I began 2019 with the goal of reading a book a week. And here in the final week of 2019, I’ve finished reading 52 books (see the full list below). So this is, first and foremost, a humble brag post about that, as are all articles on favorite books (we won’t kid ourselves, right?). But secondarily — a very, very distant second mind you — I populate a lot of my own reading lists with recommendations from others. So I find these articles really useful personally.
This year’s reading list included everything from history to science fiction to product management and business books. Some classics, some new releases and some new favorites. But I wanted to highlight the best books of the year, some of which I’ll add to a few of my upcoming lists on must-reads for product managers and product leaders.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Since I was young, I’ve been torn by my varied interests, but also the need I constantly felt to specialize. I remember this becoming especially acute in high school where I was very good a range of things, but didn’t feel that I was the best at any particular thing.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is a kind of vindication for my younger self, putting into words what I always felt: that exploring a range of opportunities and becoming good at a variety of things would ultimately be a successful path. There was no need to give up every sport to focus solely on one. Or give up every interest to become the best at a single venture.
“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly… In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules, range can be a life hack.”
Specializing early can be extremely detrimental in most areas, excluding a few well-defined skills like golf or chess. Gaining broad experience, and this book was a fascinating look into why that is. I could go on and on about it, but the best thing you can do is go read it.
The Three-Body Problem
We probably don’t realize just how fortunate we are to be in a stable orbit around our sun. This book explores an alien world that faces a three-body problem as it orbits two stars, constantly facing periods of stability and instability, and the adaptations they have to make to adjust to that.
Of course, Earth becomes intertwined with them eventually. It is set against the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution, which admittedly I was not that familiar with, so the whole book is fascinating and one of the best science fiction books I’ve read.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Cutting out distraction and focusing on the most important tasks has been a critical theme for me over the past few years, and Deep Work is one of the best books on the subject. It has become a book I reference often and one that I will go back to re-read to keep the lessons fresh in my mind. Because I drift back into my distracted habits when I know I want to focus on the most important things, especially since I know that they will pay off the most for me.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare are exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
I had read Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan while I was still working on Wall Street, but I took some time this summer to read them again and then finally read Antifragile and Skin in the Game.
Antifragile to me was the best book of the group. It brought together all the ideas and showed why they are so important.
Basically, we live in a complex system. Each of us is a complex system. The number of variables in a complex system is almost infinite. The more we try to control that type of system and manipulate it, the more we mess it up. That’s why simplifying is often the best course. If nature made things a certain way, we should think hard before we change it. And we should also seek ways to make ourselves antifragile, often by allowing (and injecting) randomness and uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate and control it.
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
The whole book is really a revelation on complexity, randomness and embracing uncertainty in our lives.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
I didn’t read as much history or as many biographies this year as I normally do (I have a long list waiting for me in 2020, so next year’s list will probably have quite a few). But this book was excellent.
It walks through the history of the digital revolution, discussing the main players and companies and how they all built on each other. It is a fascinating history, especially for those of us who didn’t live through it.
Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
I find myself referencing this book more and more in articles I’m writing and in conversations. It not only gives the history of Pixar, which is fascinating but also gives a great look into the Pixar process and what they do to make such great movies.
Pixar is probably one of the most creative companies there is, and they’ve created an amazingly creative culture. As a product leader, I pull lessons from Pixar regularly as our teams need to also create amazing products and user experiences.
“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on — but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”
The Gods Themselves
This is another classic science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov. It again involves worlds intertwining, aliens, scientists, twists and turns. Earth seems to have found the answer to its energy problem, and almost no one wants to ask any questions.
“It is a mistake,” he said, “ to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not cause cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines.”
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
I’m a sucker for Navy SEAL stories. I’ll admit it. They are just so badass. So you couple that with leadership principles and I’m all in.
Even if you’re not a diehard fan, this is a great book. The core message of extreme ownership is one that leaders need to take to heart. Anyone in a leadership position, formal or informal, needs to feel extreme ownership for their product and team to produce the best outcomes.
“Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame… the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture
As I’ve been focused the latter part of this year on building a new product organization, I’ve been thinking a lot about team and culture. This book is an interesting look at various cultures and how they were built. From gangs to samurais to slave uprisings. I don’t know that you’ll get more eclectic examples than this book, but it makes for a good read and comes together nicely.
“Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve problems every days. It’s how they behave when no one’s looking…Culture is a strategic investment in the company doing things the right way when you’re not looking.”
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
Leadership needs to take a systems thinking approach in our complex world. And that is what this book is about. Rather than try to control everything, leaders need to empower teams to make decisions. We need to push the authority and tools down to those closest to the decisions.
“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an ‘Eyes-On, Hands-Off’ enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”
Full list of books from 2019:
My personal musings on a variety of topics.