Professional Development Reads of 2020

04 Dec 2020

I’m a huge fan of year-end lists. I keep my eyes peeled the entire month of December for my favorite writers and publications to publish annual lists of their favorite media of the year (with an extra-special shout to Stereogum’s genre-specific year-end coverage and NPR’s Book Concierge). Last year I decided to get back into the action with a rundown of the professional development books I read during the year, and I’m happy to be back with a fresh crop of books in 2020.

Every list so I’ve read so far has included an editorial lede that has made me whip out the COVID bingo card - “these trying times,” “finding escape,” “radically reshaped world,” etc. I’ll forego my own grand statement and just say that I’m thankful I was able to use reading throughout the year to establish a sense of normalcy.

The Creative Curve by Allen Gannett

If you read one book from this list, The Creative Curve is the one to pick. It was a Not So Standard Deviations book club pick- Hilary was eager to speak with Roger about how the ideas at the core of the book influence the data analysis lifecycle and her experiences in product development in her day job. I was pretty skeptical of the book when it arrived - it seemed overly polished and deceptively thin. Upon digging in, I was thrilled to have been wrong to judge it by its cover and found it to be packed full of insight. The concepts that Gannett explores as being critical to successfully bringing ideas to fruition (including explorations into research and professional networking) aren’t the sort of hand-waving, “growth hacking” Silicon Valley nonsense I had feared. Instead it was super actionable suggestions that helped me pinpoint some reasons for recent failures at work. I would highly recommend it for anyone who has to do any amount of idea generation at work as it has been in the back of my head all year while approaching projects.

Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

This year I was pleased to have another source of book recommendations when my new department at work started a book club as a team-building exercise as we adjusted to remote work. I had never been a part of a book club before and had a lot of fun bouncing ideas off of my coworkers and getting everyone’s takes on the book. It sounds lame and basic, but it’s true! I think joining a book club full of strangers to discuss “professional development” would be a bit awkward, but as a team building exercise it worked great. That being said, I didn’t think Peak Performance brought a ton of new ideas to the table for folks who have already done some reading in the space. Chapters emphasizing the importance of getting enough sleep and cautioning not to multi-task were well-written and researched but old hat. The final section of the book, devoted to encouraging the reader to develop a mantra that guides their daily goals and activities, was a shining example of saving the best for last. The exercise will be something I return to every few years when setting yearly goals for myself, but I don’t know if it was worth the cost of admission.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s data journalism website, was a huge influence on my current career trajectory. I read the site obsessively during downtime during my first year working full-time and constantly told myself that I wanted to do that. Crafting narratives using data, putting together sleek interactive visualizations, making machine learning approachable for laypeople: it doesn’t look quite the same behind the scenes working in enterprise, but the concepts really carry over! I had Silver’s book on my longlist for years and decided to finally pick it up expecting it would pair well with the Bayesian Statistics course I took this fall.

I know that’s a lot of baggage and context to bring into reading a book; I don’t think a more casual reader would have gotten as much out of it as I did. I do feel confident in saying that the first half, in which Silver describes how unpredictability in modeling affects a variety of disciplines, is some of the best writing about models that I have ever read. The chapter on chess in particular was thrilling - it seemed way more novel months before The Queen’s Gambit made chess sexy again.

More than anything, I enjoyed getting a better perspective of what a strange space Silver occupies as a public figure. He has seemed increasingly annoyed at having to defend his models after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. He wrote a book about predictive uncertainty and yet still has to watch people beat him up when they misconsrue his predictions or become overconfident in the projected outcomes. He gets sucked into defending his honor on Twitter, trying to explain himself in fits in starts, or appearing as a pundit on ABC. I find it to be a really interesting case study in being a victim in one’s own success.

How Design Makes the World by Scott Berkun

I read Berkun’s book in two sittings over the course of a day. It’s hard for me to dream up a better primer to design thinking than a copy of this volume (except maybe a few choice episodes of 99% Invisible). The examples in each chapter are interesting and very applicable to most adults. I think it’d be a great addition to a high school reading list even if I can’t figure out in which class it would be assigned.

That being said, I didn’t feel it brought much new to the table. That’s fine! It isn’t necessarily supposed to! As someone who’s done more reading and thinking about design than the average person, I don’t think I’m the target audience. I’ll happily be passing it along to friends (or the teenagers in my life trying to figure out what to do with their lives) who are curious to get some more perspective about the world around them.


If you have read anyhing on this list and want to chat or have a book recommendation, Please reach out! I also keep track of my reading on Goodreads if you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading.

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