What I read (and what I didn’t read) this year

This is a long one! In this post we’ve got all my short reviews of the books I read in 2018, some very brief notes on the books I put down in 2018 without completing, notes on coming back to Twitter, and finally some notes on leaving Facebook. (The last one made my life much better, I think.)

Here’s what I read and didn’t read in 2018. (All book title links are affiliate-free links to Goodreads.)

What I read

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

Recommended for anyone interested in the continual design of the life or organization they find themselves in. Best seen as Dalio seems to suggest as a catalyst for abstracting out your own principles by facing down the hard truths of reality and demanding feedback on the truths you might be blinded to. In other words, chew the book up, digest as much as you can, and use it as fuel to create your own version of this book. It’s got me tweaking some items in my own routines so it seems to have clicked with me. I would have given the book five stars if the back half wasn’t such a slog. It’s more like an open reference manual for Bridgewater employees and Dalio claims it was not intended to be read straight through.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Things go downhill fast for Macbeth and the play moves just as quickly. The world comes undone alongside his actions and reactions to them. Reality can’t stand a king that won’t act kingly and Macbeth finally curses life itself. Also, there are gory-locked ghosts. It’s not exactly a fun read but that’s not exactly why you read it, and you should read it, it’s great — but not the Amazon Classics Edition I read. I was surprised at the lack of footnotes. Pay some money for a decent edition.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is probably my favourite “page turner” author but this book really pales in comparison next to his first Mistborn trilogy and the Stormlight series. I only really read it because characters in this book appear in the Stormlight books and it was that alone that pushed me on to the end. It really dragged for me until the middle of the book but then the pace picked up and it was at least diverting.

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute

An extended business-oriented parable on what happens when you ignore the instinctual feeling to help those around you. You either honor that feeling or you betray it. What happens when you betray it? It isn’t good according to the book. It’s self-betrayal that sets off a chain of events that leaves you feeling justified and others looking contemptible. You wind up calling that your character and living in a warped version of reality with warped results in all your actions. Worse still you’re probably doing this all the time. It has a dated Sunday School feel to it for a book published in 2002 but I won’t knock points for that. It all rang true. Highly recommended.

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by the Arbinger Institute

A sequel (and narrative prequel) to Leadership and Self-Deception again written in the style of a “Church Movie Night” drama. You’ll know it if you’ve seen one: It’s teachable moment after teachable moment piled on in dialogue after dialogue. Again excellent despite that. Mostly a reiteration and expansion of the previous book though this one draws out more of the stoicism implicit in the ideas here. The key idea is again something like: “You and everyone on the planet are going to feel a desire to treat people as persons and help them when they’re in need. You’re either going to honor that desire in your behaviors towards them — which may or may not help them — or betray that desire and dehumanize yourself and them. That won’t work out well for either of you.” There’s no real argument or proof for the inciting incident (the instant and unconscious, or maybe even biological, desire to help) but it feels right enough. Well worth anyone’s time. (It’s very short.)

Design is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton

A pleasant introduction to a wide variety of psychological and storytelling ideas that can be and are successfully applied to the thinking and problem solving involved in the practice of designing things. Again, it’s just “pleasant” or a good primer.

Jung: A Very Short Introduction by Anthony Stevens

Definitely worth reading if the title is what you’d like. I feel like Jung and the origins of analysis are less of a mystery now. I was surprised to find out that there is some scientific evidence now for some of Jung’s conjecture about consciousness, how much actually was conjecture, and how against the grain it was when he was developing it.

The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Something like an introduction to psychologist Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud and Jung who I, and apparently many other people, had previously known little about. If you’ve read any Dale Carnegie or Stephen Covey you’ve already had your own little introduction. It seems Adler was an influence on them.

With my own background reading I was reminded of Stoicism’s rejection of “things you can’t change” in understanding the world and Adlerian Psychology often felt to my mind like a more systematic and expansive restating of that idea. It often sounded pretty radical. Which is why the format of the book is so great. Presented as a dialogue between a philosopher steeped in Adler and a youth who thinks Adler sounds nuts you can come alongside the youth.

Recommended if you’re interested in practical life philosophies or how one might live better type stuff.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Given that I read this over one 24 hour period that must be a sure sign I think it’s good. It’s wizards and witches fighting back a corrupt and evil Wood with a capital W in a fantasy world that draws on Eastern Europe for inspiration. It’s also an emotionally real story about friendship, loss, honesty, and finding home. With cool action scenes, awesome magic, and gross monsters. I really liked it. It reminded me a lot of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel.

I’m super-excited to see that Novik has another fantasy book out. It’s near the top of my to-read list.

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Malone Scott

On my required reading list for people who are a “boss”. (The other being Managing Humans.) Do people report to you in any way? You’re a “boss”. I really appreciated the fundamental core first step to starting on the path of being a “kickass boss”: ask for people to provide you with radical candor and work to make sure they provide you with it. Everything starts there and you work out from that virtue and individual oriented position. Don’t think you’ve got this Radical Candor thing down with the medium post summary version. There’s good advice here on running a team and communicating effectively. As in, communicating in order to get things done.

I wish I’d read this book years ago.

Unsafe Thinking: How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need it Most by Jonah Sachs

Pretty decent summary on what it feels like to take risks, how to lean into that anxiety, making space for creative thinking, and protecting it. A little too surface level for me. I was looking for a deep dive and not something as broad. The best parts were the stories and anecdotes but I didn’t find enough of that either. Still pretty decent though.

Product Management in Practice: A Real-World Guide to the Key Connective Role of the 21st Century by Matt Lemay

Do you lead or manage teams of people who make things? This belongs on your shelf next to Managing Humans and Radical Candor. It’s written in a conversational style that focuses on where the theory of getting things done breaks down in real life — and then it tells you how to push through. Highly recommended. This book was a 10x confidence booster, corrective, and guide for me. Might have been the best book I read all year.

Strategize: Product Strategy and Product Roadmap Practices for the Digital Age by Roman Pichler

A great reference book on forming a product strategy, getting it into a roadmap, and implementing it milestone by milestone. My limited experience with full-blown “official” Agile development made some parts a little cloudier for me but if I made it through anyone can.

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims

Lively, short book on creativity, risk-taking, feedback, and making successful products. Loved it. Really encouraging.

The Compound Effect: Jumpstart Your Income, Your Life, Your Success by Darren Hardy

Read on the suggestion of an executive coach and surprised myself by liking this as much as I did. I think if you went into it with the attitude that the book is much like a coach in written form you might like it too. Another book about the power of habit and routine but with its own flavor of attitude, inspirational anecdata, and good advice. The book comes with a set of templates for analyzing ones life as well. Which I used, and to my surprise, also enjoyed. Almost perfect but for a hard sell that surrounds the book and the get-rich quick dressing that surrounds it all. It’s a hard-work over time with the right direction produces compound investment curves type book.

I love giving people books on how to form good habits and I wound up giving this one as a Christmas gift to someone.

The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran

Another recommendation from an executive coach. I was pretty skeptical of this one — just shorten the year and you’re done! — but it’s really good. The branding of the title is a bit much but think of it as a total system for approaching rapid advancement of goals in the short term towards a longer term vision while eliminating distractions through practical management of your time and, well, that’s the book in a nutshell from my point of view. Lots to learn here.

User Experience Management: Essential Skills for Leading Effective UX Teams by Arnie Lund

Almost too much to read. A compendium of literally everything one would want to know about leading a UX team from hiring, to building a lab, including finding room in a budget, to leadership skills, and evangelizing work internally/externally. It’s peppered with real stories from real managers and leaders through the UX field. Kind of an incredible effort though a slog at many points. I might have hit a record number of highlights here. There’s just so much practical and useful stuff in here.

A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General by Ann Dunwoody

I mined this book for insight into leadership skills and management anecdotes but what I especially enjoyed in the end was a newfound respect for military life. And most especially the sense of multi-generational teamwork along with the sense of dedicating ones life to something bigger than themselves. But back to leadership skills: I wound up highlighting almost an entire chapter on what it means to have a vision, develop it, share it, and drive towards it. Probably the best no nonsense explanation of that task out there.

Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value by Thomas Lockwood

Great series of essays on what makes Design Thinking. Most interesting for me turned out to be the essays on Service Design and Brand Design. A little dry at times so don’t go in expecting an easy read. But this is the book on Design Thinking.

Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Timothy Ferriss

What a great book. It’s more like a collection of short interviews all following the same short set of questions posed to a diverse group of accomplished people. And it’s fascinating. Interesting routine ideas, battle-tested advice, inspirational quotes, and a resulting shot of empathy when you realize how “the same” everyone is. I even loved the experience of reading it and talking about the people I was learning about or learning new things about.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox

6 stars out of 5. This page-turner business novel about identifying constraints in manufacturing, really in systems, and removing them was incredible. Highly recommended. I want posters in my office with the five focusing steps, and three key questions, and “what is the goal?” question from this book. I wish I read this decades ago.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Like a rotting, slimy, nightmare about sin, confession, and maybe responsibility. Does that sound like a good time? If so, read this poem. I recommend reading it out loud.

What I didn’t read

Notable books I started and put down for various reasons, skimmed and read at only a surface-level, or where I only read select parts …

A note on Twitter

I started using Twitter again this year after a two-year absence that is really more like four or five years if you count me being really engaged with it. I wanted to make a note here about the three types of thing I avoided reading.

  1. Negative tweets in general from people I follow. How? I did a mass unfollowing of accounts that were generally negative. I’m super-suspicious of what I like to call “black box algorithmic media”. That’s content delivered to me by an algorithm I have no insight into highly likely to be trained on prioritizing “it’s a train wreck and I can’t look away” content that will make me angry or upset. I don’t need that in my life in general and I especially don’t need to train a bot to make it worse so I don’t follow people who are likely to deliver that content to me.
  2. Negative content from the people I do follow that I don’t really want to read. For the first time in about ten years of using Twitter I’m muting select terms to clean up my feed. It’s mostly political and current events type things that tend to skew towards polarization and general negativity. Things that an algorithm is going to love to surface to me in the worst kind of feedback loop.
  3. Replies from people who don’t really want to have a conversation but instead want to have an argument. I just ignore these types of tweets now. This is the type of content that made me stop using Twitter in the first place. I recommend just avoiding it.

A note on Facebook

In a few weeks my Facebook account will have been deactivated for about a year. I think I’m better off for not having read anything on Facebook in that time. See my thoughts above on “black box algorithmic media” and consider that it wasn’t until about a month ago that I finally realized that I’d lost the compulsion to want to check in on Facebook. So, about nine or ten months to break that habit.

3 responses to “What I read (and what I didn’t read) this year”

  1. I’m now even more excited to read “Uprooted.” I just have to finish all the books already on my to-read list.

    It’s going to be tough to take a break from Brandon Sanderson. I wrapped up “Skyward” a few days ago and am a reading session or two away from finishing “Mistborn.” I might dive into some non-fiction to help with my transition to another fiction author.

    In 2017, I gave up both Twitter and Facebook for 30 days. It was amazing for my mental health and general attitude about the world. I’d give them up altogether if I had a better way of promoting my business. I’ve been purging a lot of negative people in 2018.

  2. Wow, thanks so much for your kind words about Product Management in Practice! Amazing to see the book in such good company here. If you drop me a line at matt@mattlemay.com, I’d be happy to send you a copy of my new book Agile for Everybody–which is my attempt to work through some of the cloudiness in my own experience with “official” Agile methodologies and frameworks. Thanks again, and hope your 2019 is off to a great start!

    1. Oh, hey, Matt! Thanks for the offer! Line dropped. 🙂

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