You may have seen my latest ‘annual top reads’ post, but I decided I wanted to do an extra post that was a bit special – the books that have been most compelling for me over the last 10 years.
Each of these books has become one that I often refer to or recommend; has fundamentally shifted the way I think about something; or has introduced a critical new concept to the ‘furniture of my mind’.
I will say it was very difficult to narrow down the list, but each of these books has made a significant impact on me during the 2010s, and I would highly recommend all of them.
So without further ado, and in no particular order…
1 – The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Nicholas Carr)
I read this Pulitzer Prize nominated book when it came out in 2011, and although some of the specifics of available technology are now a little outdated, this remains a seminal exploration of the impact of the digital age on who we are and how we operate in the world. Many of the brilliant books on this topic which have come after continue to reference and owe a debt to Carr’s confronting text.
This was the book that first flagged to me the tension between the advent of the digital world and our ability to focus and think deeply and empathetically, something I continue to find one of the most significant topics of our time.
2 – Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (Sheryl Sandberg)
Though it’s been criticised for a lack of class awareness and intersectionality, the sheer power of all the research that has been drawn together in Sandberg’s excellent book, and the clarity with which it lays out the implications thereof, continues to make this a valuable and imperative resource for anyone who is a woman or works with women. It also powerfully highlights the very real significance of unconscious bias in general, something which should inform organisational understanding in regard to anyone who isn’t the mirror image of the hiring manager.
What makes this book so helpful for us all is that it equips both women navigating difficult dynamics as well as those who have the power to make changes to them, and it does so with humour, practical advice and an appreciation that so often it is simply unchallenged norms, rather than ill will, at play in creating systemic dynamics.
Many of the research vignettes shared in this book will become unforgettable touchstones as you find yourself facing similar situations in your own context, and help raise perspective from the individual situation to the larger landscape.
3 – The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Mark Noll)
A book, fundamentally, about perspectives, assumptions and echo chambers – which is why I continue to find it so relevant. This book outlines how difficult it was for helpful dialogue to occur across idealogical lines during the Civil War, as well as sharing from primary sources the difference between writings within the US and in Europe about the unfolding US Civil War.
What I have found particularly interesting is how some of of the characteristics of the ‘debate’ around slavery at the time can be seen still today in debates on other ‘idealogical’ topics. What I also find intriguing is reflecting on what kind of approaches to dialogue were more or less effective in effecting meaningful change. Finally, it forces one to reckon with the fact that so many people could defend so absolutely what is so absolutely indefensible, and to consider the question as to which matters of today will seem to future generations similarly beyond debate.
4 – Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality (Henry Cloud)
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll have heard me reference this book more than a few times, including in this book spotlight. I’ve gifted this book to many people, because it’s simply one of the best leadership books I’ve ever read.
The core concept of actively pursuing and facing into the bare-faced facts of reality, and then continually growing into the person who can meet the demands of that reality in a way that brings both health to others and effective results, is powerful enough to be a lifelong guiding quest for any leader.
5 – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Cal Newport)
I finished reading this book, then immediately went back and read it again. This is the book for anyone who wants to make sure that in this life they do their best work, and not just the work they could fit in around distractions.
It throws out some pretty strong challenges to some of our current norms, entices you with the possibilities of what is actually possible given our deep attention, and then offers a variety of practical paths towards more focused work depending on the constraints of your work situation. This has become a book I regularly return to for reassessment and recalibration of my habits.
6 – The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Erin Meyer)
Meyers provides a fantastic entry point to understanding some of the ways that cultural perspectives can fundamentally differ in the workplace, and how we can increase our awareness and ability to navigate those differences. She illustrates these through eight scales that illuminate some of the practical ways these surface, as well as plenty of practical anecdotes and suggestions.
The eight scales are:
• Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
• Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
• Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
• Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
• Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
• Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
• Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
• Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time
This is a very helpful and practical book for anyone navigating cross-cultural relationships, if simply by raising awareness of key areas in which assumptions and perceptions might be fundamentally at odds.
7 – Capital in the 21st Century (Thomas Piketty)
Yes, it’s very long. Yes, it’s worth it, if you’re interested in a perspective on our current global financial situation that stretches back further than the ‘golden age’ of post-WWII. Piketty’s extensive work looks at our current context not just in comparison to our parents and grandparents, but rather the trends of the last two and a half centuries, and what that can tell us about what we should expect to see emerging.
The critical issue of rising wealth inequality is central to the narrative, but it is grounded in the realities of what we have learnt globally about how that arises and what it does to society, as well as asking the reader to seriously consider what kind of society we want to see ourselves heading towards.
8 – Scripture and the Authority of God (N.T. Wright)
Around three-quarters of the world’s population adhere to a religion that includes a sacred text or texts. The question, then, of what it means for such a text to hold meaning or authority in a rapidly changing world continues to be a significant one. This book tackles that question from the perspective of the roughly 30% of the world that consider the Bible their sacred text, and what that means for individuals and faith communities today.
9 – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)
When I tell people about this book, the best way I can describe it is this – it felt like it was explaining me to myself! Cain fascinatingly describes the confluence of social dynamics that led to the rise of the extrovert ideal, and offers both a wealth of research and plenty of practical suggestions about how to get the best out of ourselves (as introverts) or those in our teams or families.
She busts some myths about introversion, making it clear that it is not the same as being shy or not being able to speak publicly, lead or cast vision, but rather focusing on what is needed to ensure that each of us can recharge and operate to our best. Cain convincingly explains why the strengths of both extroverts and introverts are needed to create the best solutions, ideas and relationships, so long as each is allowed to operate in a way that enables them to bring their best.
10 – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen)
There’s a reason this has remained a productivity classic for almost 20 years. Put simply, it contains timeless and supremely practical advice for creating a workflow that lowers stress and improves effective execution. I’ve re-read it multiple times, and am always working on iterating its processes as my roles, teams and demands change over time.
Get it. Implement it. You won’t be sorry.
11. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness (Michelle Alexander)
This book was a critical introduction for me as to how systemic racial injustice can manifest. In the years since, as this reality has rightly become elevated in the public consciousness, the staggering and inarguable data, the deliberate tracing of historical context, and the devastating outcomes for communities of colour described by Alexander have stayed with me as I continue to seek to better my own understanding and behaviours relating to racial injustice.
12. The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling)
Did they change the way I look at or operate in the world? No. Was it one of the best fiction series I’ve read in my life? Yes. Definitely yes.