What I Read in 2021

 Three of my favorite books from 2021, plus I'm giving one of them away!

Update, 2/2/22: Cherylynn won this year's giveaway. Congrats, Cherylynn!

READING FOR PLEASURE took a hit this year ever since I started graduate school in June. At the same time, my family took a trip to Orlando to visit the Universal and Disney theme parks. The vacation was one of the highlights in a year filled with busyness, stress, and tragedy.

I still read quite a bitmaybe even more than last yearbut a large portion of that time belonged to textbooks rather than trade books as usual. Still, three of the books I read this year merited mention and recommendation in this year's edition of What I Read. 2021 started off biography-centric but rounded out with a self-help book and some fiction. I'm currently tackling Ayn Rand's behemoth, Atlas Shrugged, so you might see it on next year's list. The jury's still out on that book.

As is tradition here at AndrewGilmore.net, I'm giving away one of the three books below plus a copy of my brand new book, Your Utmost Is Not Enough: Trusting God When Life Doesn't Make Sense. See the end of this article for details.

Here are three books you might enjoy:

Being Nixon: A Man Divided

No modern president could have been less equipped by nature for political life. Henry Kissinger[1] 

As a reader, biographies of politicians constitute some of the trickiest terrain in literature because I'm always trying to sniff out bias in the author's prose. Is this a liberal writing about a conservative or a conservative writing about a conservative? Does the author have an axe to grind? Is the aim of the book just to make the subject look good?

While I'm under no illusion that pure unbias is a possibility, Evan Thomas's approach in Being Nixon is evenhanded and matter-of-fact. He doesn't pull punches, but he also doesn't shy away from praising the former president when praise is due.

I studied a bit about Watergate when I was co-writing The Last Lessons of Christ, using Nixon's political advisor Chuck Colson's transformation story as an analogy for the change Zacchaeus experienced in the gospel of Luke.

Nevertheless, I had never studied Richard Nixon the man in any depth. I knew about the resignation, the foul language, the break-in, and the infamous "I am not a crook" utterance, but that was about the sum total of my knowledge.

Thomas does an excellent job of showing the complexity of Richard Nixonsomeone who wanted to do the right thing and wanted to make a difference in the world, but who let insecurity, paranoia, pride and politics get in the way of those goals.

That Nixon rose to the highest office in the United States is one of the greatest coups in American history. Yet Nixon's ascension speaks to the best of his character: his political savvy, his tenacity, and his ability to connect with the common man.

The life of Nixon reads like a Greek tragedy, as if he were a man destined from the beginning to have a great fall. But his story needn't have ended so. In fact, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex was completely unnecessary. The sting's goal was to monitor Democrat activities in order to give Nixon's Committee for the Re-election of the President a leg up in the pending election. The break-in was an utter failure and yet later that fall, Nixon won re-election in one of the biggest landslides in history. Nixon swept every state except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the widest margin of victory since Franklin Roosevelt won in 1936.

And even in the light of Watergate, Nixon could have made any number of decisions that would have saved himself and the presidency. One of these was to destroy the oval office recordings before they became public knowledge. Another was simply by coming clean. "Had Nixon," Thomas writes, "called in an outside lawyer and run a truly open investigation, his presidency would have endured—weakened, badly shaken, but also purified."[2] As they say, the cover-up was worse than the crime.

Speaking of the White House tapes, one of Nixon's first actions as president was to have LBJ's recording system removed. A few years later he reversed course, and ordered the Secret Service to install a confidential taping system in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, Lincoln Sitting Room, and, eventually, the Executive Office Building at Camp David.[3] Why did the president change his mind? His primary purpose was insurance against Henry Kissinger. Nixon was distrustful of his Secretary of State, and felt the cabinet member often received credit for his foreign policy ideas.

Some other interesting tidbits from the book:

Nixon was close to Jackie Robinson and friendly with Martin Luther King Jr.[4] On the campaign trail for president in the 1960 election, Nixon moved his whole team to a different hotel after finding out the establishment refused to rent rooms to black reporters. Nevertheless, the Republican candidate lost the confidence of many in the black community when he remained publicly silent at the arrest of MLK Jr, a potential turning point in a close loss for Nixon.

In defeat, Nixon retained his dignity, refusing to be a sore loser even though he suspected the Kennedy campaign of dirty tricks including bribes. In one Chicago precinct, "there were more votes cast for Kennedy than people living there."[5]

Leading up to the 1968 election, the Soviet Union pushed North Vietnam behind the scenes to accept a peace treaty because it would have been good for Humphrey and the Democrats and bad for the Nixon campaign. The USSR feared Nixon far more than it feared Humphrey.[6] Though never proven, it appears that Nixon or someone in his campaign sabotaged Vietnam peace talks to boost his election campaign.

Elvis Presley visited Nixon in 1970. He arrived at the White House with a loaded gun as a gift for the president. The Secret Service confiscated the weapon.

Contrary to common thinking, the identity of the Watergate leaker known as "Deep Throat" was not unknown. The White House discovered pretty quickly that Mark Felt was the rat but didn't fire him because he had too much information.[7]

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader

Jobs felt a deep restlessness to change the world, not just build a mundane business.[8]

The second book on this list is also a biography. But rather than politics, Becoming Steve Jobs focuses on the life of one of the most accomplished technology leaders in history. Love him or not, it's near impossible to look around the world today and fail to see countless ways Jobs has impacted culture.

Nevertheless Jobs, like all of us, was a complex person full of flaws amidst all of his vision and creativity. His temper was legendary. He could be ruthless. But to focus only on the negatives is to miss out on the big picture of Apple's founder. Partly in response to Walter Isaacson's bestseller Steve Jobs, Journalist Brent Schlender wrote Becoming Steve Jobs to paint a fuller picture of the icon. Yes, Jobs was overbearing, childish, and irresponsible at times. But Schlender believes Isaacson's account is overblown, or, at least, doesn't focus enough on the growth and transformation Jobs experienced after his unceremonious ousting from the company he founded. As he and co-author Rick Tetzeli write:

We wrote this book with the goal of showing how Jobs changed, and how that change affected his performance as a leader, innovator, and businessman. The fact is, Jobs, due to a host of influences, matured and even, arguably, mellowed a little over time.[9]

I've never read Isaacson's account of Jobs's life, but Schlender and Tetzeli's biography fascinated me to the end. You've likely heard many of the stories already. The story of Jobs denying paternity of his daughter Lisa and refusing to pay child support for some time. Of Steve's demotion at the company he founded leading to his eventual resignation. Of his eventual return to Apple. Of the iPod, iTunes, and the iPhone. Of Steve's cancer and death.

But woven in between are captivating details of less famous moments. Schlender recall's Jobs's creation of NeXT and Pixar's rise.  He gives the inside scoop on the revolution of the music industry and the development of the iPad.

Other interesting stories from the book:

Steve Wozniack was working for HP and even pitched the company a rough version of the Apple II. When they weren't interested, he quit the company to work for Apple full-time.[10]

Although Apple is often credited for creating the mouse, Jobs got the idea from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) along with several other innovations.[11]

The famous Ridley Scott "1984" Super Bowl ad for the first Macintosh almost never aired for a national audience. Jobs waited until the last minute to show the board, and they were "horrified." Apple had purchased two spots for the Super Bowl, and CEO John Sculley ordered their ad agency to sell off the ad spaces. The agency sold one, but "lied to Sculley and told him they couldn't sell the longer one."[12] The advert aired during the third quarter. It is considered one of the greatest television commercials of all time.[13]

Not long before leaving Apple, Steve Jobs proposed that Apple should attempt to buy the Graphics Group (which would eventually become Pixar) after seeing their computer graphics technology. By this point Steve had lost the confidence of the board, and they ignored his suggestion.[14] Steve, of course, would acquire the Graphics Group from George Lucas in 1986 after leaving Apple. Lucas needed the cash to fund his divorce from wife Marcia Griffin.[15]

American businessman H. Ross Perot invested $20 million in NeXT, Jobs's post-Apple company. In retrospect, Perot said, "One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was to give those young people all that money.”[16]

Joss Whedon of The Avengers fame helped write the script for Toy Story—Pixar's first full-length film.[17]

Prior to the iPhone, Motorola worked with Apple to develop an iTunes compatible phone called the ROKR. The phone was a flop, and Jobs asked his team to create a prototype for a phone of their own.[18]

Steve Jobs delayed surgery to remove a tumor on his pancreas by ten months in favor of alternative methods, primarily through his diet. By the time he acquiesced to the procedure, his doctors successfully removed the pancreatic tumor but discovered cancer on Steve's liver—cancer that would ultimately kill him seven years later in 2011.[19] It's difficult to know whether the delay cost him his life, but it is a possibility.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Anyone with the need to be accountable to deal with more than what he or she can complete in the moment has the opportunity to do so more easily and elegantly than in the mind.[20]

Prior to reading Getting Things Done I had heard author David Allen interviewed a couple of times on podcasts. I was intrigued by his system and its promise of freeing the brain to run more efficiently by offloading unnecessary tasks.

As a result I had already begun implementing my own flavor of the Getting Things Done system (GTD, as Allen's groupies call it) with pretty good success. As a father of four working full-time and attending grad school part time, I always have more tasks than time. But GTD helps me stay organized and feel good about the things I'm not doing, rather than fretting all of the time. That's not to say I never let anything slip through the cracks or that I always do a great job of prioritizing, but let's just say I'm more effective with the methodology than without it.

At its core, the system is a pretty simple five-step process. First, one must record every kind of commitment or unfinished task in a trusted system he or she will actually use. One of the strengths of GTD is that the system doesn't prescribe a specific methodology or repository for accomplishing this first step. Allen gives suggestions and general pitfalls to avoid, but it's more important that you trust the system and use it than use any specific tools. This flexibility allows the system to conform to each unique person rather than ask the person to change his or her personality or learn a new software.

Recording every task and commitment (no matter how small) frees brain space otherwise consumed by trying to remember and juggle to dos. Not only is the human brain inefficient as these types of tasks, but trying to remember every project leaves little room to focus on tasks at hand.

The second phase is clarifying your commitment and what "next action" you need to take on the project or task. This advice has been a revelation to me since I often find myself embroiled in multiple complex projects at the same time. By taking the time to identify what the very next step is I am able to move an otherwise stagnant task forward. Then, the next time I pick up the project, I don't need to waste time trying to remember what needs to be done next. I've got it recorded and can execute on the project when I have time to pick it back up.

The third phase is to organize all the tasks you recorded from step one.

Fourth is the reflection stage in which you review your captured items on a regular basis to ensure they are current. This is the step where I struggle the most. For me, prioritizing tasks is overwhelming and requires a great deal of mental energy so my lazy brain resists it. Nevertheless the weekly review, Allen says, is a critical part of the process.

Last is engaging in projects using the next actions defined in the first four steps.

Taken together, these steps are designed to lighten the toll on your mind, alleviating you of the need to to remember and juggle all of your commitments. And when your mind is free, you can focus on better-suited tasks.

Here are some other pieces of advice from Allen:

Only enter on your calendar those items that must be done at a certain time or day.

As long as you are following the first four steps of Allen's system, he recommends prioritizing tasks based on intuition.[21]

Meetings and complicated software can stifle effective project management because their formality short circuits the natural planning process.

"You can’t feel good about a staff meeting unless you know what the purpose of the meeting was."[22]  Amen.

Envisioning the desired outcome for some task or project that differs from the current reality causes your brain to attempt to fill in the gaps.[23]

Allen is a proponent of a "bottom-up" approach to productivity, i.e. working upwards from mundane to more meaningful. This may seem backwards, but he argues that mundane tasks drain our mental energy. Knocking these out, though, free the mind for creative attention on the more meaningful tasks. He writes, "'Buy cat food' may certainly not rank high on some theoretical prioritizing inventory, but if that’s what’s pulling on you the most, in the moment, then handling it in some way would be Job One. Once you handle what has your attention, it frees you up to notice what really has your attention."[24]

A Giveaway!

How would you like to win one these books?

I'm giving away one of the above books of your choice plus a copy of my newest book, Your Utmost Is Not Enough: Trusting in God Even When Life Doesn't Make Sense, to one lucky winner!

How can you enter?

It's actually quite simple: subscribe to my email list. That's it.

I typically send out two emails a month, including one on the last Tuesday with exclusive subscriber-only content. But there's no obligation to stay subscribed once the giveaway ends. To sign up, enter your email address below and click the button:


Already on the list? You're already entered!

I'll leave the giveaway open for seven days (through the end of 2/1/22 CST) and choose a random winner on 2/2/22 (Groundhog day!). (Note: this contest is open in all territories, but since I'm based in the US, if cost is too prohibitive in foreign territories, I might substitute the prize for a gift card.)

I'll update this post with the first name and location of the winner as well as notify him or her by email.

Good luck!

1. As quoted in Evan Thomas, Being Nixon: A Man Divided (New York: Random House, 2015), Kindle edition, location 5511 of 11783.
2. Ibid, 8002.
3. Ibid, 5744.
4. Ibid, 2152.
5. Ibid, 2361.
6. Ibid, 3266.
7. Ibid, 7391.
8. Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader (New York: Crown Business, 2015), Kindle edition, 4.
9. Ibid, location 185.
10. Ibid, 31.
11. Ibid, 52.
12. Ibid, 67.
13. Todd Leopold, “Why 2006 Isn't Like '1984',” CNN.com, February 3, 2006, http://edition.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/02/02/eye.ent.commercials/.
14. Schlender and Tetzeli, 73.
15. Ibid, 115.
16. Ibid, 96.
17. Ibid, 155.
18. Ibid, 283.
19. Ibid, 289.
20. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity Revised Edition (New York: Penguin, 2015), Kindle edition, 1.
21. Ibid, 52.
22. Ibid, 66.
23. Ibid, 72.
24. Ibid, 218.
25. This post contains affiliate links which means I receive a portion of sales at no extra cost to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment