The 7 Best Books I Read in 2021
I read a lot of books. In 2018 I set and achieved a goal of reading 100 books, and while I haven’t set as aggressive of a goal since, I tend to read about 70-80 books per year.
This year I read 91 books.
I read a lot of fiction and a lot of non-fiction. I read fiction mostly to wind down at night when I’m trying to prepare for bed. Consequently, I generally don’t read great novels that make me think deeply. So usually the best, most life-changing books I read in a year are non-fiction.
But this year, perhaps due to the pandemic and a desire to escape, I found myself reading a lot of fiction in the first half of the year.
I didn’t really want to read non-fiction, but soon, I felt like I’d done the reading version of eating Cheez-Its and ice cream.
My favorite blogger, Elise Blaha Cripe, has a practice of trying to read mainly physical books. She wants her kids to grow up seeing her read instead of always scrolling a device.
Even though I was reading a lot of the year, I wasn’t reading things that were making an impact. What you take in is what shapes you.
So one day, I woke up and cut myself off from the excessive fiction (and TV) and returned to the reading equivalent of a kale and avocado salad.
And whether or not it made a difference in my vibe or the vibe of my household, one of my favorite memories from later on in the year is reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, out loud with my husband. It feels like a symbol of return to something more active and participatory.
I read a lot of books, so I feel confident in saying that my favorite books are pretty darn great.
So here are the best books I read in 2021.
By Kim Scott
I’d heard about Radical Candor for years—it’d been on my “to read“ list forever. I finally picked it up this year, and I was blown away.
After reading so many books, I’ve found that a lot of non-fiction books are “one big idea“ books. There’s one really helpful concept that sticks with you. Radical candor felt like it had one big idea, and also tons of other sub-ideas that each was a treasure even if taken on their own.
The big idea of Radical Candor is that the best management style combines deep empathy and care for those you lead with directness and clear, specific feedback. Scott “shows not tells“ what this actually looks like with tons of examples that bring the concept to life.
As a case in point, I loved reading Scott’s author acknowledgments, as you can see how deeply she takes the Radical Candor philosophy to heart. Her thank-yous to her supporters and friends were so specific that I felt like I had a front-row seat to what it was like to write her book! Especially as someone currently struggling through writing a book, there was a realism and depth to this often unremarkable section of a book.
One of the boldest ideas in the book: Scott believes that everyone on every team can and should be excellent in their role. Tough life events can throw off your excellence as a team member for a time, and that’s ok. Long-term subpar, or even just mediocre performance is not. Allowing it is a disservice to the team and also to your employee who deserves to be able to find their own personal excellence in another role, inside or outside of your company.
Scott also shares so many other ideas that weave together into a larger philosophy of how to lead amazing teams and drive them towards the results the company is working to achieve. One of the concepts I found most helpful is that companies often focus on their “superstars”—their high growth track, highly promotable talent, who are always seeking the next level of role and challenge. In doing so, they miss out on recognizing and rewarding their “rockstars” for whom advancing into a new role would be a punishment because they love their craft. In work cultures that rely on promotions as the primary reward and recognition mechanism, rockstars are left behind.
When I walked away from the book, I felt like I had read a total philosophy of how to lead (and maybe even how to live). In the weeks since I’ve finished it, I found myself excitedly recommending it to clients and collaborators. That’s when you know that something is really, really good.
The Creative Curve
By Allen Gannett
This book was up there with Radical Candor as one of the books that I couldn’t stop thinking about in 2021. And the best part? It was a random shelf grab. I love it when improvisation works out that way.
The big promise of the book is its promise of a theory behind why some creative work resonates with audiences, and some doesn’t. Gannett believes that creative work that truly takes off always has the perfect balance of innovation and familiarity to audiences. I loved his analysis and found the book fascinating and illuminating. It gave me many ideas for approaching my own creative practice.
But the part of the book that spoke to me most was the exploration of how those creative “a-ha“ moments actually happen (and what the $%#@ is actually going on inside our creative brains!). Gannett explores research on what’s actually happening in our minds when we have a sudden flash of insight.
Turns out, according to the research and his analysis, that a sudden flash of insight is less mysterious and magical than it sometimes feels. What feels like the “a-ha” or leap forward is often the product of the scanning and associative thinking functions of our subconscious.
This resonates with one of my favorite books, Psycho-Cybernetics, a 60’s classic that delved into our subconscious’s capability to influence us through its powerful processing capabilities. According to the author, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, our subconscious is really good at solving problems and finding solutions. One of the biggest problems it’s always solving? Aligning how our life is with our sense of who we think we are and what we can achieve, hence, our mindsets are so important.
In my forthcoming book on creative habits in day-to-day work life, I’ll be delving into some of the practices I’ve developed for tasking my subconscious with a creative problem. Gannett’s book gave me more insight into what might actually be happening under the hood when I do that and what we might do to improve its ability to generate creative breakthroughs. For me, this is super exciting. I love that mysterious and magical moment in the creative process, but it doesn’t need to be inexplicable and unexplainable for me to still be absolutely in love with what it feels like.
This is that rare non-fiction book that both gives you insights and tools to change your practice… but also totally lights you up.
By Tiffany Shlain
24/6 is filmmaker and found of the Webby Awards, Tiffany Shlain’s, account of how she takes a weekly “tech Sabbath“ away from technology and work. She details how her family came to the practice, how they developed their own practices through experimentation and iteration, and the impact her weekly day away from work and tech has had on her relationships and quality of life.
I’ve had a Sabbath practice for most of my life. As I got older, I got much firmer in my commitment (My 15-year “Shabbataversary” is in May 2022!) Taking a weekly shabbat has been one of the most profound and valuable aspects of my life. While it’s been a game-changer for my ability to connect with those I love and make time for reflection, my Sabbath practice has also been a big part of my creative practice.
Taking the time to rest originally seemed like a big challenge for my artistic and creative life when I was in high school, but over the years, I’ve learned how important the cycle of creation and rest truly is for a creative life.
Part of what I loved about this book was the chance to peek into the life of a prolific creative and see what her rest practice looks like. Shlain shares her life experience and also gives guides and recommendations to starting a Tech Sabbath, even if no one else in your community is doing it, and how to do it with children. Finally, Shlain’s voice as a writer is also joyful and cheerful. I found that I just liked to be in her world for a few weeks while I was reading her book.
We Should Get Together
By Kat Vellos
I met Kat, the author of this book, about a year or so back because she’s a member of my Design Research Mastermind group. I learned that she had written a book about making adult friendships at the perfect time. I had just moved to south Florida where I knew very few people and wanted to build friendships and a community.
I’d just moved from New York City where I’d struggled to turn my many pre-existing friends into a sense of community. While community and friendships had historically been easy for me to build, I’d felt like my friendship confidence had taken a hit.
Kat’s book described some of the challenges I’d had in building adult friendships so clearly that I felt like she was in my head. And because Kat is a user experience designer by training, she took on this challenge as if it was a design problem—breaking it down structurally and offering practices and suggestions for making and strengthening adult friendships.
One of her suggestions is to commit to frequently meeting up with a new friend to “gel” a friendship. I tried this tip on a new friend in my town, and I can credit it with helping establish my first deep and substantive friendship here.
It can be easy to give up on adult friendship and conclude that “making new friends as an adult is just too hard, and it just doesn’t work.“ Kat’s book is filled with practical and positive steps you can take to fight back against that narrative and reclaim this powerful and joyful aspect of a life well-lived.
The Accidental Creative
By Todd Henry
I’ve been following Todd Henry for years and read Herding Tigers, his book on managing creatives, when someone at one of my workshops recommended it. I realized I had never actually read his first book! I picked it up right before I went on a creative solo retreat to write my book on day-to-day creativity at work. It was the perfect timing.
Henry breaks down some of the unique pressures that creatives face and shares why it’s so important to get ahead of them with proactive practices—before they lead to the kind of burnout and creative malaise that can stunt your career and happiness.
Some of the unique brilliance of his book is in how he offers tools and practices for sustaining creative productivity and how he folds them together into a system. From where to get new ideas, to how to structure your time, to the specific types of community, critique, and collaboration you need, Henry’s approach is one of the most complete and elegant systems for maintaining a creative life I’ve ever read.
The Doodle Revolution
By Sunni Brown
Brown’s book is an invitation to join the “doodle revolution,” eg. to use what she calls the “infodoodle” in your work and brainstorming. You’ve seen infodoodles. They’re the visuals those graphic facilitators who draw on posterboards and whiteboards and meetings make in multicolored markers.
But that’s just an example of the “mighty infodoodle,” as she phrases it. Infodoodles are a mix of words and images that display complex ideas. They communicate ideas more effectively and are a tool for brainstorming and ideation.
Whether you feel visually astute or like a visual beginner, Brown’s book will help you learn this powerful ideation and communication tool. We process images so much faster than we do words. Infodoodles are an incredible tool for seeing connections and generating insight.
Ever felt like you were reading something about your brain and how it works that blew your mind, and you were like, “Wait, my mind is blowing my mind”? That’s how I felt while reading this book. Brown is a hilarious writer. I found myself laughing out loud while learning so much.
After reading hundreds of books, there are a few books that stand out to me in the way that the Doodle Revolution does. It’s clear that Brown, as the author, has done so much work to not just share her ideas but to arrange and organize them in the best way for a reader’s easy grasp. As someone who is writing a book right now, I can attest that this is much harder than it looks.
One of the things I loved about Brown’s book is that it is organized so well. It lays out the foundation of why infodoodles are so powerful and then introduces tools and exercises to practice and master the skill in a step-by-step way.
The Pumpkin Plan
By Mike Michalowicz
Let me start by saying I love everything Mike Michalowicz has written. Together, Michalowicz’s many business books, taken together, make up a collage that helps business owners be more effective and abundant.
The Pumpkin Plan focuses specifically on clients and customers. The big idea of the book is that within your set of clients, there are a number who are truly the best fit. They are the pumpkins in your patch to nurture, rather than the so-so-fit clients. If you can get clear on who they are and what qualities they share, you can attract more of the best clients, and your business will be more successful. This is because you’ll zero in on their specific set of needs instead of catering to everyone. This allows you to be more operationally efficient and profitable. (Goodbye 60-hour work weeks!)
I’ve given Michalowicz’s books to so many clients. But one of the reasons this book is now on my favorites list is because, at the core, it’s really about mindset and boundaries. It’s about giving yourself permission to zero in on who you love serving best. To leave behind the people-pleasing impulse that says you have to offer something to everyone who seeks your services, even if they don’t pay on time, don’t respect your boundaries, or even don’t need what your business best provides.
Instead, you can take back your power, focus on who and what you love serving, and build a more successful and enjoyable business around that.