Top 10.5 Books for 2021

8 min readDec 29, 2021

In keeping with tradition, I am happy to share my favorite books of 2021. Thanks to the Kindle Whispernet, I was able to get through over 30 books this past year with my typical bent towards the social sciences but managed to also get a few autobiographies and a handful of fiction with two of them making this years list!

For reference, here is last year’s.

In no particular order:

Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman

The rise again, fall again and now post leaving company rise again story of Adam Neurmann founder of WeWork. This book is a modern-day version of the Emperor who has no clothes except the WeWork founder wasn’t obsessed with fashion but with many delusions of grandeur, excessive narcissism, and limited values. On the one hand, it is hard to tell how anybody could have believed in Nuemann, on the other as an early WeWork customer, the culture, vibe, and service offering was just fantastic. Very fast read and telling.

Compassionomics (The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference) by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli

The author Mazzarelli lays down a fundamental question, “Does treating patients with more compassion really matter? Does caring make a difference? Does it matter in measurable ways? This book highlights the results of the science of compassion and caring. The authors do a masterful job of first defining compassion (vs. empathy) as the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering. While empathy is a precursor for acts of compassion, the constructs are distinct. The research and support in this book make it practical and understandable-the benefits and scientific evidence are beyond compelling. In today’s burned-out healthcare world, the tenants of this book could not be more timely. Fun fact to know, Darwin did not originate the phrase “survival of the fittest”! This is my most recommended and gifted book to healthcare providers in 2021.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

Perhaps made more top 10’s than any business book in 2021. Grant is a master at condensing broad psychosocial topics and research into practical actions and thoughtful reflections of our tendencies to act as a “preacher, prosecutor, and politician”. Grant provides case studies, innuendos, and topics traditionally thought of as uncontroversial. The message in a nutshell is about rethinking even when our typical patterns and assumptions want to dominate our thinking. Very reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, “never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.” This should be a mandatory read for every college undergraduate and graduate programs as critical thinking is a must 21st century skillset. He also supplements his work with dedicated podcasts and interviews that reinforce (my favorite was this Brene Brown podcast and this one with Malcom Gladwell).

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross

Kross, a highly acclaimed psychologist estimates we spend about one-third to one-half of our waking hours talking to ourselves. He says people can think to themselves at a rate that is equal to speaking 4,000 words per-minute out loud. Kross helps us understand and steer the many conversations we have with ourselves. This is not done in a self-help, faddish kind of way but with real behavioral and cognitive research and case studies. Chatter, or self-talk (often including catastrophizing, ruminating, or having redundant irrational thoughts) is associated with the negative -including hurting our moods, social connections, and “choking” under pressure. The tools Kross recommends, many of which are clearly known and intuitive, are like any skill-they must be deliberately practiced and emphasized. I read this book right after Think Again and the two were very complimentary but with very different frameworks and Kross’ work is much more of a scientific read so reader beware! Strong recommendation to medical providers which would enhance their ability to explain the impact of their patient’s negative self-talk on their recovery and provide some very simple but effective cognitive behavioral interventions.

Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Judson Brewer

Brewer, now a two-time winner of my top ten list with his prior The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits follows up with a tremendous application to amongst the most current real world problems-anxiety. We must all accept a simple fact, anxiety is not “rational” so let’s stop treating it with what we view as logic or willpower. Powerful antidotes like true curiosity, mindfulness, and naming are backed with research. Brewer very powerfully examines anxiety from his own life. The take home message is that there are three main steps: identifying habit loops, focusing on the actual current reward value of these behaviors, and then replacing these habits with more rewarding ones based on curiosity and learning. The book’s sections support each of these. Like the Power of Habit by Duhigg (another past winner), the feedback loop of rewards and behavior is not only emphasized but supported with examples and evidence. I am a big fan of Brewer, his TED talk and his webpage and his techniques are worth exploring.

The Power of Giving Away Power: How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go by Matthew Barzun

This is an excellent book and written by somebody I am pleased to have gotten to know. Barzun uses his experiences which are vast-from entrepreneur to political organizer, fund raiser, and US Ambassador to the UK and Sweden. His main thesis is summed up as “ the power we can create by seeing the power in others”. What I enjoyed most about this book is that it was such a departure from the social science and research based books that I read but still jam packed with tremendous leadership and organizational lessons brought in more of an essay form and very impactful. My favorite two spots were about the lessons and applicability of bourbon making taught to him by his reknowned Father in Law, and the incredible history of Mary Parker Follet who Peter Drucker referred to as his own “guru”. This is a very fast read and very enjoyable. Hope to read more from Mr. Barzun.

Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing by Pete Davis

Infinite Browsing Mode or the concept of “keeping our options open”-according to Pete Davis is the defining characteristic of our current culture. In this meaningful book, Davis provides an analysis of this as well as those “long-haul heroes” who commit to particular places, professions, and causes. Davis argues that the “options open” is a false freedom that restricts us from deep fulfillment which is found in true dedication. There are so many additional messages in Davis’ work which combines psychology, social sciences, and history to get us to understand infinite browsing mode and its associated fears (fear of regret, association, and FOMO), the downside of keeping options open (lack of focus commitment which has long term implications), and the joy of depth (it is a Superpower). Davis emphasizes that the the more time we add to something, the more beautiful it becomes-that depth makes the ordinary extraordinary. It’s a wonderful message and has provided me with an insight into operating strategy emphasizing narrow and deep vs. wide and superficial and to reward “long hauler committers”. This short and great commencement speech at Harvard is a good intro to this fantastic book.

The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul

I have been a big fan of Annie Murphy Paul for years-amongst my favorite science writers including her fabulous newsletters and past work Origins and Cult of Personality Testing as well as a great website. On the one hand, this book is quite intuitive-think outside of our head, on the other it goes quite a bit deeper and provides a framework, examples (Jonas Salk’s discovery), and practical advice on using mental extensions for new discoveries and that can help solve problems. The books is made up of chapters about thinking with sensation, gesture, movement, and the use of interoceptive tools vs. relying on explanatory rational. Additional chapters relay the influence of environments and our thinking including creating opportunities to enhance our brain power. The last chapters are all about use of peers, groups, and subject matter experts. Her ending conclusions are a good reinforcement for a book that has a tremendous amount of information. It was the book in 2021 that had more Kindle highlights than any other-and for good reason!

Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir by Stevie Van Zandt

I am an unapologetic Springsteen fan including his main sidekick Steve Van Zandt who is truly a renaissance man. I remember driving to Detroit in the early 1980’s to see is Disciples of Souls in a small bar venue and have had the privilege of meeting him a few times. He is incredibly humble, especially when you learn about all of his adventures and discoveries (some of the satellite radio music stations were his inventions!). He relays his experiences that captivates the reader/listener including his admission of bad timing when he went off from the band on his own, world travels including his role in the anti-apartheid movement, his work as a producer and solo artist (some good, some bad), his entry into acting, and his non profit which produces curriculum that scales teaching of music across primary education. His life is never about regrets or money but in never sitting still-always finding ways to use his multi talents to make an impact. He’s not done yet!

Play Nice but Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader by Michael Dell

This is truly the inside story of Michael Dell’s journey as an entrepreneur from Houston to Austin including the influencers and the relationships in his life as well as his experience of going public to private to public again and the reality that the very company he founded could be lost. Highlights for me were all the stories around Austin, from a capital and university town to a technology center and its high growth trajectory.Highly recommend for those that remember ordering their Dell computer online or over the phone. How he transformed his dorm room to the most sophisticated supply chain computer manufacturer but then had the insight to transform the entire company to cloud and services. The impact that Dell’s philanthropy has had in Austin is well documented-he truly wins and he is truly nice. Loved every chapter of this book.

The Plot: A Novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Fiction book of the year-by tons of folks including me! This one you won’t put down. It’s a thriller about a down and our writer (Jacob Finch Bonner) who is teaching in a out of the way MFA program and still trying to write. He meets a narcissistic student with an incredibly bad attitude but learns of a novel he is writing. As it turns out, the student’s book never comes to fruition because of an untimely death yet Jacob uses the “bones” of the story to craft his own version which becomes the rave of the year. At some point, Jake learns that somebody knows where he got the idea and the thriller begins. My understanding is that Korelitz has a new one coming out in 2022 and it will be on my pre-order list. Look for this book to come out as a movie-the story is just too good.

Hope you enjoyed and feel free to reply with your top reads.

Have a great 2022.