Book Review Club – Best Books of 2016

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Full disclosure: I am on a journey to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to get there my family and I will be responsible for raising more than $150,000. If you buy any of these books through the Amazon links below, you will be making a small but incredibly meaningful contribution to my Olympic Dream.

Best in Class Books for 2016

Shoe Dog (audible)
From the opening pages, I could not put this book down. Knight shares the entire chronicles of both the evolution of Nike and his personal life. Despite having many great business takeaways this book reads like a story – inside the mind and life of Knight as he does whatever it takes to grow this small business run out of his parents basement to one of the world’s largest business’ and well known brands. There are thousands of perspectives on Nike, covering the whole spectrum of sentiment – I appreciated that Phil doesn’t really try to sell the reader on any particular view of Nike. Instead he just tells it how it is. The early days of Nike and Coach Bowerman were fascinating – I felt like I was a fly on the wall in some of those early critical conversations and decisions.

At the end of the day Knight puts it all out there, and this memoir captures both the huge successes and wins, along with the regrets and valley’s.

Boys on the Boat
As you’ll come to learn I am a sucker for  stories of individuals and teams pushing the limits of their potential (surprise ;)). I also love the story of the underdog. Well, Boys in the Boat gave me both – an incredible story of perseverance following this group of young men and their coach as they chase their crazy dream of the Olympics. Brown takes us deep inside the mind of a Rower, one of the most mentally demanding and excruciating pursuits to exist. He also paints the picture of how that Cinderella team came together over the course of years leading up to and competing at the Olympics. This book is more than just sport and a team – given that this is “Hitler’s Olympics” Brown goes in depth on how their journey is intertwined with the Nazi rise and the looming War.

Barbarian Days
I didn’t make the connection to William Fennegan until I got a few chapters into Barbarian Days. Several years previous I had read a 10,000 word piece in The New Yorker called “Playing Doc’s Game” – this quickly became my favorite piece of ‘surf/adventure’ literature of all time. One of those pieces where you’re so disappointed when it’s over, because you just want to keep living the adventure. Well it turns out Will wrote that, too. Barbarian Days is more of the same – if you’re into surfing – this is hands down the best surf adventure book you can read (I’ve read pretty much all). And even if you’re just an adventure junky or vagabonder you’ll love some of the completely off the beaten path Will shares. The holy grail of surfing is coming across new, empty, perfect waves – Barbarian Days is set in the craze of travelling the globe, through jungles for days, deserted on islands, and nearly dying several dozen times in search of that perfect, next wave.

Runner Up

Zero to One (audible)
What makes this book so powerful is Peter’s ability to make you think completely different about potential solutions to problems in the world. No doubt a significant contributing factor to Thiel’s success is that this is how his mind is always working. In reading this book we get a bit of insight and practice in how to shift our own entrepreneurial thinking to to break outside of it’s comfortable space and imagine ideas, solutions, and opportunities that are exponentially more valuable than the clear linear path.


The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Ben Horrowitz simply tells it how it is in this book. Both in terms of the challenges of entrepreneurship, as well as the dynamic and ever changing world of technology. I often remind myself that “overnight success” stories simply don’t exist. I love reading about the challenge and struggle (many times years or decades) that precede the “limelight”. This book is about that struggle – about barely holding on when the world, and certainly the business seems to be going to hell. I especially like Ben’s no BS approach to his story and what it took to survive and inevitably thrive. It’s a great reminder that to reach the top of any mountain, the journey is many times not pleasant, pretty, fun or comfortable – but it is through these experiences that we truly come to appreciate the breakthroughs.

Born to Run
I considered placing this in the Best of 2016 category simply because it is a story that seems too magical to be true. And yet it happened. This is the story of a finding the mystique Tarahumara tribe in the canyons and dreadlands of Mexico. These Tarahumara are a people who defy our preconceived notion of endurance running. For example, it was proven that they (and previous ancestors) would run their prey to exhaustion over the course of several dozen miles and sometimes days of pursuit. What takes this book to the next level is the story that unfolds as McDougall and his key representative from the Tarahumara coordinate a race for the ages, bringing together the best ultra-marathoners in the world and the top Tarahumara racers. Needless to say as the author races through jungle and plains, hundreds of miles from any civilization – death, doubt, fear, and the deepest search for meaning in life is never far away.

The Cartel (audible)
It’s worth mentioning right off the bat that there are some gruesome scenes in The Cartel. While overall a fictional story it is based on true events, and follows the real cartels and turf wars that have been taking place in Mexico for years. This really does give you a good look inside the world of the Mexican drug trade – from the histories of the gangs themselves to how business is conducted at various levels of these organizations. I will admit it was hard to listen to at times but overall this was a hugely entertaining and interesting read.

This was another one that Tash and I listened to together and the narrator was one of my favorites of any audio book to date.

Honorable Mention

Creativity Inc.
From how Pixar was born, to battles with Steve Jobs and the intense and incredibly stressful process that goes into making each and every Pixar movie – Ed Catmull takes us behind the scenes of his journey navigating this incredible story. There are countless great team building and facilitation takeaways from this book but I found simply the appreciation of how much work goes into each frame of a Pixar movie was powerful. A fun read that is very story and anecdote focused – I had some great moments of feeling like a fly on the wall in heated boardrooms and energized team meetings as movies like Toy Story were conceived.

Yes to the Mess
I enjoyed Yes to the Mess as much for the lessons in jazz theory and history as I did for the connection to transformational leadership. However the latter was totally worth it in this book because the medium in which the author discusses leadership is so rich and interesting – music – jazz. Barrett gives us inside stories to people like Miles Davis and Coltrane, decoding what made them great jazz musicians but more importantly great leaders. He then translates this back to how we can apply this fluid style of transformational, egoless leadership in our boardrooms and teams. You’ll walk away with a newfound history and appreciation for jazz and the risks that are worth taking when it comes to the most influential forms of leadership in the world.

Ego is the Enemy
Ryan Holliday has done a great job reading, writing and sharing over the years. This book club is actually inspired by him who sends who bi-monthly book lists and recommendations. I read Ego is the Enemy already a full supporter of this idea of leading with humility and acknowledging but not being a slave to the role of ego in our lives. Still this book was a great reminder that ego is lurking around every corner, and it is overwhelmingly deceptive to becoming the driving force in the things we do. I really appreciated the number of stories Ryan shared, many of which I had not heard before, that painted the pitfalls of ego is several different perspectives.

What would you add?

What great book did you read in 2016? I’d love to get your recommendations especially if you read anything that was a great story of human triumph, or individuals and teams pushing their absolute limits in pursuit of greatness.