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Top Books of 2019 for Performance and Wellbeing

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 live in the world with our eyes open. And we read lots of books. 

Before we get into the list, it’s worth mentioning that we learned more from one book than any of the others. The Passion Paradox was a three-year project in which we aimed to better understand where motivation, drive, and obsession come from, and how one can best channel these forces. The process of researching, reporting, and writing this book taught us infinite lessons we use in our daily lives as writers, athletes, coaches, partners, and parents. It is currently on sale for the holidays for only $8.99. Our first book, Peak Performance, is also on sale right now. These books have been transformative for us and thousands of readers. Plus, there is no better way to support our work than reading, gifting, and sharing our books.

With that, in no particular order, here are the books we loved most in 2019. The links go to Amazon because that is where most people buy books from these days. But if you have the ability, we highly encourage you to find a local bookstore and support it. The value of bookstores in our communities is immense.

Brad’s Picks

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. I’ve long known I could do a better job managing my relationships with digital devices. I almost didn’t read this book because I thought I knew everything there was to know. Yet, there was something about how Newport wrote this book that actually led me to change my behavior in positive ways. I’m a much better person for it. I recommend this book to all my coaching clients. 

Range, by David Epstein. Given what we wrote in opening about our method of integrating ideas from different domains it’s not surprising that we loved this book. Epstein covers vast research and brings it to life with entertaining stories to show that the key to a high-performing and fulfilling life isn’t to force yourself to specialize in one thing but rather to follow your interests wherever they take you. Everything is grist for the mill. (Note: this book was also one of Steve’s top picks, but only appears here for brevity’s sake.)

Stillness is the Key, by Ryan Holiday. In a world with so much noise it’s getting harder and harder to find some stillness. And yet, the ability to do so is becoming increasingly important. Holiday takes us on tour of the wisdom traditions and how their lessons on stillness have been applied throughout history by notable figures. I’ve always loved Holiday’s writing, and this is my favorite work yet. It reads more like a history book than anything. The chapter on Churchill is dynamite.

How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell. A perfect complement to the books above, Odell traces the historical and cultural forces that have led us to a moment where for so many people it’s so hard to do nothing. If you’ve ever had a guilty feeling or an urge to keep working when there was no real need, ended up doing the work, and felt kind of gross after, then this book is for you. Another thing I loved about this book: I really had to wrestle with it. Odell makes a strong case against consumerism and then goes on to sell the crap out of her book. All truth is paradox, right? If it were easy to navigate these lines we would all do a better job of it.

The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts. I went on a Watts kick over the last month. What a free-spirited thinker and communicator. This book in particular captivated me because it was so true. Watts puts into words things I’ve felt strongly forever but could never describe. What if the reason we are insecure is because we are scared to be insecure (and everyone tells us we should be scared)? What if we embraced our insecurity and understood it’s as much a part of life as seeing or hearing, and then used it not to isolate ourselves but rather to connect to everyone and everything else that is also insecure? If you read this book buckle up. There are multiple passages that blew me back in my seat.

The Second Mountain, by David Brooks. I’ve never loved David Brooks because his work can feel like it’s David Brooks preaching what is right and what is wrong from atop a holy mountain (or, more literally, from atop the ivory tower at Yale). But this book was different. Humbled by a divorce and a change in his political identity, Brooks wrote more from a place of grace than he has in the past. (It’s not just me, Oprah picked up on this too!) I learned a lot in this book and Brooks’s metaphor of the second mountain—after you’ve reached peak “success,” whatever that means, what are you going to do?—has stuck with me. 

Devotions, by Mary Oliver. For a while this year I ended my working day by reading from this book for thirty minutes. Oliver’s writing is piercing. “We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two, housed as they are in the same body.” I don’t normally love poetry but I love Mary Oliver and this collection of her best works is something to keep on your desk (or anywhere, really).

After the Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield.  Everyone loves to talk about the breakthrough—the peak performance, spiritual awakening, intense love. But what happens after? How can you come down from these experiences and get on with daily life? How can you carry these experiences with you, even when you are doing administrative chores, shuttling the kids to activities, or, as Kornfield writes, doing the laundry? This book points toward a way of integrating the holy with the daily.

Sounds Like Me, by Sara Bareilles. I love Sara Bareilles. I think she is the best songwriter and singer on the planet. Her new album, Amidst the Chaos, is utterly awesome and has carried me through my own chaos on a few occasions. I dug her autobiography, which was published in 2015. And, I’d love to see an update, including some of the things she’s gone through since then.

***Five Novels: We keep our list to non-fiction, so that is what the above books are. But I also read some incredible novels this year. My top five were War and Peace (huge book; but actually that good), Middlemarch (also a huge book; perhaps even better), The Overstory, American War, and Motherless Brooklyn.

Steve’s Picks

Why Die? The Extraordinary Percy Cerutty, Maker of Champions by Graem Sims. Percy Cerutty was a successful running coach. But in reality he was a philosopher who delivered his lessons through running. A man who had his world-class athletes carry spears while running up a hill to get in touch with their natural instincts deserves more exploration. And in this biography, Sims explore the complex man that was Cerutty. A man who was far-ahead of his time in many coaching methods, but also controversial and eccentric.

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough. Nearly everyone talks to themselves. Sometimes it’s a conversation with our self, other times we might even simulate a conversation with our boss or our significant other. The Voices Within explores why and how this strange phenomenon developed. And, more importantly, what function it serves.

How to Live: by Sarah Bakewell. At the beginning of the year I went through a philosophy reading kick that was started by re-reading a book that provided a synopsis of some of history’s Great Thinkers. One of those thinkers was Montaigne, a French Renaissance thinker who popularized essay writing. Bakewell provides a unique biography of Montaigne by asking how he believed one should live their life. A mix of history, philosophy, and self-help, this one is an intriguing read.

Building Resistance to Stress and Aging by Richard Dienstbier. I originally bought this book looking for nothing more than some research, but I walked away with the hope that more people would read and apply Dienstbier’s model to their own life. Heavily researched, this book outlines how to ‘harden’ the body to the rigors of life from a biological perspective. His model is the best I’ve read on the effects of stress and what to do about it.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. In a polarized age where we tend to choose left or right on the political spectrum and then declare the other side as some sort of enemy who is brainwashed, this book is a must read. Haidt walks us through why people see the world in a completely different way, and why that leads to a lack of the ability to understand why the other side thinks the things they do. If you find yourself struggling in today’s political environment, reading The Righteous Mind might provide some clarity and understanding.

Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson. Why does a song, book, or tweet take-off? Thompson takes a scientific approach to dismantling the key attributes underlying popularity, and in so doing helps us understand human behavior. This book is filled with insights that apply not just to marketing but also to why we like, enjoy, and do all the things we do.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. In the opening chapter of Martin’s book he walks us through a stand-up comedy routine. The doubt; what happens when your joke doesn’t land; how to quickly pivot to another joke; reading your audience; and the fear that comes when you are quickly running through your pre-planned routine. You could replace stand-up comedy with giving a presentation, running a race, or any other endeavor, and it would hold true. Martin provides an inside look on development of his craft, which as you might expect applies to just about any pursuit.

The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players by Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh. There’s an old adage in sports that if you want a better team, get better talent. While that maxim holds true, The MVP Machine tells the tale of how developing talent has become the secret of great teams. While it might seem a bit strange that actually developing individuals’ unique gifts is a breakthrough in thinking, much of the sporting and business world focuses on identification of talent, not development. While this book is focused on baseball its lessons apply broadly.

The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre. What’s your personality type? Buzzfeed-type personality quizzes might seem like they were made for the internet, but their history goes back much further. Merve Emre traces the history and development of the most well known of these quizzes, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type. The history underscores the haphazard, unscientific nature of a test most of the lay public assumes has some backing. But more than that, this book asks the deeper question on why we have this need to categorize, and how that impacts our understanding of psychology in general.

Good to Go, by Christie Aschwanden. Almost everything marketed to us about “recovery” is wrong at best, and harmful at worst. In this book, Aschwanden writes the definitive, no-nonsense guide to what is actually needed to recover well. And while the book is focused on the sporting world, its lessons apply off the playing field too. (Note: this book was also one of Brad’s top picks, but only appears here for brevity’s sake.)

1 Comment

  1. Friday, 12/6/19 – Don's Diary on December 6, 2019 at 5:42 am

    […] Steve Magness/Brad Stulberg: Top Books of 2019 for Performance and Wellbeing […]

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