Welcome to the annual reading list. If you are familiar with our work, you’ll know that it integrates ideas, research, and practices from diverse domains. (See our latest book, for example.) 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, and lots of books, from a variety of disciplines and authors. And then we discuss them at length.
We are enthusiasts and supporters of what we call deep reading, or full engagement in a book. Deep reading is an absolute joy. It is good for mind and spirit, and it is also an advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy. Increasingly, people struggle to pay attention to just about anything, let alone a book. Yet deep reading confers many benefits above and beyond watching a YouTube video or skimming an article. These benefits include developing a richer understanding of a topic, increasing your ability to pay attention itself, more empathy, and enhanced creative thinking. (For more on deep reading, check out our guide on the topic.)
With that, here are the 15 non-fiction books we loved most in 2022. These books were not necessarily published this year, but they were read by at least one of us for the first time this year.
The links below go to Amazon, since that is where most people buy books on the internet these days. That said, we’ve also created a list over at Bookshop.org if you’d prefer to purchase over there since we always encourage supporting your local bookseller. Get the books from wherever you want, we just want to see more people reading.
Life is Hard, by Kieran Setiya. Nobody goes through life unscathed. Being here is beautiful but, as any mature adult knows, it is also hard. In this book, Setiya, a philosopher at MIT, consoles us by helping us to realize that we are not alone in our struggles—many of them are perennial. He goes on to offer a toolkit, founded in the best philosophical ideas of the last two thousand years, that can help us to meet the challenges of life with grace and grit.
The Chaos Machine, by Max Fisher. The best book on the perils of social media I’ve yet to read. Fisher interweaves rich investigative reporting on the social media companies along with the latest research to show the many insidious ways in which social media is undermining civil society. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The book ends with ideas for how social media, which is likely here to stay, could be reformed to be a net positive on the world. (Listen to our interview with Kieran on the Growth Eq pod here.)
On Quality, by Robert Pirsig. If you pinned me on my two favorite books I’d probably say Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, both by Robert Pirsig. Pirsig’s work jumpstarted my own intellectual life, and for that I am forever grateful. He died in 2017, but this book of unpublished essays, speeches, letters, and other notes was just released this past year. I couldn’t wait to read it, and it didn’t disappoint. (Note: this probably isn’t the best entry point for Pirsig readers, but if you’ve reader either ZAAMM and/or Lila, then you’ll dig this.)
Quit, by Annie Duke. Everyone knows about the power of grit. But what about its opposite, quit? The stories of unabashed grit get told due to something scientists call survivorship bias: the people had to survive their trials and tribulations and come out the other side successful in order for us to take note of their stories. But many people commit to grit for years and years only to end up in perpetual failure and shortcoming. Duke examines why knowing when to quit is every bit as important a skill as knowing when to grit, even though the former is hardly every discussed, let alone taught. This book serves as a much-needed correction.
Work, Parent, Thrive, by Yael Schonbrun. This is a great book for people who care deeply about their parenting and their craft. Schonbrun, a clinical psychologist who works with families and also a parent of multiple young kids herself, reaches far beyond the myth of work-life balance and introduces far more useful concepts and tools. Life is messy. Caring deeply about multiple things is hard. This book helps. (Listen to our interview with Yael on The Growth Equation Podcast here.)
Bittersweet, by Susan Cain. People tend to report the most profound and poignant moments of their lives include a combination of sadness and happiness all at once. It’s why we love sings written in minor key, and why we tear up at weddings and when our children pass developmental milestones, such as the first day of Kindergarten. In this fascinating book, Cain names this emotion bittersweet and details its rich history and usefulness for living a full, meaningful, and textured life, and she does so by deploying a stunning mix of art and science.
Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari. The attention economy is something I think about quite frequently. In this book, Hari uncovers the many forces that are preying on our ability to pay attention and focus, and he offers tools, both individual and collective, that can help us to reclaim it. More and more I am coming to believe that incessant distraction, stimulation, and novelty are the biggest threats to us living good individual lives and to societies functioning, let alone flourishing. This book helps us to recognize the problem and mobilize for the solution(s).
(Bonus: Though this annual list focuses on non-fiction, the genre in which I write, I also love fiction! I read some great novels this year! My six favorites: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, Liberation Day by George Saunders, and Spells for Forgetting by my friend, neighbor, and strength training buddy Adrienne Young.)
Plays Well With Others, by Eric Barker. Barker is a myth buster whose writing brings a unique conversational tone that almost hides the underlying depth of research. In Plays Well With Others, Barker dismantles our understanding of relationships. From loneliness being about quality instead of quantity of connections to why couples need to learn to argue well instead of eliminating arguing altogether, the book is packed with research that will make you rethink relationships.
From Strength to Strength, by Arthur Brooks. What got us here isn’t what keeps us here. Brooks outlines why what allowed us to succeed in the first half of life isn’t what allows us to ‘succeed’ in the second half. Brooks utilizes the contrast between fluid and crystallized intelligence to rework how we view success and fulfillment. Fluid intelligence is the quick thinking that we rely on in our 20s and 30s, but it fades as we age. Crystallized intelligence is akin to wisdom, continuously growing as we age. We need to make sure our goals and pursuits match with what our new strengths are.
Hunt, Gather, Parent, by Michaeleen Doucleff. A fascinating book that takes on the western views of parenting by traveling around to indigenous communities around the world and seeing what they do differently to raise healthy, happy human beings. It turns out a lot. They provide more autonomy to their children instead of micromanaging them. They allow for progress and promote mastery. And they emphasize connection and belonging, not just to a single parent but to the community as a whole.
The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr. While this book may make you a better writer, it’s really about something that makes humans unique: storytelling. Storr traces the importance of the stories we tell and how they shape our view of ourselves and the world we live in. Storr is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers and this book reflects some of his best work.
The Transformative Self, by Jack Bauer. This is a deep, academic book, but well worth the read. It explores what a ‘good life’ should be. In summary, Bauer outlines three key dimensions of a good life: a happy life, a meaningful life, and a rich life. Far too often, we focus on the former, and neglect the latter two. In particular, I found the rich life an interesting take. Rich doesn’t mean money. In Bauer’s research, it means wisdom. A psychologically rich life is one that allows us to broaden our perspective through experiences, relationships, and activities.
The Poetry of Life, by Alan St. Clair Gibson. As an exercise scientist at heart, I loved St. Clair Gibson’s musings on physiology, philosophy, sport, and life. This is an eclectic book that spans the science of fatigue to the influence of Freud on our compulsion to work.
The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. The last time I read Campbell’s work was in college. And what a wonderful treat it was going back to his work years later. Campbell is well known for his work in mythology, the hero’s journey, and his advice to ‘follow your bliss.’ But I appreciated his discussion on how stories influence the lens we see the world through, and his wonderful story on how racing at Penn Relays made him feel alive. A classic that is worth revisiting if you haven’t in a while.
And One More
Do Hard Things, by Steve Magness. We’d be remiss not to mention our new book, the one the Growth Equation put out this year: Do Hard Things. It is a deeply researched yet concrete and actionable book for developing real toughness, resilience, and the ability to make the right decision when under distress. The book offers five principles, with numerous practices for each, that, together, give rise to a new definition of toughness and a more genuine way to pursue it. If you haven’t gotten a copy of the book, there is no time better than now. And if you read it and enjoyed it, it also makes a great gift!
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