My 7 Favorite Books I read in 2020

Reading has always been a large part of my life, but this year in particular, I read a ton — 51 books. The global pandemic pushed everyone indoors, and I didn’t know what to do with that time other than work, read, workout, and play music.

Thus, I’ve had a great year for reading (#silverlinings).

Here are my favorite books of the year, no genre, categorization, or order.

My 7 Favorite Books I Read in 2020

  1. Awareness by Anthony De Mello
  2. Based on a True Story by Norm MacDonald
  3. Tribe by Sebastian Junger
  4. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  5. The ‘Red Rising Trilogy’ by Pierce Brown
  6. Mind Management, Not Time Management by David Kadavy
  7. Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine

1. Awareness by Anthony De Mello

I read this in November, and as happens so often with books, it came at the perfect time.

I had been quite stressed out and was feeling a little bit jaded with my career. Kind of bored, and mostly just lost. Didn’t know where I was going or wanted to go.

Reading Awareness, on the surface, was relaxing. Just reading it, sentence-by-sentence, I felt calmer.

On a secondary level, I read it while on a remote work retreat with my co-founders and some of my best friends. We were in the mountains in North Carolina, and a portion of the group including myself had undertaken a psilocybin trip on one of the days later in the week. I couldn’t have picked a better book to complement and preempt my experience on that trip.

I came away with calm clarity, confidence, and energy to return to my work and relationships.

It’s hard to describe this one, as I think you’ll paint your own context onto it. But it’s really a book about awareness, meditation, mindfulness, and how they are tools to change yourself, which in turn, is how you can expect to change the world (as opposed to lashing out and trying to control others through your own expectations and lenses).

Might I add, it’s a great accompaniment or even a catalyst to therapy.

I’ve read many other books on mindfulness and meditation, but this may be my favorite (tied, maybe, with Radical Acceptance). Others that fit well here are The Art of Disappearing, Wherever You Go There You Are, and Waking Up.

Some quotes:

“Think of the loneliness that is yours. Would human company ever take it away? It will only serve as a distraction. There’s an emptiness inside, isn’t there? And when the emptiness surfaces, what do you do? You run away, turn on the television, turn on the radio, read a book, search for human company, seek entertainment, seek distraction. Everybody does that. It’s big business nowadays, an organized industry to distract us and entertain us.”

“Anytime you renounce something, you are tied forever to the thing you renounce. There’s a guru in India who says, ‘Every time a prostitute comes to me, she’s talking nothing but God. She says I’m sick of this life that I’m living. I want God. But every time a priest comes to me he’s talking about nothing but sex.'”

“Think of the loneliness that is yours. Would human company ever take it away? It will only serve as a distraction. There’s an emptiness inside, isn’t there? And when the emptiness surfaces, what do you do? You run away, turn on the television, turn on the radio, read a book, search for human company, seek entertainment, seek distraction. Everybody does that. It’s big business nowadays, an organized industry to distract us and entertain us.”

“‘Well,’ you say, ‘my neighbor has coarser tastes than I do.’ You’re the more dangerous person, you really are. Jesus Christ seems to have had less trouble with the other type than your type. Much less trouble. He ran into trouble with people who were really convinced they were good. Other types didn’t seem to give him much trouble at all, the ones who were openly selfish and knew it.”

“If you find me charming, it means that right now you’re in a good mood, nothing more.”

“Do you like being controlled? Let me tell you something: If you ever let yourself feel good when people tell you that you’re O.K., you are preparing yourself to feel bad when they tell you you’re not good.”

2. Based on a True Story by Norm MacDonald

I love comedy, and Norm is one of my top 3. In my mind, he’s an absolute genius. His book is a shining example of that.

It’s an “autobiography,” but it’s blatantly deconstructive and post-modern, weaving tall tales with true facts to create a hilarious and smart read.

I listened to it on audiobook — even better. Norm’s voice just brings it home. I laughed out loud countless times on my walks when I was listening to this.

Some quotes:

“Many times, young people will approach me to ask how to make it in show business, and I always offer the same foolproof advice. Just remember three little words: ‘Meet Adam Sandler.’”

“Death is a funny thing. Not funny haha, like a Woody Allen movie, but funny strange, like a Woody Allen marriage.”

“As long as the red dice are in the air, the gambler has hope. And hope is a wonderful thing to be addicted to.”

3. Tribe by Sebastian Junger

I listened to this one on audiobook, as well, on a drive to Colorado to visit some friends this summer. This had been one of my first outings since the pandemic had been, and my only real travel at that point.

I had a 16 hour drive to Aspen, so I went through a few books. This one was an emotional hit to the gut, though.

I read “Civilized to Death” earlier in the year, which I adored. Coupled with the sustained fatigue and energy drain of constant Zoom meetings and shallow virtual social engagements during the pandemic, I was primed for a book all about belonging and social cohesion.

Since college, I had prided myself on independence and had spent several years in my early 20s living relatively nomadically. This book, along with the others mentioned above, have made me realize I do crave some roots and shared experiences. Long term games with long term people. Something a bit deeper.

I teared up at multiple points in this book. I’ll definitely read it again in the future (the real mark of a great book).

The book is essentially about how our society has been stripped of community, cohesion, and bonding. We are more ‘connected’ than ever, but also more isolated. He drives this point through research as well as stories and examples from Native American tribes, the experience of war veterans, and different cultures with greater sense of group cohesion.

Some quotes:

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

“In this sense, littering is an exceedingly petty version of claiming a billion-dollar bank bailout or fraudulently claiming disability payments. When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in. And when you fraudulently claim money from the government, you are ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors—or somebody else’s friends, family, and neighbors. That diminishes you morally far more than it diminishes your country financially.”

“If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity.”

4. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This is a book I had long wanted to read but thought I had already understood because of the title (another book like that was “Extreme Ownership,” which I also read this year).

Of course, there was much more to the book than the title, including cultural anecdotes, lots of research, and some tactical steps to getting into flow. Mostly, though, it felt like a philosophy book as opposed to a pop psychology book.

So, deep work (another book I read this year but wasn’t super impressed with) or “flow” is a state not only conducive to better productivity, but ultimately, greater happiness and meaning.

Coincidentally, our society and work culture isn’t well set up for getting into flow. Constant meetings, Slack notifications, interruptions, and small projects prevent one from really getting into the flow state. Which sucks, because it’s both stressful and less effective.

This book made me realize the type of work I love doing is almost always associated with flow. I get into flow when drafting up experiments. When I’m writing. When I’m analyzing data. When I’m public speaking or even doing sales calls for the agency.

The opposite is when I sit in update meetings, group calls above a certain size, answer emails mindlessly, check social media, or have Slack notifications on.

Some of this, obviously, is necessary. But this book gave me the theoretically foreground to want to optimize (or really, de-optimize) my schedule. As I’ll mention later in the list, David Kadavy’s “Mind Management Not Time Management” ended up being the perfect tactical antidote for me. I also got some value out of “Deep Work” (though that is one that I think really could be summed up by the title), Atomic Habits, and The Management Myth (which mostly tears down the bullshit Taylorism style of productivity).

Some quotes:

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”

“Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”

5. The Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown

Fiction!

I read lots of science fiction this year. Dune was one of them. The Glass Bees and Dark Matter, also. I almost added Dune to this list, but I actually like the Red Rising series better.

It’s a hero’s journey that follows Darrow, a “Red” lower class citizen buried underneath the surface of mars mining elements to terraform the planet. Turns out, however, he’s a slave and they’ve already terraformed the planet. There are various “colors” that signify a stratified and eugenetically modified society, with Golds at the top of the chain, ruling over everyone else.

The series is basically Darrow reluctantly undertaking the overthrow of this totalitarian and exploitative system.

It’s awesome. Super fun to read. Well written. Great ending (I cried).

His “Thank You” section at the end of the third book was inspiring, too, where he related to working on this series as building a skyscraper. You look up and can’t imagine the work involved in building it, but it’s one brick at a time.

6. Mind Management, Not Time Management by David Kadavy

Like I mentioned above, this book gave me a playbook for my preferred style of personal productivity.

It’s a step towards what I’m calling “anti-optimization,” or a personal backlash of mine against the constant fine tuning of time and breathless pursuit of self-improvement that really feels like squeezing blood from a rock.

Sure, we’ve all got 24 hours in a day. But not all of those hours are the same quality. If you’re a creative (and if you’re a knowledge worker, you almost certainly are to some extent), you need to optimize your workflow for your mental states, not what time it is.

Instead of stacking your calendar to maximize your uptime and fit those colorful blocks of meetings into your day like a stressful version of tetris, you make space for your best creative work to flourish. You do this by bucketing work to map to the four stages of creativity, Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.

Further, you can use Kadavy’s seven mental states to map to the task at hand.

He’s got tons of tools and frameworks that I’m shamelessly stealing for my own routine. The book is also written narratively, so it’s a fun read (unlike almost all other productivity books I’ve read).

Fuck time management and burning yourself out. This book, along with others on this list (Flow, Deep Work, Atomic Habits) will help you build a more sustainable and ultimately more effective workflow.

Some quotes:

“Not all hours are created equal. If you write for an hour a day, within a year you’ll have a book. But you can’t instead simply write for 365 hours straight, and get the same result. The longer you write without stopping, the less and less valuable each additional hour will become. You’ll become so exhausted, you eventually won’t be able to continue.”

“If you want to kill creativity: Get five hours of sleep a night, fight traffic for two hours a day, and start each day with a piping hot thermos of a psychoactive drug. This is unfortunate and inescapable reality of most Americans today.”

“Yet when someone has the opportunity to steal some of our time, they change their tune. We have the fall to refer to unused time as ‘free’ time. Do we call our unused money ‘free’ money? No! Ironic, in a world where ‘time is money.'”

“The culture in many companies kills creativity. There are tight deadlines, so you’re watching the clock, trying to fit the work you need to do into the time you have available. This creates a sense of what scientists call ‘time pressure’ — the feeling that you don’t have enough time to do what you need to do. In everyday life, we call it being busy.”

7. Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine

After said psychedelia and my reading of Awareness (mentioned above), your boy went down the rabbit hole of therapeutic modalities. Up until this point, I’ve largely pushed down any hard emotional work and just pushed forward, like a good Midwesterner with a strong work ethic is supposed to.

Effective for a minute, but having a chip on your shoulder and unresolved trauma can be quite a burden as you find yourself sprinting through what is supposed to be a marathon. At a certain point, you want to drop the weight from your shoulders, clear the clouds from your headspace.

Having had quite a chaotic childhood as well as a therapist brother, I’ve read a lot in this space already, but I’ve landed on a few authors as having “my” answer. The Body Keeps the Score was one of those, which I read last year. The meditation stuff has been profound for awareness and mindfulness, as well as for loving kindness and empathy.

Waking the Tiger follows the theme of The Body Keeps Score. It’s about trauma, and the main idea is that it’s stored in the body and talk therapy or rational/intellectual/left brain analysis doesn’t mend it. Other techniques like somatic experiencing can help the unconscious mind resolve and release this stuff.

So, this book has been excellent from a theoretical perspective, but I also read “Trust Surrender Receive,” which is all about MDMA therapy. I’m super into the idea and may or may not be planning my own little venture into this space. I’m early in the journey, but will likely write more about it as time goes on.

What’s a life of success if you never feel fulfilled, if you can’t open yourself up to others to share the joy? The lack of business and productivity books on this list is mostly driven by this realization of mine. Time to heal so I can enjoy it all a little more.

Some quotes:

“Every trauma provides an opportunity for authentic transformation. Trauma amplifies and evokes the expansion and contraction of psyche, body, and soul. It is how we respond to a traumatic event that determines whether trauma will be a cruel and punishing Medusa turning us into stone, or whether it will be a spiritual teacher taking us along vast and uncharted pathways. In the Greek myth, blood from Medusa’s slain body was taken in two vials; one vial had the power to kill, while the other had the power to resurrect. If we let it, trauma has the power to rob our lives of vitality and destroy it. However, we can also use it for powerful self-renewal and transformation. Trauma, resolved, is a blessing from a greater power.”

“Learning to know yourself through the felt sense is a first step toward healing trauma.”

Notable mentions

I did drop these above in describing my top 7 books, but some notable mentions that I really loved this year include:

Conclusion

This was a tough list to put together, because this has been by far my best year of reading since college. Both in terms of quantity (50+!) and quality (more than one paradigm changing quake book on here).

Hopefully this list adds some value to the rest of the 2020 wrap-ups you’ll read, and hopefully you find something that resonates with you that you can check out. If you do, let me know!

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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