In 2021 I focused on book choices with learning potential, with the goal to internalize one thing from each book (yes, including fiction). I think I got there.
At the start of 2021, I researched a short list of “must reads” through other reading lists and recommendations from my network. Over the year, I added many more through serendipitous connections, but also through friends who published. Surprisingly, this list below contains just three books from my original list, but is much more interconnected. Read on to see my insights starting with the numbers:
Book Count: 30
Page Count: 8678
Space is Open for Business – Robert Jacobson
By the numbers, 2021 was a banner year for commercial space, between investment, launches, and new technologies. This ambitious book aims to be the business manual for the New Space industry, detailing opportunities, ecosystems, technologies, and key individuals and companies. This book is incredibly well-researched, with input from legends in their field and written to inform business-minded people without too much jargon. I chose this book because to understand the problems adjacent to the big problems being solved by Space-X, Blue Origin, and others. For that, this book delivered brilliantly. Entrepreneurs pay special attention to these chapters:
- Regulations – This chapter captures all the recommended legislative changes needed to assist private space companies, ranging from launch regulation, resource ownership, rescue/emergency, etc. Very eye opening look at the friction in the system.
- Astropreneur – This chapter captures everything needed for an aspiring space entrepreneur to get started, from ideation to startup accelerator programs to investment and mentoring.
The Space Barons – Christian Davenport
Quick, easy read about the early days of the New Space industry, focusing on the rocket / lift system pioneers. Though this is primarily about the big names – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson – you’ll learn about the influence Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) and Burt Rutan (founder of Scaled Composites) had on pushing the boundaries of human flight. This book emphasized the people and timelines, so felt much more biographical than historical; more informative than insightful. I read the full e-book, but you might consider the Blinkist version before committing the time.
The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
Did you take an mRNA vaccine for COVID19? If so, The Code Breaker will give you a deeper appreciation for the effort and technology that came together over the past three decades to make that happen. Walter Isaacson is well-known for his biographies (e.g. Steve Jobs), but this is more an ensemble of characters surrounding Jennifer Doudna, the researcher who discovered the mechanisms at work with mRNA transcription and how they could be applied to gene editing. The process was intensely difficult and required coordination and cooperation between universities and across continents. Though historical, the book conveys urgency and is harrowing in places. I started this in print, but switched to audio book which is my recommended format – the narration is impeccable and so compelling that even my teenagers stayed hooked while listening in the car. Highly recommended!
A Promised Land – Barack Obama
A deeply personal book focused on President Obama’s career, spanning academics to politics and post-presidency. I founds this to be a tantalizing glimpse into the mind of a modern leader. You’ll find all the back-room details around familiar events, including the reasoning behind some heavy decisions and tradeoffs made to take the high road. You’ll also learn the role that his family played in his career and how he managed to preserve normalcy for his daughters. This is Obama’s story, but it also was a case study in servant leadership. Many times I found myself cross-referencing parts of this book with Multipliers, the blueprint for excellent leaders. A Promised Land is well worth your time if you are interested in President Obama or the American Presidency or in exponential leadership. I highly recommend the audio book, read by Obama himself.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster – Bill Gates
A thoroughly researched guide into actions that we can take to prevent a climate crisis from transforming into a climate disaster. When I first opened this book, I expected to see a litany of personal changes we must make as individuals. I was wrong. This is a book that speaks to decision makers, using the language of data, and laying out the case for changes of sufficient magnitude to prevent a catastrophic rise in temperature over the next few decades. The changes touch food production, energy production, water, and conservation, and the author deftly connects them together in plain language. That the author can simplify the issues without losing the complexity sets this book apart from others on the same topic. Frankly, I’m tired of reductive arguments that try to sensationalize the issues. You won’t find that here. If you’re at all interested in understanding the issues and the numbers behind the climate crisis, pick up this book in print. I listened to it via Audible, which, while it was entertaining to hear Bill Gates’ words spoken by Wil Wheaton, required constant cross-referencing with a PDF attachment.
The first book on this list I discovered while reading Quora, but certainly not the last. In the past few years, I’ve found myself gravitating to books that connect what seem to be wildly disparate subjects. This is no different. You’ll learn about Einstein, Refrigeration, Black in one place. What binds them together? Thermodynamics. This book is like a mini history in the subject, starting from observations about temperature differences and the nature of heat, leading towards machinery and industrialization through the space age. It’s also a great primer on how to think about heat, without the need for a single chart. History, physics, space, math, and a quirky refrigerator invented and marketed by Albert Einstein, all in one place. Epic AF. I listened to this audiobook and couldn’t get enough. Highly recommended.
The Second Mountain – David Brooks
This book was recommended by my good friend Suresh Srinivas. We both have commitments to volunteerism that sometimes intermingle in unexpected and delightful ways. In some sense, we are dedicated to the opposite of this book. Written by a somewhat controversial author, The Second Mountain posits that everyone climbs one mountain in life, dedicated to personal success and financial comfort, focused on the self. The author makes the case that this life can be happy, but without real joy, which comes in service to others. To find that joy, one must climb a second mountain dedicated to finding one’s intrinsic motivator (or Why in Sinek-speak) and serving others in the process. There are so many personal stories and useful nuggets to learn from this book, but I was left wondering if this author understood me and people like me. I personally feel my first mountain and second mountain are one in the same; that I can’t find fulfillment without serving others. I wonder how many others work like me. If you are looking for guidance on orienting your life towards commitment to a cause, this book might help you.
It’s a nit, but worth mentioning. I found the writing style difficult to read and follow. I ended up reading chapter summaries and finishing the book on the Blinkist app.
F*ck Being Humble – Stephanie Sword-Williams
Another book discovered while reading a Quora thread on tips for self-promotion. I inhaled this book in just a day or two- the writing style, stories, and structured advice make this an exceptionally easy read. Full of advice for early/mid-career individuals, the book focuses on how to push through introversion or excess humbleness to compete with people without those attributes. My favorite part of the book were short interviews the author conducted with recognizable names- she asked the same few questions and received a wide variety of answers. Besides encouragement, hearing the stories of perseverance and grit did more for me than any of the other advice. If you find your work overlooked or feel you are passed over for recognition/additional responsibility, this book may really help you name the causes of the problems and push past them. This book wasn’t intended for someone at my stage, but it did inspire many of the titles on my 2022 reading list. Stay tuned!
Business / Innovation
Easily the most important book on this list, Think Again is all about how we form opinions and methods by which we can change them. Similar books suggest that adopting the Scientific Method or a culture of exploration is how we should form our opinions, but this book actually discusses how to make that happen. Few highlights
- People have four modes of thinking: Preacher, Prosecutor, Politician, Scientist. The first three about persuasion, proving others wrong, or winning approval. The last favors curiosity over conviction.
- Presenting Complexity instead of “Telling both sides” results in people adopting the Scientist mindset. “Presenting both sides” results in the Preacher or Prosecutor mindset.
- Creating a culture of inquiry and supporting a person through their decision process has the highest likelihood of changing minds.
- You can change the direction of an argument by asking “What evidence would change your mind?”
It took me three months to finish this book because I would put it down, apply some of the thinking and re-read several sections with fresh eyes. Over those three months, Think Again became a lens for viewing the world and I saw my own behavior change as a result, both personally and professionally. At some point all of us will be forced to re-evaluate our own thinking. This book will give you the tools to make that simpler. I feel strongly enough about this book to Highly Recommend it and to add it to my Innovator’s Bookshelf.
The Other Side of Innovation – Vijay Govindarajan
I might have added almost an entire pad of stick notes into this book to mark insights. I’ll keep it simple for you. Execution is the other side of Innovation, and transitioning projects from Incubation to production is fraught with cultural, organizational, and measurement issues. This book proposes that Incubation and Production can’t achieve success as separate organizations, that they need to play from each others’ strengths and achieve a structured handoff. Lots of great nuggets here about how to do that. For example, new product and new organization means new metrics for the leader encompassing impact metrics (count the results) and others are action metrics(track changes in customer and team behavior including learning). My own KPI compass model for measuring innovation builds on this idea to help innovators bridge from idea to execution without reverting to incremental innovation. This book also contrasts well to Loonshots by Safi Bahcall, which advocates rigid boundaries between Innovation and Production organizations, with a permeable “membrane” of process and people that can cross between. Both books build from early innovation engines built by Vannevar Bush, but draw different conclusions. Anyone building Innovation organizations to take on new products or services should take note of both models.
Written by the brother of Sanjay Gupta – America’s Chief Surgeon (formerly) – this book is about conviction and how to acquire it in a way that makes investors and customers pay attention. I read this in a time of deep self-reflection, after a number of painful professional rejections. My confidence was shaken and I was left feeling inadequate. This book didn’t solve any of that, but it reframed an important question in my line of work : “will they take a chance on me?” This book shows a blueprint for persuading others to take that chance by focusing on signals of deep conviction. Pithy, straightforward, tangible coaching in a scant 200 pages. This was everything I needed to surf rejection and get up again. Recommended for my Corporate Innovators and startup founders alike. Keep a copy for when you are down as a reminder how to stand back up.
I’ve been a big fan of Nir Eyal’s work around creating positive feedback cycles to change behavior. All of our social media platforms use these cycles to reward users for creating content. Atomic Habits is full of techniques to help individuals modify their own behavior in the offline world. I had a hard time starting this book, but ironically used its techniques to finish it. You’ll find simple, but creative steps to make changes in your routine, even if they are vastly different from your current habits. You’ll find methods to internalize those changes and measure them. In a way, this book is a great companion piece to Adam Grant’s Think Again – there you learn how to change you mind, here you learn how to change your behavior. Fascinating book for which I’m finding lots of applications, mostly personal, but a few professional (particularly with work-life balance). I’d recommend it strongly enough that I’m buying copies for my teens!
Only the Paranoid Survive – Andy Grove
The title is perhaps the four most important words attributed to Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, a company at which I’ve spent most of my career. I picked up this book to understand how Intel’s culture originated and how we might rekindle the early culture to traverse the difficult times ahead. This book is equal parts history lesson and business lesson, focused on navigating industry inflections that are like tidal waves for business models. Unprepared companies will find themselves recovering at best or irrelevant at worst. The terms I’ve come to use for incubating new ideas at Intel – 10x, Inflection point, Horizontal transformation – are all explained here, with plenty of examples from Intel’s history. The examples themselves paint a fascinating picture of a company in transition- first from memory products to microprocessors, then from two microprocessor families to one (CISC vs. RISC anyone?). This book was written 25 years before Adam Grant’s Think Again, but the parallels between these books, particularly in the stories, stood out for me. In a sense, this book shows how upper management can navigate big change by convincing their highly-optimized organizations to Think Again. Grove provides a simple framework to accomplish that. This book is highly relevant to me and I would recommend it to Corporate innovators who want to understand how upper management thinks about navigating big inflections.
Bonus : Books By Friends
The Curiosity Muscle – Diana Kander and Andy Fromm
Diana Kander changed the way I teach entrepreneurship with her freshman outing, “The All-In Startup.” There she stealthily relates lean startup concepts using poker. No kidding- it’s so approachable, I give that book to my students who don’t otherwise like to read. She returns here (with co-author Andy Fromm) to teach innovation process through a story about personal fitness and private gyms. The process is rooted in four questions:
- What are your blind spots?
- Are you focused on the right things?
- What can you test?
- How can you engage others to achieve your goals?
I originally thought of this as a design process, but the book shows it applies to optimization or turnaround too. I consumed this book in just a few days- the story adds an element of fun to the business lessons (which are bolded to great effect) and grounds them in an example more approachable than a tech company or some large multinational. I have one minor criticism related to a jarringly awkward romantic moment between two characters that pulled me out of the story. That’s the single blemish on an otherwise excellent book. This will be joining my Innovator’s Bookshelf, for those who need a simple framework to manage change.
Thought Experiments – Sundar Vedantam
I had the pleasure to meet Sundar at the Intel Incubator, where he was leading a team exploring privacy technologies. I came to appreciate how he approached learning and problem solving from a position of curiosity and query. Now you can experience his approach by reading this wonderful e-book filled with thought experiments ranging from technological to ethical. Buy this book and he will donate proceeds to charity. This is great for anyone who likes to think deeply, but I highly recommend this for parents of high school students. Sit down and read this with your kids to show them how to think and approach problems from multiple angles. For that, this book is invaluable.
Change Tactics – April K Mills
This book is written for Corporate Innovators and Change Agents, who are trying to help highly optimized organizations adopt anything new. I thought this book would be a handbook, but I found it more useful as a reference. My first reading was a cursory skim of each chapter, followed by a random sampling of the chapters. In my line of work, I found at least one useful tidbit or relatable story on each page. When I run into tough situations, I will often thumb through Change Tactics for advice. Recommended for anyone guiding change in an organization, particularly when influencing other leaders.
Update: To learn more, visit April’s website. Proceeds from all of April’s books support Gully Crest Homestead, a private retreat center for families who have children with special needs.
Trajectory Startup – Dave Parker
I met Dave Parker while working (briefly) at Startup Weekend (now Techstars). He’s a passionate entrepreneur and mentor who understands the psychology of creating something new as well as the methodology. When he announced his book, I had to have it. Dave distills a wide variety of complex issues into actionable advice, ranging from finding your “why” as a founder, team conflict, to pitching. The book reads like a mentoring session with Dave- simple, approachable language, direct to the point, filled with examples, and empathetic. There are a lot of books on starting up, but few are as compelling as this one. Very recommended for entrepreneurs, new or seasoned, any age.
Product Research Rules – Aras Bilgen
For the past 8 years I’ve been teaching adult, college, and high school entrepreneurs how to talk to customers to understand to get to the heart of a big problem that might turn into a big startup. Though the interview process can be mastered with some practice, converting the results into decisions can be difficult even for seasoned entrepreneurs. I wish I had a copy of this book for each of my students – it’s that important! This book outlines a structure for user research that can be used for creating user personas or for organizing a deep dive into customer empathy for a startup or design thinking session. As I read this book, every time I found myself asking “what about this method” I’d turn a couple pages and find it, with insights I hadn’t seen before. Fantastic. Even better- it was co-authored by my friend Aras Bilgen, whom I had the pleasure of collaborating with at Intel. Very recommended for those learning how to turn customer interviews into key insights.
Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
A science fiction classic that took me way too long to read. I love Arthur C. Clarke’s other work- 2001, Childhood’s End, and many others – but never chose this one. I found a copy at a library book sale and took a chance. I’m so glad that I did- this is hard science fiction at its finest. A mysterious object arrives in the Solar system and clearly is made by intelligent beings. Mankind organizes an exploratory visit to the object and finds a whole new world to explore. It brings out the best and worst in us. No space battles, no alien monsters or killbots, just people trying to understand something beyond comprehension. Some parts are a little dated, given it was written in the 60s. So short, I read this in one sitting, and I regret I’ll never experience it for the first time again. Highly recommended for hard science fiction geeks.
Project Hail Mary is the rare science fiction buddy story that works on every level. It starts slow with an astronaut attempting to piece together his memory after waking from a long cryosleep. Then it switches to a major scientific discovery – a life form that can travel faster than light and store massive energy. Chapter by chapter these two threads weave a tapestry of an impending catastrophe and a last-ditch effort to save mankind (the “Hail Mary”). Any great tapestry tells a momentous story, and this is no different. Our Astronaut is thrust into a first-contact situation with an Alien coming from a similar catastrophic situation. Together they work their way to communication, understanding, and then finding a solution together. Rocky (our resident Alien) was equal parts Scotty, Grogu, and Bilbo Baggins – such an unforgettable character. This is really a buddy story in the vein of “Enemy, mine” where bad circumstances bring out the best in all of us. I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who likes optimistic visions of the future and using science/teamwork to solve problems. Read it if you must, but the audio book far, with its sound effects and character voices, far eclipses the written version.
I love Andy Weir’s work, but I didn’t love this one. Set on a Lunar colony in the near future, this is the story of a girl trying to make her way in a pretty unforgiving frontier town. The worldbuilding is excellent, but I found the protagonist unlikeable – someone who creates problems for herself and others around her. That said she had an interesting enough arc for me to stick with it. Oh, and as usual, Andy Weir scienced the shit out of this story. Read if you like the worlds built by Andy Weir, but don’t go out of your way for this one.
The Collapse Series – Penelope Wright
The South pole has flash melted, inundating the entire world, with survivors clinging to life only in the tallest skyscrapers. That’s the premise of this series, which I inhaled (all six books) in one weekend. This is a post-apocalyptic time travel story without killbots, but with a unique dynamic quite different from the “normal” time travel rules from Back to the Future or even the Marvel Multiverse. That said, it was easy to follow and produced some cool effects. That made for a compelling, exciting story. I found the characters believable, relatable with personal growth even in minor characters. I was left wanting to learn a LOT more about life in the Towers. So much world-building potential! There were some downsides. Some repetitive sections, necessitated by the time travel dynamic. There were big twists in place because the characters hadn’t reflected on their own time travel experiences. A major character can manage the intricacies of time travel, but doesn’t understand the Grandfather paradox? The final book handles The Collapse, but the timeframe of securing the Towers was so fast, I was pulled right out of the story. Overall, an enjoyable series for teens adults alike. I’ll be looking for other work from this author!
Star Trek Myriad Universes : Shattered Light
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is on fire at the time of this writing, and one of my favorite outlets is “What If?” – a series that posits one change in our favorite characters’ lives that had far reaching consequences. What if Eric Killmonger became Tony Stark’s trusted advisor? What if a zombie outbreak consumed our heroes (literally)? This book is an anthology of “What if?” stories set in the Star Trek universe. I picked this up for one story, asking “What if Lal survived?” I never expected such a tender father/daughter story, with a very Star Trek ending. I nearly stopped after that, but the second story drew me in with “What if Vulcans had never mastered logic?” Drawing details from many previous Star Trek novels such as Spock’s World and Vulcan’s Forge and even The Romulan Way, this story is about personal and societal redemption, for both Vulcan and the Federation. The fact that it’s a Captain Sulu story made it more poignant. The final story, and the longest, most ambitious asks “What if ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ had gone to the Klingons?” Fans of the series know about the twist at the end of this Old Series episode (no spoilers- go see it). Imagine the far-reaching consequences of famine on the Federation’s earliest colony worlds. That’s this story. Believe it or not, this is a redemption arc for a minor character that unites the back stories of so many famous Klingons. Recommended for Trekkers alone. You’d be fairly lost without a solid grounding in Trek lore. Those that have it might love it!
Ready Player Two – Ernest Cline
To say I loved Ready Player One would be a gross understatement. Thematically, that book hit all the buttons- how nostalgia drives technology, the Metaverse, and our dependence on technology. I had high hopes Ready Player Two would build on those themes, and it did! But like watching a movie based on your favorite book, this one fell flat for me. This book emphasized adventure through the Metaverse, rather than puzzle solving, with a character who was struggling to stay on top. I finished it only because the worldbuilding was so strong, but the story didn’t hold my attention and curiosity like the first one. You might like this one if you liked the characters or more adventure-bound science fiction, but personally this wasn’t my favorite.