Top 10 Books of 2019

I know, I know, it’s a bit late in the year for a recap of something that happened in 2019, but thanks to the Corona Virus Stay-At-Home order, I’ve got some extra time on my hands, and I’ve wanted to get this published for a while as it’s become a bit of a tradition with me.

I read books for 3 main reasons:

  1. Make me a better business person
  2. Make me a better citizen
  3. Make me a better human

I read 52 books last year, and here’s a recap of my top 10 overall books, with a summary at the end for my top 5 in each category at the end.

#10 – This Land Is Our Land

Author: Suketu Mehta

There are few subjects in American life that prompt more discussion and controversy than immigration. But do we really understand it? Depending on your news source, it’s either the fabric of America or the biggest threat to our country. I’ll admit, I didn’t know much data about it, I just had my gut feelings on the subject.

The author tackles the subject head-on and backs his opinion up with facts and data. It helped clarify my thoughts on the subject and point out the difference between the reality of immigrants and the fear of immigrants. One main theme throughout the book is reflected in this quote:

“We are here because you were there.”

#9 – No One At the Wheel

Author: Sam Schwartz

The country’s leading transport expert describes how the driverless-vehicle revolution will transform highways, cities, workplaces, and laws not just here, but across the globe. And it’s scary AF. The ramifications will be dramatic, and the transition will be far from seamless. It will overturn the job market for the one in seven Americans who work in the trucking industry. It will cause us to grapple with new ethical dilemmas – if a car will hit a person or a building, endangering the lives of its passengers, who will decide what it does? It will further erode our privacy since the vehicle can relay our location at any moment. And, like every other computer-controlled device, it can be vulnerable to hacking.

It’s a somber read that should be required for every law-maker to study in-depth and pass a competency exam before they start making a bad situation (cars over people) even worse. Here are some of my favorite snippits:

Infrastructure in the age of AVs will not and should not be the same as the infrastructure of the past.

With AVs, antipedestrian laws could become even more draconian, and a new excuse to hassle citizens. Jaywalking laws can be applied inequitably to target minority gropus and the homeless, disproportionately affecting the poor.

The health benefits of walkable neighborhoods are clear: people who live in walkable communities weigh six to ten pounds less than those who do not.

#8 – Shoe Dog

Author: Phil Knight

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, has always been a mystery. Now, in a memoir that’s surprising, humble, unfiltered, funny, and beautifully crafted, he tells his story at last. It all begins with a classic crossroads moment. Twenty-four years old, backpacking through Asia and Europe and Africa, wrestling with life’s Great Questions, Knight decides the unconventional path is the only one for him. Rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, something new, dynamic, different. Knight details the many terrifying risks he encountered along the way, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors, the countless doubters and haters, and hostile bankers—as well as his many thrilling triumphs and narrow escapes. Above all, he recalls the foundational relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crazed brothers.

Here’s why all business owners should read this book. It will put your challenges in perspective and help bust the myth that if you just make more money your problems will be solved.

#7 – Digital Minimalism, Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Author: Cal Newport

Minimalism is the art of knowing how much is just enough. Digital minimalism applies this idea to our personal technology. It’s the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world.

Digital minimalists are all around us. They’re the calm, happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones. They can get lost in a good book, a woodworking project, or a leisurely morning run. They can have fun with friends and family without the obsessive urge to document the experience. They stay informed about the news of the day but don’t feel overwhelmed by it. They don’t experience “fear of missing out” because they already know which activities provide them meaning and satisfaction.

Drawing on a diverse array of real-life examples, from Amish farmers to harried parents to Silicon Valley programmers, Newport identifies the common practices of digital minimalists and the ideas that underpin them. He shows how digital minimalists are rethinking their relationship to social media, rediscovering the pleasures of the offline world, and reconnecting with their inner selves through regular periods of solitude. He then shares strategies for integrating these practices into your life, starting with a thirty-day “digital declutter” process that has already helped thousands feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you. This book shows the way.

This book encouraged me to take a 30-day detox from social media and it was amazing. I still haven’t got back to using it as much as I used to, but I’m still using it way more than I wan to. Here are some thoughts I loved in the book:

Solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you.

The attention economy drives companies like Google into a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

Our current relationship with the technologies of our hyper-connected world is unsustainable and is leading us closer to the quiet desperation that Thoreau observed so many years ago.

#6 – So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

Author: Cal Newport

This is the first time an author has been on my Top 10 list twice in the same year, but not the first time Mr. Newport’s books have been on my list. He’s one of my favorite authors.

The title is a direct quote from comedian Steve Martin who, when once asked why he was successful in his career, immediately replied: “Be so good they can’t ignore you” and that’s the main basis for Newport’s book. Skill and ability trump passion.

Inspired by former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford University commencement speech in which Jobs urges idealistic grads to chase their dreams, Newport takes issue with that advice, claiming that not only is this advice Pollyannish, but that Jobs himself never followed his own advice.

From there, Newport presents compelling scientific and contemporary case study evidence that the key to one’s career success is to find out what you do well, where you have built up your ‘career capital,’ and then to put all of your efforts into that direction.

I’ve always believed the advice “Do what you love and the money will follow” and “follow your passion” are clever phases the self-help world has developed to get people to buy more of their products. This book gave me the evidence to know my thinking was correct and in fact, that famous advice is mostly a bunch of crap. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

The happiest, most passionate empoyees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.

If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, your’e going to be left behind.

#5 – The Local Economy Solution

Author: Michael Shuman

This book should be required reading for every City Councilmember, County Commissioner, and Mayor in America. They would spend less attention on attracting big businesses with huge tax incentives and realize if they turned their energy to small businesses, they would have a much stronger economy. This book will be VITAL for us repairing after the Corona Crash.

In cities and towns across the nation, economic development is at a crossroads. A growing body of evidence has proven that its current cornerstone—incentives to attract and retain large, globally mobile businesses—is a dead end. Even those programs that focus on local business, through buy-local initiatives, for example, depend on ongoing support from government or philanthropy. The entire practice of economic development has become ineffective and unaffordable and is in need of a makeover.

The Local Economy Solution suggests an alternative approach in which states and cities nurture a new generation of special kinds of businesses that help local businesses grow. These cutting-edge companies, which Shuman calls “pollinator businesses,” are creating jobs and the conditions for future economic growth, and doing so in self-financing ways. Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

The goal of economic development should be to minimize public subsidies and to find the lowest-cost ways of activating and spreading private-sector businesses.

More than two dozen studies over the past decade have compared the economic impacts of locally owned businesses with their nonlocal equivalents, and they consistently show that local businesses generate two to four times the multiplier benefits.

Home-based, small, and medium-scale businesses that make up the universe of locally owned businesses constitute about half the US economy.

#4 – Radical Candor

Author: Kim Scott

Radical Candor is a simple idea: to be a good boss, you have to Care Personally at the same time that you Challenge Directly. When you challenge without caring its obnoxious aggression; when you care without challenging its ruinous empathy. When you do neither it’s manipulative insincerity.

This simple framework can help you build better relationships at work, and fulfill your three key responsibilities as a leader: creating a culture of feedback (praise and criticism), building a cohesive team, and achieving results you’re all proud of.

Radical Candor offers a guide to those bewildered or exhausted by management, written for bosses and those who manage bosses. Taken from years of the author’s experience, and distilled clearly giving actionable lessons to the reader; it shows managers how to be successful while retaining their humanity, finding meaning in their job, and creating an environment where people both love their work and their colleagues.

#3 – Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Author: Sherry Turkle

We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.

We develop a taste for what mere connection offers. The dinner table falls silent as children compete with phones for their parents’ attention. Friends learn strategies to keep conversations going when only a few people are looking up from their phones. At work, we retreat to our screens although it is conversation at the water cooler that increases not only productivity but a commitment to work. Online, we only want to share opinions that our followers will agree with – a politics that shies away from the real conflicts and solutions of the public square.

The case for conversation begins with the necessary conversations of solitude and self-reflection. They are endangered: these days, always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy and in business, it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning, and productivity.

#2 – White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Author: Robin Diangelo

In this “vital, necessary, and beautiful book” (Michael Eric Dyson), antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and “allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people’ (Claudia Rankine). Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.

This book will challenge the thinking of even the most progressive person. Quite frankly, it humbled me. I’ve always thought of myself to have a relatively good grasp on the struggle of black people living in a white-dominated world, but after reading this, I realized just how blind I was.

If you visit the author’s website, there is a free reading guide to help you facilitate discussion groups about this sensitive topic. There are so many gems in this book I would practically republish the entire book if I included all the pages I highlighted while reading it.

#1 – Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Author: Max Tegmark

In this authoritative and eye-opening book, Max Tegmark describes and illuminates the recent, path-breaking advances in Artificial Intelligence and how it is poised to overtake human intelligence. How will AI affect crime, war, justice, jobs, society and our very sense of being human? The rise of AI has the potential to transform our future more than any other technology—and there’s nobody better qualified or situated to explore that future than Max Tegmark, an MIT professor who’s helped mainstream research on how to keep AI beneficial.

How can we grow our prosperity through automation without leaving people lacking income or purpose? What career advice should we give today’s kids? How can we make future AI systems more robust, so that they do what we want without crashing, malfunctioning or getting hacked? Should we fear an arms race in lethal autonomous weapons? Will machines eventually outsmart us at all tasks, replacing humans on the job market and perhaps altogether? Will AI help life flourish like never before or give us more power than we can handle?

What sort of future do you want? This book empowers you to join what may be the most important conversation of our time. It doesn’t shy away from the full range of viewpoints or from the most controversial issues—from superintelligence to meaning, consciousness and the ultimate physical limits on life in the cosmos.

Top 5 Books That Made Me a Better Business Person

  • Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
  • Radical Candor
  • Measure What Matters
  • Shoe Dog
  • Deep Deliberate Delegation

Top 5 Books That Made Me a Better Citizen

  • Life 3.0
  • The Local Economy Solution
  • No One At the Wheel
  • Love Where You Live
  • This Land is Our Land

Top 5 Books That Made Me a Better Human

  • White Fragility
  • Reclaiming Conversation
  • Digital Minimalism
  • An Assault on Intelligence
  • Drawing Portraits

Special Book Recognition

In my Top 5 List of books that made me a better human, I want to take a moment to personally thank the author of Drawing Portraits, Ron Watson. I’ve known Ron for about 2 years now, and during one of the Black Business Bus Tours, by Candy Lowe, I visited his gallery and purchased his instructional guide on how to pencil sketch portraits. I did this with no intention of ever reading it but wanting to support small businesses.

But then when I committed to the 30-day Digital Detox Cal Newport recommended I find a hobby to replace the time I would normally be on social media. I picked up the book and thought I’d give it a try. I followed all his steps, as I worked through the exercises I thought to myself it was a lost cause. But something amazing happened. I started to get the hang of it! Here are a few of the portraits I’ve done for my friends:

I’ve still got a lot to learn but it’s become a source of stress relief for me. It’s an activity that lets me escape from this hectic digital world of distraction and focus on one single thing. Thank you, Ron, for awakening this latent talent in me. Your work matters.

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