My 2018 year in books

Just like my annual tradition of blogging about my travel experiences from the past year, I also like to write about my year in reading. Growing up, I hated reading, and in hindsight I believe that was because I had to read for school. As an adult, I love to read! Now, it’s the absorption of information and ideas that I love so much. That’s why I mostly read non-fiction, specifically books on business, behavioral economics, and self-help.

In 2017 I read just 9 books, so I set my 2018 goal at 12….a simple 1 per month. Unfortunately, I fell far short of that goal with 8.5 books read in 2018 (more on the half, below). Similar to the prior year, thats 1 book every 6 weeks or so. So I didn’t meet my goal, but didn’t regress much either. I’m not beating myself up about it, I’ll do better in 2019!

Without further to do, in no particular order, below are the books I read in 2018, with links to

When Breathe Becomes Air

This was hands down my favorite book of 2018! I first heard of this book when Bill Gates recommended it to his social media followers. This book is a memoir written by a neurosurgeon after being diagnosed with cancer that would likely kill him (it did). His writing honestly and vividly shares the struggles he faced with his new reality, such as his own mortality, the affect on his career if he survived, the impact to his wife and yet to be conceived child, and more. He did not finish the memoir before dying, his wife did that, and I did not finish the book without crying. I remember reading the last couple chapters stuck in the back of a delayed airplane at Boston Logan airport. I probably cried for 20 minutes straight as I finished the book just as my flight lifted off the ground and ascended into the late night sky. That was a good, healing cry, and I am not ashamed of doing it in public.

Hillbilly Elegy

In my effort to understand why so many low income people support Republican’s and President Trump, even when their policies are counter to the needs of these voters, I picked up this book. The author grew up as a self proclaimed hillbilly, before breaking from the norm and getting out of poverty himself. This memoir gives a view into the social and economic drivers of poor white Americans. It is not a political book, and I think the author may be a conservative himself, so expect a fair account. The reader must figure out on their own what if any connection there is to the way of living and the voting habits of the people in question. What you will learn if you read this book is that pride is a massive force, one that is at times greater than hunger, happiness, and health.

Zero to One

This book came out a few years ago. I heard nothing but great things about it from fellow entrepreneurs and product managers, but I resisted picking it up in protest of the author’s politics. Peter Thiel, the author of this great book on innovation, is an entrepreneur that co-founded PayPal and one of the first investors in Facebook. He is also a supporter of crazy conservatives and enemy of the free press.

However, I LOVED this book! It is a fantastic view into what makes it so hard to go from nothing to something in the world of product development and entrepreneurship. This book has helped me reframe my approach to building software products in my work, and helped me position the task, difficulty, and risks to my bosses and stakeholders in an effort to do things differently. The book also does a great job of explaining why venture capitalists operate the way they do, and a great job of demonstrating why the common VC approach to investing is ineffective. If you are an entrepreneur, read this book!

On Tyranny

Anyone that knows me personally knows that I am a liberal and I am disgusted by President Trump and bewildered by his supporters. I believe our country is at risk of falling into turmoil and ruin because of the way some of our leaders behave, and the willingness of the people to allow them to behave this way.

On Tyranny is a book of 20 short essays that each look at a 20th century example of tyranny in our world, and then passively relates them to the Trump Administration today. It is a good historical refresher, and a scary warning of what could easily happen to America today.

Just F*ing Demo!

This is another short book for the year. In software development, it’s common to demo your work to the team, to other teams, and to company leadership. I lead a few teams at PagerDuty, and each demos every other week. In order to pick up some ideas of how to use demos to drive urgency and speed, and to learn to conduct more compelling demos, I picked up this short guide. Lots of common sense and good reminders for a product manager like me.

The Power of Moments

Chip and Dan Heath are author-brothers that use the science of human behavior to help businesses and business people understand how to better serve their customers. I read their first book, Made to Stick, many years ago, and picked up this latest book after a colleague mentioned it.

The power of Moments is about how products and businesses can create memorable experiences that stand out from the crowd and pull the user/customer in. They cover 4 concepts that must be present in some combination to create a memorable moment with positive impact. It was an interesting enough read, but not my favorite book of theirs, of the genre, or of my year.

Killers of the Flower Moon

This was a book recommendation from my dad, and I am so glad I picked it up! Killers of the Flower Moon recounts the true story of the Osage Native American tribe, their sudden accumulation of wealth, and how white men went as far as serial murder to steel money from the Osage people. I knew that Native Americans had been treated horribly throughout history, but this story opened my eyes to the true extent of what our government and individuals did to treat Native Americans as less than human, with unequal rights.

Interestingly, this is also the story of the founding of the FBI and the rise to prominence of J Edgar Hoover. If you have any interest in American history, do yourself a favor and pick up this book.


This was a re-read for me. I first read the book in 2016 to help up-level my skills around rapid prototyping and building products that truly solve problems. In 2018, I tried to start a book club at work with the people I work hand-in-hand with to build new products for our company, and this was the first book we read. I say tried to start because we never picked up a 2nd book.

As I said in my 2016 write-up, this book helps innovators and product developers rapidly prototype and test products with customers in just 5 days. If you are in Product Management or Software Development, it’s a must read.

Leonardo da Vinci

This is that half of a book, and it kinda bums me out. I love Leonardo da Vinci, I think he was the most brilliant person to ever walk this earth. I’ve read other books about him, but all somewhat short and focused on his inventions and his innovation practices. This book is a true biography, by Walter Isaacson, one of the best biographers alive right now (he wrote the brilliant 2011 biography of Steve Jobs).

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t finish this long book (it’s about 625 pages). While I love the story of Leonardo, and I learned a lot from the parts of this book I did read, it didn’t manage to hold my attention as the author describes deep details of painting after painting. I hate not finishing books, but I put this one down for good when I was just 58% of the way through it.

What’s on my reading list for 2019, you ask? I’ve already started a book called Flow, which talks about the psychology of happiness, and I have another book by the author of Sprint to read, called Make Time. I also want to read some old school innovation books that I’ve never gotten around to reading, like Crossing the Chasm and The Innovators Dilemma. I also plan to read Radical Candor along with my finance, as we both seek to be better managers at work.