Five best books I read in 2018

Reading is not a chore. Reading is theft. It is robbery. Someone smarter than you has spent years struggling to solve a problem or researching a new idea. You can steal that hard earned knowledge and make it yours just by reading her book. And you won’t be arrested.

Sam Harris says, “We read for the joy and benefit of thinking another person’s thoughts.” Read good books and you can enjoy and benefit from the thoughts of brilliant people. You can “steal” the time and energy they invested in writing what they have learned.

Here’s a list of books I read in 2018. At the end of this post is commentary on the best five books I read.

The numbers in brackets represent how I rate each book on a scale from 1 (not good) to 10 (exceptional).


  1. The Blue Zones – Dan Buettner – 2008, 303 pages [7.5] – Analyzes five ares of the world that have long life-expectancy rates and offers nine lessons learned from these people groups.
  2. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste NG – 2017, 336 pages [7] – I enjoyed her first novel better. The story of families growing up in the upscale neighborhood of Shaker Heights. 
  3. The Midnight Line – Lee Childs – 2017 – ___ pages [7] – I like the protagonist, Jack Reacher, and this book (the 30th in the series) had an interesting plot. 
  4. The Power of Moments – Chip and Dan Heath – 2017 – 295 pages [8.5] – I like everything the Heath brothers write. They combine good research with accessible writing. This book unpacks the importance of, and how to orchestrate, pivotal moments.
  5. The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena – 2016, 308 pages [4] – A totally worthless novel. The only reason I finished it is because I was on a transatlantic flight with nothing else to do.
  6. A Little History of Religion – Richard Holloway – 2016, 237 pages [7.5] – A concise and accessible survey of world religions. I really enjoyed this book. 
  7. Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – translated by Arthur Waley – c. 300 BC – 89 pages [6] – The first great classic of the Chinese school of philosophy called Taoism. I did not understand most of this book; it was similar to reading dense, opaque poetry.


  1. How to Read a Book – The Art of Getting a Liberal Education – Mortimer Adler, 1940, 389 pages [6] – Good thoughts on the subject but 389 pages became tedious. 
  2. Why Buddhism Is True – The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment  Robert Wright, 2017, 301 pages [6.5] – I’m wanting to learn more about meditation, but this book didn’t help much.  
  3. The Consequences of Ideas – R.C. Sproul, 2000, 203 pages, [8] – A good survey of the philosophers who have influenced Western thought. 


  1. Command and Control – Eric Schlosser, 2013, 485 pages, [8] – Incredibly documented (there are 98 pages of footnotes), it tells the history of the U.S. nuclear age. It’s scary to know how many times we’ve been close to a nuclear holocaust.
  2. 100 Greatest Scientific Experiments – Robert Cave, 217 pages [7] – Fun book to read; lots of pictures. 
  3. Don’t Believe Everything You Think – The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking – Thomas Kida, 2006, 237 pages [8] – This was my second time to read the book. It is accessible and interesting. 
  4. The Words Lincoln Lived By – Gene Griessman, 1997, 136 pages, [6.5] – 52 short chapters on character traits that Lincoln exhibited. 


  1. The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey – Blanchard, Oncken and Burrows, 1989, 130 short pages, [5] – This is a dumbed down version of a great HBR article published in November, 1999. I recommend reading the article.
  2. White American Youth – Christian Picciolini, 2017, 172 pages, [4.5] – A boring autobiography. I loved the podcast where Sam Harris interviewed Picciolini but didn’t like his book.


  1. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – Timothy Snyder, 2017, 126 pages [7] – An insightful read given our current political climate. Anarchy could happen in the U.S. 
  2. My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself – A.J. Jacobs, 2009, 244 pages [7] – Jacobs is engages in participatory journalism: he immerses himself in whatever he’s writing about. The book is entertaining but not very informative or helpful.
  3. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace – Jeff Hobbs, 2014, 402 pages [7] – The title describes the book. Lessons to be learned about race, culture, the drug wars, bad decisions. 
  4. The Strange Order of Things – Antonio Damasio, 2018, 244 pages [7] – Damasio is a brilliant physician/scientist but this book leans more toward the professional than the lay-person so I had a hard time understanding a lot of his ideas.


  1. The CEO Next Door – Elena Botelho and Kim Powell, 2018, 254 pages [7] – Based on 17,000 interviews of top executives; a good read on leadership even for those not aspiring to be a CEO.
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt, 2012, 371 pages [6.5] – It was difficult for me to keep up with his thinking; my bad. It is written more for the professional than layperson. 
  3. Math in Bite-Sized Chunks – Chris Waring, 2018, 188 pages [7] – I like books that give an overview of important topics, and this book did that with math. 27 short chapters on topics like: percentages, algorithms, averages, correlation, etc.


  1. Commonwealth – Ann Patchett, 2016, 322 pages [7.5] – Patchett is a wonderful novelist. I did not connect with this book as well as I have her other novels. My favorite so far: State of Wonder.
  2. You Are Here – Thich Nhat Hanh, 2001, 140 pages [5] – A poorly written, rambling book.
  3. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari, 2014, 416 pages [9] – A concise, selective, history of mankind. You won’t agree with everything he says (but that can be said of most books), but his explanation of certain areas of history are enlightening. 
  4. Deep Influence – T.J. Addington, 2014, 256 pages [6] – I did not learn anything new from this book. Granted, I’ve read many books on leadership, but I yearn for fresh thoughts.
  5. No Middle Name – Lee Childs, 2018, 471 pages [7] – The protagonist, Jack Reacher, continues to amaze and amuse. 


  1. The Happiness Hypotheses – Jonathan Haidt, 2006, 246 pages [8] – This book gave me a lot to think about. He combines ancient wisdom and modern truth. 
  2. The E Myth – Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it – Michael Gerber, 1995, 268 pages [5.5] – Based purely on anecdotal thoughts. I only benefited from chapter 8 – The Franchise Prototype.
  3. How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan, 2018, 414 pages [7.5] – A well-researched book on recent medical advances in psychedelic treatments. 
  4. The Number – A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life – Lee Eisenberg, 2006, 255 pages [5] – Rambling, self-absorbed writing. A lot of words that said nothing. 


  1. Philosophy in Bite-Sized Chunks – Lesley Levene, 2017, 181 pages [7] – A series of two page summaries of many famous philosophers from Anaximenes to Foucault. 
  2. Farsighted – Steven Johnson – 2018, 218 pages [9] – Another amazing book by Johnson. The theme is how to make wise long-term decisions, but just the final chapter on the value of reading literary fiction makes the book worth reading. I immediately ordered George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. 


  1. The Coddling of the American Mind – Luianoff and Haidt, 2018, 281 pages [9] – The authors investigate three myths—What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people—and show how the myths have adversely affected social structures.
  2. Solving Tough Problems – An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities – Adam Kahane, 2007, 232 pages [8]. Primarily autobiographical, Kahane teaches good lessons about how to solve major, protracted problems (ex. aparthaid in South Africa).
  3. The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah, 2018, 438 pages [8] – This novel takes place in rural Alaska. It’s interesting and teaches a lot about life.


  1. The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Probable – Taleb, 2010, 379 pages [8] – I tried to read this book eight years ago but didn’t have the intellectual endurance.  I made it through this year, but will read again in eight years. 
  2. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari, 2018, 318 pages [8] – Harari is a historian and futurist. In this book he prognosticate about what life will be like in the coming decades.
  3. Habits of a Happy Brain – Breuning, 206, 211 pages [6.5] – A readable, but somewhat folksy,  book on the four “happy chemicals” – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphin. 


  1. Lost Connections – Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions – Johann Hari – 2018, 261 pages [9] – Hari is a journalist so his writing is engaging. This is a terrific book. 
  2. Negotiation – HBR Press – 2003, 147 pages [6] – As expected from HBR, a deep dive into this topic. 
  3. The Last Samurai – Helen Dewitt – 2000, 530 pages [8] – Supposedly, one of the great novels of the last 100 years. It’s hard to follow. I tried to give up on it several times, but finished it and I’m glad I did. A story about a child prodigy and his search for his father. 

Five best books I read in 2018

FictionThe Great Alone – Kristin Hannah, 2018, 438 pages [8] – This novel takes place in rural Alaska. It’s interesting and teaches a lot about life. One of the advantages of reading fiction is that, sometimes, we witness an entire life, or even several generations, and we see the longterm implications of decisions and values. In this book, the protagonist struggles with codependency with an abusive spouse. At times, it’s painful to read, but there’s a realistic and instructive conclusion.

Psychology/self-help – Lost Connections – Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions – Johann Hari – 2018, 261 pages [9] – Hari is a journalist so his writing is engaging. He discusses nine causes of depression and solutions. Lots of stories illustrate each main point. Planet earth would benefit from reading this book.

General interest – The Coddling of the American Mind – Luianoff and Haidt, 2018, 281 pages [9] – The authors investigate three myths—What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people—and show how the myths have adversely affected social structures.

General Interest – Farsighted – Steven Johnson – 2018, 218 pages [9] – Another amazing book by Johnson. The theme is how to make wise long-term decisions. Just the final chapter on the value of reading literary fiction makes the book worth reading. I immediately ordered George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch.

History – Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari, 2014, 416 pages [9] – A concise, selective, history of mankind. You won’t agree with everything he says (but that can be said of most books), but his explanation of certain areas of history are enlightening.

And finally…

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article on why it’s a good to have more books in your library than you can possibly read.

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Take initiative

Nothing happens until something moves. Einstein

My favorite word in the English language is initiate and its noun form, initiative.

Life favors those who take initiative.

Most people live passive lives; others are aggressive. Aggressive is better.

This may be the single most critical difference between leaders and followers. Leaders initiate; they are proactive. They have an agenda. I’ve even noticed that good leaders walk fast, literally; they know their destination and want to get there quickly.

Kirkpatrick and Locke agree: “Effective leaders are proactive. They make choices and take action that leads to change instead of just reacting to events or waiting for things to happen; that is, they show a high level of initiative. Instead of sitting idly by or waiting for fate to smile upon them, leaders need to challenge the process.”

When teaching the Lead Well workshop, I ask delegates to consider the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer merely reflects the temperature of a room; a thermostat has the ability to change the temperature. Leaders are like thermostats; they visualize a better future and take the initiative to make necessary changes.

Often, initiative must be paired with courage because you will inevitably pursue things that you have never done before, and that can be intimidating. Also, when other people follow your initiatives, you’ll sense a responsibility toward their effort and well-being, and that also takes courage.

Initiative requires a bias-to-action and a frustration with passivity. It likes movement.

Don’t always sit in the passenger seat. Be the driver.

“I would not sit waiting for some vague tomorrow, nor for something to happen. One could wait a lifetime, and find nothing at the end of the waiting. I would begin here, I would make something happen.” Louis L’Amour, Sackett’s Land Summary

The year 2019 lies before us like a blank sheet of paper. Write out some goals and objectives for the next 12 months. Don’t succumb to doing the same-old-same-old. Start small and go slow, but do start and keep moving.

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Have a healthy balance of these three types of relationships


When I first started my career as a minister, a friend gave me some good advice about maintaining a healthy balance of three types of relationships: takers, balanced, and givers. 

“Don, there are some relationships that will constantly drain you; you’re always giving to them but they seldom give to you. These are takers. You can’t totally avoid them (particularly in the ministry) but if they represent the majority of your relationships, you’ll burn out and lose all hope for humankind.

“In other relationships there will be a nice reciprocity; you give to them and they give to you. These associations are normal, healthy, and balanced.

“You’ll also have a few relationships in which people generously give to you with no thought of return; they will give more to you than you will give to them. Accept their magnanimity.” 

In life, it’s important to have a healthy balance of these three relationship-types. If you only have “takers” they will drain you dry. Balanced relationships, in which there is a mutual giving and receiving, should be the dominate type. And be extremely grateful if you have those rare friends who delight in freely and unconditionally giving to you with no thought of return.

I think I can live a reasonably sane life if I maintain a ratio of 30/60/10 (30% of my relationships are takers, 60% are balanced, 10% are givers).

For a moment, consider what type of person you are to other people. 

  • Are you primarily a taker; high-maintenance and selfish? 
  • Or do you strive to maintain balance in your relationships—you’re sensitive about the give and take ratio of relationships and work toward equilibrium.  
  • Name several adult relationships in which you are, by choice, the primary giver. 

I now express deep appreciation to these people in my life who have given more to me than I have given to them: Dean F., Mike F., David H., John M., Chuck S., Jay W., Ruth M., and others. 

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Periodically, take a chill-pill

Sometimes, I trip over inconsequential issues. I obsess about issues that won’t matter six months from now, or even six hours from now. When this happens, I need to take a “chill-pill” and drop it.

Figuratively or literally, carry some “chill pills” with you. Figuratively, when you need to settle down, just imagine putting a pill in your mouth. Literally, keep a small packet of breath mints in your pocket and use them when needed for halitosis, but also pop one in your mouth when you need to relax and ease up on an issue (the placebo effect may genuinely help).

We also need to learn the indispensable coping skill called “drop it.” Imagine holding something in your hand, perhaps a pencil. Now uncurl your fingers and drop it on the floor; as an act of your will, let it go. Sometimes I will “drop it” metaphorically—in my mind I’ll imagine my hand releasing the pencil. If an issue is harder to dislodge I’ll hold up a clenched fist and physically release the grip. If I’m deeply entrenched in an issue, I may literally hold an object in my hand and drop it on the floor.      

Here are some situations when we ought to swallow the pill.

  • When the issue is settled; it’s not going to change. When the pilot says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having mechanical problems so we’ll have to switch to another plane,” relax, take a deep breath, and let go of your frustration. You can’t change the situation.
  • When I have little or no control over a situation. When my four-year-old grandson has a meltdown, all I can do is try to minimize the damage (if we’re in a restaurant, we’ll go for a walk). There’s no sense in getting upset and impatient—he’s a child.
  • When I’m inordinately emotionally peaked. Perhaps I can influence a situation but in order to do so productively, I need to decrease my emotional fervor and become more rational. 
  • When contemplating an issue over time will give me greater clarity. Often, my first reaction to a situation is not my best; but when I allow myself to think through a situation, I arrive at a better conclusion. Instead of reacting immediately, I need to take a chill-pill and delay my reaction until a later time.    

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Details are important

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from small things, I am tempted to think…there are no small things. — Barton

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred when it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of seven crew members. Disintegration began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank.

Why did the O-ring fail? The morning of the launch, the temperature was unusually cold and the rubber O-ring became brittle. NASA scientists overlooked (or underestimated) the importance of that one small detail, and the result was catastrophic.  

Charles Eames, the famous American architect and furniture designer, once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Everything is composed of details so every detail is important.

I used to pride myself on my disregard for details, thinking that I was a “big picture” guy who was too concerned with macro issues to worry about micro ones. I was wrong. Being detail-oriented and maintaining a broad view are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.

Small things can have a big impact. 

When Johnson & Johnson heard complaints in 2009 about a musty odor coming from Tylenol Arthritis Pain caplets, it retraced its entire supply chain to find the cause. The culprit: shipping pallets.

The pill packages had likely been contaminated by trace amounts of a fungicide used to treat the six-inch-tall wooden platforms, which carried them from factory to warehouse to retailer. The cost of lost production and yanking Tylenol and Motrin off store shelves: $900 million. [Forbes, May 31, 2018, pg. 46]

In all aspects of life and leadership, pay attention to details. 

  • Great artists are obsessed with details—Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell to Arms.
  • The health of personal relationships often hinges on small courtesies—a friend called me last week to ask about a project I’m working on; I was so pleased that he remembered.
  • When writing, details are essential—There’s a difference between “I’m going to eat, Mom” and “I’m going to eat Mom.” 

I’ll end with a great story of an artist who insisted on perfection, particularly in the details of his work.

Librettist and theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein II once remarked on an aerial photo of the Statue of Liberty taken from a helicopter. He described how the photo revealed finely etched strands of hair atop the head of Lady Liberty, details placed there by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. It’s important to remember that the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886, almost two decades before the Wright brothers’ first flight. In those days, no one believed that human beings would ever be able to fly over the statue and look down on the top of Lady Liberty’s head. Yet Bartholdi refused to cut corners with his sculpture. He paid attention to the little things, to the fine details he thought no one would ever see. (from Coach Wooden’s Greatest Secret by Williams and Denney, pg. 119)

Big doors swing on small hinges, so get the hinges right.

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You’re not as good as you think you are 

Also - Pictures from Tale of Three Cities trip

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. – Stephen Hawking

Several years after graduating from medical school, a group of physicians who had graduated from the same class were each asked how he or she ranked in their graduating class. They all responded “in the top 50%.” 

At least 50% of the group suffered from a cognitive bias known as illusory superiority—most of us think we are better than we really are. We overestimate our own qualities and abilities relative to the qualities and abilities of other people.

Most people, when asked to rate themselves relative to certain abilities and traits—such as intelligence, charitableness, or how well they can drive—give themselves above-average grades, such as a score of 7 out of 10. But by definition, it’s impossible for a majority of people to be above average. 

David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell adds to the conversation:

  • Studies have shown that incompetent people are more likely to overestimate their skills, whereas top performers are more likely to underrate themselves. 
  • Most people do well assessing others, but are wildly positive about themselves. “When it comes to us, we think it’s all about our intention, our effort, our desire,”
  • North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. In general, Western culture values self-esteem, while Eastern cultures value self-improvement. [From September 17, 2018]

Here’s a great YouTube video about illusory superiority (also called the Dunning-Kruger effect).

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people are so full of doubt.” Bertrand Russell

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Tale of Three Cities trip

Last month, 36 friends joined me on a 15-day European tour to London, Paris, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Toulon, Florence, and Rome. Traveling with friends is among the most rewarding experiences in life. We had an unlawful amount of fun, made memorable moments together, learned a lot, ate too much, and returned safe and sound.

I’ll announce the next travel-with-friends trip in January.

An untrained mind – part one – don’t think the same thought twice

Ninety percent of the time, we live solely with our own thoughts. Sometimes we are entertaining someone else’s thoughts—when we read a book, watch a movie, engage in conversation, or listen to a podcast—but during most of our waking hours, we only hear our own “voice.”

Our thoughts are enormously powerful; they affect and influence our behavior and eventually shape our lives. So let’s develop a disciplined mind.

A disciplined mind is a mind under control. It is structured. It is monitored and regulated. It has boundaries. It is not like an undisciplined dog that gets out of the backyard; it is trained.

A disciplined mind is progressive, it is moving from point A to point B. It’s not like running on a treadmill, expending a lot of energy but going nowhere.

The first step in disciplining your mind is to constantly be aware of what you’re thinking. Think about what you’re thinking. Analyze your thoughts as if you were an editor editing a manuscript. Or, observe your thoughts as if you were another person who has been assigned to monitor and record your thoughts. Only then can we begin to regulate and train our minds; you can’t manage what you don’t know. 

One aspect of training my mind that I’ve worked on for several years is: I don’t want to rethink a thought I’ve already had. There is no value in continuing to replay a “tape” that has played before. It takes up “space” in my mind and it wastes time I could otherwise use thinking new thoughts.

Similarly, think about the downside of reading just one book, over and over. The same stories, the same phrases, a singular perspective, nothing new or more developed. That might lead to a mental mortuary and a narrow-minded life. We suffer the same disadvantage when we think the same thoughts over and over again.  

Or, imagine being incarcerated with one other person for many years and only hearing his thoughts and stories, over and over again.

I’m trying to train my thought-life to include not thinking thoughts that I’ve thought before. 

I allow myself several exceptions:

  • If I’m continuing to develop a thought I might allow myself to revisit a previous thought because there might be some overlap between old and new iterations of the thought. But I make sure I’m not just regurgitating old impressions.
  • If a thought gives me pleasure I may rethink it. For instance, if I have a fond thought about spending time with my grandson, Benjamin, I will allow myself to replay that tape because it gives me joy.
  • Sometimes I may need to be reminded of a principle or truth, or may need to share the thought with someone else. Professionals are required to do this often.

But given these exceptions, we should continually feed our minds with new thoughts. This is one of the joys and benefits of reading: we get to think another person’s thoughts. Also, when we engage in conversation with intellectually fresh people we encounter new thoughts. 

We should avoid replaying mental tapes that coddle unhealthy messages which can produce mental and emotional unhealth (anxiety, suspicion, paranoia, insecurity, pride).  

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Don’t coddle your children (or adults)

When I was growing up…

  • As a child, on Saturday mornings I often left the house in the morning, explored Five Mile Creek during the day, and returned at supper-time. 
  • A bully at school intimidated me on the playground. I worked through that, unassisted by adults, and learned a lot. 
  • In middle school I would take the city bus to the YMCA in downtown Dallas to take karate lessons, returning by bus after dark. I encountered all types of people, learned how to navigate the bus system, got lost a few times, but lived to write this post.  
  • In high school three of my friends and I decided at the last minute to go to Mexico for Christmas. We drove 38 hours straight, through the interior of Mexico to Acapulco, then camped out on the beach for five days and drove back. Perhaps that’s why I love to travel and know how to navigate complicated trips. 

Were my parents uncaring and neglectful? No. They simply allowed me to experience things that strengthened and shaped me. 

We often over-protect and over-supervise our children, which is stunting their mental, emotional, and social development. 

I just read The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I highly recommend it. They present a compelling case that we are harming our children, college students, and fellow adults by constructing “too-safe” environments. Our coddling is counterproductive.

In June 2017, John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States, gave the commencement address at his son’s graduation from middle school. (Note, not Yale or Harvard…middle school.) Here is an excerpt from his speech.

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.” 

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