Welcome to the annual reading list. If you’re familiar with our work, you’ll know that it integrates ideas, research, and practices from diverse domains. People always ask us how we do this. The answer is simple: We do our best to live in the world with our eyes open. And we read lots, and lots of books—from a variety of disciplines and authors.
With that, here are the non-fiction books we loved most in 2020 (not necessarily published this year, but read by us for the first time this year). The links go to Amazon because that is where many people buy books these days. But if you have the ability, we highly encourage you to find a local bookseller and support it. The value of bookstores in our communities is immense. You end up paying a bit more. But you get to live in a neighborhood with bookshops!
Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. An underground classic first published in 1985, Amusing Ourselves to Death predicts a world in which, fueled by cable-news, society loses the ability to separate serious issues from entertainment, and fact from fiction. A prescient book, to say the least. If Postman, who died in 2003, were alive today, I can only imagine what he’d have to say. (We recently devoted a Growth Eq podcast to the book, here!)
The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova. Konnikova takes a leave of absence from her job as a New Yorker writer to become a professional poker player, so she can write a book on the topic. Somewhat to her surprise, she becomes a damn good one—so good that she ends up pushing her book project back so she can keep winning tournaments. On its face a book about poker, The Biggest Bluff is really about how to make decisions amdist uncertainty, and focus on the process not results, in all of life. (For more, check out this a blog post I wrote about The Biggest Bluff earlier this year.)
Educated by Tara Westover. A remarkable story of someone overcoming seemingly every single obstacle and challenge that life can throw at you. Westover’s upbringing was full of tragedy, and yet somehow she got through it, let alone succeeded. A beautifully written firsthand account of resilience and grit.
Escape From Freedom and A Sane Society, by Erich Fromm. I read my way into somewhat of a Fromm rabbit hole this year, ripping through six of his works in a little over three weeks. I’ve decided to list my two favorites together, in the order which I read them. Escape from Freedom is all about the fundamental human insecurity that emerges from being alone in the world as a unique individual yet also craving attachment and community—and how people who don’t confront this insecurity are often overwhelmed by it. A Sane Society is Fromm’s critique of the then (he wrote this book in 1955) increasing consumer culture and it’s ramifications. Everything is still true today. As one of my good friends said, discussing this book, “We are the same people, we just wear different clothes.”
Full Circle, by Andrea Barber. If you grew up watching the television show Full House, you’ll surely remember Kimmy Gibbler, the eccentric next-door neighbor whose inopportune timing was always a hoot. Barber played Gibbler, and while she was always confident and cheerful on screen, off-screen she suffered from serious anxiety and depression. This is her story of working through that, and falling in love with running (and physical activity more broadly) along the way.
Voicing Change, by Rich Roll. Rich’s podcast is perennially one of the best. This book chronicles 50 of the show’s most interesting guests. Aesthetically pleasing, it’s every bit as much a piece coffee table art as it is a good read. Self-published so Rich and his team could have full ownership of the project, it’s a great exploration of the art of meaningful conversation.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. The last thing I wanted to do this November was read a book about politics. But after checking out a few reviews, I knew I had to bump this up to the top of my ever-growing reading list. It did not disappoint. Obama is a helluva a lot of things, including a writer. It’s an inside look at his rise in politics to become the first black president in America. But it’s also a manifesto on sustainable peak performance, and all the highs and lows that come with transformative success.
Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, by Mark Epstein. Written by a scholar, psychotherapist, and Buddhist meditation teacher, this book makes a compelling case that the key to love, happiness, and enduring success is learning how to let your identity be shattered without completely losing yourself, a great paradox for sure. I first read this book when I was in the thick of suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was a godsend then, and I wanted to re-read it now, with a bit of distance between my now-self and then-self. It was every bit as good.
Three Ring Circus, by Jeff Pearlman. An incredible look at the Los Angeles Laker’s team in the middle of the Shaq, Kobe, and Phil years. The stories are entertaining as can be (especially during Dennis Rodman’s stint) and the book shows just how hard those three championships were, and how easy they could have been if egos were set aside. I recommend this book to all my executive and entrepreneur coaching clients in tough team situations. It certainly reminded me of the difference between a team of all stars and an all-star team.
2020 was the strangest of years, with over 9-months of it living in a sort of pause on life. With that in mind, I found my own reading list unconsciously trending towards making sense of the world, handling discomfort, and understanding growth and development. I hope that you find these books to be helpful in processing, understanding, and, perhaps at times escaping, our current predicament.
Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. In this book, Bronson and Merryman dismantle the major controversies and myths surrounding child learning and development. From learning how to deal with conflict to learning how to talk to whether it’s good or bad to teach kids about race early on, they provide a fascinating look into the science behind how young minds develop.
Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, by Rich Karlgaard. Prodigies get all the attention. And for many of us, if we aren’t performing at some exquisite level by our 20’s and 30’s, it can seem like all hope is lost. Through a combination of stories and science, Karlgaard outlines a different path, exploring why some of us need time to mature and grow before hitting our stride.
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Everyone knows the story of Abraham Lincoln, but few of us realize the depths of his despair. He suffered two major breakdowns by his mid-30’s and according to friends was on the brink of insanity. Yet, it was this man who guided a nation through its most tumultuous times. The author argues that Lincoln’s struggles with his own depression gave him the skill set required to take on a much greater challenge.
Perception: How our bodies shape our minds, by Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer. As the saying goes, perception is reality. What few discuss is how our interaction with the world alters our perception. In this book, Profitt and Baer show us how the environment and the people around us can make the world a little less (or more!) threatening.
Perform Under Pressure, by Ceri Evans. A well thought out model for how to deal with the stress and anxiety of trying to perform at your best. I find many sports psychology books rather bland and repetitive, but Evans presents a practical approach with a lot of applicable takeaways.
Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, by Scott Barry Kaufman. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often depicted as a pyramid with self-actualization on top. Yet, Maslow never depicted his theory in such a way, it was only added later by consultants, and on top of his own scheme was something else: transcendence. This book is a wonderful redefining of Maslow’s work with modern science and context.
The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks, by Ben Cohen “You’re on Fire!” If you grew up in the 90’s you know this phrase from the video game NBA Jam. Cohen set out to explore the science of hot streaks and whether or not they exist. What follows is an exploration of the role of science and expertise in decision making, and our propensity to see patterns where they may not exist.
The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman, by Soho, Takuan. Written in the 17th century, this book attempts to apply the lessons of Zen to the Samurai. If the book Flow had been written 400 years ago, this would book would probably be the result. There are some fascinating connections between ancient wisdom on performance and how we now know the brain works when trying to achieve its best.
Today We Die a Little: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, by Richard Askwith. In a single Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek won the 5k, 10k, and then in his first marathon ever, took the gold in that event as well. Zatopek was known for his punishing workouts, mental toughness, and kindness. In this definitive biography, all are on display.
Yes to Life, In Spite of Everything, by Viktor Frankl. Most are familiar with Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This is a recently released text of a three-part lecture Frankl gave the year after suffering through the Holocaust. It’s a sobering yet hopeful look into how to process and get through extreme adversity.