5 Most Influential Books I Read in 2020 (And 49 Other Book Reviews)

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Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

At the beginning of 2020 I set a goal to read 12 books. I thought one book a month was beyond reasonable.

If I had known the year we were going to have, I would have quadrupled my reading goal. With normal obligations down the drain, I was allotted ample time to read.

The result was 54 books. Of all the books, I narrowed down my top 5 most influential books of the year. While I thoroughly enjoyed my top 5 books, I also believe these books are highly beneficial to anyone who cares to read them.

Once you get through the top 5 books, feel free to check out my all too brief recap of every other book I read this year organized by genre.

Let’s get to it!

1. Atomic Habits by James Clear

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I’m going to say it — every person should read this book. As the title suggests, this is a book about habits. But it’s so much more than that.

James Clear explains the importance of habits in terms of compounding. A small act everyday compounds into massive change over long periods of time. He also breaks down the different components of a habit and how to make (or break) a habit.

Most self-development books on the market are criticized for not offering any actionable advice. Unlike the rest of the genre, Atomic Habits provides countless tools to improve your life.

This was the most impactful book I read all year. Read it!

2. Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl

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If you don’t question your life after reading Frankl’s psychological masterpiece, I question you as a human.

Frankl was one of the millions of Jews living in concentration camps during World War II. Before the war, Frankl was a trained psychologist living in Austria. He survived the war and published the book in 1946.

Frankl discusses life in a concentration camp from a psychological perspective. What was the psychological makeup of the prisoners? What mindset did it take to survive? What is the meaning of life amid unthinkable suffering?

This is by no means a light read, but it will make you think deeply about your life.

3. The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

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A book about tennis, really?

You don’t have to be a tennis player to appreciate this book. If you are interested in performing at the highest level or looking to coach somebody, this is the book for you. Championship football coach Pete Carroll wrote the forward for the book. That should tell you something.

Gallwey breaks down years of tennis coaching from the mental perspective. Topics include visualization, how the mind interacts with the body, and the keys to getting your mind right for competition.

Performance psychology is a growing field, and this book is one of the best out there. I wish I had read this book 10 years ago, but better late than never.

4. So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

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One of the defining themes of 2020 was the call for social justice due to the countless acts of police brutality towards African Americans. Throughout the summer, the New York Times and Amazon recommended a slew of books on race and social justice.

Of the books I read, So You Want To Talk About Race was the best. Why? It wasn’t written by a college professor. Oluo cuts right to the chase. It feels like a real talk conversation. No fluff or academic jargon.

Oluo’s style felt like a deep conversation between friends on the topic of race. Concepts such as intersectionality, affirmative action, the model minority myth, and microaggressions are discussed.

Whether or not you agree with Oluo’s beliefs, it’s a thought-provoking read that will challenge your beliefs.

5. Extreme Ownership by Jacko Willink & Leif Babin

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When former Navy Seals tell you about accountability and ownership, you believe them.

Willink and Babin break down specific missions from the Iraq War around the year 2006. The purpose of the book is to teach effective leadership. There’s no better place to understand how to lead people than through stories of life and death. The leaders — in this case, Navy Seal commanders— are responsible for not only executing missions at the highest level but also ensuring the safety of their troops.

With so much on the line, Willink and Babin educate their readers on the importance of steal-proof planning, prioritizing, ensuring open lines of communication, and decision making.

This is a must-read for anyone looking to lead a group of people.

A Super-Brief Review of Every Book I Read in 2020

And here’s an all too brief recap of every other book I read this year by genre. Enjoy!

**Note — any book in bold I also highly recommend. Any books not in bold I’d still recommend, but only after you’ve read the bolded ones.

Business/Leadership

Zero to One by Peter Thiel & Blake Masters— Great concepts discussed for any aspiring entrepreneur. Thiel simplifies what makes a great business into comprehensible components.

What It Takes by Stephen Schwarzman — If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like for a billionaire to self-indulge on all his great achievements in life, read this book. We get it; you donated money to Yale and have brilliant ideas. There are some interesting life lessons, but too much of the “I’m the smartest person on the planet.”

The 10X Rule by Grant Cardone — Big goals, big dreams. Cardone is all about setting goals 10x what you imagined, working 10x harder than you think, and implementing the 10x rule to practically all components of your life. He could have just said work harder than everybody else and left it at that.

Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki — Kiyosaki stresses the concept to stop spending and start investing. Easy read and a nice reminder to have your money work for you.

Extreme Ownership by Jacko Willink & Leif Babin — See book #5

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene — Describing this book as controversial would be an understatement (it’s been banned in some prisons). Greene introduces 48 different strategies to obtain, sustain, and perpetuate power. Some interesting ideas, but would have been a lot more useful for an imperial emperor 2,000 years ago. At least a few rappers appreciate the book.

Coaching

Leading with the Heart by Mike Krzyzewski — Krzyzewski, known better as Coach K, is one of the greatest basketball coaches ever to live. If there’s any takeaway from this book, it’s the importance of developing strong relationships with every person you lead. This book is filled with anecdotal stories on how Coach K went about connecting with his players. I’d recommend this book for any basketball junkie.

Above the Line by Urban Meyer — Meyer has coached two different college football programs to national championships. He spends most of the book discussing the importance of accountability within his programs. Solid coaching book.

The Carolina Way by Dean Smith — I was a little disappointed with this book, considering I’ve always admired Dean Smith, the man behind the legacy that is the UNC-Chapel Hill basketball program. The book tries too hard at applying the lessons from the court to executive board rooms. This made the book longer than necessary. There are good lessons, but you have to dig for them.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh — This was the best of all the coaching books I read this year for one simple reason. Bill Walsh is brutally honest when it comes to coaching. He acknowledges the mental toll coaching had on his well-being. Lots of great principles, but you question the costs by which success is achieved.

The Mamba Mentality by Kobe Bryant — Go inside the mind of one of the greatest athletes of the 21st century. In his own words, Kobe Bryant delivers his methodologies regarding his preparation, competitive will, and legacy. Regardless of your opinion of Bryant, there’s no questioning his drive to be the best.

Social Science

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum— This book is more than its catchy name title. Tatum does a deep dive into the dynamics of race. The book is longer than necessary, though the section on biracial experiences is well worth the read.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo—This book is unique in that DiAngelo dives deep into the psychology behind racism. I appreciated the time spent on the juxtaposition between individualism and collectivism, which is the cause of many of our problems regarding racial understanding.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo — See book #4

Democracy For Realists by Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels — I still believe in democracy after reading this book, but it was a close call. Achen and Bartels provide countless studies on why American citizens cannot rationally elect presidential leaders. The hardest part about the book is adjusting to the academic density. If you can’t handle the whole book, read the introduction, and you’ll get the gist.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell — Gladwell uses his storytelling prowess to explain why our first impressions of people stink. He spends time discussing the case of Amanda Knox, CIA mishaps, and the Penn St. football scandal and weaves them all together in a neat theory on the dangers of first impressions. An important read for anyone looking to improve their social skills. Also, it’s Malcolm Gladwell, so you really can’t go wrong. 

Psychology

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke— Duke is a former world champion poker player turned consultant. This book is all about decision making and game theory. You don’t need to understand how poker works to appreciate this book. A fantastic book for anyone looking to hone in on their decision-making skills.

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey — See book #3

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt — Few books manage to combine both Eastern and Western philosophies to understand the route and meaning of happiness. This book does that.

The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow—Afremow is a sports psychologist by trade who’s trained countless Olympic athletes. A lot of pep talk but nothing too groundbreaking about this book.

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker— Becker wrote this book months before passing away. He discusses the lies humans tell themselves to live a meaningful life. Not the kind of book to brighten your day, but fascinating if you’re a sucker for the darker sides of psychology.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert — Highly recommend this book to anyone. Gilbert uses humor and wit to examine why humans are atrocious at remembering past experiences and predicting how they’ll feel in the future. The result of these shortcomings is our inability to know what will ultimately make us happy.

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl — See book #2

Influence by Robert Cialdini — This book is marketing 101. Cialdini provides a roadmap on influencing people to buy any product or idea. Chapters are devoted to concepts such as scarcity, social proof, authority, and reciprocation. If you’re a salesperson or marketer, this is a must-read.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown— Brown is the queen of authenticity in the psychology world. Her go-to discussion point is the importance of demonstrating vulnerability to achieve authenticity. A good book if you’re feeling down about yourself and need a quick pick-me-up.

Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect by Bob Rotella — Calling all golfers to read this book. Rotella provides the psychology behind what facilitates a premier golfer. Every time I hit the course, I look over my notes from this book.

Philosophy

The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday — This is the perfect book for anyone facing hardship. Holiday enlightens readers on the countless hardships historical figures encountered throughout their lives. You’ll be ready to embrace every obstacle that comes your way.

Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday — Another classic written by Holiday. He takes lessons from Stoic philosophy and weaves them into our everyday lives. The main theme is how one achieves stillness/tranquility amid the craziness that surrounds us.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius — This book is a collection of private thoughts and journal entries from Marcus Aurelius, the last great leader of the Roman empire. Based on the wisdom and maturity by which Aurelius thinks, you’d wish more leaders today think like him. Though Aurelius isn’t a philosopher in the traditional sense, his private journal entries are some of the most famous pieces of literature in all of philosophy.

On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche — If you’re looking for a healthy dosage of pessimism, Nietzsche is your guy. This book feels like a never-ending rant by Nietzsche when it comes to the shortcomings of religion. He also questions what originates the morality by which humans live their lives. Fun stuff.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle — The lesson is the same throughout; live in the present moment. Tolle manages to deliver this same message in 37 different ways.

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma — This is a cute fable about a hotshot lawyer that leaves behind his “successful and rich life” to become a monk. The lawyer turned monk returns home to teach his western friend lessons from his monk practices. Cheesy plot line but worth the read if you‘re in the mood for a cheesy fable.

Memoirs

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight — We think of Nike as one of the world’s premier brands. How hard was it for Phil Knight to build the brand that it is today? Once you finish his memoir, you will realize it’s a fluke Nike survived. A fantastic read for any aspiring entrepreneur.

Educated by Tara Westover — Inspiring and Powerful. I don’t know what else to say about this book. Westover discusses her absurd childhood and how education changed her life.

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins — After reading this, you’ll be motivated to run through a brick wall (please don’t). Goggins examines his life from his time as a heavily obese man turned Navy seal turned endurance athlete. This guy is a beast. Anyone aspiring to maximize their human potential ought to check out Goggin’s story.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai — Yousafazi tells the story of her life growing up in Taliban controlled Pakistan. She’s best known as the girl shot by the Taliban, but only a small portion of the book is about that incident. Malala takes a stand on education as a human right that all boys and girls are deserving of. Great read for any globally-minded citizen.

Becoming by Michelle Obama —Michelle Obama discusses life growing up in Chicago and living an ambitious life climbing the corporate ladder, only to realize her true calling of public service. Oh, and she casually becomes the first black first lady of the United States. Some parts of her story dragged, but overall well worth the read.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank — It’s Anne Frank. It’s her personal diary. Inspirational, profound, and yet heartbreaking. Need I say more?

Self-Development

Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty — Shetty incorporates monk teachings to a Western audience. What makes this book legitimate is that Shetty lived as a Buddhist monk in India for 3 years. What makes this book illegitimate is the countless accusations authors/influencers have made accusing Shetty of stealing quotes and making them his own. It’s a shame because I liked this book. Regardless of who said what, there’s lots of good content.

Atomic Habits by James Clear — See book #1

Range by David Epstein — This book is all about why generalists thrive in a world focused on specialization. Epstein goes against the grain and acknowledges sometimes quitting is a good option when better alternatives are available. What I appreciate most about this book is the amount of unconventional advice you won’t get elsewhere.

The Positivity Tribe by Christopher J. Wirth & Chris Wilderberg — A fable about high school students and the importance of maintaining a positive attitude amongst adolescent struggles. Quick and easy read. Highly recommend it for young adults.

12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson — And here we go. Peterson is arguably the most polarizing and controversial academic/thought leader on the planet. I respect his teaching when it comes to ethics and morals. His views on gender are where he gets himself in trouble. Evalengtical Christians love him. Secular progressives hate him. You be the judge.

13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin — I appreciate books that tell people what not to do instead of always telling people what to do. This book is filled with lots of cliches. Can’t hurt to read but most useful for those who experience self-defeating thoughts.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz — An all-time classic. Miguel Ruiz provides four life lessons to live your life by. He keeps the book short and sweet—great content in a quick punch.

What to Say When You Talk to Your Self by Shad Helmstetter — This is all about positive self-talk. It seems a little silly, but Helmstetter provides specific, actionable items to improve how you talk to yourself.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman — Don’t let the “love” in the title scare you. If you intend to improve any relationship in your life (romantic or platonic), this is a MUST read. Chapman breaks down the five different ways people prefer to receive love. The concept of the 5 love languages is well-known, but very few have read the book. Let’s change that.

History

The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant — If you want to understand the world in 102 pages, read this book. Explore the dichotomies between capitalism and socialism, aristocracies and democracies, and religion and secularism.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari— An all-time classic of a book. Who knew history could be so fun to learn about? I don’t consider myself a history buff, but I’m one step closer to being one after completing this book.

Miscellaneous

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed — Become your best self-therapist. This book is a collection of anonymous letters from people experiencing everything from tragedy to relationship problems. Strayed provides advice on how to navigate these difficult circumstances. Filled with wit and humor, Strayed is a phenomenal writer and a profoundly empathetic human being.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield—Not to be confused with The Art of War. Tap into your inner creativity with this classic. Pressfield explains we all have creative juices. The way to tap into our creative side is by defeating the “resistance” that we all experience. Fantastic read to bring out your best creative self.

The Sports Gene by David Epstein — Ever wondered why Kenya and Ethiopia produce the best long-distance runners in the world? Epstein answers that question and numerous others in this book about the science/biology behind athletic performance. A fascinating read, especially for those into long-distance running.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan — Keegan was tragically killed in a car crash less than two weeks after graduating from Yale. What remains is her collection of short stories that will move you. Keegan touches on death, the purpose of life, and love. Incredible writer.

Blue Zones by Dan Buettner — Blue Zones are places in the world where people live the longest. Buettner examines four “blue zones” and identifies why people in these communities live the longest. The book has great takeaways in terms of exercise and diet, but perhaps too much emphasis on anecdotal storytelling.


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