It isn’t that these books make you think hard to understand them, but rather they challenged my way of thinking about the world in humbling, or mind-blowing, or intriguing, or bridge-building ways. Between sheltering at home and reading background materials for the book I’m writing, I finished off 142 books in 2020. While I intended to write as usual about my five favorites, my first list consisted of 17 titles; frequently throughout the year I found myself setting aside good titles for others that were more substantive, more related to the events of the year. So I’m sharing ten that I highly recommend for 2021.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson

If you weren’t aware that the United States has a caste system, or that Nazi Germany used Jim Crow laws as models for their own regime—or even if you do know these things—start reading now. This book is gripping, convicting, mesmerizing. It contains facts, history, and comparisons, not opinions. Read it to understand the origins of our national divide. If it makes you uncomfortable, all the more reason to keep going.

The Politics Industry by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter

If you don’t like how our government is working, are tired of polarization, wonder if your vote counts, and feel helpless, read this book. The authors not only diagnose how, not for the first time in US history, the rules and laws surrounding our two-party system keep government from solving the problems we need solved—but they have solutions based on what is working elsewhere. Grounded in their HBR report, they propose two major, doable solutions if citizens band together: ranked choice voting, which many municipalities are already finding success with, and a change to primaries that would put forth five candidates so that incumbents who chose to “work across the aisles” can’t be undone by party politics in primaries that often have voter turnouts as low as 6% but determine who is on the general ballot. 

Citizen groups are starting all over the country and the authors are providing ways readers can find these groups as well as resources and plans of action. They point out that whatever your biggest concern—climate, education, health care, social justice, infrastructure or any other big concern that Congress is failing to solve—the best way to make progress on it is to change the incentives in place for our elected officials. Read for yourself and see if their diagnosis and solution is worth our effort.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I wish that this were mandatory reading before you could be sworn into public office. Then we could call people to account. “You knew better. You read how real, even though imperfect leaders, move us in the direction we need to go. Get your act together and do likewise…”

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor is knowledgeable, humble, inspiring, articulate, entertaining, and wise. Through stories of teaching comparative religion and a conservative, private Southern college outside Atlanta, she gives us so many lessons. The book focuses on what she, and her students, grew to admire about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and their own Christianity. The field trips and interactions with leaders of the other religions illustrate why it is so important to get to know those who think differently than we do. 

The Power of Bad by John Tierney

You may have heard that we pay more attention to bad news than good, but the extent to which that colors our world is pretty crazy, and makes the world crazier. The book blends research, intriguing examples, and steps we can take to avoid the traps of negativity, The Crisis Crisis, and more.

Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases, Michael Chabon, editor

If you don’t think you like the ACLU, read and find out what you owe to the organization. If you love the ACLU, read for a few examples of how they’ve gotten it wrong. Either way, dive into this amazing set of essays about key cases that shape the freedoms you enjoy. The audio book features narrations by several of the authors including Anne Patchett, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon. Other essays by writers such as Salman Rushdie are read by Sir Patrick Stewart, Lucy Wu, and other actors. Some essays are factual. Others, like Jacqueline Woodson’s, involve deeply personal stories and aspects of the fight for civil rights. If nothing in this book amazes you, then you’re really good at not taking the privileges you have for granted…

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

My one-word GoodReads review of this one was “Wow.” McCann gained permission to fictionalize the story of the relationship between an Israeli father and a Palestinian father, both of whom lost children to the ongoing violence in Jerusalem. They work together to promote peace, understanding and healing. McCann interviewed them and others, but writing it as fiction allowed him to step into the shoes of those involved in a deep, mind-bending way. If you seek to understand, their example will inspire you.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

We all need some laughs, but Noah’s memoir of growing up in Apartheid South Africa is one of those rare laugh-out-loud volumes that also makes you think. Born to a German father and Black African mother, he was literally the result of a crime. He describes not just incidents but helps us step into the culture to understand why people are doing what they are doing. And, he is realistic and humble. He wants people to understand that his success came not because of his own hard work; others were working just as hard. Instead, he credits it to someone giving him a CD burner. Read to know what that enabled him to do.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson

Yes this is a graphic novel-style memoir for teens, and yes, every adult should read it. It is a magnificent use of the format to convey the childhood memories of Omar Mohamed, who was born in Somalia and grew up in the refuge camps of Kenya. You’ll learn far more about what these people went through via this book than many works for adults.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

 I thought I was decently informed about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and have read extensively on these topics. The fact that I know only the barest of facts about Frederick Douglass, with all that reading, is absolutely crazy.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, another school consultant suggested that schools only study minority history, heroes, and thought for the next year. I had already had similar thoughts as I listened to this compelling audio book. If Douglass were a fictional character, you would dismiss him as not believable. Read his life and his essays and once again the words ring true, especially as I finished this during the week that George Floyd was murdered, that those who do not study history—all of it—are doomed to repeat it. May we in the present begin to grasp what we have not learned…

The other seven titles in my “Top 5” for 2020…

  1. Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
  2. The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathon Haidt
  3. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
  4. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  5. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
  6. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
  7. The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

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Some of my Top Reads

Every January, I page back through my Goodreads.com lists to celebrate the books I found most meaningful during the past twelve months. I prefer to call myself a bibliophile, not a reading addict, but squeezing in 120 books last year perhaps took some neglect of other potential pursuits.

I read in just about all genres. Whatever I’m reading–fiction, nonfiction, biography, adult or children’s tomes–can influence and inform my work as a writer and consultant.

So here’s my top five, as well as five honorable mentions. I haven’t done that before, but they were so good to ignore! My reviews point out what I found valuable rather than summarizing content. Follow the links to their Goodreads pages for more information.

The View from the Cheap Seats (Gaiman)

This book is rather dangerous…

If you’re a bookworm, you may find yourself adding an awful lot of titles to your to-read list as Gaiman mentions sources of inspiration and all-time favorites.

If you’re a writer, you may feel a rather desperate urge to be more artful every time you pick up your pen.

If you haven’t considered sci fi or fantasy as meaty reads, you may learn a thing or two about the genres’ real power.

And, you may feel constant urges to look up the works of painters, musicians, and others by which Gaiman has enriched his world and envy the knowledge he has at his fingertips for his masterful crafting with words…

More Courageous Conversations About Race (Singleton)

This book is for everyone, not just educators. Yes, racism deeply affects children of color in our schools. Yes, tools exist to have honest conversations that result in more success for all students. The background, strategies, examples, and voices from within show us how. My only complaint is the depth and length of the book that may keep many from tackling it.

So Far from Home (Wheatley)

If you are hoping to make a difference, and wondering if you can in this crazy world, this is a must read. Hope might be dangerous. Goals might be pointless. Instead, it just might be about immersing yourself in what needs doing and the people with whom you interact rather than counting on any actual movement forward. Profound, inspiring and dampening at the same time.

We Were Eight Years in Power (Coates)

How can I give this six stars? How is it that we are so ignorant of the history of privilege that caused and continues the racial divide in this country? This is an absolute must read.

Coates chose essays he wrote during each year of Obama’s presidency and added introductions that explain his thinking at the time and what has changed since. It is a model of wisdom regarding revisiting our positions and the evidence we think supports them—something all of us need to practice no matter our political leanings. The epilogue analyzes the election of Donald Trump in an honest way that gets past the apologists and looks the horrific side of our national heritage and ongoing inability to admit wrong. Words fail…

Strangers in their Own Land (Hothschild)

Hochschild does a great job of taking an immense subject and focusing her research to help all of us gain insights. Just Louisiana. Just environmental issues. How does one get over the “empathy wall” to understand how earnest people can hold values so different from your own? Other research tells us that this kind of approach is the only way we can confront our own biases–through deep dialogue with those who have different mindsets, experiences and beliefs.

This book is a model for how to do that. The author truly developed friendships with those she studied. As I read, though, I wondered over and over, “What do the research subjects think of her narrative, her conclusions? Will this volume help lower the empathy wall in both directions???”

The Honorable Mentions

Winterdance (Paulson)

Because once in awhile it’s inspiring to read about someone pursuing a totally crazy passion. This is Newbury award-winning author Gary Paulson’s account of training for and running in the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska.

Double Bind: Women on Ambition (Romm)

No, this isn’t research. It’s a collection of personal essays. And perhaps the takeaway is the importance of understanding why you are making the choices you are making so that you can be contented with the life they produce.

Braving the Wilderness (Brown)

Brown presents an interesting analysis of our inability to talk with each other, to listen to opinions we don’t share, and to have the courage to get the right kinds of dialogue going. Some solid action steps as well.

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White (Sweet)

Sweet weaves a story from biographical events, archived photos and letters and poems, original collages and artwork, and the beauty of White’s life. Storytelling, yes, but far more.

Wonderbook (Vandermeer)

Beautifully illustrated, filled with examples and insights as to why they work, this book is a gift to those who wish to improve their writing skills. While it targets those interested in crafting science fiction and fantasy, the information on plot, scene, character, and the accompanying tips and assignments, can help any writer.

Read on — and list in the comments here your favorite reads of 2017!

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Hogfather by Terry Pratchett is a perfect example of the Truth with a capital T that waterfall-fiction-001fiction conveys in ways that nonfiction cannot. In the closing pages of this crazy novel, where… Well, I won’t tell you how to do away with mythical figures, such as the Hogfather who wears a red robe and drives a sleigh pulled by 4 pigs to bring presents to all… You get the picture. Through this story, though, Pratchett manages to reveal the truth about the crucial nature of human beliefs. Yes, beliefs can be as important facts. And he has Death point it out. (Yep, Death is a character, if you’re unfamiliar with Pratchett’s work. Death always speaks in capital letters in Pratchett’s Discworld…)

STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A…A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT

And why is that so amazing and important?

TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCEY, AND YET–YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point–” queries Death’s granddaughter. MY POINT EXACTLY…

Truth and Justice

Yep, the world isn’t naturally just. The wicked live, the innocent die, the wrong people sometimes get ahead. Unless humans impose THEIR beliefs in fairness and justice and mercy, which are after all created and not naturally in existence, we are doomed to live in a world spiraling toward true injustice. Thus, beliefs can be Truth, fiction can convey Truth, and beliefs are not inferior to facts!

Powerful truth. And it’s easier and more profoundly conveyed through a story of the disappearance of belief than through mere strings of words.

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Once a year I look back through my list at goodreads.com to ID the top five books that

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most inspired me. As an author and consultant, just about any book might be “THE book” that inspires my own work. That means I can justify when I read and how much I read, and in 2016 I devoured 117 books in a whole lot of different genres.

Curiously, none of the business or self-help or psychology or education books (the kinds of things I write) were as impactful as, well, here they are…

The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker

At last, a reference for providing great answers to the grammar police–and for making sure you’re policing for the right issues yourself. The only trouble with reading this book is that it just may color your reaction to the next books you read. You’ll be excruciatingly jarred by each poor sentence, misused word, ridiculous application of outmoded conventions, etc. This book will stay close to my laptop for frequent reference. Whether you blog once a year or write for a living, check out the wisdom within these pages.

Why read it if you aren’t a writer? Because even emails can be clearer. Because…with the deluge of content out there, why not learn to quickly recognize the very best, be it in blogs or books or board correspondence?

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

The end of this book came far too fast. One moment I’m lost in how the characters are navigating the horrors of World War II and all of a sudden, there are no more pages. Kudos to Cleave for creating people that we care about, sparking thoughts about how we might have responded to the unthinkable, forcing us to consider the impact of class and race on how the war would have affected us, and building scenes and relationships and events that transport the reader into the nightmares of the London Blitz and the siege of Malta.

Why read this instead of nonfiction? Because fiction is often the better source for truth about human beings. This meticulously-researched story will teach you more than facts about war.

Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer

5 stars for information. 5 stars for provoking thought. 5 stars for blending personal narrative, biography, historical and political analysis to foster understanding of how the past affects the present, as well as what might be most important now. The author’s approach mirrors the complexity of the issues American Indian leaders are working with. Treuer is Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye

Too often these days, the cry goes up to paint public figures as either all saint or all sinner. People are complex. Circumstances affect who they are. Great people learn from reflecting on the best and the worst of their actions. This book lets us in on Kennedy’s experiences–what he did, how he worked, how others viewed him, what he said.  The author endeavors to make sense of the trajectory of his growth, development, seeming changes in philosophy, family influence and relationships, and ever so much more in the complex and short life of Bobby Kennedy. Rich food for thought in this era of politicians being afraid to be anything but caricatures of party positions.

Why read it if you don’t like the Kennedy’s? Because you just might discover you either relate to who he was or who he became–and either way you’ll be better equipped to evaluate today’s leaders.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

How, in just a few words, can an author create windows into tragedies, the characters’ minds and feelings, a different culture, history and philosophy, and more? Erdrich takes us through a crime of intense horror, but uses the tale to help the reader ponder the kinds of issues that should be front and center in our minds. I’ll be reading this several times to absorb all the nuances of story and character. Then I’ll read it again and again, gleaning what I can from the author’s mastery of plot, character, voice, setting, theme, description, history, beginnings and endings.

Why read it if you avoid tragedies in modern literature? Because you’re going to relate to these characters and the events that propel them forward in ways that foster new insights and skills in empathy.

Runners Up

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Lynn Hammond. We need to stop stereotyping a “culture of poverty” and start implementing the practices that help children really learn.

The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy. If “Santini” managed to rebuild relationships with most of his children, there is hope for every family.

What would you add to everyone’s 2017 reading list?

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“I have to hold their hands.” “They need constant supervision.” “They don’t think!” “They aren’t creative.” Have you heard leaders and managers pass these kinds of judgments on employee abilities?

Frequently, as I conduct employee focus groups or review 360 results, leaders who make these kinds of statements receive the following kinds of comments: “What a micromanager!” “Constant meetings and checklists and interference keep us from our work.” “We’re treated like children!”

“But I tried giving more autonomy and it was a disaster,” many leaders say. Frequently, they provided autonomy without clarity of goals or the benefit of wisdom learned from the past. There’s a happy medium of structure AND autonomy, a polarity that leads to results AND happy employees! (more…)

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I read everything. The best in every genre has something to offer, even if the overall genre doesn’t match my core tastes (after all, at its heart Anna Karenina is a romance novel…). Thus it always surprises me when people proudly say, “I only read nonfiction.” The result of bad experiences in high school English courses? Perhaps, but I also wonder whether they’re aware of what fiction has to offer:

  1. The Truth.
    I once had the great privilege of attending a writing seminar taught by Madeleine L’Engle. Perhaps best known for A Wrinkle in Time,she won awards for both her fiction and nonfiction books. She pointed out that often through fiction, the truths about human motivations and the causes of events, both personal and historical, can be much more deeply explored and conveyed than in nonfiction. Nonfiction, remember, is written from a point of view that doesn’t convey all sides of an issue, event or idea. If learning truth from fiction seems crazy, try The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It’s a deep exploration of the mindsets, motivations and emotions of the generals on both sides at the battle of Gettysburg.
  2. Emotional Intelligence. Studies are showing that reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others, one of the key components of emotional intelligence that is tied to overall leadership success. Fiction helps you step into other people’s shoes and understand why they did what they did. As more research concludes that the “soft skills” of leadership are truly the hardest to learn, adding high-quality literary novels to one’s reading list may make more sense than another tome on leadership (the ones I’ve written being an exception, of course!)
  3. Creativity. Let’s trust Einstein on this one–he recommended that to develop a scientific mind, children should read and reread fairy tales. Why? Because true science requires imagination, creativity, and a drive to understand, all of which are found in fairy tales. You’ll be hard-pressed to find careers that don’t require creativity these days–even assembly line workers are encouraged to and rewarded for finding ways to improve systems and processes. Fiction allows you to envision what might happen, what might be, and other big what if’s in ways that nonfiction can’t.

(more…)

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contjEvery so often, I work with clients who seem more stuck in their difficulties than usual. And my usual toolkit seems to be missing whatever would help them. Changing on the Job has given me a new way to approach their needs—and of course, as with all truly great books, a way to rethink my own.

If you’ve ever been tempted to think you’ve got the framework for coaching or for employee support or for mentoring, this book’s deep dive into stages in adult development will help you lose that mindset. While the author warns against quickly diagnosing others, I’m finding that staying open-minded about which of the following stages someone might be at very helpful in rethinking coaching strategies. Instead of judging people as “mature” or “immature” as you read these stages, consider the implications for how they might view their own efficacy, their role in change, how certain problems came about, or how your own favorite questioning techniques or other ways of helping could actually backfire.

The self-sovereign mind. While most people pass through this stage sometime during adolescence, some adults still struggle to take any perspective but their own. They know others have feelings and opinions, but work best on responsibilities or projects that are in their own best interest. Think how this mindset could be inadvertently reinforced in someone with vast expertise in his/her chosen area and you can understand how young high-flyers can end up in positions for which they haven’t developed the needed emotional intelligence. And they may not readily be able to consider strategies such as, “Put yourself in their shoes.”

The socialized mind. The majority of adults fall in this category, according to the author. People at this stage definitely are able to let the needs of others come first and are often devoted to causes outside themselves, whether it be family, religion, their place of work or others. However, often they lose themselves in these roles and may struggle either to be certain of their own needs or of how to make decisions when two ideals they support are in conflict. And, their self-esteem comes from external sources.

The self-authored mind. Adults in this stage understand others and their own needs. They not only are aware of different systems of rules or values, but can work among them and decide for themselves what is truly important. They may look for others’ wisdom but aren’t torn apart, like those at the socialized mind stage, when they are in conflict. They are self-guided, self-motivated and self-evaluative, but may struggle when others strive for black/white thinking and deny that many things are gray.

The self-transforming mind. At this stage, which very few people ever reach, adults realized that their own internal compasses do have limits. They can compare systems and find where seemingly conflicting values or laws actually serve similar purposes, for example. The fact that so few people reach this stage is evident by the difficulties humankind has in getting along!

This is just a quick, inadequate summary. I don’t want to summarize a framework that needs to be pondered in depth. However, I will be integrating this model with others that I use, including personality type and polarity thinking.

I encourage you to consider the book’s implications of these stages for learning, leadership, coaching, organizational development and overall good of humanity! Read and ponder where your own development helps and hinders you, think through the author’s suggestions for growth, and above all use it with grace to consider new ways to understand others.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAccording to goodreads.com (join me there—it’s great for keeping track of what you’ve read) I finished 117 books in 2013. I read just about anything, for if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that ideas, and new knowledge, and “aha’s”, and creativity, and laughter, and profound insights, can come from the strangest places. Here are five books that kept me thinking long after I closed the covers.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. The author, a pottery artist, traces the history of Chinese figurines he inherited from an uncle, and thus learns of his Jewish ancestors’ rise to the very top of Parisian and Viennese society, their fates during World War II, and how they rebuilt their lives. I constantly found myself thinking, “How would I have handled both the triumphs and the tragedies? How would my family talk about it all?” If you decide to read it, I’d suggest (more…)

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P6141528By chance….Have you noticed that right now, intelligent people are polarized on issues? They’re holding polar opposite viewpoints? We all do. We think we’ve carefully vetted our positions and are in the right. So how much should we trust our own wisely-thought-through views?

Not much, actually, if one considers the research on how we form our viewpoints. A recent slew of books asks us to ponder this and perhaps change how we interact with those who hold opposing views.

Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, guides us through the neuroscience and psychology research on how we form our opinions. And it’s humbling. Or should be. Not only do we consistently pay attention to information that reinforces what we believe, but the more intelligent we are, the better we are at spinning one-sided arguments.

In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Katheryn Schulz uses both research and humor to help us understand just how wrong we can have the facts and thus how flimsy our arguments can be. (more…)

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