplies. Everything you do with your kids lives on in their memories as well as yours; everything’s more valid because it’s shared.” — Peter Barton, Not Fade Away
TLDR: Beautifully written, poignant reflection on life and living in the moment. What you cherish when you lose everything.
“A good definition of an investing genius is the man or woman who can do the average thing when all those around them are going crazy. Tails drive everything.” — Morgan Housel, The Psychology of Money
TLDR: No finance worship in this book! It’s an easy, highly readable take on the mental traps and mitigating strategies for doing well with money.
“In the cases of well-managed firms, good management was the most powerful reason they failed to stay atop their industries.” — Clay Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma
TLDR: MBA classic but actually most relevant to Big Tech today. You have to chew on this one. It’s best consumed with 10+ yrs of operating experience to reflect on.
“If you’re working on well defined and well understood problems, specialists work very, very well. As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important.” — David Epstein, Range
TLDR: I feel seen after reading this book! It’s the case for having varied interests, testing and iterating on your career and allowing yourselves to evolve, rather than occupy a narrow niche. Innovation and creativity happens at the messy edge.
“Ask a woman who she is, and she’ll tell you who she loves, who she serves, and what she does. I am a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, a career woman. The fact that we define ourselves by our roles is what keeps the world spinning. It’s also what makes us untethered and afraid.” — Glennon Doyle, Untamed
TLDR: I’ve never read a book quite like this one. Raw, intimate, honest, simply badass. The ultimate real life story of coming alive. It’ll make you love yourself.
Last but not least! This one I’m still working through but it’s definitely making the 2020 list.
“To really show political power, you had to show the effect of power on the powerless, and show it fully enough so the reader could feel it.” — Robert Caro on his own writing
TLDR: Fascinating glimpse into why Robert Caro dedicated his life to unearthing the truth about political power. What a legend! His scrappiness, grit and curiosity reminds of the startup hustle. I hadn’t read his books (bad on me) and now I can’t wait to read them.
Special shout out to Dimitri Dadiomov for recommending two books on this list — Not Fade Away and Working. Fantastic recommendations, TY!