2016 was a good year for my non-fiction reading.
I usually have a ratio of about 60% fiction, 40% non-fiction, and my non-fiction can vary from anything to books of essays, personal development, history, science, biography or philosophy.
I know how annoying to get endless lists of books some says you must read. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with recommendations and worry that you’ll never get through it all.
So instead, I’m going to give the three very best non-fiction books I read that were released in 2016.
These are the books whose pages I underlined the most, that impacted the way I think or work, and that yielded the most return on investment in terms of value.
Here we go:
- Cal Newport – Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World
This is one of the books that genuinely has and will continue to profoundly affect the way I think about productivity.
I had read a lot of the ideas on Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog, so I was familiar with the idea of Deep Work, but the book really solidifies this concept and gives excellent strategies for getting value out of your daily working habits.
In this book, Newport seeks to answer a key problem: How can we be successful in our career, get more important work done, and get rid of annoying distractions in our everyday life?
Start focusing on the “Deep Work” – the work that takes serious effort, that stretches your cognitive abilities and requires intense focus.
e.g. If you’re an academic, it would go like this:
‘Deep Work’ = writing papers and books
‘Busy Work’ = organizing conferences, teaching, chairing committees.
Whilst the latter has its place, these are the activities that tend to eat up time and have little effect on your long-term career.
In the modern economy, more and more success will come to those who are able to sit and produce creative insights, build businesses, or do the difficult technical work that requires serious expertise.
These all require “Deep Work” – so it pays to learn this skill now, especially when so many future jobs will be automated or outsourced in the decade(s) to come.
Moreover, we live in a world of near constant distraction, from TV, social media, smartphones, and all kinds of devices that hijack our attention.
So that’s the essence: Focus on ‘Deep Work”; eliminate distraction.
It’s a simple, but genuinely life-changing concept, to measure out your labour in terms of “hours spent on deep work”.
I can’t help but think of all my tasks through the lens of “Deep Work” now, and recommend this book to anyone who feels like they are always trapped in a cycle of distractions, endless meetings, and pointless busy work that doesn’t really move their career forward.
Trust me, it’s well worth your time.
- Michael Lewis – The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
Michael Lewis has written some colossal bestsellers.
A master of the non-fiction narrative, he has a profound ability to make you excited to learn about difficult subjects like finance, economics, and behavioral psychology, whilst weaving the teachings into compelling, well-researched stories of the real characters behind them (his books include The Big Short, Moneyball, and Flash Boys, to name a few).
The Undoing Project focuses on the groundbreaking work of two Israeli academics, Daniel Kahaneman and Amos Tversky, whilst telling the often touching but at times turbulent story of their lifetime creative partnership.
Danny was a Holocaust survivor, Amos a native-born Israeli who had been a paratrooper in the Israeli Defence Forces, and together they revolutionized the entire field of behavioral psychology with their fascinating experiments.
The story is partly about the human biases we all fall prey to, and how we just all aren’t as logical as we like to believe we are.
It’s also about the strains and successes of a profound relationship between two friends who seemed to always pushed each other to greater heights.
In Kahaneman’s words, “There are geniuses who work on their own. I am not a genius. Neither is Tversky. Together we are exceptional”.
Danny had the knack for ideas and identifying unsolved problems; Amos brought his incredible mind for statistics and deep analysis to figure out ways to test and develop their insights into human behaviour into brilliant conclusions.
Having worked for years in my own creative partnership with my brother Matthew Hussey, I could relate profoundly to this feeling of having a kindred spirit with whom you develop and finish each other’s ideas. It’s thrilling, fruitful, and also at times frustrating – a bit like working with anyone too closely, really.
I recommend this book not only for the story itself, but for the fascinating psychological insights into human behaviour, which Lewis explains with his trademark clarity and warmth.
- David Brooks – The Road To Character
A lot of books came out this year themed around the subject of humility, controlling ego, and generally seeking to curb the epidemic of self-entitled millennial narcissism that seems so rampant in the 21st century.
The best of them all was David Brooks’s The Road To Character.
The author essentially argues we are better off focusing on having a rich life rather than a successful one.
We all want success. But more than that, we all want our friends to envy our success. We want attention and praise and endless Facebook/Twitter/Instagram followers. We want to live the same lives as the falsely advertised “celebrities” we see on social media. This is the world we now live in.
Brooks argues that this seeking of success and attention above all else is damaging our souls.
But rather than being a finger-wagging diatribe extolling the “good old days”, this book rather seeks to illuminate deeper, forgotten virtues in today’s “ALL ABOUT ME” culture: things like courage, honesty, patience, sacrifice, and supporting those we love.
Some people will nod along and think, “Well, that’s all obvious”.
But for many of us who have found ourselves on the treadmill of chasing success after success and ever more validation whilst wondering to themselves, “Is this all there is?”, or who have felt a yearning to live a “deeper life” but without being able to put a finger on what that means, this is an excellent place to begin.
The road to character is a long one, but I’m convinced it’s more than worthwhile for the inner peace it brings when you finally walk down it.
A criticism: The book is a little fragmentary, in the sense that it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly how each chapter relates to the overall theme of the book. And a few of the stories can feel little long-winded and meandering as you wait to get to the point.
That said, it’s very rewarding, and I admired that the book didn’t offer pre-packaged easy answers – it encouraged you to think and question as you went along which was a refreshing tonic to so much heavily prescriptive self-help advice.
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Honourable mention: The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F**K – Mark Manson
I know I promised only 3, but here’s one more just in case.
This book is in many ways a similar theme to Brooks’s, in that it covers ideas like: Stop thinking you’re a unique snowflake, stop chasing unrealistic visions of happiness, be willing to question yourself, prepare to fail a lot on the way to what you want, and choose to only give a f**k about what really matters .
It’s a fun, powerful and breezy read – and it’s little surprise that this book stormed its way up the Amazon charts in 2016.
My only reserve in recommending it fully is that the author adopts a frat-boy tone in the writing style which can get pretty grating for some readers after a while, and it does seem more geared towards super-entitled twenty/thirty-somethings who need a reality check than anyone else. Those who aren’t indoctrinated in a world hyper-positivity and self-entitlement may not see the advice in this book as anything life-changing.
That said, I found it a very useful as a reminder of some important truths about where to put your focus and how to think about suffering and difficult times. Plus it’s very short and well-organised, so it’s easy to dip into multiple times.
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I hope you enjoy these books as much as I did, and if you know of any other great books worth reading from 2016, let me know in the comments below!