Welcome to our 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 often ask us how we come up with the topics about which we write and the arguments we make. 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. 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 a competitive 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, skimming an article, or god-forbid trying to get serious information from social media. The benefits of deep reading include developing a richer understanding of a topic, increasing your ability to pay attention, 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 2023. 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. Get the books from wherever you want, we just want to see more people reading.
The Identity Trap, by Yascha Mounk. If twenty years ago the prevailing cultural ethos was we’re all just humans, let’s be colorblind, then today it is some version of we are all different and defined by specific identity markers. Neither of these extremes make much sense. The best, and probably most accurate, place to be is somewhere in the middle. Yes, we have real differences that have real effects. And yet in our humanity we also share, or at least have the potential to share, much in common. Mounk traces what he calls the “identity synthesis” back to its academic and philosophical roots, and shows how it’s morphed into something that is no longer coherent. He also includes guidance on how to push back against identity politics overreach without becoming a reactionary yourself. It’s a masterclass in making a logical argument on the page, and also very timely.
Same As Ever, by Morgan Housel. We’ve been told countless times that Housel is essentially The Growth Equation philosophy applied to finance and investing—and for good reason. He is the best there is when it comes to simple (but not always easy) ideas for working with money and building wealth. Yet performance is performance, and all of his ideas could also be applied more broadly. His latest book is a look back throughout history for patterns and principles that can help inform how to best invest (and live) today. For all the things that change, Housel focuses on the few that do not. For those of you who read Master of Change, you’ll see many similarities between the books — on the role of expectations, the brain as a prediction machine, the importance of core values, and guiding principles for longevity from evolution. Despite (or maybe because of) their opposing titles, the books complement each other wonderfully.
Going Infinite, by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is one of the best living nonfiction storytellers, and this is my favorite of his books yet. It’s a page-turner filled with countless memorable scenes and stories from the rise and fall of Sam Bankman Fried (SBF). Lewis is catching quite a bit of flack for it, with people saying he wrote a too-kind portrayal of SBF, the man at the center of the FTX cryptocurrency meltdown. I disagree. At no point did Lewis explicitly state that SBF was a flippant, narcissistic, sociopathic asshole and fraud. But he certainly showed it, which I find more engaging and valuable. My read of the book is that it makes SBF look terrible, and a whole lot of other people look like clowns for being wooed by him. It’s a cautionary tale about glitz, glimmer, complexity, status, and big promises — all without substance.
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, by Herminia Ibarra. This book takes behavioral activation, something about which we’ve written extensively here at the Growth Equation, and applies it more narrowly to leadership. It’s packed with lessons on self-management vs. self-leadership; the limits of “authenticity”; and the trap of telling yourself too rigid stories about yourself. Ibarra is a business and management professor who draws from a deep wellspring of research, including her own. The parts about identity are especially outstanding.
On Work, by Derek Thompson. Derek is one of my favorite writers on contemporary issues. This book is an anthology of his writing over the last five years on the topic of work. I had already read all of these pieces when they were first published in The Atlantic. Yet whoever edited this did a great job: the book was fresh and pieced together in new and stimulating ways. If you are someone who thinks about the role of work in our lives and the connection between work and identity, work and meaning, hybrid vs. remote vs. in-person work, and pretty much anything else related to why, how, and with whom we work, then you’ll love this book.
The Hungry Brain by Stephen Guyenet: To me, this is the definitive book on nutrition, and at the same time, it’s about so much more. The main topic is the “evolutionary mismatch,” which argues that the slow pace of evolution has not caught up with the fast pace of technological and cultural change. The result is that we are becoming sick. The evolutionary mismatch is real and pervasive, and once you are aware of it you start to see it everywhere. This book zeroes in on highly-processed food, but its insights are equally applicable to highly-processed content, highly-processed relationships, highly-processed status, and so much more.
Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves. A perspective altering look at the modern state of masculinity in America. Reeves approaches this delicate topic with the rigor of a veteran social scientist, the heart of a caring father, and the nuance of a best-in-class communicator. He compellingly argues that if we don’t do anything to address the crisis of masculinity, bad actors will fill the void, as they are already doing (see: Andrew Tate). He also points out all the ways that both the political right and left mess this up, and proposes some interesting, if not radical, solutions.
(Bonus Fiction: 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: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Home by Toni Morrison, and The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky.)
The Experience Machine, by Andy Clark. In both of our recent books, we’ve outlined the concept of predictive processing. The idea frames the brain as a predictive machine. You’re seeing more and more of this theory show up in popular science. I’m a big believer in going to the source. Andy Clark is one of the scientists who’s pushed the research and theory of this idea forward over the past few decades. Having waded through his past work, I can assure you it is dense! But Clark has finally put out a clear, concise, and accessible book. He argues that our experience of reality is not a direct reflection of the world around us, but rather a synthesis of sensory information and expectation. Our brains are constantly filling in gaps with predictions. This process is essential for our survival, but it can also lead to errors and biases. This book is a must read if you want to see the cutting edge of theoretical brain science and how it will likely shift performance psychology and the treatment of many diseases and disorders.
Good Chemistry, by Julie Holland. While on the one hand you could argue we are more connected than ever, on the other we have an epidemic of loneliness. Holland offers an insightful look at the science of connection. From creating community, to experiencing awe, to an interesting section on how psychedelics influence the underlying neurochemistry of connection, this book was a fascinating read. Holland argues that we’ve replaced deep connection with the superficial kind, and provides the underlying science to prove it.
Survival of the Richest, by Douglas Rushkoff. Imagine that you are an academic who gets whisked away to speak at an elite conference filled with some of the richest people in the country. You get ready to give your talk, and instead they start asking you about doomsday prepping. That’s what happened to the author. Rushkoff explores the strange mindsets of tech billionaires. He confronts tech utopianism, the datafication of all human interaction, and the exploitation of that data by corporations.
Our Great Purpose, by Ryan Hanley. When you think of Adam Smith, you probably think of the father of capitalism. It’s easy to assume that means his writing would be filled with a kind of hyper-competitive focus. Using Smith’s writings, Hanley paints a different picture: someone who was equally concerned with contentment as striving, with other focus as self-focus. It’s become fashionable to take the deep work of philosophers and distill it into Hallmark self-help for the masses. Hanley’s book goes deeper. It helps you see the nuance of our simplistic narratives and it opens your eyes to the messiness we all too often distill down into soundbites.
You Are What You Watch, by Walter Hickey. We hear a lot of doom and gloom around the media landscape. And some of it is true. But this book offers a positive spin on the movies we watch, the theme parks we visit, and the toys and collectables we consume. Its packed with interesting charts, graphs, science, and data. Hickey shows the patterns of emotional arousal in many of our favorite blockbusters, and how it isn’t tied to the dynamic action scenes, but to the scenes that are focused on connection. He shows why adults buying collectables is a form of nostalgia—importantly, with an underlying aim to fill our need for connection—and how the things we buy and the shows we watch are increasingly tied to a need for identity.
The Archeology of the Mind, by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven. This is a deep science dive. Panskepp’s work explores the origins of human emotions and how they are expressed in the brain. Panksepp and Biven argue that emotions are not just subjective experiences, but rather have deep roots in the evolution of the brain. They identify seven emotional systems that are common to all mammals, including seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, grief, and play. Emotions are not just “in the head,” but rather involve the whole body. In one of my favorite sections, they explain how emotions can affect your physiology.
Anatomy of a Breakthrough, by Adam Alter. We’ve all been stuck, riding the plateau, unable to get to the next level of performance. This occurs in sport, creative endeavors, work, and life. Alter takes us on a journey to understand the science of breakthroughs. He argues that getting stuck is a natural part of the creative process and that the key to success is learning how to overcome sticky obstacles. He offers practical advice on how to break free from negative patterns of thinking and behavior, including tips on how to simplify problems, master your emotions, and take action.
(Bonus Fiction: Okay…I (Steve) don’t really read much fiction…unless you count Once a Runner. But I do have a number of books that I’m in the midst of reading that would have made the list, except I’m not done with them! These included Hidden Potential by Adam Grant, Mindwandering by Moshe Bar, and Hanging Out by Sheila Liming. I rotate through several books while reading and debated putting several of these on there, but wasn’t quite finished with them.)
And One More
Master of Change, by Brad Stulberg. We’d be remiss not to mention our own new book, the one the Growth Equation put out this year: Master of Change. It is a deeply researched yet concrete and actionable book for pursuing genuine excellence over the long haul, navigating acute periods of disorder, and working with life’s inevitable flux. The book explores mindset, identity, and actions, with numerous habits and practices for each. Taken together, it gives rise to a new way to think about change and resilience and a trait called rugged flexibility, which we argue is key for building an enduring identity over time. If you haven’t gotten a copy of the book, there is no time better than now. If you read it and enjoyed it, it also makes a great gift!