Good Reads: 2020 in Books

assorted-title book lot beside window

And just like that, 2020 comes to an end. What follows is the list of books I read in 2020. I have included a rating (0–5 from not so great to excellent) and a couple of sentences on each. I hope you find something you enjoy. I am always looking for book recommendations; please ✉️ reach out.

1. Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute – 4

A unique book in the sense that it described the practice of seeing others as people rather than objects; with empathy, which they call “being out of the box.” We put ourselves in the box, and we betray ourselves. I wish I could’ve read this book when I was in my late teens. Curiously written from the perspective of a newly hired employee, Tom, while having a conversation over the course of 2 days with his boss, the CEO of the company.

2. A Topology of Organizational Cultures by Ron Westrum – 4

Not a book, instead a research paper released in 2004. I love reading the source-material for anything, especially when it’s packaged as a research paper. A seminal reading for anyone interested in what makes good organizations tick. Another benefit of reading source materials is that they tend to spark my curiosity into an expansive realm of in-depth reading on the related subject.

3. Game Changers, by Dave Asprey – 3

Full of tips on how to improve your life, from practices to tools to supplements (some of which Dave manufactures and sells), to mindsets. Dave can be quite polarizing, so you’ll likely either love this book or think it reads like an infomercial. The author’s goal is to live to 180; if you have any interest in learning more about longevity and making the most of your time here, give this a read. Dave interviewed dozens of high-performers in his podcast, and the interviews serve as source material for this book.

4. Leading Snowflakes by Oren Ellenbogen – 2

An actionable collection of nine practical lessons to help you go from individual contributor to the early stages team contributor and leader. We read this as part of a leadership learning group at work. Lessons about how to manage time, how to optimize for business learning, and how to lead and inspire.

5. A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout – 3

An excellent practical little guide on software design, absolutely no fluff. A concise reference guide with applicable advice useful for code-reviews on architecture level changes. John provides useful guidance on how to split classes, methods, and overall design resiliency. How to design loosely-coupled systems allows for inexpensive expansion while keeping code complexity low. There were some definite bold claims here; for example, that method length is not necessarily a factor for making a good or bad method.

6. Accelerate by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim – 2

Accelerate contains insights into what makes up productive and fulfilled technology teams based on comprehensive and statistically significant surveys. Recommended reading as an agent of change, particularly if you operate within a relatively problematic organization (If you don’t know if you do, read: “The Phoenix Project” to find out what problematic looks like). I’d recommend this book to those new to building and deploying software systems and teams at scale.

7. An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson – 2

A puzzling collection of Will’s notes and blog posts. The book does a decent job of putting them together in a cohesive manner. The advice found in this book is sound, albeit relatively basic. I appreciate the fact that it will make actual recommendations on recruiting, onboarding, and growing an engineering team, useful content for someone trying to execute on roles of Engineering Management, Engineering Director, and such. I recommend Will’s book to anyone working on scaling themselves as an engineering leader within a rapidly growing organization.

8. High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil – 2

Silicon Valley inspired anecdotal evidence of how to scale high-growth teams. A set of interviews interlaced between short thoughts by Elad on the subject of start-up companies. Enjoyable yet relatively forgettable.

9. 100 Truths You Will Learn Too Late by Luca Dellanna – 2

Luca shares his insightful collection of “truths”, most heavily rooted in common sense. A few thought-provoking thoughts sprinkled here and there. I enjoyed Luca’s book, but I am a sucker for books with numerable structures; therefore, I am biased.

10. Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday – 4

Ryan has a way with words, which I tend to appreciate. I am very intrigued by Stoic philosophy, and this book highlights the practices, doctrines, and quotes from philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Finding stillness in our daily lives is a constant struggle, especially considering the current pandemic. Highly recommended to anyone looking for practical ways to find stillness.

11. Back Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – 3

Matthew shares many applicable examples of closed feedback loops—systems that fail to learn from the outcome of previous iterations. Well written, often surprising recounts of medical and airspace travel stories where failure to learn from feedback resulted in disastrous consequences and lost lives. What stuck with me from this book was always seeking available feedback loops and ensuring they are short, responsive, and open.

12. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman – 5

I absolutely loved Sum. A collection of surreal stories written from the afterlives. What if after death you live again, but your life experiences and events are grouped? You spend two-hundred days taking one long shower, one minute realizing your body is falling, sixty-seven days of heartbreak. You take all the pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it, never to feel pain again — a must-read.

13. The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley – 3

The recounting by Aldous Huxley of his first Peyote experience. I have read several books on the subject of psychedelics. Huxley comes closest to describing the ineffable experience. To quote William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” — which is one of my all-time favorite quotes. This is a quick read that will make you think, but it is certainly not for everyone.

14. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer – 2

A well-written book that could’ve been half as long. Joshua recounts his experience learning about mnemonics, memory competitions, memory masters, and his quest to infiltrate and master the subject. Froer won the U.S.A. Memory Championship, and set a new USA record in the “speed cards” event by memorizing a deck of 52 cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds. Although not necessarily a how-to guide, the book does describe many of the techniques used to increase your working memory.

15. Already Free by Bruce Tift – 2

Knowing this book was a collection of lectures, I chose to listen to the audio version. Buddhism meets psychotherapy. Bruce shares his experience helping others discover how to transform feat and other difficult patterns into positive emotions. Difficult to follow at times, yet insightful.

16. Smartcuts by Shane Snow – 3

Smartcuts (“smart shortcuts”) are tools to shorten the path to success. Normally I’d avoid these types of books claiming to contain tips & tricks to shortcut the normal order of things. Smartcuts does a good job at acknowledging that applying outside-the-box thinking will get you there faster in certain important situations. Examples from the book include learning a skill quickly by relying on masters to teach you. Iterating on rapid feedback, leveraging platforms, waves, and Superconnectors. Read my notes, summary, and highlights.

17. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle – 4

I had been familiar with Eckhart but never read any of his books. On a quick trip out of town, I brought “The Power of Now” with me, glad I did. Undoubtedly a spiritual book, with reminders of everyday truths phrased as a non-dogmatic path to enlightenment. You can find my notes, summary, and highlights.

18. The Art of Leadership: Small Things, Done Well by Michael Lopp – 4

Lopp dispenses practical advice: Small practices done well compound into something greater than their parts. Targeted early- to mid-stage career leaders with simple yet insightful advice on improving culture, communication, information-sharing, and leadership effectiveness within teams. You can find my notes, summary, and highlights.

19. Hell Yeah, or No by Derek Sivers – 4

I love Derek’s concise yet poignant writing, exactly what you need and nothing more. A self-published, short collection of thoughtful advice on leading a good life—stoic-like essays with easy to follow language.

20. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie – 3

Dated, yes, but oh, still so valid. Having read Dale’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” a couple of times, I knew what I was getting myself into; no earth-shattering revelations. Dale’s advice is sound: “focus on the present and let the future deal with itself.” Additionally, the book provides practical strategies for living a happier, reduced-worry life. Dale dazzles with examples and tales from personal encounters with icons of a since-passed time. You can find my notes, summary, and highlights.

21. Do the Work by Steven Pressfield – 2

A short, actionable book reminds us of all of the “resistance” and the negative impact on our ability to accomplish any endeavor. The countermeasure to resistance is “assistance.” The book reads in a very pragmatic and approachable manner. One interesting takeaway is the framing that “research” is busy work and counter-productive. The author recommends a “research” diet; go straight to doing, and don’t look back until you are done. You can find my notes here.

22. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt – 2

The hypothesis of how to find happiness in modern society. The scientifically proven brain divide of the limbic (basic instincts) and the neocortex (rational thinking) is justified. Haidt described the limbic as an elephant and the neocortex as the rider attempting to control the elephant. Unhappiness is the state where the rider and the elephant disagree.

23. The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chödrön – 2

Not as secular as I would’ve preferred, yet thoughtful and inspirational. There is no escaping reality; this is a guide to help you make the most of life, through bad times and good, a tad repetitive. Recommended for a little reminder to make the most of the short time we have here.

24. Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday – 3

The ego is the ever-present voice in our heads—incessantly autonomic response to all that happens to us; our enemy. I enjoy Ryan’s writing, full of examples from stoics of the past. Reminders to stay in the present and stay humble; there is more for you to learn. You can find my notes here.

25. The Great CEO Within by Matt Mochary – 3

Short and sweet, Matt shares practical advice to organization leaders. From keeping a tighter calendar to managing capital, culture, and staff. I found the parts on ‘Energy Audits’ and the ‘Zones of Competence’ very interesting. You can find my highlights here.

26. Made to Stick by Chip Heath, Dan Heath – 4

Excellent deep dive into what makes certain messages stickier than others. Summarized into the SUCCESs acronym: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. I learned useful communication insights from this book. You can find my notes here.

27. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson – 4

Call me a fan-boy, and while I don’t always agree with Naval, I read nearly everything he writes. Eric aggregated a meaningful collection of Naval’s most insightful contributions. Basic truths are often hidden in plain sight. Head on over to my highlights to get a glimpse of this super book.

I hope you found something you’d like to read next. I am always looking for book recommendations; please ✉️ reach out.

Here’s my Books of 2019 list.

Thanks for reading 🤗

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