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The 23 books I read in 2020 on business, coaching, happiness, and music


2020 was not a great year for books (or, for many of us, anything else!) With a few notable exceptions, I rated most of the books I read with a pretty solid "meh". 2019 was a much better year of reading for me -- read about the 29 books I read here.

Here are my thoughts on the books I read in 2020, in the order in which I read them:

1. Stillness is the Key - Ryan Holiday

A big, fat, "meh" to start off the year. This book is a mash-up of Stoic and Buddhist philosophy, which can certainly be useful in today’s “always on”, social-media-at-all-times society. It profiles of a diverse group of high-performing leaders, and how they used these principles to excel.

I definitely didn't connect with the “spiritual” aspect or the concept of “accepting a higher power”. That’s not philosophy — that’s religion. I felt like this book involved a lot of repetition, and could've been written as an essay, not a full-length book.

Goodreads reviewer Ryan Boissoneault put it best:

“Holiday writes, “There is no stillness to the mind that thinks of nothing but itself.” This is supposed to imply that some sort of religious faith in a higher power is necessary for a meaningful life, as if a sense of awe cannot be achieved by, for example, looking through the Hubble Space Telescope, or that actually helping other people isn’t a better way to be selfless than praying.”

From Stillness is the Key:

“…when nearly all the wise people of history agree, we should pause and reflect. It’s next to impossible to find an ancient philosophical school that does not talk about a higher power (or higher powers). Not because they had “evidence” of its existence, but because they knew how powerful faith and belief were, how essential they were to the achievement of stillness and inner peace.”

Um, no thanks. I'm gonna stick with science.

2. Tiny Habits - BJ Fogg

Definitely one of the best books I read in 2020. Highly, highly recommended! (Thanks to my former client Lauren for suggesting this book to me.)

It describes what James Clear's Atomic Habits is missing: celebrating tiny wins. And it's useful for absolutely anyone looking to create new habits, and for those of us who help others develop habits.

“Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions.”

“Motivation is like a party-animal friend. Great for a night out, but not someone you would rely on to pick you up from the airport.”

If you haven't yet read this book, do it. Do it now.

3. Non Obvious Megatrends: How to See What Others Miss and Predict the Future - Rohit Bhargava

Another "meh". I started skimming about halfway through. The trends didn’t seem that “non-obvious” to me, although they were well thought out and well named.

I suppose part of the purpose of this book is to encourage a certain way of thinking about the future, but as I write this in January 2021, I’ve already forgotten this book.

4. Didgeridoo: Ritual Origins and Playing Techniques - Dirk Schelberg

I've had this book on my shelf since my first trip to Australia back in 2007, and only just recently read it in full. It's a fascinating personal story of visiting and interviewing Australian Indigenous didgeridoo players. It seemed to just scratch the surface; I would have loved more depth to the origin stories (although I realize much of that knowledge is closely guarded).

The writing style seemed a bit "off", until I realized it's been translated from the original German. Also it was originally published in 1994, so I’d love to see an updated version that takes into account the burgeoning popularity of the didgeridoo in recent years (especially in Europe and North America), as well as developments in Indigenous/settler relationships in Australia.

5. Music Theory: An in-depth and straight forward approach to understanding music - Jonathan E. Peters

An excellent book (with a free companion online course) that covers the basics. I might just read this a second time! Most of this was review for me, but I’ve been working with my accordion teacher on some more in-depth theory, and I wanted to make sure I had the basics mastered.

This book is brilliantly put together (although it does have a few typos…), and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the fundamentals of music theory. I learned a few new things—and a few new ways of looking at things I already knew. The first 20 chapters were review for me, and the next 23 were review mixed with new stuff.

6. Elements of Critical Thinking: A Fundamental Guide to Effective Decision Making, Deep Analysis, Intelligent Reasoning, and Independent Thinking - Albert Rutherford

Couldn't really get into this one, and I'm not sure why. Writing style? Dry topic with more interesting books waiting to be read? I may have to tackle this one in 2021.

"Kahneman believes the human brain is hardwired to think in irrational ways because throughout history our very survival depended on it, so it became our instinct and part of our nature."

7. Online Marketing Bootcamp: The Simple, Proven Formula To Take Your Business From Zero To 6 Figures & Crack The Digital Marketing Code once and for all - Gundi Gabrielle

I can’t recall how I came across this book. Perhaps in a podcast episode I listened to? At any rate, it’s clearly geared toward people just starting online businesses. I’ve already done the whole zero-to-6-figures thing, but I wanted to see if I could take away some new info. Gundi lays out the 15 best (according to her) marketing tactics for 2020, many of which I already employ (e.g. podcasting, blogging, SEO, etc.). This book did help me generate a few new ideas for marketing projects, and it’s also full of useful resources.

8. Kindle Bestseller Publishing: The Proven 4-Week Formula to go from Zero to Bestseller as a first-time Author - Gundi Gabrielle

A good insight into Kindle publishing. I’m not sure this would be a good move for me, as the main goal of this book is to teach its readers how to become a “bestselling author”, not how to make money from writing. “Bestselling author” according to Amazon, that is. The focus is selling many copies within a not-yet-saturated niche.

I am not into Gundi's writing style. Anyone who uses “:)” in writing multiple times in each chapter will not be taken seriously.

9. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths - Michael Shermer

An intriguing look at how beliefs are formed and influenced, although it did feel like a slog for the last half of the book. Shermer’s main argument is that beliefs come first, and explanations follow. The book summarizes Shermer’s 3 decades of research into how and why we believe what we do.

“The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly.”

“…once people commit to a belief, the smarter they are the better they are at rationalizing those beliefs. Thus: smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.”

“I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.”

10. Motivational Interviewing in Nutrition and Fitness (Applications of Motivational Interviewing) - Dawn Clifford and Laura Curtis

This is an excellent book, and applicable to my work with clients. Recommended for anyone who works in the fitness and nutrition field! I appreciated how many sample dialogues between practitioner and client were included.

Professionals who use motivational interviewing view themselves as “helpers” or “sidekicks” in our clients’ change process. It involves enhancing a client’s own motivation to change, so they become an active participant in the change process. (This helps the client to take ownership of his/her/their behaviour.)

This book lays out how to use motivational interviewing in day-to-day interactions with clients, helping them work through ambivalence, break free of quick-fix solutions, and overcome barriers to change.

“Clients need to talk themselves into change, not the other way around.”

11. Fix This Next: Make the Vital Change That Will Level Up Your Business - Mike Michalowicz

I have no recollection of this book. It must’ve stayed in my brain just long enough to finish reading it, and then it disappeared.

12. Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business - Paul Jarvis

In a world seemingly obsessed with “scaling up” and “hustling”, this message is important…but it’s not exactly groundbreaking. This is another book with a useful message, that could've been condensed into an essay.

From the Amazon description:

“Company of One is a refreshingly new approach centered on staying small and avoiding growth, for any size business. Not as a freelancer who only gets paid on a per piece basis, and not as an entrepreneurial start-up that wants to scale as soon as possible, but as a small business that is deliberately committed to staying that way.”

I’m no longer a company of one, but the principles in this book got me thinking about business priorities.

“If you’re a company of one, your mind-set is to build your business around your life, not the other way around.”

“For companies of one, the question is always what can I do to make my business better?, instead of what can I do to grow my business larger?”

“…all business is a choice about the life we want outside of it.”

13. To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others - Daniel Pink

This is a great book, and it's not just about selling (it's also about "moving" others to act, in general). Lots of quality bullshit-busting about “old” versus more modern sales techniques, including busting the myth that the best salespeople are outspoken extraverts.

“One of the most effective ways of moving others is to uncover challenges they may not know they have.”

“First, in the past, the best salespeople were adept at accessing information. Today, they must be skilled at curating it—sorting through the massive troves of data and presenting to others the most relevant and clarifying pieces. Second, in the past, the best salespeople were skilled at answering questions (in part because they had information their prospects lacked). Today, they must be good at asking questions—uncovering possibilities, surfacing latent issues, and finding unexpected problems.”

14. White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism - Robin DiAngelo

Excellent book, and highly recommended. When white people’s assumptions about race are challenged, our reactions are often counterproductive, and they in many ways maintain racial inequality.

DiAngelo makes it clear that racism is not restricted to “bad people”. She details how white fragility develops, how and why it maintains racial inequality, and what white people can do to engage more effectively and constructively. If I believe that only “bad” people exhibit racist thoughts or behaviour — and consciously intend to hurt others because of their race — I would understandably respond with outrage to any suggestion that I displayed racist actions or thoughts. “If, however”, DiAngelo writes, “I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”

“…to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior.”

“While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.”

15. The Grumpy Accountant: One Fed-Up Tax Pro's Practical Plan to Fix Canada's Senselessly Complicated Tax System - Neal Winokur

Well, this was a surprise! I didn't think it was possible to enjoy a book about the Canadian tax system. (Thanks to Jonathan Goodman of the Personal Trainer Development Center for the recommendation.)

This book contains Winokur’s assessment of what’s wrong with the Canadian tax system (so much. So, so much), and ideas for how to improve and simplify it. It's written as a story about Jerry, an average Canadian, and his trusty accountant, George, starting in Jerry’s early adulthood and ending at the end of Jerry’s life. The book offers a collection of useful tips for navigating the excessively complicated Canadian tax system.

A must-read for every Canadian tax payer.

16. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever - Michael Bungay Stanier

Short ’n’ sweet! 7 great questions to ask within a coaching context. Similar to motivational interviewing, giving advice doesn’t work (it doesn’t lead to lasting change). Asking questions so someone comes to their own solutions is much more effective.

“Coaching should be a daily, informal act, not an occasional, formal “It’s Coaching Time!” event.”

17. Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW! - Stephen M. Shapiro

Yet another book that could’ve been an essay, rather than a book. I love the concept of goal-free living, and it’s something I’ve been doing this past year. In 2019 I had a sales goal for my business, and experienced a major anxiety breakdown. In 2020 I had no financial goals (or any other goals), and my sales increased by 60%. Just sayin'!

“Achieving your goals does not mean you will achieve happiness.”

“Goal-Free Living also means being true to yourself, being sensitive to what you like, and having the courage to change direction when your gut tells you there must be more.”

“People who are detached from fitting into a size 4 dress are more likely to lose weight, because they won’t be overly discouraged by a lack of progress and can take pleasure in their eating habits.”

“Goals are life’s cookbook—recipes for predictable results. This can be very handy, but it also can be limiting.”

18. 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done - Peter Bregman

This book gave me a few good ideas for planning my next year, like using themes. Bregman also has a unique theme-based approach to To Do lists that I'm working on adopting. You slot your tasks into the themes you've set out for the year, leaving 5% of your time left over for all the random stuff that doesn't fit into your main themes.

“The secret to surviving a buffet is to eat fewer things. And the secret to thriving in your life is the same: Do fewer things.”

19. HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done - Oliver Burkeman

Hat tip to my friend and workout buddy Vanessa for introducing me to journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman! I read everything he writes — I’ve already pre-ordered his next book, and his is one of a select few email newsletters I’m subscribed to.

From the book’s description:

“How do you solve the problem of human happiness? It’s a subject that has occupied some of the greatest philosophers of all time, from Aristotle to Paul McKenna – but how do we sort the good ideas from the terrible ones? Over the past few years, Oliver Burkeman has travelled to some of the strangest outposts of the ‘happiness industry’ in an attempt to find out.”

I’ll let Burkeman speak for himself:

“It strikes me that a basic requirement of anything calling itself a self-help technique – as opposed to, say, a scam – is that you ought to be able to do it yourself. If you have to pay someone a large sum of money before they’ll reveal their secret methods, this is called something different, such as ‘being an idiot’.”

“Moderation doesn’t sell self-help books.”

“The bookshelves heave with advice on how to feel confident in social settings, or motivated to take exercise, how to get inspired for creative projects, etcetera. But what if you just accepted that you felt afraid, or unmotivated, or uninspired, and went fearfully, unmotivatedly, uninspiredly onward?”

“Books on ‘getting motivated’, and hyper-energetic motivational speakers, ironically compound the problem by reinforcing the idea that you need to feel positive about doing something before you begin it. But that’s a subtle form of pressure. What if you dropped the requirement of feeling good, accepted that you felt bad, and just started anyway? Motivation usually shows up quickly thereafter.”

20. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking - Oliver Burkeman

Lots of quality bullshit-busting here, in a work that gets us to rethink decades of self-help advice. Instead of getting caught up in “positive thinking” and our collective obsession with avoiding uncertainty, unhappiness, and failure, Burkeman argues that accepting the things we’ve been trying to avoid is, in fact, a more effective path toward happiness.

“…in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”

“And the ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now.”

“…we too often make our goals into parts of our identities, so that failure becomes an attack on who we are.”

21. The Wealthy Fit Pro's Guide to Getting Clients and Referrals (Wealthy Fit Pro's Guides Book 3) - Jonathan Goodman

My rule with Jonathan Goodman (head of the Personal Trainer Development Center) is the same as with Oliver Burkeman: I read everything he writes. This book was essentially a review of all the things I should be doing in my business to get and retain clients. My referral strategy could use some major work, but we're too busy with clients to worry about it (haha).

“A great trainer doesn’t have to design a great workout. She has to design a good enough workout and get her clients to want to do the workout.”

22. The 1-Page Marketing Plan: Get New Customers, Make More Money, And Stand Out From The Crowd - Allan Dib

It took me a while to get into this one, but it did provide a few useful nuggets. It also got me considering the long-term future of my business (i.e. selling it at some point). Allan Dib lays out how to stop “random acts of marketing” and start developing a coherent strategy.

23. Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert

Gilbert, a prominent Harvard psychologist, lays out why humans suck at predicting what will make us happy, and what to do about it. An excellent read for psychology nerds. This is not a self-help or "how-to" book, but rather a scientific account of the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and our inability to predict how much we'll like it when we get there.

“We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present.”

“The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.”


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