I’ve read 60 books (so far) this year. These were my favorites.
If you like these reviews, I’ll be launching a blog after the new year about the books that I’m reading. I’ll share details in an upcoming newsletter. If you don’t get my newsletter, you can subscriber here.
How Music Works by David Byrne
This book starts by exploring how music has been shaped by the context in which we hear it – from the design of venue halls to the context changes brought by recording technology. It’s also a romp through Byrne’s thoughtful creative process and career and his love for music shines throughout the book. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I gained an even higher level of respect for the lead singer of the Talking Heads.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
I loved this book. It uses the stories of Sherlock Holmes to illustrate the power of the scientific method. It starts with the importance of prior knowledge and the role memory plays. It continues with one of the best chapters I’ve read about the role of observation in creative endeavors. And it highlights the importance of imagination to frame the situation. Finally, it outlines the deductive process. It’s common to focus on that last step alone, but so much of the work happens in the first three. This book does a great job of exploring what might be considered a dry topic (the scientific method) but makes it fun with a theme (Sherlock Holmes) that makes it easy to engage with.
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
I was hooked on this book before I even got to the first chapter. In the prelude, the book explains, “A mathematician is always asking, ‘What assumptions are you making? And are they justified?’” Sound familiar? This book isn’t just about math, it’s about sound thinking. It does cover some seemingly scary math concepts like calculus, linear regression, probability, statistical significance, and much more. But it does it in a way that is accessible even if you struggle with long division. As I’ve said many times before about statistics, you don’t need to understand the math, but if you want to be a good thinker, you do need to understand the concepts. This book does a great job of helping us do just that.
How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
It’s always a good sign when people are still reading a book 75 years after it was written. Much of the wisdom in this book has been repeated over and over again elsewhere. As a result, it might feel like cliched advice with little substance. But if you can look past the familiarity and do the work to integrate the principles into your own life, there’s no better collection of wisdom when it comes to interacting with other human beings.
This book could be the sequel to Dale Carnegie’s best seller. It combines high-level strategies for how to get through to people with specific tactics for how to put those strategies into action. This book has depth. It goes way beyond the platitudes in most books about listening and gets into complex human interactions. I highly recommend it.
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton
Negotiating isn’t just an important skill that we use in every day life, it’s also a form of social problem solving. Many of the strategies and tactics from negotiating are applicable to other domains. This book does a great job of tackling the subject from a win-win perspective and draws upon psychology to get results.
Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut
I found this book to be fascinating. It argues that what makes people compelling is the right mix of strength and warmth. The challenge is that these two attributes tend to move in opposite directions. The more strength you show, the less warm you appear. And the more warm you are, the less strong you appear. The people who find the right balance are who we are most drawn to. It’s full of specific examples on how to exhibit both and when.
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
This book made me squirm. It’s a Machiavellian view of power including advice like “never put too much trust in friends” and “get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.” While there are many ideas that I disagree with in this book – the primary one being that it takes a scarcity stance on power, and I prefer to take an abundance view on just about everything – each chapter does contain immense insight into human behavior. And as a result, it’s a worthwhile read.
Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond
Every once in awhile I read a book that I can’t stop telling everyone I know about. This was one of them. Our perception of time as linear with a past, present, and future is likely to be one of the things that future humans look back on and think we were silly. And that fascinates me. This book does a great job of reviewing the research on how we perceive time from the parts of the brain responsible for tracking time to the wild experiments people have run to understand our experience of time.
Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin
While I was disappointed by Roger Martin’s The Design of Business, I loved Opposable Mind. In this book, he describes “integrative thinking” as a method for problem solving. Integrative thinkers have the ability to hold opposing thoughts in their head, they don’t choose from less-than-optimal solutions, they create better new ones, they multi-track ideas, they accommodate complexity, and they invent the future. What’s surprising to me is thees are all the attributes I would use to define designers and yet in The Design of Business, Martin goes in an entirely different direction. If you are interested in how “design thinking” or how the work that designers do can help solve complex business problems, read Opposable Mind and skip The Design of Business.
Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions by Gary Klein
Much of what we know about decision making comes from controlled experiments. Klein’s research stands out as he looks at decision making in real-world contexts. This book explains his decision making model by exploring the sources of power we rely upon when facing complex problems. He includes the usual suspects – deductive logical thinking, analysis of probabilities, and statistical methods – but we rarely use those methods in high-pressure, time-sensitive situations. So he also explores the sources of power that we tend to rely upon in those situations – intuition, mental simulation, metaphor, and storytelling. It’s a dense read, but if you are interested in problem solving, it’s a must read.
Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy by Cindy Alvarez
Alvarez adds another worthwhile read to the Lean series. If you have ANY questions about how to get started with customer development, this book answers them. Starting from why customer development matters, it covers who to talk to, what to ask them, what to look for in the responses, and how to know if you can trust what you hear. It’s a very practical hands-on guide for how to get the most from your customer visits.
I never thought I would read a language usage guide. But when I learned best-selling author, cognitive scientist, and linguist, Stephen Pinker was writing one, I couldn’t wait to start reading it. It didn’t disappoint. Pinker is a best-selling author because he makes complex topics (How the Brain Works, The Language Instinct) engaging and accessible. His cognitive science and linguistics background means he’s not just espousing opinion but rooting it in research. This is a must read for word nerds, hobbyist writers, and anyone who wants to write more clearly.
I’ll be taking a two week hiatus from Product Talk. Regular posts will resume on Wednesday, January 7th. In the meantime, I’ll be getting started on next year’s reading list and drafting some posts for my new blog. If you want to learn more about my blog about the books I’m reading, subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list to make sure you don’t miss the announcement.