I love year-end lists.
And if you are reading this, my guess is that you do too 🙂
In 2019, I had the idea to take that deep interest and look at ALL the year-end lists in my favorite category—business books.
Reading through the lists was something that I did anyways, but the idea was to take it a step further and get a little nerdy about it. I decided to run a meta-analysis of all the year-end business book lists and see if there were any titles that appeared across multiple lists.
Were there books that received recognition from multiple sources, said something about the year passed, and deserved our attention?
Each year, the answer has been ‘Yes.’
2022 is no different.
Each year, I start with the longlists published by media outlets and retailers that highlight the best business books published. In the last four years, the lists have shifted a little. I still miss Leigh Buchanan’s roundup for Inc. Magazine and as we approach this year-end, we appear to have lost the longtime best-of round-up from PwC’s Strategy+Business publication.
This year, the lists come from Porchlight Books, BookPal, Amazon, Financial Times, and, new in 2022, Ideapress’ Non-Obvious Book Awards. Each of these lists is published at year-end and is focused on highlighting the books from the prior 12 months. Their longlists provide a wonderful cross-section into what business books were published and which titles caught tastemakers attention.
This year, over 170 titles appear across those five lists. That is twice the length of past years and is driven by the very long longlist of 100 titles from Non-Obvious. Even with so many titles, there were only 23 titles that appeared on more than two of the five lists. Only four titles appeared on more than three lists. The books that appeared on three lists included:
- Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source by Kathryn Judge (Harper Business, June 2022)
- How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion by David McRaney (Portfolio, June 2022)
- The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future by Sebastian Mallaby (Penguin Press, February 2022)
Like last year, there was only one book to get the most votes, this year appearing on four out of the five year end lists.
The Book of The Year
The book of the year is Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari.
Hari interviewed hundreds of people from all over the world to collect research for his book. For my money, James Williams, a former strategist at Google, provides the best metaphor to Hari for what we are experiencing as it relates to attention—we are all under a denial-of-service attack. “We’re that server, and there’s all these things trying to grab our attention by throwing information at us,” he says, “It undermines our capacity to respond to anything. It leaves us in a state of either distraction, or paralysis.”
I think we all feel that on some level but we have little idea how many directions those attacks are coming from.
You’ll likely recognize the commonly blamed culprits that Hari describes: the myth of multitasking, lack of good sleep, Big Tech’s additive designs. The studied effects are more disturbing. HP commissioned a small study to test workers who were uninterrupted in their work against others who received a barrage of phone calls and email. The interrupted group scored 10 points lower on IQ tests. Individuals who were kept awake overnight went from a quarter second response time on a memory test to taking four, five and even six seconds to respond. And this from the Wall Street Journal’s reporting of Facebook’s own researchers looking at the company’s algorithms (in Hari’s words):
“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” and “if left unchecked,” the site would continue to pump its users with “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.”
Hari connects distraction to our poor diets. He connects lack of focus to our always-on work life. He draws a link between distraction and financial insecurity. He reports that a college professor finds it difficult to assign long texts to students. In 2020, Hari even commissioned the first scientific poll on attention. Respondents confirmed that they believed things were getting worse, and they were asked to try and identify the causes. Their top blames were stress, change in life circumstances, sleep difficulties and their phones.
Now, those looking for solutions will be slightly disappointed. As Hari writes, “[T]his is not a self-help book, and what I have to say to you is more complex, and it means starting with an admission: I have not entirely solved this problem in myself.” At the start of the book, Hari uses a three month completely unplugged stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts to describe his distraction detox and report on the positive effects of disconnect. He ends the book writing that he has gotten COVID early in the pandemic and is finding no ability to focus on anything.
All of this is Hari being a journalist and the book is largely reporting. Business book readers will see appearances from BJ Fogg, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Nir Nyal, and Roy Baumeister. The power of Stolen Focus is how Hari stacks up so many pieces next to each other. In the course of 280 pages, you can’t ignore this death-by-a-thousand-cuts that our attention is suffering. And seeing what affects our attention from so many perspectives may be a start to solving the problem for ourselves.
On the third day of a silent meditation retreat, you feel the difference in the room. People aren’t shifting around in their seats anymore. The breathing in the room has gotten quiet and steady. There is a slow gracefulness in how people move. Attendees have stepped away from their life. The pressure and pre-conceived notions of the world has lessened enough that everyone starts to carry themselves differently.
I’ve had a formal meditation practice for over ten years. Almost every morning I get up early and sit for at least 30 minutes. When I started, I just wanted some peace and calm from the stresses of being underemployed, raising three young children, and turning forty years old. Meditation itself doesn’t really solve any of those problems, but it will help you see the thoughts that keep coming up each day. You get some distance from the financial insecurity, the change in life circumstances, and the lack of sleep. You start to see the patterns in your behavior and the patterns in those around you.
I practice Zen, but prayer, yoga, transcendental meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, Tai Chi, Qigong, or just sitting still—they all point in the same direction. In Buddhism, the Indian word is dhyāna, often translated as meditation, and, over time, has been connected with the idea of concentration. It is seen as an ideal to strive for as a practitioner. Every major religion and spiritual practice highlights the same thing. Building our ability to concentrate lets us slow down our responses to all people and things trying to get our attention. The late Zen teacher Robert Aitken said, “If a student comes to me with a personal problem, my practice is to suggest quieting the mind with regular [meditation] so that options will become clearer.” I think that is what we all want—the attention to see the options more clearly.
Hari largely ignores this in Stolen Focus. He outright admits that these practices are hard for him to engage with. There is something lost in overlooking the source of our desires for Instagram likes and greasy cheeseburgers; for the next job promotion and someone to love us, because Hari is calling out suffering in the 21st century. He is highlighting the effects. And more and more we can measure the cost of all of that suffering.
It is interesting to be publishing this whole essay on December 8th. In this season filled with religious and spiritual holidays, most in the West have no idea that millions of people around the world are today mindfully focused on their attention. They are commemorating the Buddha’s enlightenment, a figure who spent most of his life teaching people how to work with their suffering. If you could pick any day to take 10 minutes and slow down, focus on your breath and center your attention, know that many, many others are doing that same work today too.