One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from the editor and founder of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly. Sometime around 2010, I heard him say, “read 10 books a year and you will be a fundamentally better person.” I’m not sure what Kevin meant by “better”, but I took the advice to heart and have worked hard to make reading (books) a habit within my life.
In an effort to become “2 times a better person” in one year (kidding), I started the year with a goal to read 2 books a month. 2021 didn’t go exactly as I had planned, but I’m pleased that I stuck to this goal and finished 26 books this year.
One of my favorite ways to determine what book to read is to check out reading lists from others (Ryan Holiday provides one of my favorite lists and Goodreads is another outstanding source). With that said, I’ve decided to pay it forward and create a list of my own.
I typically focus my reading on Non-Fiction. Within non-fiction, I’d classify the books that I’m drawn to as: Self Improvement, Meditation / Mindfulness, History, and Learning. When I get burned out on filling my brain with knowledge, I’ll read some Science Fiction to get my imagination firing about first contact with aliens or what the future might look like for my grandchildren.
Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2021 (in no particular order) and a take-away as to what I “got” from each.
Non-Fiction – Meditation / Mindfulness
The Most Important Thing by Adyashanti
Adyashanti is one of my favorite spiritual teachers. I listen to Adya’s books through audible and I find that listening to his narration as I take a walk or go for a drive (alone) helps me to re-connect with an area of development I am focusing on. After listening to most of Adyashanti’s books, I really can’t tell the difference anymore as to the content. Each book has a similar message, but delivered in a new way. The power of his writing is that it always seems to resonate with what I am experiencing at that moment in time.
Loving Kindness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
While going through a difficult time with my meditation practice, it was recommended that I focus on a loving kindness practice for a while. This wasn’t my favorite from Bhante G (Mindfulness in Plain English and 8 Mindful Steps to Happiness are better), but to focus my attention on loving myself and others continues to be an invaluable lesson.
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
A couple years ago, upon arriving at Bhante G’s Bahavana Society for a silent retreat, I met an experienced retreatant who gave me a tour of the meditation hall and showed me the library. With real enthusiasm, he said, “Bhante G is an incredible writer – you can take any of his books for free at the conclusion of the retreat!” He strongly encouraged me to read Mindfulness in Plain English. Thinking I already knew what there was to know about mindfulness (not a very mindful thought), I didn’t listen to the guy and grabbed another book.
Several years later, I finally picked up Mindfulness in Plain English and DAMN, that dude was RIGHT! This is my new favorite book on mindfulness. A great read for someone who is just beginning to understand what mindfulness is about and also for someone who is looking to stay on the path and/or deepen their practice. I read this book for about 15 minutes in the morning to start my day – the month it took to read were some of the happiest days of my year.
The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman by Takuan Soto
If you have an audible account, you can listen to this book for free. With that said, I’m glad I didn’t pay for this. Maybe my mind isn’t zen enough, but I didn’t connect to the relationship between zen mindfulness and samurai bad’ass’ery. What I got from The Unfettered Mind is a reminder that my Western mind is more drawn to Western viewpoints when it comes to deepening my mindfulness.
Non-Fiction – Self-Improvement / Coaching
Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown
Why the hell did it take me so long to read this book?! Big thanks to my friend Ahava who gave me this book about a hundred years ago. Daring Greatly was chock full of goodness, but the biggest takeaway I found was the difference between shame and guilt. I think about this message frequently when parenting my children.
Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan
This is a deep and powerful book on how change actually happens. While it’s not hard to read, it is more on the academic level and I had to buckle down by highlighting passages and writing in my notebook to really grasp the teachings and incorporate it within my coaching approach (for clients and myself). I am simplifying the message, but this book showed me how tactical approaches to change (IE – eat less food to lose weight) rarely last, as there is usually something in our identity, psyche, subconscious, etc that is preventing the change to begin with (IE – if I eat less, I will not be as much fun as the personality I have created).
The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida
Funny title, yet meaningful book on how men can be a full expression of their selves (masculine and feminine sides), without doing so in a toxic way. I have found this book particularly helpful when navigating challenging situations with my wife, when understanding the differences between the sexes is appropriate. One of the best sources of information I have found around “what it means to be a man” that doesn’t include macho talk about “being tough”, “destroying the competition”, or “getting laid”. A book I plan on recommending to my son when he is a teenager.
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
I remember enjoying this book and thinking there were some great lessons on how to develop outstanding culture in the workplace. However, I can’t recall anything about The Culture Code – I don’t know if this is an indictment against me or the book!?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
One of my favorites and one of the only books I have read more than twice. The last time I read The Alchemist, was in my early 30’s and I was curious to see if the message changed for me. It did. I plan on reading this at least once every five years until I die.
The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope
I’ve been struggling a bit with some questions around my purpose. The Great Work of Your Life was recommended to me several times by a man in my weekly men’s group (I kept failing to listen to his hints). I finally gave the book a shot and I’m glad I did. The big reveal for me was that accuracy matters when it comes to finding our purpose. Being in the stadium as a fan, is not the same as being the pitcher on the mound, with the ball in their hand. Currently, I am finding myself in the stadium, not on the mound with the ball.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
This book had a big impact on me when I read it for the first time after college. This time around, it didn’t have the same effect. I think I found what I was searching for in Stephen Cope’s book, listed above. With that said, Viktor Frankl is a legend and I wish some Silicon Valley billionaire would finance and create the vision he had for a Statue of Responsibility to parallel the Statue of Liberty.
Non-Fiction – Learning
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
For my money, Yuval is one of the smartest people on earth. If you want to feel really dumb (or pretend you are smart and understand everything he says), read any book by Harari. What I “got” from 21 Lessons is that Skynet and genetically modified humans are coming and we have no good answers. I also “got” that “culturalism” is most likely to replace “racism”, if it hasn’t done so already.
The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe
The Fourth Turning has received a lot of press recently as some say that it predicted our pandemic, racial tension, tribalism, climate change, and all the other ails that our planet is dealing with. I’m still not sure if the book is genius or garbage, but I found the deep analysis on the differences in generations to be really interesting. Ex – Baby Boomer parents treated their kids like crap, because they were treated like golden children (with a lot of expectations) by their Silent Generation parents. Hollywood backs this up – next time you watch a movie from the 80’s or early 90’s, check out how horrible the parents in those movies treat their kids!
Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
I listened to Never Split the Difference and while I found Chris Voss to be a great narrator, I think reading a physical copy would have been better for me. There were a lot of fantastic negotiation lessons that I found hard to implement (via audible) and as a result, I struggle to recall much of this book. What I do remember was a solid lesson that business is all about relationships and not to forget the humanity in those we are negotiating / working with.
Breath by James Nestor
Proper breathing matters a lot and we (humans) don’t know how to breath! Fascinating book backed up by science that shows the importance of breathing and how much of our health issues today are a result from our inability to correctly breathe. I think about this book frequently and continue to try to breathe only through my nose.
Non-Fiction – History
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith
The most important book I read in 2021. Clint Smith is a master storyteller on one of the most difficult subjects to handle – slavery. I don’t know if this was Clint’s intent, but it was apparent to me how shockingly inept our education is on the history of slavery. Slavery ended in 1865, but this book showed me how we have much healing to process before we can truly move forward from our nation’s terrible past.
The Tiger by John Vaillant
Griping tale of the hunt for a wild Tiger (who was killing humans) in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia. Phenomenal story that really got me thinking about; the relationship between humans and animals, the impact of trade on everything, and how there are some people who live in near impossible conditions. For those map lovers out there who like to stare at maps like me, look up the town, Vladivostok (where the story took place). My brain is still trying to work out how this is a part of Russia.
Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne
The biography of Confederate General, Stonewall Jackson. There was a lot to take in with this book, but I found myself respecting Stonewall Jackson for his leadership, while also being very confused and interested in how he reconciled his Christian values with slavery and in fighting a Civil War. I thought S.C. Gwynne made a compelling case that the military (on both the northern and southern sides) were interested in fighting this war as it was a quick way to accumulate promotions. Makes me wonder how relevant that thought is with regard to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Cost of These Dreams by Wright Thompson
A collection of sports stories and an easy book to process while also being entertaining and educational. As a native Mississippian, I found Wright Thompson’s story on the Ole Miss riot of 1962 particularly enlightening and another example how our past continues to follow us. Also, his profiles on the demons that drove (and haunt) Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan were excellent.
A Peace to End All Peace* by David Fromkin
The only book on this list I didn’t finish. However, I read 300 pages of the 600 page tome, so I’m giving myself a pass. Wanting to learn more about how Afghanistan came to be, I dove into A Peace to End All Peace. After 300 pages, I was exhausted hearing about countless examples of how colonialism created an absolute mess in the Middle East. When humans colonize space, I hope we don’t f it up the same way.
I read SciFi the same way I consume Avengers movies – to detach from reality. If you are into that sort of thing, here’s a one liner for you…
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Loved the concepts, but didn’t connect with any of the characters.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
It was E.T. for grownups and I didn’t want it to end.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Not a waste of time, but not my favorite.
We Are Legion by Dennis Taylor
Fun, easy to read story, with lots of geeky 80’s and 90’s references.
For We Are Many by Dennis Taylor
Part II to the “Bobiverse” and more of the same.
To Sleep In A Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
What SciFi should be, but don’t start reading unless you are prepared to put your life on hold for 800 pages.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners, helping them to improve their leadership and company culture.