Top Non-Fiction Picks from 2020

In 2019, I started the habit of sharing the best books I have read in a given year (you can see the 2019 list here). These are books that I’d strongly recommend if you didn’t check them already. So here goes my 2020 favorites.

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

Author: Thomas Friedman

This is arguably one of the most influential books of the past 20 years. The core idea is pretty simple: thanks to technology and globalization, the world has fundamentally changed around the year 2000. Power has shifted from governments and large corporations to individuals. Now, and for the first time in history, everyone is competing against everyone else, anywhere in the world. And this has major implications on how the world works and will evolve. The gives a historical account on how we got to the current state of affairs and how to thrive in this new era of human history.

Takeaways:

  • We are at the beginning of a new era in human history where individuals have never been more powerful.
  • Your geographic coordinates are increasingly meaningless. The world has become a small town where everyone competes with everyone else.

Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

Author: Charles Duhigg

Advice often misses context. It often looks something like this: person/company A did X, then these amazing things happened; therefore, action X must have been the cause of that success. In this book, Charles compares and contrasts several situations before making that cause-effect statement. One of the topics that I thoroughly enjoyed is mental models and how they help pilots manage catastrophic situations in the sky. This is a truly magnificent piece of work if you care about improving your craft.

Takeaways:

  • Mental models and visuals are critical to understanding.
  • Motivation is a skill. You should learn it.
  • Team dynamics are far more important that individual strengths and weaknesses. Psychological safety is critical to building a good team.
  • Decision making should be analytical and rooted in quantitative methods and logic. Don’t let guessing be your decision making tool. Instead, apply quantitative methods, look at the data, question assumptions, etc.

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice

Authors: C. Christensen, K. Dillon, T. Hall, D. Duncan

It is often unclear why some products are more popular than others. The thesis of the book is based on The Jobs Theory. This theory suggests that people often use a given product to do a certain job which often has nothing to do with the nature of the product. For instance, the authors discuss Netflix as a tool to kill boredom and not necessarily watch movies. This context helps uncover why Netflix does what it does, how it does it and how it approaches the competition. My reading notes can be found here.

Takeaways:

  • There is a big difference between what a product is meant for and why people use it. Understanding that distinction explains why some products are far more successful and others.

The Mamba Mentality: How I Play

Author: Kobe Bryant

The great Kobe Bryant has left us this truly unique masterpiece on his working habits and how they lead to his remarkable career in basketball. A list of those habits can be found here.

Takeaways:

  • Excellence is a habit. Your performance in the court is what you do every single day.
  • Working more does not necessarily mean burn out. Working more can mean getting better.
  • It takes a lot of people to succeed.
  • Leadership is not a title! It is a behavior.

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Author: Simon Winchester

When we talk about technological achievements, we often refer to tangible things: machines. This book reminds us that many of the technologies we enjoy today are about ability to build something with a better precision than ever before. More importantly, the author explains how being able to make things with higher precision often opens up completely new possibilities. For instance, long haul flights would not have been possible without very precise turbines. All these smartphones that keep improving year over year are only possible because we are able to make chips with ever higher precision.

Takeaways:

  • Better precision opens up new technological possibilities.
  • Precision is what makes our technological world possible.
  • We are on a verge of a new era: What happens when we go to space where physical laws are different (e.g. gravity, space-time, etc)? Is there a limit to precision?

Energy & Computing @ Shell & GWU (Opinions my own)