Three Great Books from 2021

I read a number of good books in 2021. I research books before I start them to see if I'm likely to be interested, and I follow Morgan Housel's advice to put down a book quickly if it doesn't resonate with me.

I read to feed my curiosity and learn new things, which means most of what I read is non-fiction. I enjoy books that distill the learnings from their subject to general concepts and practical advice that I can use in my life. I especially enjoy books about mental models and historical finance.

I'll highlight three of my favorite reads of 2021 in this post. For a full list, Goodreads members can visit my Goodreads profile.

Atomic Habits - James Clear (link)

Atomic Habits has been popular ever since it was published in 2018, and was the top selling book on for 2021. It is filled with practical advice to build good habits and break bad ones, organized into four “laws” of habit change.

James Clear believes that what determines the course of a life is not a person’s goals, but the systems of atomic habits they follow. Goals can set a direction, but systems allow us to make progress. He says that we do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.

A simple example is a New Year’s resolution to improve my physical fitness: it isn’t setting a goal for clean eating or exercise that makes the impact, it’s preparing healthy meals and going to the gym. So Clear's focus is on crafting and keeping the habits that will lead to results if followed consistently.

Clear instills tremendous research and thinking into the book for its length. The conclusion section of the paperback version I read appeared on page 253, making it a relatively quick read. However, he includes hundreds of notes to attribute his references and expand his thoughts, has a section on what to read next, and others to apply Atomic Habits in the realms of business and parenting.

Thinking in Bets - Annie Duke (link)

In Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke generalizes her learnings as a professional poker player to decision making in all aspects of life. In a world of uncertainty, Duke offers a way to think about decisions apart from the outcomes, which can be the result of luck and chance.

Duke says that all decisions are bets, since the future is unknowable. Thinking in bets (what are the odds that something will happen?) means recognizing that the future we are betting on is just one possible outcome. Duke speaks of the pitfalls of “resulting” (evaluating the quality of a decision based on the quality of the outcome) and “hindsight bias” (the tendency to believe that an outcome was inevitable, instead of one possibility of many). These concepts are also addressed by Nassim Taleb in “Fooled by Randomness."

Duke makes the point that we improve the quality of our bets by relentlessly calibrating our beliefs to align with how the world actually works. She gives practical advice that allows the use of new information and the outcomes of bets we have made to improve our beliefs and improve our betting and predictive skills.

Leonardo da Vinci - Walter Isaacson (link)

This was the second biography written by Walter Isaacson that I read, after “Steve Jobs” a couple of years ago. Isaacson is a terrific biographer, able to delve into many aspects of the life of a person and relate them to the identity of his subject.

Isaacson spends a great deal of time examining da Vinci's notebooks, which shed light on the variety of interests that made him the quintessential renaissance man. A single page in a notebook could share the beginning of a painting, a diagram for a mechanical device, and da Vinci’s thoughts on politics. Despite his range, da Vinci never finished most of his creations, often requiring pressure from patrons to finish the works they had commissioned.

Isaacson presents interesting details of the regional politics of the time, and how powerful families like the Medicis and Sforzas facilitated the creation of works of paintings, sculptures, and plays that define the Renaissance and have influenced art for centuries. This environment gave rise to other prolific creators, including Michelangelo, a rival of da Vinci.

In the end, da Vinci's greatest contributions were not his works, but his curiosity, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Isaacson discusses these and other timeless lessons in the “Learning from Leonardo” section of his conclusion, which provides practical advice for the modern world.

Jump Start

Find a Ted Talk or podcast episode with the author of a book you've been putting off reading.

I'm always looking for great book recommendations. If you have one, message me on LinkedIn or Twitter. Happy reading!