It’s interesting how often books seem to reflect the zeitgeist, or at least our perception of it. As I prepared this year’s list, I began looking through earlier versions and was struck by how each seemed a remnant from a different age. Undoubtedly, some of that is a product of my own curation, but I do feel that books tap into important undercurrents.
I wrote some years ago that 2020 was shaping up to be a pivotal year, although I had no idea the extent to which it would be. I think it’s safe to say that we all got more than we bargained for. This year has tested us, individually and as a society, in ways we couldn’t have imagined and, in many ways, we fell short.
So looking at this year’s list, I am heartened to see that so many books point the way forward to a new, more promising era in which we begin to solve some of the problems that have been lingering for so long. It seems to me that we are starting to come out on the other side, but there’s a lot of work to do. I hope some of these books help you make some sense of it.
Book of the Year
Each year I pick one or two books that have most impacted my thinking. In most years, it’s pretty easy because there really are one or two that stand heads and shoulders above the rest. This year, however, there were a number of titles that I felt captured profound shifts in the zeitgeist and pointed the way forward.
However, in terms of sheer originality, intellectual power and, I believe, historical significance, The Tyranny Of Merit, by Harvard’s Michael Sandel sets itself apart. It’s one of those books that seems to come along once in a generation and puts a fine point on the social and political moment.
Sandel’s main point is that as we have strived to build a true meritocracy over the last century, we have unintentionally undermined the dignity of those who simply want to live a normal life, devoted to family, a regular job and their community. Not everybody wants or needs to go to a prestigious university, or even a four year college, but that shouldn’t prohibit them from a good and worthy life.
Inadvertently, we have created “politics of humiliation,” where people who are judged to have merit, such as anesthesiologists and enterprise software salespeople, are considered to be “makers,” who are entitled to all the best in life, while those who are not, such as home health workers and retail clerks, are thought to be “takers,” for whom things like healthcare and childcare are “privileges” to be earned.
Perhaps most importantly, The Tyranny of Merit asks a basic, but essential question: How do we define the common good? Clearly, there are no easy answers, and reasonably people can even disagree about the basic parameters of the discussion itself, but the search itself is both important and profound.
Business, Management And Economics
Another book I considered for “Book of the Year” is The Great Reversal, by Thomas Philippon, an economist and business school professor. He argues, extremely persuasively and with an abundance of data, that capitalism is in crisis in America. Due largely to rent seeking and regulatory capture, markets are weaker and consumers pay more to get less.
When the Business Roundtable essentially announced the death of shareholder capitalism last year, many have been wondering what comes next. Two excellent places to start are Rebecca Henderson’s Reimagining Capitalism In A World On Fire and Prosperity by Colin Mayer. Both are extremely informative and insightful, but if I had to choose one, I would say that Henderson’s is more readable and accessible.
For those of you looking to recharge your business, you can find no better guide than Doing Agile Right, by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk and Steve Berez from Bain & Company. What I really like about the book is that it puts agile in its proper place — in support of performance, rather than the other way around.
On the other hand, if you are looking to really screw a company up, I can point you to Lights Out by Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann, two Wall Street Journal reporters who chronicle the downfall of General Electric. You would almost have to go back to Enron to find such a combustible mixture of stupidity and arrogance.
Science, Technology And Innovation
One of my favorite books I read all year was The Future of Humanity, by physicist Michiu Kaku, in which he explains what it would take to make us an interplanetary species. Kaku has a unique ability to take wild ideas and submit them to rigorous scientific analysis to explain what’s doable, what may be possible and what’s pure fantasy.
In The Breakthrough bestselling author Charles Graeber tells the amazing story behind the century long quest to develop cancer immunotherapy. It’s an inspiring story which he tells well. In a similar vein, Richard Rhodes explains how the way we power our lives shapes our societies in Energy: A Human History.
For those looking for a practical guide for how to drive innovation within a large enterprise, you can do no better than Amy Radin’s The Changemakers Playbook. Steve Shapiro is also out with a great new book that provides practical frameworks for solving problems in Invisible Solutions and Andrea Kates and Sean Moffit offer a comprehensive “innovation operating” system in their new book, Futureproofing Next.
Finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking To Strangers is, in many ways, his best book. Far more rigorous than his previous efforts, he resists the urge “not to let facts get in the way of a good story.” Of course, that makes this book a bit less riveting, but far more useful.
History, Society and Politics
Another book that I think will shape the discussion for years to come is Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Through both historical anecdotes and contemporary stories, including personal experiences, she paints a powerful picture of what it’s like to live in an unfavored class in America. Even though I had researched much of the same ground for Cascades, I still found it incredibly eye-opening.
In much the same way, I found Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder a shock to the senses. After living in Central and Eastern Europe for 15 years, I thought I was pretty familiar witht the dark history of World War II and the many heresies perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin. Bloodlands, however, shed new light and its underlying message, that mass atrocities are born out of assertions of victimhood, I think are especially salient today.
I also read Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s incredible story of how he founded the Equal Justice Initiative and made it into a powerful advocate for defending basic human rights for those who need it most. I highly recommend it as I do John Meacham’s biography of John Lewis, His Truth Is Marching On.
If you’ve ever wondered what the federal government in the United States actually does, you might want to check out Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk, which explains the work that civil servants do on our behalf in his usual, compelling style. Also worth reading is The New Rules Of War by Sean McFate, who explains how we spend far too much money on weapons we don’t need and don’t use for wars we don’t win.
Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Identity helps give greater context to Sandel’s insights on merit and offers important insights into the politics of resentment. I also found the time to finally read, Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, which explains why building and maintaining institutions that are perceived to be fair and legitimate are key to peace and prosperity.
Finally, I can wholeheartedly recommend the first part of Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land. The memoir of any consequential figure has intrinsic value simply for the fact that it gives an insider’s view of important events that transpired. As the first black president, Obama certainly meets the bar for that.
Yet beyond the obvious, he writes with such candor, power, humility, and introspection you get the feeling that the book would be thoroughly engrossing even if he were an ordinary citizen. In terms of influence over the historical record, I think you would have to go back to Schlesinger’s, A Thousand Days, covering the Kennedy administration, to find a presidential account that rivals it.
So that’s my list for this year. If you have any suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments section.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto