The Five Most Powerful Books That I Read This Year

I read 25 books this year and want to share my favorite passages from five books that resonated with me the most. These books have helped me improve my own life and/or told an unforgettable story with interesting characters.

5. Bad Blood

By: John Carreyrou (Amazon)

Bad Blood tells the inside story of how Theranos became a billion dollar unicorn only to collapse shortly after. About halfway through, John shifts to a first-person perspective as he describes his investigation, and I just couldn’t put it down afterward.

Theranos collapsed because its corporate culture was toxic. Here’s an example of the CEO/COO discouraging any type of disagreement from employees:

The biggest problem of all was the dysfunctional corporate culture in which it was being developed. Elizabeth and Sunny regarded anyone who raised a concern or an objection as a cynic and a naysayer. Employees who persisted in doing so were usually marginalized or fired, while sycophants were promoted.

What’s scary is that this kind of behavior probably isn’t that rare in most companies.

4. Flowers for Algernon

By: Daniel Keyes (Amazon)

This is a classic novel about a mentally disabled man who becomes really smart after an experimental procedure. As his IQ increases, however, he realizes that the people he thought were friends were just making fun of him. Everything in this book from the characters to the grammar is exceptional and heartbreaking (yes, grammar can be heartbreaking). I can’t believe I didn’t read this book back in high school!

My favorite quote:

Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.

3. Powerful

By: Patty McCord (Amazon)

Patty was Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer and she describes the company’s high-performance culture. What I found remarkable about Patty’s book is how similar it was to Ray Dalio’s Principles (another must read) in preaching radical honesty and transparency. Similar to a blog post I wrote earlier this year, here are Patty’s principles around radical honesty:

People can handle being told the truth, about both the business and their performance.

Telling the truth about perceived problems, in a timely fashion and face to face, is the single most effective way to solve problems.

Practicing radical honesty diffuses tensions and discourages backstabbing; it builds understanding and respect.

Radical honesty also leads to the sharing of opposing views, which are so often withheld and which can lead to vital insights.

The style of delivery is important; leaders should practice giving critical feedback so that it is specific and constructive and comes across as well intentioned.

Model openly admitting when you are wrong. In addition, talk about what went into your decisions and where you went wrong. That encourages employees to share ideas and opposing views with you, even if they directly contradict your position.

2. Radical Candor

By: Kim Scott (Amazon)

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott also preaches radical honesty but I really like how she balances that with the need to care personally about your coworkers. My takeaway is that you should evaluate your work relationships on two axes — how often you care personally and how often you challenge directly. If you’re doing both, then you’re moving towards radical candor. I’ll quote Kim in describing what each axes means:

[Caring personally] is about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level; about learning what’s important to people; about sharing with one another what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.

[Challenge directly] is about delivering hard feedback, making hard calls, and holding a high bar for results…How do you criticize without discouraging the person? First, focus on your relationship. Ask for criticism before giving it, and offer more praise than criticism. Be humble, helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, praise in public, criticize in private, and don’t personalize.

1. Extreme Ownership

By: Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (Amazon)

I read Extreme Ownership at the beginning of 2018 and it’s had a big impact on my life since then. Jocko and Leif are ex-Navy Seals who discuss applying combat leadership principles to the workplace. The principles are straightforward — check your ego, keep it simple, prioritize and execute, etc — but the authors bring them to life with both combat and business examples. No matter what role you’re in, I think you can learn from Jocko and Leif, starting with the principle that’s in the title of the book:

Taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage…Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to a build a better and more effective team.

Such a leader, however, does not take credit for his or her team’s successes but bestows that honor upon his subordinate leaders and team members. When a leader sets such an example and expects this from junior leaders within the team, the mind-set develops into the team’s culture at every level.

As a bonus, the two most disappointing books I read this year are:

  • Thinking Fast and Slow
    By: Daniel Kahneman
    The core idea that there are two systems that drive the way we think is solid (system 1 is fast and emotional and system 2 is slower and more logical). But that’s in chapter 1. What follows is 400+ pages of monotonous psychological concepts and studies — I had more trouble finishing this book than any other.

  • Start with Why
    By: Simon Sinek
    Again this book has one great idea that’s in the title. It then spends 200+ pages giving examples from Steve Jobs and other leaders. Yet, it fails to give any examples of how to put “start with why” into practice.

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