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My 12 Favorite Books of 2021

I’ll finish the year having read somewhere between 34-36 books. That includes some heavy lifting non-fiction, some escapist pager turner fiction and a couple of books of poetry. All but one are older classics that I finally tackled in 2021. We ought to live a bit outside ourselves more often, and reading is an easy way to travel back in time, far into the future, or to places we thought we knew better. Here, in no particular order, are some favorites:

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods – A. G. Sertillanges
“If you produce nothing you get a habit of passivity; timidity grows continually and the fear caused by pride; you hesitate, waste your powers in wasting, become as unproductive as a knotted tree-bud.”

Referenced in Newport’s book (next), I immediately purchased a copy and placed it on the top of the pile. The book is a bit dated, certainly written through the lens of a French Catholic philosopher in the first half of the 20th century, but bits of brilliance shine through. I’ll return to this one now and then in the future.

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport
“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy.”

Reading this book finally pushed me to delete Facebook from my phone, and to put the phone itself in another room when I want to get deep work done. The world is increasingly distracted, but we don’t have to be. The people capable of focusing and rising to the next level will fare well in a world where artificial intelligence and globalization threaten more and more jobs. Go deeper and differentiate from the shallow, distracted masses.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals – Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey
“When a team defines its lead measures they are making a strategic bet. In a sense, they are saying, “We’re betting that by driving these lead measures we are going to achieve our wildly important goal.” They believe that the lever is going to move the rock, and because of that belief, they engage.”

A classic in business writing, this book outlines the steps needed to identify and execute on the most important goals for an organization. The secret is deep focus on no more than one or two wildly important goals. The magic is in drawing the entire organization in to help make the dream a reality. Most people want meaning in their careers. When they identify the actionable tasks that contribute to the overall win and execute on them, everybody wins.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – Erik Larson
“In his final log entry on the attack, at 2:25 P.M., [Kptlt. Walther] Schwieger wrote: It would have been impossible for me, anyhow, to fire another torpedo into this crushing crowd of humanity trying to save their lives.”
Schwieger directed his U-boat out to sea. His crew was jubilant: they had destroyed the Lusitania, the ship that symbolized British maritime prowess.”

Larson is one of the great historians of our time, and he unpacks moments like the Blitz and the sinking of the Lusitania with a style that few can match. We all sort of know the story of the Lusitania, but Larson unpacks the tragedy of it in a page-turner style. This book will fascinate you, and even as you know the inevitable ending you’ll be surprised by many of the details.

Mastery – Robert Greene
“Your true self does not speak in words or banal phrases. Its voice comes from deep within you, from the substrata of your psyche, from something embedded physically within you. It emanates from your uniqueness, and it communicates through sensations and powerful desires that seem to transcend you. You cannot ultimately understand why you are drawn to certain activities or forms of knowledge. This cannot really be verbalized or explained. It is simply a fact of nature. In following this voice you realize your own potential, and satisfy your deepest longings to create and express your uniqueness. It exists for a purpose, and it is your Life’s Task to bring it to fruition.”

How do we reach mastery? Most don’t. Most settle for a life of unfocused and relative comfort, unwilling to spend the hours of apprenticeship to master their craft. For those who want to rise above the average, this is an excellent playbook. Greene walks the talk–few take the time to research and perfect a topic as he does.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
“We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.”

Enlightening book that reveals how humans got to be who we are. Harari makes a strong case for the rise of humanity being great for us but catastrophic for every other species. This is a foundational book that I’d delayed reading until 2021 despite consistent prompts from friends.

Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain at Any Age – Sanjay Gupta M.D.
“We don’t usually think about dementia when we’re entering our prime, but we should, because it provides a remarkable opportunity. Data from longitudinal observational studies accumulated over the past few decades have shown that aside from age, most other risk factors for brain disease can be controlled. That means you indeed have a powerful voice in controlling your risk for decline. As you might guess, some of the most influential and modifiable factors related to that decline are linked to lifestyle: physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, smoking, social isolation, poor sleep, lack of mentally stimulating activities, and misuse of alcohol.”

Brain health is top of mind for me, and this book proved a reassuring playbook for controlling some of what happens with my own brain health over the second half of my life. Not surprisingly, what’s good for the body is usually good for the brain. Good nutrition, restorative sleep, proper hydration and exercise all help the brain as much as the body. Knowing this, you can fold the right kind of lifestyle choices into your daily routine and put yourself in a better position to have a vibrant, healthy brain to our final days.

The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts – Shane Parrish
“If we never learn to take something apart, test our assumptions about it, and reconstruct it, we end up bound by what other people tell us—trapped in the way things have always been done.”

A playbook for conceptual thinking, this is one of three books Parrish published on mental modelling. It’s a helpful guide for framing a problem or decision using proven methodology. Parrish has an excellent podcast called The Knowledge Project that builds on this framework by exploring just how the world’s great thinkers frame their own decisions and build great organizations.

West With The Night – Beryl Markham
“The air takes me into its realm. Night envelops me entirely, leaving me out of touch with the earth, leaving me within this small moving world of my own, living in space with the stars.”

This is a breathtaking book that sparkles with magic. Markham writes with an elegance that Hemingway would strive to match, raising the bar for writing in the 20th century. If you want to travel back in time to the barnstorming days of early flight, elephant hunting when the elephants had the upper hand and a glimpse of the changing landscape of Africa between the two World Wars this book is for you.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action – Simon Sinek
“Before it can gain any power or achieve any impact, an arrow must be pulled backward, 180 degrees away from the target. And that’s also where a WHY derives its power. The WHY does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It is not born out of any market research. It does not come from extensive interviews with customers or even employees. It comes from looking in the completely opposite direction from where you are now. Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention.”

Why do we align ourselves with brands, political parties or people? Because they speak to us on some level. We desire to belong to something. How we arrive at that feeling of belonging is the “why” that drives the “what” something is and “how” it’s done. Organizations that do this well, think Apple, create a compelling case to identify with the brand. The very best leaders create a compelling why.

On the Road – Jack Kerouac
“Dean took out other pictures. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.”

On the Road nagged me for years. For a few years in my early 20’s I chased the legend of Kerouac through the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts. I drank in some of the same bars that Kerouac drank in. Walked the same streets he grew up on. But I stubbornly kept his most famous book at arm’s length. I made a point of reading it in 2021 and saw the brilliance in his prose even as it betrayed the lifestyle that would eventually kill him.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr
“By the second half of life, you have been in regular unwelcome contact with your shadow self, which gradually detaches you from your not-so-bright persona (meaning “stage mask” in Greek) that you so diligently constructed in the first half of life. Your stage mask is not bad, evil, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not “true.” It is manufactured and sustained unconsciously by your mind; but it can and will die, as all fictions must die.”

If we’re lucky, we all live two lives. We eventually transcend the character we are in the first part of our lives and “fall upward” into a higher self. I wouldn’t say I’ve arrived at that higher self, but I’m aware that it’s there should I stay on the path. Reading is a big part of that journey, and this and the other books finished in 2021 are stepping stones across the shallow stream to the other side.

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