This is not a list of the best books published in 2020. You’ll find plenty of that elsewhere. This is more personal. This is a list of the top 5 books I’ve recommended to friends, family, clients and students during an unusually chaotic year full of pain and fear.
After investing $1M and three years of grueling 80 hour work weeks, the tech startup I founded finally reached profitability in February, 2020. Then COVID hit. Six weeks later, revenue was down 60%. We never recovered from that. By September, we were done for good.
This was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
For context, on different occasions during my athletic career, I managed to tear 14 tendons & ligaments in my knee, blow out my achilles, fracture my hip, dislocate my shoulder, break my leg in 3 places, splinter a bone in my finger, shatter my ankle, fracture my collar bone and get punched in the face more times than I’d like to admit.
All of that was nothing compared to losing this startup.
This was more similar to the pain I experienced when two close friends of mine passed away in quick succession before I was 21 years old. It’s gut wrenching. It’s a pain that feels like it will never go away, and it probably never will. Not entirely at least.
The biggest thing that helped me get through this year, other than my family and meditation, has been reading.
Like many stuck at home during lockdown, desperate for distraction, I reread old favorites and discovered some new ones. In the past few months, I’ve recommended the same books over and over. So, I figured I should write them down and make it easier to share.
The general theme of this list is long term, big picture thinking. In retrospect, it’s obvious why I was drawn to these books and felt compelled to recommend them to others.
Once COVID hit I oscillated between bingeing news, learning how the virus spread, researching how vaccines are made, parsing economic stimulus legislation, and forcing myself to stop just long enough to preserve my sanity.
For me, these books provided some escape from the depressing crush of my day to day reality and hope for the future.
- Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, 2016
- The Tao of Charlie Munger by David Clark, 2017
- Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, 2014
- The Precipice by Toby Ord, 2020
- Foundation & Earth by Isaac Asimov, 1986
Below I’ve provided a brief summary of each book with a few notes on what I learned and why I recommend it. The order is intentional, and the post reads best from top to bottom. That said, you can use the links above to jump ahead.
I’ve also tried to recall how I found each book in the first place. Keeping track of this kind of thing is part of a learning strategy that I’ve used for years. I’ll write more on that later.
1. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
by Carlo Rovelli | Published 2016 | Available on Amazon
This is a beautiful book. Full stop. The hardcover edition features a velvety soft, dark black dust jacket punctuated by an effervescent burst of golden dots. Designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, the simple image evokes a multitude of associations. Bubbles in a glass of champagne. Particles in the quantum realm. Stars floating in an endless void.
As you handle the book, some of the dots catch the light and spring to life while others settle into a satisfying amber hue. The pearlescent effect conveys an appropriate feeling of wonder as you prepare to explore the complex architecture of the universe, in seven brief lessons.
The arresting beauty of this book does not end with it’s cover. The book opens with the most beautiful of theories as Rovelli writes:
There are absolute masterpieces that move us intensely: Mozart’s Requiem, Homer’s Odyssey, the Sistine Chapel, King Lear.
To fully appreciate their brilliance may require a long apprenticeship, but the reward is sheer beauty — and not only this, but the opening of our eyes to a new perspective upon the world.
Einstein’s jewel, the general theory of relativity, is a masterpiece of this order.
With prose that reads more like poetry than physics, Rovelli draws you into a fascinating world of quarks and quanta. In less than 100 pages, Rovelli reveals a deep understanding of the natural world, and his love of science.
Rovelli explains the fundamentals of general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, and black holes with astounding ease, and such clarity that anyone can understand.
Moreover, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics provides an accessible introduction to the theory of loop quantum. As a founder of the theory, Rovelli has dedicated his career to finding a way to reconcile principles of quantum mechanics and general relativity.
A string theory competitor, loop quantum gravity is the closest we have come to solving a problem physicists have puzzled over for decades in pursuit of a “theory of everything.”
I’ve reread this book several times since my Dad gave it to me a few years ago. Each time the effect is the same. A profound sense of wonder and awe. For both the enormity of the universe, in which we inhabit such a tiny corner of space and time, and the brilliant minds who seek to understand it.
So far, my biggest insight from this small book is that science is never static. In fact, the moment we stop questioning, science ceases to be science and can quickly become belief.
In a year when science itself appears to be constantly under attack, I found it comforting to revisit the pages of this beautiful little book, full of big ideas.
I recommend Seven Brief Lessons on Physics for anyone seeking that special sense of wonder we experience only when simultaneously confronting the genius and insignificance of human beings. For those interested in digging deeper into loop quantum gravity, I also recommend Rovelli’s related works The Order of Time and Reality Is Not What It Seems.
2. The Tao of Charlie Munger
by David Clark | Published 2017 | Available on Amazon
The Tao of Charlie Munger is the current reigning champion on my bookshelf in terms of the shear number of tabs and highlighted text it contains. It is a compilation of quotes on life, business and the pursuit of wealth from Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice Chairman, with commentary by David Clark.
A prolific Warren Buffet biographer, David Clark’s commentary provides invaluable insight into Charlie Munger’s thinking. Clark illuminates the investing principles Munger pioneered and perfected with Buffet ultimately building Berkshire Hathaway into one of the most valuable companies in the world.
I was introduced to this little gem of a book by Andrew Wilkinson, another investor I admire greatly. During a podcast interview with Harry Stebbings on The Twenty Minute VC, Wilkinson cites The Tao of Charlie Munger as the book he rereads most often.
I stumbled onto Tiny Capital earlier this year, and have been fascinated by the way in which Wilkinson and partner Chris Sparling have adapted Munger’s principles to investing in internet businesses with incredible results.
During their conversation, Wilkinson briefly describes the lifestyle he has designed for himself:
At the end of the day it’s been pretty cool. I live in Victoria Canada, which is kind of the middle of nowhere.
I get to dress like a schmo. I don’t think anyone here knows what I do. I live in a beautiful place. Spend my time hunting for wonderful companies. And I get to talk to interesting people like you.
So it's quite a nice life.
That little soundbite got my attention. It did sound like a nice life, and quite different from the life I led as a startup founder. Thinking back, this undoubtedly sparked my interest in investing and influenced my decision to study both Munger and Tiny Capital.
I recommend The Tao of Charlie Munger to anyone interested in value investing or long term thinking in general. As a novice investor, this book is an indispensable resource for me. It’s filled with timeless wisdom presented in bite size, easily digestible chunks and easy to remember maxims.
As I continue to educate myself and develop my own point of view on investing, I’m sure I will return to this book frequently as well.
by Nick Bostrom| Published 2014 | Available on Amazon
If I’m being honest, this was one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It’s not a long book, but it probably took me 6 months to read the first time around. In Superintelligence, Bostrom describes in excruciating detail the various ways we might create artificial general intelligence, and the dangers present in each path.
A Swedish-born philosopher, Nick Bostrom is a polymath who studies existential risk and leads the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
Artificial general intelligence refers to a machine capable of understanding or learning anything a human can. This is very different from the “specialized” AI that exist today, like Chess playing programs.
Several high profile breakthroughs in the field this year sent me running back to review Bostrom’s work. First Open AI released the GPT-3 language generator in May and then Deep Mind announced the success of it’s AI system AlphaFold, in November. For better or worse, AlphaFold in particular has the potential to radically increase the pace of innovation in science.
In addition to Superintelligence, Bostrom’s now famous paper: The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, provides a helpful framework for thinking about the promise and risks of increasingly powerful technology.
Unless you’re much more comfortable than I am with subjects ranging from analytic philosophy to cognitive psychology, neuroscience, computational logic and theoretical physics…Bostrom’s arguments may take some time to wrap your mind around.
That said, while he lacks Rovelli’s gift for prose, Bostrom’s consistent use of precise language allows even a novice to follow along…with some effort.
Every dozen pages or so I had to stop and think, sometimes rereading sections multiple times before I felt confident moving forward. Other times I’d need to wait a few days and let what I learned sink in.
Regardless, this book so influenced my thinking on artificial intelligence and existential risk, I bought it twice. I loaned my original copy to a friend earlier this year and then promptly forgot who I gave it to.
This is an unfortunate consequence of choosing not to dedicate brain space to remembering things that I can write down. Of course, this only works when I remember to write those things down. Friend, if you’re reading this, don’t worry about returning the book. I ordered a new copy : )
Speaking of friends, I was first introduced to Bostrom by an old college buddy, a fellow entrepreneur, and one of the most intellectually curious people I know. He’s the kind of friend who will call you randomly and two hours later you’re still talking about something completely unrelated but equally fascinating. In short, when he recommends a book, I read it.
Oddly enough, I also have this book to thank for rekindling my interest in meditation. That’s another story for another time.
I recommend Superintelligence primarily to people working in technology. As a community, I think it’s important we remain vigilant and self aware. The forces we’re messing with are powerful and we need to think carefully about how to avoid outcomes we are unwilling to accept.
4. The Precipice
by Toby Ord | Published 2020 | Available on Amazon
I was introduced to Toby Ord indirectly by the previous book’s author, Nick Bostrom. Knowing my interest in the ethics of AI, my cousin recommended an episode of the Making Sense podcast featuring Bostrom, and thus introduced me to Sam Harris. Not long after, Harris interviewed Toby Ord and halfway through that podcast episode my copy of The Precipice was on the way.
Say what you will about Amazon. You can pay $20, snap your fingers, and have the best insights from 10 years of cutting edge research sitting in your lap the next day. That’s pretty damn spectacular.
Toby Ord, another Oxford philosopher, is a founder of the Effective Altruism movement and Giving What We Can, an organization that has pledged over $1.5B to the world’s most effective charities.
In The Precipice, Ord builds a compelling argument for why the next few centuries will be a pivotal moment in human history. A turning point on par with the renaissance or the enlightenment.
This is because, Ord argues, the advent of nuclear weapons ushered in a new period of heightened existential risk for humanity.
A period he calls The Precipice.
The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves. — Arnold Toynbee, 1963
Before now, extinction possibilities were limited to natural events like an asteroid impact, super volcano or nearby exploding star. A category of risk to which Ord assigns a relatively low probability of 1 in 10,000 per century.
In contrast, the new anthropogenic risks like nuclear war, climate change, engineered pathogens and unaligned artificial intelligence pose a significantly greater risk to the future of humanity.
Toby Ord estimates the probability that humanity destroys itself this century to be 1 in 6. A die roll. Or more appropriately, a game of Russian Roulette.
Thanks to recently declassified documents, we now know just how close we came to annihilation on October 27, 1962.
As it turns out, Kennedy was not primarily responsible for averting the nuclear exchange he appropriately termed the “final failure.” Instead it was the cool head of Vasily Arkhipov, a Soviet Navy captain who happened to be in the right place at the right time, that ultimately saved the day.
Martin J. Sherwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a Professor of History at George Mason University, reexamines this episode in his recent book Gambling with Armageddon.
In The Precipice, however, Ord argues that safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time.
Will we learn to develop the wisdom necessary to protect humanity from itself? To responsibly wield awesome technological power and create a future of abundance? Or will we make a crucial mistake, the type from which humanity can never recover?
See again, Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis.
It is easy to understand why, especially after a year like 2020, existential risk might not be the most appealing choice for light reading.
Whether we like it or not, we are presently engaged in a complex multi-generational game with the highest possible stakes. The last ten thousand generations of innovation, exploration and human progress as well as all possible future states of human creativity, prosperity and happiness may hinge on what we do today.
The development of the scientific method, followed by the industrial revolution, exponentially increased humanity’s power to change the world around us. Unfortunately our societies and systems of government have not improved at the same pace.
So now we find ourselves in a precarious position. We have the power to destroy ourselves without the wisdom to ensure that we don’t.
Like most entrepreneurs, I have a strong bias toward controlling my own destiny. As an athlete, I always wanted the ball when the game was on the line. In business, I take risks and I am personally accountable for the results. For me, as a member of society, it feels good to know that what I do matters. Even if only in a very small way.
By blind luck, we have been given the opportunity to participate in this epic transition. From danger to safety. From scarcity to abundance. From conflict to cooperation.
The decisions that we, our children and our grandchildren make will alter the course of human history. The continuity of our species hangs in the balance, and it is our game to lose.
That is an awe inspiring realization. One I find equal parts terrifying, exhilarating and extremely motivating. In whatever small way we each ultimately contribute, understanding the true stakes of the game adds a little extra meaning to the otherwise mundane.
I recommend The Precipice to anyone interested in history, ethics, philosophy or technology. During this pandemic so many of us are facing uncertainty, looking for direction, and feeling trapped inside. Ord takes you on an epic journey across history and far into possible futures. Despite all odds, this book will leave you feeling energized and hopeful.
5. Foundation & Earth
by Isaac Asimov| Published 1986| Available on Amazon
Inspired by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov first pitched Foundation to his publisher in 1941 as a “historical novel of the future.”
Nearly 40 years after publishing the short stories that became the original Foundation Trilogy, Asimov completed his masterpiece by adding two sequels and two prequels. The second of the two sequels, Foundation & Earth represents the chronological conclusion of the Foundation series.
As a kid, I was introduced to Asimov by the iRobot film starring Will Smith. Asimov’s vision of the future, however dystopian, made sense to me. There was a logic to it. I understood how we might get from here to there and I’ve been hooked on his writing ever since. After that I quickly made my way through his short stories, falling in love with Foundation in particular.
Unlike his Robot series, Asimov’s Foundation takes place 50,000 years into the far future, and unfolds over centuries on a galactic scale. I think it was the ambition and creativity required to tell this story that really captivated me.
Of course I’m excited for the upcoming Apple TV adaptation. That said, I will insist my future kids read this series before watching the show.
The scale of the story challenges the reader to build a vast universe from scratch, using only imagination and Asimov’s words. This uniquely personal, creative experience is a gift. A privilege lost if you allow someone else to define what that world looks like and how it feels.
So why did I included a book from the Foundation series here, nearly 80 years after the first short stories were published. It certainly fits with the theme of long term thinking but it’s more than that.
Time is an ever present element in the Foundation series. It is the primary variable that underpins the fictional science of Psychohistory. Asimov and his publisher John Campbell, editor of Astounding Magazine, invented Psychohistory as a plot device to enable the telling of a story that sprawls across generations.
The premise of the series centers on Hari Seldon and his development of Psychohistory, a new mathematical sociology with the power to predict the future of large populations using statistical laws of mass action. Seldon uses Psychohistory, to predict the imminent fall of the Empire and a galactic dark age spanning 30,000 years before the rise of a second empire.
Unable to avoid the Empire’s collapse, Seldon instead sets a plan in motion to limit the intervening dark age to a single millenia. To carry out this plan Seldon establishes an outpost known as the Foundation, charged with preserving the spirit of science and civilization.
Throughout the series, tension exists between the inevitability of the “Seldon Plan” and unexpected actions of individuals that threaten to derail it. This tension comes to a head in Foundation & Earth.
You might ask, how I can recommend the last book in a series to people who may not have read the other books?
One of the benefits of telling a story with such a long timeline is that each book is naturally self contained. In the forward, Asimov writes that while helpful, reading the other books is not necessary to enjoy Foundation & Earth. It stands on its own.
The book opens with the protagonist, Golan Trevize, having just made a critical decision that will determine the fate of the galaxy. Unlike Seldon, Trevize is not a famous genius but rather a regular citizen of the Foundation.
It is his extraordinary judgement and unique ability to reach correct conclusions using incomplete information that makes Trevize an unlikely hero.
In Foundation & Earth, Trevize navigates a series of increasingly complex situations with only his reasoning, logic, intuition and of course a super advanced “gravitic” spaceship. This is science fiction after all.
More than any other character in the Foundation series, I relate to Golan Trevize. In fact, revisiting Trevize in Foundation & Earth had a significant influence on my messaging and positioning strategy for the advisory practice I launched at the end of this terrible year.
I recommend Foundation & Earth even to friends who are not particularly interested in the science fiction genre. Students of philosophy, history, ethics, economics and sociology will find Asimov’s vision as compelling as the most ardent science fiction fans.
The big idea here is that our individual decisions matter. Even when facing immense inertia and extreme uncertainty. The right person, in the right place, at the right time can make all the difference.