Wednesday, December 30, 2020

List: My books of 2020 / Reading Recommendations for 2021


2020 was a challenging year. Previously, I spent a lot of my leisure time at home because I enjoyed my own company. This year, I spent nearly all my leisure time at home because I was forbidden to go out. As I reflect on the things I did to keep my spirits up this year, I realize one of the most effective was reading Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider. Her excellent description of the 1918 flu pandemic helped me realize what was coming and prepare for the long haul.

Books do that for you: transfer you across space and time to other worlds and grant you access to people you might otherwise never meet. For this reason, reading continues to be very important to me and I wrote this to share some commentary on my favorite books from this year.

10. Dollars and Sense, Dan Ariely. This is a re-read from last year, when it was also ranked number 10. This is a great book for understanding how our psychology leads us to make poor financial decisions. Beyond explaining why we are the way we are, it also provides actionable next steps. I’ll continue to re-read this book every few years going forward.

9. The Everything Store, Brad Stone. I love Amazon’s origin story, and no book describes Amazon’s founding better than this one. This book is great for getting an idea of the kind of hard work, perseverance, and good fortune that goes into building a colossus like Amazon. It’s also a great primer for people who are considering working at Amazon – so they get an idea of what they may be signing up for.

8. How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton Christensen. I’m not sure how I did not read this book until after Clayton Christensen’s death in January, but better late than never! The book considers the question of how to live a fulfilling life, but offers no answers. Instead, it offers a solid framework for answering the question in a way that is unique to each of us. I am in deep awe of how Clayton Christensen blended his strong faith in God with his love for family and his work on important business themes. I sometimes randomly pick up my Kindle and read a chapter or two from this book, and I always come away with something useful.


7. A Promised Land, Barack Obama. I love (auto)biographies because they’re a great way to learn about life through other people’s experiences. They’re also a great way to learn important principles in the context of life stories rather than as boring academic-type text. I’ve read dozens of political autobiographies over the years and none is as good as this one. Reading this book and trying to place ourselves in Obama’s shoes is the closest most of us (except for the few future US Presidents who are alive now) will get to holding the most powerful office in the world. It is detailed, engaging, and very well-written – and the audiobook is so much fun! (Just imagine a couple hours of Obama’s voice in your ear). It’s such a bummer that there are no book tours because of the pandemic, but I’m hoping there will be tours for the second volume so I can attempt to get my copies signed!

6. Sam Walton: Made in America, Sam Walton. This is the autobiography of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. I bought this one because Brad Stone mentioned how much this book influenced Jeff Bezos. Readers who are familiar with Amazon will immediately recognize Sam’s big belief in frugality and “bias for action”. This book became my favorite autobiography, displacing When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Beyond recounting his life, he also describes the thinking (and good fortune) behind many of his choices. I’m so glad he wrote this book, because how else would I have met and learned from someone who died when I was still in diapers?

5. The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger. This book by Bob Iger, CEO of Disney from 2005 to 2020, was amazing! Jack Welch’s Winning was my favorite business book for over a decade, but this book displaced it into second from the very first chapter. Bob Iger has had an incredible career – literally the ride of a lifetime, and he writes about it in such an honest and relatable manner. I’m looking at the book as I type this sentence and I feel like reading it all over again – which I will do soon!


4. Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This is also a re-read from 2019, when it also came in at number 4 on my ranking for the year. This is one of those books I wish I had read earlier and is one of my most-recommended books. It describes four villians of decision-making: narrow framing, confirmation bias, short-term emotion, and overconfidence about the future. It then goes on to provide a toolkit for making better decisions by combating these villains. It won’t help you for decisions like whether to wear a white shirt or a blue one (wear white please), but will come in handy for the real meaty stuff.

3. Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss. Negotiating has been part of my professional life since my career started and I’ve gotten tons of training on negotiations. This book contains some of the best training material on negotiations I have ever seen - period. If you stick with it past some of the American bluster, you come away with very useful tips for getting more out of negotiations, whether with your children, your bank, or at work.

2. Atomic Habits, James Clear. I decided last year that I would read this book every year for the next few years. It is that good! I feel like many people will trace their success back to this book many decades from now. James’ core thesis in the book is simple: changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you stick with them for years. This makes sense as our life outcomes are often a lagging measure of our habits. He then introduces his four-step model of habits: cue, craving, response, and reward, and the corresponding laws of behavior change. If you’re looking to change your results sustainably, you should totally read this one!


1. Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918, Laura Spinney. I recognize this is not a book for everyone. However, given its relevance following the events of this year, it was only right to rank it number 1. It is sometimes unbelievable that someone could write such an interesting book about a pandemic! I wrote a blog post based on this book and mentioned it already in the preamble to this post, so I won’t add much more. I believe there will be other pandemics in future and we need to be prepared, so I hope Laura is planning to write another great book about the current pandemic!


There you have it! All 32 books I finished this year are listed here. As has become my practice, I will tweet my list as the year goes by. If you’re interested, you may follow me on Twitter here

My ranking system is stacked against certain genres, so I would like to ‘shout out’ some other lovely books I read this year: The World As It Is (Ben Rhodes), Billion Dollar Loser (Reeves Wideman), What Happened? (Hillary Clinton), Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick), and The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris).

Now it’s your turn! Which books did you read and love in 2020?

Oh, and Happy New Year in advance!

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