My Favorite Books and Documentaries of 2020
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
As I look back on the list of books I read (and listened to) last year, one theme definitely stands out…
That theme...was questioning my assumptions.
For whatever reason, maybe it was...
The political climate
The amped-up, social-media hostility
The big-tech censorship and the way many people were ok with it
The number of things we told to accept that just don't make sense
The illogical flip-flopping of experts like Fauci, the surgeon general, and the W.H.O.
The way the mainstream media wasn't interested in debate about the covid response
The way the news stoked the flames of division and germaphobia
Or the shady, rushed vaccine they’re asking us to have faith in (how ironic) with no long-term safety testing…
I think because of such things, I was really drawn last year to books that helped me look for and understand errors in my thinking, or errors in human judgment in general.
If there was ever a series of world events that could have created a dramatic, majority opinion and moved society forward, it was 2020.
Yet, if you believe the news, it would appear we’re more divide than ever.
What the heck!
How do we all see the same events so differently?
What is it about the way we frame what we see that keeps us so divided?
Like a lot of you (most of you I’m sure), 2020 was a year of seeking understanding.
For me, I’ve always wanted to be known as level-headed and a fair voice of reason.
But man...to personify that in a year like 2020, that was tough.
Maybe there are some fundamental ways I've been thinking that I really need to question.
And maybe there’s some truth to the idea that about half of us are being played and need to wake up?
Whichever way the events of 2021 unfold, I'm quite confident a lot of us are going to realize the world we thought we understood, isn’t what we believed it was.
And I suspect one way to buffer against a lot of that frustration will come from having a sober, less judgmental, more curious way to look for errors in our own thinking.
Curiosity kills frustration.
Humility kills division.
May we all have the courage in 2021 to:
Listen more and talk less
Fight to understand each other better
Fight the real (not manufactured) injustices
Question our own assumptions a few layers deeper
And take every chance we get to offer our fellow humans a heart-felt smile.
WHAT THIS POST ISN’T ABOUT
The point of this post isn’t to take sides politically, or build conspiracy theories, but rather to point you to some fantastic books and documentaries that helped me...
See the errors in my thinking so I can ask more intelligent questions
Replace assumptions with healthy dialogue and debate
Add deeper empathy to my interactions
I hope in the year ahead I can grow more in each of those three ways.
I can already tell my book list for 2021 appears to be shaping up with a similar theme of knowing myself better.
But, before I get ahead of myself, here are my top books and documentaries of 2020.
I hope you find them as helpful as I did.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2020
PARADIGM SHIFTERS TO HELP YOU THINK MORE CLEARLY
Upstream - Dan Heath
This book explores the idea that so many of the problems we attempt to solve in life are downstream problems. Heath make a compelling case (with a practical framework) for what it means to go upstream and look for bigger problems causing a myriad of smaller problems. It's full of inspiring stories and totally worth the read if you're someone (like me) tasked with solving complex problems.
Think Like a Rocket Scientist - Ozan Voran
What I really appreciated about this book was how Voran, being a rocket scientist, points out how in perhaps the most logical and cerebral of fields, even there, the human element is at play. He discusses several popular and lesser-known space missions that ended badly and uses each of them to point out the errors in judgment the scientists made, and then he makes each example super practical for where we all are guilty of the same errors.
The Innovation Stack - Jim McKelvey
Loved this book. If you're an entrepreneur who could use some encouragement and validation, check this one out. McKelvey not only has an inspiring story, he's a great writer. This book is about the rise of Square, the payment system for the everyday Jane and Joe business owner. The main concept is that solving a complex problem means continually wrestling with the next problem after you solve the preceding one. If you stack enough solutions together, you create a competitive advantage no one (not even Amazon) can copy.
Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely
This one sold me just based on the title. One thing I've noticed about my own behavior, and that of clients, is how often we start something we know is not good for us, but do it anyway. And then there are irrational things like overeating when we're full, or clipping $1 off coupons but buying $4 coffee. The point is, the totality of our actions rarely add up, and in fact, as the author points out, it's quite easy to predict when we will not act rationally. By understanding the common rationalizations that sabotage us, and the situation where we won't act rationally, Ariely can help you see how to sharpen your thinking for a much better life.
Thinking Fast and Slow - by Daniel Kahneman
If you like a lot of science, and the backstories behind how particular studies were conceived and why, you'll like this book. It's a definitive work (you could say a magnum-opus type work) referenced by a lot of people who study human behavioral psychology.
In it Kahneman talks about two ways our brain processes information--fast and slow--(to oversimpify) snap judgments vs logical analysis. He talks about how we need both, and how we make up stories (and questions) in our minds to help us fill a narrative void as we process information. He carefully points out how we don't even know we're doing such things too.
If you think you act rationally most of the time, Kahneman will show you how far from it you (and me) really are by nature. The book is also full or practical exercises and takeaways that can also apply to every day life...but admittedly, there's a lot of science in between them.
Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Life and Work - by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson
This was probably my favorite book of the year! I underlined and highlighted more in this book that any other last year. The authors do a great job exploring what success feels like vs what it looks like on the outside. It's a truly thought-provoking book that goes deep into what it means to engineer a fulfilling life with no regrets.
It presents the four irreducible areas of success--happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy--and how to emotionally weigh major life trade-offs. It gives a ton of examples of what well-rounded success looks like. It will help you see where you've overestimated your capacity or "collapsed" or "sequenced" your happiness in unhealthy ways. It addresses how to deal with moving targets of success, and how what's important naturally changes as we age. Highly recommended!
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most - by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
I picked this one up on a whim. It overdelivered. I thought it might help me get better at helping clients deal with their own difficult conversations, but it did much more than that.
Not only does the book give you all sorts of tools to navigate difficult conversations, it helps you hold the mirror up to see where you (or me) have been oblivious to how you've contributed to the difficult situation. From the easy-to-understand principles, to role playing how to navigate difficult conversations the book does a great job of making you check your assumptions, lead with empathy, seek understanding, and make you a much better human overall. Great read.
Becoming Bulletproof: Evy Poumpouras
This book starts with a bang. The author begins with the visceral story of her law-enforcement experience in NYC on 9/11 as the towers were literally crashing around her. Just that alone is worth the read. But, what I loved more than that story was actually the tough but rational person who wrote it. Not only did this "little person" make it in the tough NYC academy, she weaves in stories of how she made it through the even tougher Secret Service training as well.
If you've ever felt like you're too small, not qualified enough, or that you can't make it in a "man's world" Poumpouras will help you toughen up. From better self-awareness, to a better ability to read people, to upgrading your personal philosophies about who and what is important, the authors can show you how to be unflappable in the face of crisis. Our world could certainly use more people who are this cool under pressure.
The Paradox of Choice: Barry Schwartz
I loved this book. Similar to Just Enough. This book did such a great job of giving me a better tool kit as a coach to help people who feel paralyzed by the choices (trade-offs) they must make to achieve their goals. One of the main points of the book is how much we want to not have our options take away from us, yet paradoxically, too much choice (hello social media, grocery shopping, Netflix, buying a home/car/etc.) not only become paralyzing, but worse...robs us of ever feeling satisfied.
Among other brilliant points he talks about the difference between "maximizers" and "satisfizers." The former try to maximize everything and thus get stuck always trying to always "get the best deal." The "satisfizers" on the other hand have an instinctive way to say "good enough is good enough" and don't always need to get "the best deal." As it turns out the latter tend to go through life much happier. This is an especially great book if you suffer from analysis paralysis.
Caffeine - Michael Pollan
This delightful (and short) book is a fascinating history of caffeine, and coffee in particular. Until reading it I never appreciated how, before caffeine/coffee, the "coffee shop" of the day was the local bar. The quantifiable, cognitive advantage coffee gave people is one way (at least according to Pollan) that society at large took a turn toward greater productivity and away from a quasi-drunkenness we lived with because fermentation was one way to have something sanitary to drink.
Beyond that, Pollan tells the witty tale of his experience going off coffee, as well as talking with sleep researchers, working with coffee growers, and other facets of the global coffee industry. It's totally worth the read if you're looking for something different.
Vegetarianism Explained - Natasha Campbell-McBride
If you'd like a good, sane book on the history and science of vegetarianism, this is a good read. It in she talks about the merits and downsides of a plant-based diet, where it's appropriate and where it's not. For those interested in the nutrition science she also has a ton of references to back up the philosophies she expounds upon.
Dr. Campbell-McBride is also the author of the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) dietary protocol that has helped countless children recover from full-blown autism. She can help you feel quite grounded in the confusing world of nutrition.
BOOKS TO HELP YOU THINK MORE CREATIVELY
The War of Art - Steven Pressfield
I was overdue to read this classic. If you've ever felt the difficulty that comes with doing creative work, you'll probably like this book. Pressfield talks about the concept of "the Muse" that comes to inspire us to create our art, and how we can develop the discipline needed to be ready when it does come to visit. He also talks a lot about "the resistance" and how this mysterious force wants nothing more than for our art to never see the light of day. He gives some witty and practical stories for how to punch resistance in the face so we can overcome our barriers to "making art" and thus make the world a better place.
The Art of Explanation - by Lee Lefever
This book was a fun, but more technical look at the way the brain works as we are being exposed to a new concept. The author does a great job of helping you see where your attempts to explain something get muddled between your head and the person you're trying to communicate with. He also gives a really practical framework for how to become better and better at explaining what you do in a way that helps people understand what you do and why they need it.
Back of the Napkin - Dan Roam
This is a fun, practical book at how to wield a handful of simple sketches anyone can use. The author will help you sharpen your thinking so you can better clarify the problem(s) you're trying to solve, and create models for explaining ethereal concepts to other people. Prepare to get your creative juices flowing.
Giftology - John Ruhlin
On the high level, this book is about how to use gifts as a way to build relational equity with other humans. Through delighting people (customers) with gifts, it is one way to stand our in a crowded marketplace, to let people know you're thinking about them, and to develop a raving and loyal fan/customer base. If you could use some fresh ideas for improving your customer experience give this a read.
ONE FOR FUN
Caribbean - James Michner
Last year it was his Hawaii book. This year I switched to Caribbean. Admittedly, I haven't finished this one yet--these novels are LONG. But, this book has been a fun way to check out and learn a rough version of the history of this beautiful part of the globe. I've enjoyed reading about the Maya civilization and the major Spanish influence all over the Caribbean. I do love me some Caribbean waters.
So far I think Hawaii was a little better, but I guess I'll reserve my final analysis for next year's book review.
MY FAVORITE DOCUMENTARIES OF 2020
If you have ANY social media accounts, you gotta watch his eye-opening documentary.
This film is a fascinating and scary look at what social media has become and how it has been simultaneous used for good, and evil. The film is a collection of people who all used to be "higher-ups" at all the major tech platforms. They give their first-hand account of what goes on behind the scenes as these tools have become intertwined into ever fabric of our lives.
You'll learn why they don't allow their own kids on the platforms, but you also learn what these in-the-know people are doing politically to help deliver on the upsides of social media while trying to save us from the way this technology can be used for nefarious purposes.
This film was a fascinating look at media bias in a way I had never seen it put together before. This hard-hitting (and often-undercover) investigative journalism takes you inside some of the biggest media companies on both the left and the right and shows you the agendas, and disgusting manipulations they pull off on the American public and the world.
This film, as well as the film above are what make me hopeful that we can eventually have a press that once again becomes that fourth branch of government that actually does it's job rather than just being a mouthpiece of the large corporate and political sponsors behind them. GREAT film.
This one had been on my list for a few years, and I finally got to it in 2020. This film tells the story of a whistleblower inside the CDC explaining how they committed scientific fraud by attempting to manipulate and eventually burying data which showed that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. This film was actually approved and then banned from the Tribeca film festival. If you never thought to question vaccines because you've always been told they are "safe and effective" you owe it to yourself to watch this film with an open mind.
Most Americans still don't know that the only industry in the world that can't be sued for faulty products is the vaccine industry. As we're now seeing with the new covid vaccine, vaccines do injury people.
In 1986 president Regan signed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act that made pharmaceutical companies immune from liability. This film explores the history behind how that law came to be, the business and practical ramifications of "The Act," as well as the corporate greed, and mountains of shady science and manipulations of the court system that keep that law from being repealed. Once you understand the significance of that law, you will see the world, and current events in a much different light.
If you're rolling your eyes at this one, give it a chance. Be willing to question your assumptions. This may be the most controversial film on this list, yet I couldn't leave it out. This film tells the story (and shows the footage) of "Event 201," the Bill-Gates funded practice run of a preparing the world for a global pandemic. It appears that now we're living Bill's dream. This film, and 1986: The Act, may be the most eye-opening film you'll ever watch. Plandemic 2 also explores the shady (dare I say criminal) work of Anthony Fauci and both the illegal research funding and illegal patents this highly-conflicted man is a responsible for. The film is so well documented it gives fits to "fact-checkers."
So there you have it.
May you find as much hope, inspiration, and awareness as I did in the suggested books and documentaries above.
My admonition to you is to keep learning.
When something doesn't make sense, check your assumptions first.
Then check them again.
We all have logical blind spots.
We are all Predictably Irrational.
My hope is that the year ahead finds us all waking up to
The ways we've judged too harshly
The times when we've shaken our heads in disgust at "those people"
The ways we assume we are right and others are obviously wrong
The sooner we turn the mirror around on ourselves and become willing to explore ideas that compete with the way we want to see the world...
...then the sooner I suspect we will begin a massive, ground-swelling process of hope and healing the likes of which the world has never seen.
But first...we have to wake up to where we may be contributing to the problem.
None of us know everything.
Go fight the battles you must fight...and fight them fervor and compassion.
Stay well everyone.
Happy reading, listening, and viewing.
If I can help you, reach out.
PS. Sometimes slugging away at learning ends up making great art. One cool development that came from last year's deep dive into human nature was a new quiz Nina and I created to help people discover their Health-Transformation Type.
If you're curious how your personality is influencing your path to a health breakthrough, you can take the FREE quiz and get to know yourself better.
PPS. Oh...and in case you missed last year's blog post about my favorite books of 2019, you can find it here.