My 2019 in Books

January 9, 2020
9 MIN READ


2019 was a good year for books. One of my main goals was to kickstart my writing. As part of that process, I felt it was important to cultivate a habit of reading daily. I planned to read a book a week. To adjust for longer reads, my target was to finish 45 books by the end of last year. 

As the hero in this story, fired up and determined to reach my goals, I managed to finish err… only 43 books. Okay, I didn’t reach my goal, but I’m more than happy with my progress as I only read 24 books the previous year. 

I’ll detail how I read so many books in a later post, but one thing I can highlight as a game-changer was taking advantage of the time I commute. It’s become a habit that as soon as I’m en route to work, I automatically whip out my Kindle, a physical book or turn on Audible, depending on the type of book I’m reading. 

I didn’t have any particular strategy on what books to read. Most of them were related to some of the blog posts I’ve written or planned on writing. The rest were picked out of curiosity, recommendations from friends or simply my mood at the time of purchase.

Because I’m too lazy to write up reviews for all the books, I’ve decided to break down the list as follows:

  1. Five books I would recommend: These are the books that gave me a lot of insight and I think anyone can benefit from.
  2. Five books that moved me: Books that either brought me a lot of joy or resonated with my personal journey. 
  3. The rest. 

Do note that the individual lists are in no particular order. 

Let’s gooooo!

Five books I would recommend to anyone. 


1.
The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together: How to Run Your Business Without Letting it Run You – Sherry Walling, Rob Walling


If ‘self-care for entrepreneurs’ was a book, this would be it. I’ve been a fan of Sherry and Rob Walling’s podcast, Zenfounder, for a while now and this book does a great job piecing together key information to help you manage your mental health. This is the first read that really humanises the journey you undertake as an entrepreneur.

This book takes an honest look into the fears, anxieties and frustrations you’re most likely to encounter and provides tactics and practical advice on how to deal with it. Before you map out your idea, search for a business partner, write a line of code or take any form of risk, read this and you’ll have a good grasp of what lies ahead on your journey. 

“Being an entrepreneur is brutal on your mental health. It’s ripe with anxiety and instability. Many entrepreneurs fail time and time again. And yes, in doing so, they feel isolated and sometimes meaningless. It’s hard, which means that as an entrepreneur, you have to get serious about self-responsibility, self-mastery and self-care.”
 


2. The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers & Learn If Your Business is a Good Idea – Rob Fitzpatrick


This book answers the one question a lot of entrepreneurs ask: “I have an idea. What do I do about it?”. The first instinct is usually to talk to potential customers in order to validate how great your idea is.

This book provides practical advice on how to gain insight into your idea while avoiding the potential biases that lead to an ego-boosting exercise. It is short, funny, easy to read and has no fluff. I wish I had read this book before I started dabbling in software product ideas. In the early days, I spent so much time trying to get validation for my ideas from the wrong people and that led to building the wrong features and targeting the wrong audience. I had to learn the hard way. The Mom Test helps the reader ask the right questions, avoid bad data, choose the right customer and ultimately build valuable products.


“Trying to learn from customer conversations is like excavating a delicate archaeological site. The truth is down there somewhere, but it’s fragile. While each blow with your shovel gets you closer to the truth, you’re liable to smash it into a million little pieces if you use too blunt an instrument.”

3. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan


A crucial conversation, as defined by the authors, is “a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong”. 

These can occur with your family members, significant others, co-workers or even strangers. The older we get, the more crucial our conversations become. As a product manager, the very nature of my role is cross-functional. I have to interact with developers, designers, management and many other stakeholders. This book provides specific steps and practical advice, which has improved how I communicate with all stakeholders when it matters most. 

If you’re trying to improve your communication skills and want to learn more about the challenges that get in the way of good dialogue, I highly recommend this book.  I listened to the audiobook first, then decided to get the physical copy as there were so many nuggets to consume. I couldn’t recommend this enough.

“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool- even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously, they don't agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.”

4. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World – Carl Newport


Carl Newport is one of the leading voices on how we can work more deeply and avoid distractions. We live in a digital world where technology has become an integral part of our lives - to the point where it has enslaved us.

This book takes you through the importance of being deliberate about avoiding digital pursuits that don’t bring value to your life. Our phones and apps are deliberately designed to keep us plugged in as long as possible. Digital Minimalism gave me the necessary tools and tactics to help me monitor and limit my social media usage and screen time in general. If you’re always battling with online FOMO or feel the need to constantly check your device, this one’s for you. 

“Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. Just as important: They’re comfortable missing out on everything else.”

5. Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World – Tasha Eurich


I stumbled upon this book while doing research for my blog post on self-awareness as part of my Clean-Up series. The author, an organisational psychologist, shares anecdotes from her own practice, examples, scientific findings as well as exercises and tools that help you understand and develop self-awareness. I always thought I was quite self-aware prior to reading this book but halfway through, I realised I only had a surface-level understanding of what self-awareness actually is. 

Insight breaks down the different types of self-awareness (i.e. internal vs external) and why it’s essential to understand how they can impact our lives. It also touches on the ‘follies of introspection’ and how the way we carry out self-reflection can do more harm than good. If you want to have a better understanding of the self or the people you work with, this is definitely a must-read. 

“If the mindfulness tools you just read about will help you understand your present self, the
Life Story approach helps you look backwards to learn how the sum total of your past has shaped you. If each life event is a star, our life story is the constellation. And if we spent all of our time looking at individual stars through a telescope lens, we couldn’t appreciate the magnitude and beauty of the constellation that dot the sky.”

Five books that moved me.

1. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood – Trevor Noah


This was the best audiobook experience I’ve ever had.

I’m not saying this because I’ve always been a fan of Trevor Noah since his Daywalker stand-up shows. I’m not saying this because I’m immensely proud and inspired to have witnessed his meteoric rise in the entertainment industry. I’m saying this because Trevor is a great narrator! 

This is a story of his upbringing during Apartheid South Africa and if you’re a fan, you know what to expect. It’s full of great humour, thought-provoking anecdotes and a more in-depth look into his relationship with his fearless and religious mother. This is the first celebrity memoir I’ve ever read and after this experience, I’m looking forward to adding more of these to my reading list. I loved everything about this one and I would highly recommend it for a feel-good experience. 

“We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.”

2. Man's Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl



A memoir by the psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor who proposes that we can survive profound suffering if we find meaning in it. This is grim as expected, since the author chronicles his experiences in the death camps.

Frankl proposes that our primary drive in life is neither pleasure nor power as Freud and Adler believed. He found that those who retained a sense of control of their environment survived the longest compared to those who were physically fit. This details how you can find meaning in life despite the circumstances you’re in at the moment. If you’re searching for a deeper sense of purpose or gratitude, read this. This book made me understand that ‘meaningful’ doesn’t always mean ‘enjoyable’ and that it’s important to find meaning in any form of suffering I experience. 

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

3. Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions – Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths


This is one of those books I wish I read back in university. Most of the material covered was introduced to me in my mathematical statistics classes, but in the back of my mind, I always had the “where will I ever use this?” question lingering.

This book makes you realise that you’re using most of these algorithms in your everyday life, even if you don’t know their fancy names. This is a great read, regardless of your mathematics or computer science background. If you enjoy improving your productivity or efficiency in your everyday life, look no further. 

“Even the best strategy sometimes yields bad results—which is why computer scientists take care to distinguish between ‘process’ and ‘outcome’. If you followed the best possible process, then you’ve done all you can, and you shouldn’t blame yourself if things didn’t go your way.”

4. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture – David Kushner

This was quite nostalgic. It took me back to my childhood when all I wanted was to play video games. The author does a great job to recount the history of id Software, a game development company founded by John Carmack and John Romero that brought us legendary titles like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Quake and Commander Keen. 

This is a tale of two troubled kids from humble beginnings who leveraged their genius and made impressive advances in game technology and ultimately built a multi-million dollar business. The author does a good job not to pick sides as he highlights how arrogance, different personalities and business can get in the way of a great friendship. This is a very inspiring book and I have a feeling that if I read this back in high school, I probably would have found myself in a game development career. To top it all off, it’s narrated by the legendary Wil Wheaton. If you have any interest in the history of video games, you will definitely enjoy this. 

“In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”
 

5. The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You – Julie Zhuo

This is one of my favourite management books. Julie was thrown into a managerial position at Facebook at the tender age of 25. Most of what's discussed in this book resonates with me as someone who grew and learnt on the job while managing multiple teams. It brings together all the skills you need to manage people while driving your personal development as a manager. 

The author is completely honest about her fears, insecurities and mistakes made during her career while offering how she tackled these issues from first principles. It’s a relatable and easy read filled with practical advice and insight on how to become a great manager. If you’re looking to improve your communication and leadership skills, this is definitely a must-read.  

“Learning how to be a great leader means learning about your superpowers and flaws, learning how to navigate the obstacles in your head, and learning how to learn. With these tools comes the confidence that you’re meant to be just as you are - no masks or pretences needed and that you are ready for whatever challenges lie ahead”

The rest of the books


If you want to learn discipline:

  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel Pink
  • Addiction, Procrastination, and Laziness: A Proactive Guide to the Psychology of Motivation – Roman Gelperin
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – David Allen
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing –  Marie Kondō


If you want to learn about business and entrepreneurship:

  • Traction: Getting a Grip on Business – Gino Wickman
  • The 80/20 Principle – Richard Koch
  • Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son – George Horace Lorimer
  • The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future – Chris Guillebeau
  • The 10X Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure – Grant Cardone
  • Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion – Gary Vaynerchuk
  • Skin in the Game – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • Anything You Want – Derek Sivers
  • Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor – Tren Griffin


If you want to learn more about the self:

  • Happier – Tal Ben-Shahar
  • The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing – John Perry
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Library Edition – Brené Brown
  • Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope – Mark Manson
  • The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning – Scott Galloway
  • Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope – Johann Hari
  • Ego Is the Enemy – Ryan Holiday
  • The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff
  • Wait, What? And Life's Other Essential Questions – James E. Ryan
  • Finite and Infinite Games – James P. Carse

If you want to improve your writing or marketing:

  • Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content – Ann Handley
  • Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It – Steven Pressfield
  • English Grammar Boot Camp – Anne Curzan (Audible Course)
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott
  • Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen – Donald Miller
  • Make & Shine: An Indie Maker's Guide to Personal Branding – Anne-Laure Le Cunff

 

If you want to learn more about culture and how to lead teams:

  • Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility – Patty McCord
  • The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over – Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins
  • A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – David A. Freedman and Eric Abrahamson
  • Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World – Clive Thompson


Well, that’s it! Since I still have some books to finish, I’ll probably compile my 2020 reading goals sometime towards the end of the first quarter. 

My ultimate goal is to narrow down my reading list to about 15 I’ll re-read annually and about 15 new ones as contenders for my repeat list. I believe there’s a lot of value in re-reading books because over time you become wiser, smarter and go through experiences that give you different perspectives.

If cultivating a habit of reading is one of your new year resolutions, I would highly recommend you read Atomic Habits by James Clear. This book played an instrumental role in building up my own reading habit. 

I hope 2020 will be a great year of books for you! 

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