Well, what a year 2020 has been!
My friend, the American writer Chris Guillebeau, called it a ‘dumpster fire year’ which is a pretty good description. On a positive note, we’ve also seen amazing examples of human creativity, rapid innovation and the kindness of strangers.
I read a lot this year. Perhaps you did too?
Last December while I was speaking in Singapore I put together a list of the top 10 books I had read in 2019. A lot of people emailed me afterwards to say how valuable they found the list. So I thought I’d do the same for 2020. I hope the selection sparks your curiosity.
Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by David W. Galenson
Have you ever wondered if your creativity declines with age? Do we reach peak creativity in our early 20’s or can you do your best work in your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s?
These are the questions that economist David W Gallenson asks in his book ‘Old Masters and Young Geniuses’. By using a scientific approach to studying leading creatives ranging from artists like Picasso and Michaelangelo, writers such as Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway, and film directors including Alfred Hitchock and Francis Ford Coppola, he made a fascinating discovery. There are actually two types of creative people; experimental innovators and conceptual innovators. What I loved about the book was Gallenson’s analytical approach. His detailed findings are surprising and they dispel some of the greatest myths about creativity.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré
I don’t know about you but I learned long ago that it’s not a good idea to read personal development or business books in bed at night. My brain switches on which is the last thing you need to get a good nights sleep. So it’s for this reason that I only read fiction or biographies after dark. Lockdown has meant I have devoured not one, not two, but eleven books this year by the fiction writer John le Carré!
They include his classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, as well as The Looking Glass War, A Small Town In Germany, The Naive & Sentimental Lover, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Russia House, The Secret Pilgrim, Our Game, and The Night Manager (which was recently made into an excellent BBC TV series starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman).
Richard Ovendon, Director of Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University said that le Carré’s books are not easy to read and I agree. Yes, they are masterfully written, intricately constructed, and have thrilling plot lines. However, le Carré books are complex and require effort from the reader to understand the little details which are often essential to the plot. It’s like listening to jazz for the first time… it just sounds like a random selection of notes. Once you learn the lingo and listen actively you discover the richness of the work.
John le Carré sadly died this month. He will be remembered not just as the finest creators of spy novels but also as one of the greatest writers of his generation. As the acclaimed historian Simon Schama says, “until le Carré came along, no writer had nailed the toxic combination of bad faith and blundering, the confusion of tactical cynicism with strategic wisdom, with such lethal accuracy”. If you want to understand the creative mind of le Carré then I suggest listening to the audio version of his autobiography which is narrated by the man himself.
Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
When COVID hit, my wife and I decided to base ourselves at our home in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a beautiful part of the world and there are very few people here! When lockdown restrictions were at their harshest this year we were all told not to leave our homes. The most we could do was to exercise for one hour per day but couldn’t travel more than five miles from our front door. Deciding to take this temporary restriction of my liberty as an opportunity I would take a brisk 50-minute walk each day and listen to audiobooks. I’ve had some of Yuval Noah Harari’s books sitting on my ‘to be read’ pile for years now. They are not light books. So I decided to download the audio version of his bestselling book ‘Sapiens’ to finally find out what I was missing. What I discovered was a delightful candy box of ideas and insights. If you want to understand history and the future of our species then read (or listen) to this book.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company by William Dalrymple
I’ve always enjoyed travelling to South Asia since my first tour of Sri Lanka in 1994 as a professional jazz drummer. In 2018 I spoke in Chennai, India and last year I gave several speeches in Delhi. Unfortunately, in 2020 I was only able to speak for my Indian clients, including Tata, Accenture and Great Place To Work Institute, virtually. Each time I visit the region I am reminded of how little I know of its rich history. On a chilly London January afternoon before lockdown I visited The Wallace Collection’s ‘Forgotten Masters’ exhibition which featured paintings by Indian master painters of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries including Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, Sita Ram and Ghulam Ali Khan. “So what’s that got to do with books James?”
Well, the exhibition was curated by the award-winning writer and historian William Dalrymple and it coincided with the publication of his book about the role of The East India Company in India. It tells the story of a private company run by English merchants who collected taxes using a ruthless private army. The book is about power, naked ambition, and globalisation and it made it onto President Barack Obama’s best books of the year list. A fascinating read.
The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
Sometimes you discover a writer whose words speak directly to your heart. One such writer for me is the Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak. As well as being a wonderful storyteller, she is also a member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy, a founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations) and an advocate for women’s rights and LGBT rights. Her novel The Architect’s Apprentice is set in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire and tells the story of a boy who finds himself alone in a foreign land, with no worldly possessions except a rare and valuable white elephant. On one level it is a story about the relationship between an older master craftsman and his young apprentice. But read another way it is actually a book about the things we can discover if we let curiosity be our guide. I’ve also just started listening to the audiobook of her latest work How To Stay Sane In An Age Of Division. I recently had the opportunity to ask Elif Shafak about what advice she would give to aspiring writers. This is what she told me.
Expert: Understanding The Path To Mastery by Roger Kneebone
While we are on the topic of masters and apprentices another gem of a book I discovered is called Expert: Understanding The Path To Mastery. It’s by Dr Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education at Imperial College London and someone who has been called “the expert on experts“. If you want to know what a Savile Row tailor has in common with molecular scientists or a fighter pilot with jazz musicians then read this book.
I, Woz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon
This summer I was the host for two massive virtual conferences for Argentinian tech firm Globant, a leader in cognitive software whose clients include Coca-Cola, Google and American Express. In my role as host for these events, which attracted over 20,000 attendees, I had the opportunity to interview Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. To prepare for the interview I read Steve’s autobiography ‘I, Woz’ which tells the story of his childhood years, building Apple with his co-founder Steve Jobs, and his passion for engineering and education. Themes that run throughout the book include curiosity, creativity, and innovation. In my conversations with Woz, I also discovered his humour, optimistic world-view, and Steve’s overwhelming belief that makers, including engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs, can build a better world.
The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
2019 was an extraordinary year for my speaking business. 55 keynotes in 25 countries. I owe a lot to it to the lessons I learned from reading The ONE Thing in September 2018, my subsequent conversations with co-writer Jay Papasan, and implementing the key ideas from it. I reread the book this year. If you are looking to achieve bigger goals next year then get this book (I suggest the print version). There is a reason why it has sold over 1,000,000 copies. You can also listen to my Creative Life podcast interviews with Jay about the most powerful question to ask each day and how to write a bestseller.
Meat Is For Pussies: A How-To Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass, and Take Names by John Joseph
Punk rock icon John Joseph from the band Cro-Mags grew up on the mean streets of New York City in the 1970s. His life was one of gang fights and drug addiction, foster homes and homelessness. After reaching breaking point he decided to transform his life for the better by changing the way he thought about food and committing to a plant-based diet. It is the one decision he credits with saving his life. His book is a no-holds-barred guide to plant-based living for guys. It combines NYC-style profanity with plant-based meal plans. The perfect book to gift to any alpha-male friends and it destroys the stereotype of the ‘wimpy vegan’.
Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Britain
It’s funny how you discover new books sometimes. One of the interesting things that have come from Zoom calls and broadcasters interviewing celebrities, politicians and experts from their home is that you get to see the books on their shelves. You can tell a lot about someone from what they read. During an interview with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown I noticed a big book on the bookcase behind him. It was called Haldane and after a quick search online I discovered it was a new biography of the Scottish philosopher-statesman Richard Haldane. Haldane was one of the 20th Century’s best political networkers. His friendships ranged from Oscar Wilde to Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill to Andrew Carnegie, King George V to Kaiser Wilhelm II; he pioneered cross-party, cross-country cooperation. During his varied career, Haldane also laid the foundations of MI5, MI6, the RAF, the London School of Economics, Imperial College, Britain’s ‘redbrick’ universities and the Medical Research Council. A fascinating man who through collaboration and creative thinking was able to impact the lives of successive generations.
Other books that I read this year that deserve an honourable mention include Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Nir Eyal’s Indistractable (and you can also listen to my podcast interview with him here), Do The Work by Stephen Pressfield, Rehumanize Your Business by Ethan Buete and Stephen Pacinelli, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Reaching Beyond: Improvisations On Jazz, Buddhism and a Joyful Life by Daisaku Ikeda, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and finally Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry.
Well there you go, my reading highlights from 2020. I hope this list has sparked your curiosity and you get a chance to read some of them. All the links here are to buy them on Amazon but if you can try and order them from your local independent bookstore. Happy reading!
Feel free to email me any questions. Better still, if you’d like to recommend a book to me then let me know.
Reading widely, from both fiction and non-fiction writers, from the East and the West, will improve the creativity and diversity of your thinking. There is no need to feel lonely when you can spend an hour in the company of characters devised by great writers.
Wishing you health, happiness, prosperity and creativity in 2021.