The nonfiction books I love to read and write don’t have an official genre. They’re not self-help books—they don’t promise to make you rich or happy or really, really, ridiculously good-looking. They’re not business books—they’re about life, not just work.
If I were building a bookstore, I’d put them in a thought leadership section. It would be filled with books that introduce novel ideas grounded in rigorous research with engaging writing and practical takeaways.
With those criteria in mind, here are my four favorite books of 2021—and links to my discussions with the authors.
For a long time, when people advised me to go with my gut, I wanted to tell them thanks, but I prefer to think with my brain. I had to rethink that after reading this gem from a star science writer. It turns out that our best thinking depends heavily on inputs from beyond our brains. She covers evidence that being aware of your own heartbeat can improve your decisions—and that we should close open offices and open the door to adult recess instead. My brain and my gut both
Productivity propaganda is dominated by advice about time management. Not so fast, says professional skeptic Oliver Burkeman. Trying to optimize our time just makes us more aware of the clock ticking—and more frustrated with how many minutes we waste. His book left me determined to focus less on squeezing more output out of each day, and more on prioritizing the people and projects that matter most to me.
Most of the arguments of 2021 came in two flavors: they went badly or we avoided them altogether. Journalist extraordinaire Amanda Ripley illuminates how to break cycles of bad fights and start having good ones. She introduces a fascinating array of experts—a conflict mediation expert who got trapped in petty squabbles when he entered local politics, a gang leader who became a violence interrupter—to identify four accelerants of conflict (humiliation, corruption, group identities, and conflict entrepreneurs who spread and scale disagreements) and a series of strategies for making conflict less combustible and more creative.
The beloved novelist and YouTuber makes his nonfiction debut, and it’s masterful. John explores the geological period dominated by humans, otherwise known as “now.” He does Yelp-style reviews of some of the most monumentally important—and some of the most charmingly trivial—touchstones of human society. His wisdom takes us from the plague to the capacity for wonder, and his wit guides us from banana scratch-and-sniff stickers to Mario Kart. It’s a beautiful, timely book about the human condition and a timeless reminder to pay attention to your attention.