Thursday, December 30, 2021

Books I Read In 2021

I didn't set out to read this many books in 2021; it just happened. Given the infinite number of books you could read, I thought it would be helpful to see someone else's list and summary. Perhaps one or two will look interesting to you.

Business Books

The Practice by Seth Godin

Like most of Godin's book (
and blog posts), it's relatively short, with almost as many chapters as pages. His encouragement is to practice your craft. Do it regularly, regardless of the results. Continual practice will make you better, which will lead to better results.

Scaling Up by Verne Harnish

Take all the top business books and integrate them into a cohesive management and action plan. That's Scaling Up. There's a 16-page worksheet you download ahead of time, and the book walks you through it. It covers managing people, strategy, execution, and cash. Given the size/state of my company, I found the strategy and cash sections the most interesting.

I evaluate my business performance the traditional ways:

  • profit = revenue - expenses.
  • Return on investment = profit / money invested
  • Capitalization rate = Operational profit (pre-debt payments) / property price (debt + equity)
  • I recently started paying attention to return on net assets = profit / net assets (which is equity in my business). This metric led me to sell three properties and buy a new one this year.

That's to say, I mainly focus on the income statement. Harnish recommends 7 additional metrics that I should also pay attention to. Three I liked were:

  1. Operational efficiency: net income / revenue (for every dollar I make, how much do I keep?)
  2. Cash flow, to fuel future growth: profit + change in debt
  3. Return on assets = profit / funding (debt + equity). This is similar to the Cap Rate but takes debt payments into account.

The Coaching Habit by Michael Stanier

I've been doing more coaching lately, and this short-ish book helped me help others more effectively. If you're a coach, a manager, a husband, or a parent of teenagers, I recommend this one. Here are his 7 questions:

  1. What's on your mind?
  2. And what else?
  3. What's the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you want?
  5. How can I help?
  6. If you're saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
  7. What was most useful for you?

In the book, he explains each question and goes deep (sometimes too deep) into the psychology behind each one. Basically, it's a framework to understand their issue, explore what they've already thought of, and help them evaluate options. It's so much better than hearing the summary of an issue and jumping in with a solution because chances are they already thought of it, or it doesn't entirely solve the problem.

Twenty Bits I Learned About Design, Business & Community by Dan Cederholm

This is a quick read (about an hour) and felt more like a written Ted Talk. It was fun and quotable, but I think it's a book you only appreciate in retrospect. For example, he says working with a partner is like being married. It's 100% true and super important, but you'll only recognize it if you already know it.

Great by Choice by Jim Collins (re-read, audiobook)

I love all of Collins' books. My brother has been listening to them, which got me to re-listen to this one. Here's what makes a 10X leader and company:

  • They have fanatical discipline. There's a story of a 20-mile march, which is very similar to The Practice by Seth Godin.
  • They use empirical creativity: There's an idea of firing bullets, then cannonballs, which is probably one of my most favorite analogies. It'll sound familiar if you've read Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
  • They have productive paranoia. They obsessively ask, What if? And then prepare ahead of time by building reserves and bounding the risk.
  • SMaC recipe: a specific, methodical, and consistent set of operating practices translating their strategies into real-world actions. This is a big part of The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. I use ClickUp to manage my checklists.
  • Return on Luck: everyone gets the same amount of good and bad luck. But great companies/people take better advantage of good luck.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (audiobook)

  • Fragile things break under stress and volatility.
  • Robust/durable things can simply resist shocks and stress better than fragile items.
  • Antifragile things benefit from shock and thrive in volatile environments. They get better, not worse, when they're stressed and put under pressure!

This is a mind-expanding book! My favorite example of an antifragile system is the human body. When you exercise - putting your body under stress - you get stronger/faster.

Interestingly, an antifragile system usually consists of many fragile parts. The success and failure of these parts serve as important feedback for the system as a whole.

Finally, antifragile systems work because they build extra capacity when put under stress.

Heady stuff. So, how do you use this to your advantage?

  • The barbell strategy: play it safe in some areas, and take many small risks in others. This reminds me of Great by Choice: start with productive paranoia and then add on empirical creativity. Random tinkering plays a significant role here.
  • Optionality: have options that allow you more upside than downside. Then let things play out. This is the central idea of stock market diversification. It also helps to have options at each step of the journey. This is why teams use agile development: it lets them change course and improve with more information.
  • Skin in the game: if you, or the people making decisions, have a vested interest in the outcome, it will improve the results. It shouldn't just be incentives either; there should be some sort of disincentives.
  • Seek simplicity: complexity can create weak points and reduce overall understanding, making you more fragile. This feels counter-intuitive, but as long as you balance it with some complexity, it makes a lot of sense.
  • In the absence of fluctuations, be weary that hidden risks are starting to accumulate. This is especially true if the volatility is artificially suppressed. The scary part is that the longer it goes, the worse the damage when a shock occurs. Become productively paranoid and seek ways to not just become robust but to become antifragile (you almost start hoping for a shock).

There's a lot in the book. I definitely recommend it.

Harvard Business Review Magazine

I thought I'd add my subscriptions to the list as well. This is the only magazine I subscribe to. I find the others are too general to be helpful. HBR can be a little general too, but I find the topics are relevant and often point me in the direction of doing deeper research.

Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug

The idea is how to make a website as usable as possible. It's not an exact how-to book, but one of design principles. For example, pages should be self-evident, obvious, and self-explanatory. Clickable things should be obvious and you should default to convention unless you have a massively compelling, valuable, undeniable reason to ignore it.

It seems obvious when you read it, but it's hard to remember in practice.

Here's another, strategic, way to think about it: what's your website's unique value? It's usually the product or service your offer. Let that be the thing that's special and different. Show off your offer's unique benefits, but keep the design/layout/usability parts typical and boring.

Oh, and test everything to see what actually works.

Similar to the book Sprint (which, I think directly uses Krug's suggestion) he recommends a simple way to get user feedback. He recommends demoing whatever you're working on to 3 people - an hour each - once a month. The goal isn't to find every little problem, but to identify the big issues and spend the next month fixing the big issues. Then test again, whatever new work was completed within the month.

He even claims you can test concept art. Show them the picture and ask questions. "What do you think this does? If could you tap around, what would you do next?" Tooks like Sketch, Figma, Google Slides, and PowerPoint make it super simple to link images together. We did this at Majordomo and it worked well.

Perhaps the only strange thing in the book is that there's a detailed description of the image under every single picture. I mean, it's a book on usability, so of course, it'll add the alternative text, but wow. On the bright side, it made it seem like I read it pretty quickly since I skipped all the descriptions.

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull (WIP, audiobook)

I just started listening to it, and it's good. It's about Pixar, how they get work done, and how they stay creative. I'm listening to it as a fun book. And a pre-read to another just-for-fun book: 
Loonshots by Safi Bahcall.

Christian Books

Prayer by Timothy Keller

This is my favorite book of the year. If you are interested in improving your prayer life, read this book. It's a great mix of practice and theology, written in a highly approachable way. As I continue to disciple men, this is on my required reading list.

Here's how it starts. He and his wife were going through a tough time, and she told him this:

"Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn't forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don't pray together to God, we're not going to make it because of all we are facing. I'm certainly not. We have to pray, we can't let it just slip our minds.

Kathy's jolting challenge, along with my own growing conviction that I just didn't get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer. As I looked around, I quickly came to see that I was not alone." (pp. 9-10)

If that doesn't hook you, I don't know what will. :)

Raising a Modern-Day Knight by Robert Lewis

Speaking of men, I'm interested in how to help Samson grow up to be a godly man. This is a good introduction book for it. It gives some good ideas on being more intentional with your son. It's not about becoming a hunting, football-loving, burly man. But a man who:

  • rejects passivity (Romans 12:2),
  • accepts responsibility (Corinthians 16:13),
  • leads courageously (Joshua 24:15),
  • and expects the greater reward (Revelation 22:12).

One of my favorite parts is comparing Adam and Jesus as men. In the garden, Adam fails at every part of being a man. Jesus, however, shows us what real manhood looks like.

It gives ideas on how to instill each of these traits and create ceremonies around different life stages. It's something I plan to do with Samson and perhaps with other men I disciple.

Spiritual Warfare by Tom White

This book will open your eyes to the spiritual warfare around you and in the Bible. It's intense! Not the words on the pages, but the experience after reading. I found I could only read a little bit at a time.

Something I've been thinking about: God is, in addition to a whole host of traits, omnipresent (everywhere for all-time) and omniscient (knows everything).

Satan is not. He can only be at one place at one time, and he doesn't know what the future holds. So, the likelihood of you having a direct encounter with Satan is pretty low. Satan genuinely believed he won when Christ died on the cross because he couldn't see God's bigger plan. Compared to God, Satan is weak.

The book helps identify actual warfare vs. sin-induced trouble. I recommend this book to mature Christians. 

Online Jesus by Angela Craig

I wrote about this book earlier in the year
. Our church continues to explore how to implement the ideas in this book. I've also read some of Barna's research on digital evangelism, which I really like because it's all backed by research.

From Megachurch to Multiplication by Chris Galanos

This book describes the disciple-making movement (DMM). His 10-year goal was to reach 10,000 people in Texas. He reached that goal in 8 years. His new 10-year goal is to reach 1,000,000 people in the US, and he believes the only scalable model is DMM. It's an interesting model:

#1 Focus on God's Word

  • Meet each week in a group to "focus on God's Word" by doing the seven-question Discovery Bible Study (DBS) process with 10-20 other people. It's 28 passages covering creation to Christ.
  • Spend five days each week on your own, focusing on God's Word by reading, obeying, and sharing.
  • DBS Questions:
    1. What have you been thankful for in the past week?
    2. What has challenged or stressed you or anyone around you during the past week?
    3. Is there anything this group can do to help with those challenges or stresses, or is there any other need we can meet together?
    4. What does this passage teach you about God?
    5. What does this passage teach you about people?
    6. What should you do this week in response to this passage?
    7. Who should you share this with this week?
    8. Learn more:

#2 Extraordinary Prayer

  • Spend one hour of individual prayer at least five days each week.
  • Spend one hour of corporate prayer with the group each week.
  • Do a four-hour extended prayer time at least once per month (half night or all night).

#3 Go Out Among the Lost (Find a Person of Peace)

  • Spend at least one hour each week as a team going out among the lost (to new areas with people you haven't met). Usually, it's neighborhoods, apartment complexes, or big box stores.
  • Spend time loving, serving, and sharing with your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.
  • Find the "person of peace" Jesus spoke about in Matthew 10 and Luke 10. You're looking for the receptive person God has prepared to be a bridge for the gospel to travel over into that community.
    • Welcoming
    • Open Oikos (house)
    • Listens & obeys
    • Example: "Hi. We're walking around praying for people. Do you have anything you'd like prayer for?"

#4 See Groups Start

  • See one Discovery Group (DG) started per person per year.
  • Led by the person of peace where they focus on God's Word in a DBS, then extraordinary prayer.

How to Reach the West Again by Timothy Keller

What? Another book on evangelism? This book is shorter but dense. It addresses the cultural issues Christianity faces in the West (I had to read it twice to get it, it's that dense). Some quotes:

On evangelism: "Past evangelistic strategies assumed that nearly everyone held this shared set of beliefs about a sacred order—that there was a God, an afterlife, a standard of moral truth, and a sense of sin."

On Technology: "Technology doesn't merely give us different beliefs. It changes the very way we form them. Beliefs become very thin, chosen only if they fit how we want to see ourselves and easily discarded when they do not."

On political polarization: "One of these views makes an idol out of individual freedom, the other out of race and nation, blood and soil. Both are secular—the transcendent God is missing, and something created and earthly is deified."

Given these challenges, it's no longer sufficient to teach biblical truth; we also need to contrast it with what Western Culture teaches us. Jesus demonstrates this with his sermon on the mount: "You have heard it said... but I tell you..."

To help, we need to go back to the early church's core values and social vision:

  1. A multi-race and multi-ethnic church
  2. A church committed to the poor and to justice.
  3. A pioneer in civility, peace-making, and bridge-building. Marked by a commitment to forgiveness, humility, patience, and tolerance.
  4. A church that is strongly pro-life.
  5. Bring a sexual counter-culture that connects it to God's saving love and redemption and instead of merely an appetite of self-gratification.

It's usually easy for Christians to adopt two of these core values, but Christ calls us to hold each of these. This one is worth discussing in a small group.

Christian Beliefs by Wane Gruden

This is a summary of 
Systematic Theology (3,251 pages!). If you want a quick overview of what Christians believe, this is it. It doesn't dive deep into the how or why for the beliefs but states them in simple-straightforward terms. A middle ground book would be Bible Doctrine, also by Grudem, or Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears.

Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley (audiobook)

I wrote about this book earlier
 in the year. Here's an excellent example of his writing style:

"I want to make a case that [an] unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition–its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multi-ethnic community of faith–can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope." (page 6)

The Bible (re-read)

I re-read the Bible this year using the 
plan I created in 2020. Next year, I'm changing things up and creating a chronological version that does the New and Old Testaments in parallel; and gets it done in 25 days a month.

Romans 8-16 For You by Timothy Keller (WIP)

This is a continuation of Romans 1-7 For You. If you can't tell, I'm a Tim Keller fan. I like that it goes primarily verse-by-verse to explain the context and application. Romans is such an incredible letter, and I appreciate and understand it so much better because of this book.

Ruth For You by Tony Merida

The whole "For You" series is fantastic. Our church was going through the book of Ruth, and so Jessi and I read this together. I really like the extra context and explanations. It helped complete the sermon series. Jessi and I plan to read Revelation For You this year because that's a book we're both interested in better understanding.

When I Don't Desire God by John Piper (re-read, WIP)

This is a book I read with men I disciple. It starts with a fair amount of theology, and then finishes with highly practical ways to engage with God, prayer, and the Bible. Piper tends to write in a complicated way - he loves dissecting words - but I find it's worth investing the time. By the way, he has a fantastic podcast called "
Ask Pastor John" which are short answers to some great questions. Here's a sampling I see right now:

  • End-of-life medical intervention - or not?
  • Do the non-elect have a chance to repent?
  • Is it normal to have a divided heart?
  • How "progressive" can a Christian get?
  • Is violent crime under God's providence?

Those are some good questions, right?

For Fun Books

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (audiobook)

I listened to this while driving to California in January (to go sledding with the family). Little did I know that VR and the meta-verse would become a hot topic by the end of the year. It's really well written and entertaining. I haven't seen the movie (mostly b/c it's not streaming anywhere, and I'm too cheap to rent it), but the book is excellent.

I found it helpful to understand the future that Facebook Meta is pursuing. The book paints a dystopian physical future, but the virtual possibilities are fascinating. I recommend listening to it.

Blood & Oil by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck (audiobook)

This book is about Mohammed Bin Salman's (MBS) rise to power in Suadi Arabia. It's written by two investigative journalists and seems to accurately portray MBS. Like most leaders - including most CEOs - there are some fantastic accomplishments and some not-so-great character qualities. Though, to be fair, MBS's qualities seem to be more extreme than most leaders.

If you're interested in the middle east or looking for a political thriller, this is an incredible book to read.

Superman & Action Comics

I think it's fun to get comics in the mail. Samson enjoys flipping through them as well. Superman is my favorite superhero, so that's what I get (Action Comics is about Superman). The series seems to be going through a transition from Kal-El to his son, Jon Kent. If you haven't tried comics, I recommend them.

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