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The 21 Best Books of 2021 for Sustainable Success and Well-Being

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 a great 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 of books, from a variety of disciplines and authors. And then we discuss them at length.

We are huge enthusiasts and supporters of 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 21 non-fiction books we loved most in 2021. These books were not necessarily published this year, but they were all 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.

Brad’s Picks

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. One of the best writers of a generation takes the course he teaches on writing at Syracuse University and basically teaches it to you, the reader, on the pages of this book. Saunders uses seven iconic Russian short stories (all translated) to riff on and explore how to write effectively—which, he compellingly argues, is actually the same thing as how to think effectively.

A World Without Email, by Cal Newport. This book takes topics that Newport has written about before on an individual level (e.g., deep-work, digital minimalism, productivity) and tries them out on a systems level. The result, and the case that this book makes, is that life would be a whole lot better with a whole lot less email. Another great read founded in deep Newportian thinking.

Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber. A thoughtful and data-driven argument that so much of today’s work is, well, bullshit. Graeber makes the case that in many organizations, be them public or private, gobs and gobs of time is wasted on stuff that doesn’t matter. The impact is a drain on our economy, and even worse, a drain on our souls.

No Cure for Being Human, by Kate Bowler. A remarkable story about one woman’s late-stage colon cancer diagnosis and survival. This book stands out because of Bowler’s unique perspective: she’s literally a professor of self-help and the prosperity gospel. Yet what she finds in her cancer journey is precisely what her book is titled: for all the optimization, hacks, and things you can allegedly do to live longer, better, and more spiritually, in the end, there’s no cure for being human.

The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul. People tend to think of the brain as the source of our consciousness and our sense of self. But, Murphy Paul argues, it’s really just an organ—an incredible one at that—located in your skull. But your mind, what gives rise to the subjective experience you have in life, is the interplay of your brain, body, community, and physical environments. This means that if you want to improve the state of your mind you’d be wise to start thinking far beyond your brain.

The Psychology of Money, by Morgan Housel. This book is as good as it gets when it comes to nailing the basics of finance. And, like just about everything else in life, once you nail the basics, you generally set yourself up to be in pretty good shape. Housel takes readers through converging patterns from different fields and historical periods to come up with a set of principles for saving and investing well. (If you like our books here at the Growth Eq, you’ll love this: think of it as the same principles we write about but applied to money. A prime example is this brief exchange between Brad and Morgan.)

The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. The best book I’ve read on what the internet does to our brains and minds. Life continues to shift toward the digital, making this book increasingly important. It will help you identify the activities that you want to keep offline, and therefore, in many ways, keep sacred. If you think you are suffering from internet brain this book explains why and what you can do to feel a bit better.

The World Ending Fire, by Wendell Berry. An ode to doing real things in the world with real people and real communities. This collection of essays makes the case that in a complex, interconnected, and overwhelming world, the best thing you can do—for yourself, for your family, and for the planet—is to go smaller, simpler, and more local. Wendell Berry’s farm has got to be the polar opposite to Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, and I bet you could guess which place I’d rather go visit.

Wintering, by Katherine May. A wonderful book about the cold and dark seasons in nature as well as the cold and dark seasons of our lives. May writes eloquently about when, why, and how to step back, shut down, hibernate, and go inward—so that you can emerge more focused, resilient, and stronger.

Unwinding Anxiety, by Judson Brewer. An accessible book that takes anxiety and conceptualizes it as a habit, or worse, as an addiction to ruminative thinking and feeling. When anxiety is seen in this light, the way to work with it becomes quite different from what you might think.

Steve’s Picks

Courage is Calling, by Ryan Holiday. A book that is timely, yet filled with lessons from history and ancient wisdom. This was a nice departure from the deep-dive books I was reading before picking it up. Each chapter contains a valuable lesson and is accompanied by a short foray into someone in history who demonstrates it. It’s like a more nourishing candy for your brain. If you’re struggling to figure out how to do hard things, and what matters in life, this book will give you a nice boost.

Dopamine Nation, by Anna Lembke. Speaking of candy for your brain, it seems like every month there is a new book on dopamine. Thankfully, this one is different. I loved the exploration of the balance between pain and pleasure, two processes that don’t just oppose and counter one another, but interact to establish a set point for your life.

Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm. Written in 1941, Fromm unpacks the concepts of authority and freedom. He distinguishes between two kinds of freedom: a negative and positive one. He makes also the argument that we need more nuance to concepts that we often refer to as good or bad. A deep, insightful, and timeless work on making sense of ourselves in a time of chaos.

How to Change, by Katy Milkman. Change is hard. As we age, we get locked into our habits and routines. We get stuck. Milkman explains the latest behavioral science on change: from taking advantage of fresh starts to understanding why we are lazy and what we can do about it.

The Hidden Spring, by Mark Solms. In the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by a concept that’s been gaining traction in the neuroscience literature called the “Free Energy Principle.” An oversimplified explanation is that the brain evolved to minimize prediction error. Solms is a South African neuroscientist that takes us on a journey into the brain, explaining the Free Energy Principle, among many other things. I found it among the best non-technical books at understanding where the science currently stands in understanding the brain.

The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler. In the education world, we spend a lot of time focusing on high school and college. Yet it’s the base, learning how to read in elementary school, which sets up and predicts future success. In this book, Wexler asks if early education is so important, why are we teaching reading in a way that goes against the latest science on learning? I found it to be a fascinating look at how the simple items that actually work have long been neglected for fancy curriculum with enthusiastic spokespeople behind them.

Think Again, by Adam Grant. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we learn, but not enough time about changing our minds, unlearning, and relearning. It might be the problem of our time. How do we get away from defaulting towards the defensive whenever our viewpoint or belief is brought up, let alone challenged. Grant offers a recipe with loads of science interwoven with great storytelling. Perhaps this is the book to gift to that family member who argues politics or diet at your Christmas dinner every year?

Subtract, Leidy Klotz. To get better at just about anything, we often think about what more can we do. What can we add? Rarely, do we think about how subtracting things from our life is the answer to our problems. A subtle shift in our mindset is what Leidy Klotz provides, but the impact is surprisingly large. After reading this book, it made me reflect on what actually is necessary, and what aligns with my values in my current workflow. The rest? Subtract.

Us & Them, by David Berreby. It’s no secret we live in a divided world. Part of my reading journey this year included a number of books to better understand and make sense of why that is and what we can do about it. This 2011 book was the best of the books I read on this topic. It is a deep dive into the science of identity and why the human brain is obsessed with categorization.

Wanting, by Luke Burgis. I’m an insanely slow reader. I read this book in two days. Burgis takes an obscure academic theory, mimetic desire, and applies it to our modern world with striking results. We underestimate the impact of those around us. We give a nod to role models and influences, but we don’t truly take the time to understand how they shape our wants, our desires, and even our career choices.

And One More

The Practice of Groundedness, by Brad Stulberg. We’d be remiss not to mention our new book, the one the Growth Equation put out this year: The Practice of Groundedness. It is a deeply researched yet concrete and actionable book for pursuing more excellence with less angst and greater fulfillment. The book offers six principles, with numerous practices for each, that, together, give rise to a new definition of success and a more grounded and sustainable way to pursue it. Groundedness is an idea that is slowly but surely gaining momentum, as evidenced by an appearance on the front page of the weekend Wall Street Journal Review in late November. If you haven’t gotten a copy of the book, there is no time better than now. And if you read it and loved it, it also makes a great gift!

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