2020 was a crazy year in more ways than I care to count – but one of the few positives has been that with limited opportunities for social activities, the year provided plenty of opportunities to read. Like 2019, I have gathered an overview of my favourite books from 2020. The list is not limited to books published in 2020, but to books and audiobooks, I read or listened to during the year.
You can always follow my reviews on my Goodreads account.
The School of Life: An Emotional Education by Alain de Botton. This book gives good guidelines and food for thought across five different aspects of an emotional education: 1) the self, 2) interacting with others, 3) relationships, 4) work, 5) culture.
I’d highly recommend this one for anyone interested in better understanding their psyche or that of others.
If you are mostly interested in your psyche, then the book Self-knowledge (also by Alain and the School of Life) is very similar to the section on The Self. The self forms the basis for key concepts of emotional awareness and self-knowledge. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to understand how to better handle their brain.
Anyone who follows my reading through my newsletter or on social media will know of my fondness of Alain de Botton and the School of Life. I’ve read most of their books and find them very useful in taking philosophical concepts and help contextualize them in the modern world.
One such book I read this year that I was particularly impressed by was The Architecture of Happiness (also by Alain de Botton). An incredible book. I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I picked up the book, but being a fan of de Botton’s other books, I decided to give it a go and haven’t regretted that. The book describes many interesting aspects of both good and bad architecture which I found incredibly interesting.
In line with his other books, it took a complicated subject and presented it in a readily understandable format to a complete novice!
The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness by Eric Jorgenson. I have followed Naval across social media for years. I find his clear thinking inspirational and insightful. His Almanack is a condensed book overview of his key thoughts on attaining health, wealth, and happiness.
The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Investors and Managers by Lawrence A. Cunningham. I have started reading Buffet’s shareholder letters multiple times, but every time I started, I lost my way at some point during his first 10-15 years. This book was exactly what I had been looking for. Rather than a collection of long letters ordered chronologically, this book provides a structured walkthrough of the key lessons from Berkshire’s letters to its shareholders divided into the main topics: Governance, investing, alternatives to investing, common stock, M&A, valuation, accounting shenanigans, accounting policy, and tax.
If the list of topics is enough to put you to sleep, the book is probably not for you, but for anyone interested in investing or management (without the patience to go through all the letters), this book will probably be very interesting and useful!
During my deep-dive on Warren Buffet, I also found The Warren Buffett Way by Robert G. Hagstrom to be quite good. Even though the thoughts in the book aren’t unique or novel, Hagstrom does a good job in highlighting significant practical aspects of value investing.
Spin-Selling by Neil Rackham. Sales skills are probably the most underrated skills for entrepreneurs and leaders alike. For some reason, it doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. It’s not taught in business school (at least I am yet to see it on the curriculum anywhere), but in the end, few businesses can make money without selling something.
There are countless ways to sell (as of this writing, Amazon.com has more than 100,000 books on selling), yet, I have struggled to find any books that outlined successful techniques in a structured manner. Most books on sales are way too anecdotal for my taste. It’s been many years since I received formal sales training, but this book speaks the same language, so maybe I’m just biased, but I found this book to be extraordinarily useful in outlining the structure and technique of great sales conversations from the beginning to the end.
The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller. I am usually not a big fan of what I call “airport books” – those books with one topic that is usually described in way too many pages but have a catchy title that makes it easy to sell to busy executives stuck in an airport.
I did find this book to reach very intuitive conclusions that are highly relevant for anyone in business – entrepreneurs and employees alike. The concepts were described to a degree of detail that I had not yet got to on my own.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine. I re-read this book once again in 2020. It’s a book I often go to for revising the essential thoughts of Stoicism. This year, I didn’t read much stoicism, so I prioritized to re-read this summary. I’d recommended it for either an introduction for readers new to stoicism or for a quick reminder for people who are more experienced in the topic.
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch. Wow, what a book! The basic premise is that we have already reached a singularity: The invention of the scientific method. According to Deutsch, this is not simply unique to humans on the context of the Earth, but across the universe.
Deutsch covers abstract topics such as infinity and supernovae and advocates for the superiority of an optimistic approach to life and the future. This book is not an easy read, but a very enjoyable one!
What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes from a Street-Smart Executive by Mark H. McCormack. I already mentioned my aversion for “airport books”, so I must admit that this was a book I had long avoided since I first stumbled upon it. The salesy/clickbaity title put me off for some reason.
I loved the book. So many life lessons in the book. It was a great reminder for many important points and a good vehicle for self-reflection on how I conduct my business affairs. Everything from personal relationships to productivity alone as well as with others.
Very well written and with excellent examples.
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by René Girard. I picked up this book on the basis that the renowned investor and entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, has mentioned it as the single most influential book for him.
The mimetic theory brings a fundamentally different perspective on human behaviour from most psychological theories. The core concept I took away is that the main reasons we act the way we do, desire the things we desire, build our society the way we do etc. is based on mimicry. Not necessarily because we want to be like others, but because the world around us is so complex that no-one can truly make sense of everything. We, therefore, look for guidance in others – even without being aware of it.
The book covers other topics including the role of scapegoats and other concepts that are as relevant as ever – particularly in this new world where many people are crucified in the people’s court where no real evidence is required. A very thought-provoking book!
Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty. A lot of intriguing ideas and concepts. While I will probably never agree with Piketty, understanding the history and trajectory of countries and regions does indeed help explain the current political environments.
Many of the analyses are based on inherently subjective views. The data doesn’t prove the views right or wrong but describes a development objectively. The missing piece in the book is the human. What happens to the human if you tax him/her 100%? Will they contribute to society in the same way? Who should ensure the appropriate governance of companies of voting power is capped? Nowadays, governance is more important than ever.
The psychological and motivational aspects of being are missing. But maybe that is a logical conclusion when Piketty describes the society of the academic and elitist left where a theoretical understanding of money allocation matters more than experience and pragmatism
Finally, I re-read 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson which also made it to my “best of” list last year. It’s still one of my favourite books, and I feel like the message of taking ownership of one’s own life and living by clear values/norms/principles is a message that bears repeating.
I am continuously being provoked by the public discourse on the welfare systems of the west and self-victimization. It has started a journey for me to try to understand how we got to where we are. The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray was a particular joy to read. It highlighted some of the inherent absurdities when the above challenges run havoc on society and the media.