The Five Best Books I Read in 2017

Creating these lists every year is a good reflection on the books I read, what I’d learned, and some fulfilling moments throughout the year.

Here are the five best books I read in 2017:

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, By Cal Newport

After enjoying Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” on a plane ride to Ireland in 2016, I immediately picked up “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” at the beginning of 2017.

Follow your passion is dangerous advice.” The first third of the book argues (quite well) how often people are lead astray and feel lost because they can’t find their “passion.”  From Steve Jobs to Steve Martin, Newport utilizes famous figures to demonstrate the true art of mastery, and how most people develop their passions later on into a career, rather than “following their passion.”

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Steve Jobs. I think in the “Apple” genius, not enough attention goes to Wozniak. I think that a lot of modern “Jobs was one of the greatest leaders ever” turn a blind eye to a lot of his mistakes, issues, and arrogance Jobs had (remember he was fired from Apple at one point, the company he founded)!

While Jobs has inspired many dreamers with his talks and philosophy on following your passion, Newport points out he didn’t quite do this himself, “If you had met a young Steve Jobs in the years leading up to his founding of Apple Computer, you wouldn’t have pegged him as someone who was passionate about starting a technology company.”  Young Steve jobs was heavily into Zen, his “passion.”

He goes on to say: “If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Centers most popular teachers.”

This was a very motivating book, and gives a lot of practical advice in mastery, ignoring some of our social “follow your dreams” rhetoric, and creating a more fulfilling career by becoming “so good they can’t ignore you.” The book is refreshing in a saturated marketplace of “just follow your dreams, work hard, and the rest will fall into place!”

The books core message is the importance of mastery, and mastery of a field. “[Scientific breakthrougs] require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered.”

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and Geroge Spafford

“Improving daily work is even more important than doing daily work.”

I read this book twice in 2017. The Phoenix Project is one of the best DevOps and agile books I’ve read. My business partner in J9i, Dhiren is reading this book, and I’m considering making it required reading at my company for new project managers.

This fictional book follows Bill, a newly appointed IT manager at Parts Unlimited, who has been asked to take on a project critical to the future of the business. Bill is given an unrealistic timeline, the threat of outsourcing, and no additional budget to make this happen

A mentor arrives to help Bill and the company turns around the IT department, giving anyone who has spent more than an hour in IT plenty of “been there, done that” moments, as well as providing a proper scope on the power of DevOps integration.

My favorite line in this book describes a frequent “push-pull” between the business world and the IT world:

 “It’s harder than ever to convince the business to do the right thing. They’re like kids in a candy store. They read in an airline magazine that they can manage their whole supply chain in the cloud for $499 per year, and suddenly that’s the main company initiative. When we tell them it’s not actually that easy, and show them what it takes to do it right, they disappear. Where did they go? They’re talking to their Cousin Vinnie or some outsourcing sales guy who promises they can do it in a tenth of the time and cost.”

Anyone involved in managing IT, working with IT, or who wants a better understanding of IT (and how you can fix common issues) should read this book.

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

Philosophy is stained with the stereotype of a bearded college kid using it as an excuse to annoyingly question everything. Outsiders see no practical value, and consider it something for the snide Holden Caulfield types and their asinine musing. I shared this view until a few years ago.

Stoic philosophy was introduced to me when I was reading about George Washington and his study of Stoic philosophy. At the end of the infamous winter at Valley Forge, Washing entertained his men with the production of Cato. A trail of warriors (like Marcus Aurelius), modern day football coaches and CEOs embrace the wisdom of Stoic philosophy.

The Daily Stoic gives you an insight and exercises each day of the year. The advice is real world, “Having an end in mind is no guarantee that you’ll reach it—no Stoic would tolerate that assumption—but not having an end in mind is a guarantee you won’t.”

Here were some of my favorite quotes from the book:

That’s what Seneca is reminding us. As someone who was one of the richest men in Rome, he knew firsthand that money only marginally changes life. It doesn’t solve the problems that people without it seem to think it will. In fact, no material possession will. External things can’t fix internal issues.”

When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?”

Our reaction is what actually decides whether harm has occurred. If we feel that we’ve been wronged and get angry, of course that’s how it will seem. If we raise our voice because we feel we’re being confronted, naturally a confrontation will ensure.”

“The mind is a muscle, and like the rest, it can be strained, overworked, even injured. Our physical health is also worn down by overcommitment, a lack of rest, and bad habits. Remember the tall tale about John Henry—the man who challenged the machine? He died of exhaustion at the end. Don’t forget that.”

“In a scene in Steven Pressfield’s classic novel about Alexander the Great, The Virtues of War, Alexander reaches a river crossing only to be confronted by a philosopher who refuses to move. “This man has conquered the world!” one of Alexander’s men shouts. “What have you done?’ The philosopher responds, with complete confidence, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.’”

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

A former hostage negotiator, Voss outlines different tactics and strategies he used in negotiation. Voss points out; you can’t just split the difference with a hostage taker by allowing her to keep three hostages and give you three hostages back.

While a lot of these books take a manipulative and condescending “gotcha” tone, this book focuses on real-world techniques and using negotiation to get a fair deal for all involved, even in extreme circumstances.

“It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to understand better what the other side is experiencing.”

This book provides a lot of sage advice for anyone who wants better deals when buying a car, selling more products or services to their clients, and other day-to-day “negotiations” we find ourselves in. The focus isn’t on sleazy tactics, the focus is on helping people understand the art of peaceful and cooperative negotiation.

“What does a good babysitter sell, really? It’s not child care exactly, but a relaxed evening. A furnace salesperson? Cozy rooms for family time. A locksmith? A feeling of security. Know the emotional drivers and you can frame the benefits of any deal in language that will resonate.”

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World is a fictional set in the aftermath of the Civil War. The book follows an aging news reader (someone who travels to local town halls and reads newspapers from foreign countries) who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people. Johanna is a young orphan, raised as one of the Kiowa’s own. She has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, and refuses to be “civilized.”

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is your stereotypical Harrison Ford/Clint Eastwood “aging badass” who has lived through three wars, fought in two of them, and personifies a lone wolf.

I had never really known about or realized the children captured and raised in Native American tribes, nor known about the physiological aspects and provocative lessons they teach us:

“As Doris had said back in the Spanish Fort, all those captured as children and returned were restless and hungry for some spiritual solace, abandoned by two cultures, dark shooting stars lost in the outer heavens.”

The book is wonderfully written, with some strong characters. The overall plot and story moves along nicely, and engages you in subjects that aren’t as often topical. Some of these scars from America (the wars with the Indians, Japanese internment camps) are better explored in fictional novels detailing what it would be like to live on the other side.

“If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. …And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up like hard information.”