book review

Top 20 Books I Read in 2015

There were lots of good ones to choose from which made this hard, but here’s the list that I paired down of the top 20 books that I’ve read in 2015.

There were lots of good ones to choose from which made this hard, but here’s the list that I paired down of the top 20 books that I’ve read in 2015.

In no particular order:

  1. Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach, by Col. Dandridge M. Malone (Ret.)

This book is a practical guide to leadership and is on the reading list for soldiers going through Officer Candidacy School. What I liked about the book in particular is that everything in it is directly applicable, not lofty esoteric theory. The book stresses the importance of cultivating well-trained and empowered small units, and how generally the military with the best small units will be the military that wins the war. One of the interesting sidenotes in the book was that in World War 2, the Japanese military did no field exercises above the battalion level—no brigade or division level exercises. Their focus was building strong units at the battalion, company, and platoon level—and frankly, they got off to a decent start until we stopped them at the Battle of Midway. You can see the inverse in this from recent history, like how top-heavy militaries like the Iraqi Army under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki stumbled. You can also see this in the corporate world, how bureaucratic companies like General Motors eventually get picked apart by their more nimble competition.

If you’re looking to brush up on your leadership skills, check out this book.

  1. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

If you’ve ever been curious about the phenomenon of being “in the zone” as some athletes say, this is a good book to check out. I wrote a more extensive review of this book already, here:

  1. 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength, by Jim Wendler

This is one of those books that I wish I had read years ago, as it probably would have cut a long time off my learning curve when it comes to strength training and conditioning.

  1. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson

This was a very interesting historical recap of the rise of the British Empire through its de-colonialization after World War 2. Former British colonies, including the US, India, Hong Kong, and Singapore are some of the most influential countries on the global market and geopolitically. Understanding the history of the British Empire helps understand modern history in general, given how much influence the empire had.

  1. Zero to One, by Peter Thiel

This is a very no-nonsense book on entrepreneurship and venture capital. Thiel’s strategy with his fund is to only invest in startups which have the potential to return the entire value of the fund. This mentality of “strong filtering”, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call it, weeds out bad ideas. Thiel laments also that a number of startups lately don’t really add much value; do we really need yet another Instagram clone or another version of Candy Crush?

  1. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister

One thing that I theorized to myself is that the mind gives out sooner than the body actually does. I thought that during long runs, in miles 2-3, you’re merely in mental pain. You don’t really start having physical pain until miles 4-5, and even then, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Just do your stretching, foam rolling, and maybe get a massage every now and then. That being said, you need to push through that mental barrier to first get to that point. This was a good book on willpower, which is important since it’s easy to do things when you’re motivated, but motivation comes and goes. Willpower and discipline are needed to keep taking action even when you’re not “feeling it.”

  1. Bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is one of the few books that I continuously re-read. More extensive review here:

  1. You Can Be a Stock Market Genius, by Joel Greenblatt

The title is a little silly, but it is a very good book with a focus on special situation investing, which was something that admittedly I had more of a cursory knowledge of rather than a practical knowledge prior to reading. This book was a good overview on topics like spinoffs, merger arbitrage, and other special situations. I’m always eager to add more tools to the arsenal.

  1. How to be a Billionaire: Proven Strategies from the Titans of Wealth, by Martin Fridson

There are lots of biographies on ultra-successful people, but what I liked about this book was that rather than cataloging every trivial detail of the subject person’s life, this book extracted the highlights of what specific traits made these people successful. And, it’s not just cliché buzzwords like “hard work” or “thinking outside the box”, although the subjects in the book did indeed do both of those. Some of the billionaires examined were John D. Rockefeller (arguably the richest person in history), Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett, Ross Perot, and others.

One highlight in particular that stood out: do you know one way that nobody in history, ever, became a billionaire? Collecting a salary.

  1. Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, by Tim Grover

Tim Grover was the personal trainer to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant—were they any good? I think Jordan might have played for the Bulls for a while?

Anyone playing in the NBA is already a very good basketball player. To even get there, you had to slog it out through high school to get scouted for college, then college ball, then do well enough in college ball to get drafted, especially when competition from Europe and elsewhere is now more intense. This book talks about what separates talent who is admittedly good from talent that is truly operating on an elite level—the Michael Jordans, the Kobe Bryants, and others who Tim Grover uses the term “cleaner” to describe. This is one of the best personal development and mental toughness books that I read this year.

  1. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, for Ashlee Vance

I wrote a more extensive review of this book here:

Similar to Tim Grover’s book and the Jeff Bezos biography that I’ve read (also a good book…but there’s only so many that I can fit on this list), one big takeaway from Musk is his intensity. Musk doesn’t want to hear “we can’t do this.” People who tell him that get fired. What he wants to hear is “in order to make this possible, we’re going to first need A, B, and C.” No excuses, only solutions.

  1. What I learned Losing a Million Dollars, by Jim Paul

The main premise of the book is that there are a number of ways to make money in the market (fundamental vs. technical analysis, etc.) but the one common theme among successful investors is solid risk management. Unsuccessful traders delude themselves into believing that they are suddenly now long term investors when they have a bad position, rather than cutting their losses, closing the position, and moving on.

  1. Principles, by Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio is one of the most successful hedge fund managers ever. His book, Principles, is a free download on his company’s website. A key theme in the book is that having a successful life requires an unrelenting search for the truth, in spite pre-existing limiting beliefs, confirmation bias, or ego barriers that can get in your way.

Download link:

You have a free chance to learn straight from the source of one of the best investors ever, so you have no excuse not to check this out. Which leads me to the next book…

  1. No Excuses, by Brian Tracy

There are lots of self-development books out there, but what I really enjoyed about this one was its practicality. It’s not a cliché or buzzword laden book, nor does it just have esoteric theory about how you need to “believe in yourself more” or other cutesy phrases. This book is about taking action.

  1. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

This was a quick read, but by no means low in value. Pressfield focuses on the idea of what he terms resistance, which causes people to not live up to their full potential, especially when it comes to creative endeavors.

  1. Alpha Masters, by Maneet Ahuja

This book was a collection of interviews of top hedge fund managers. One of the interesting takeaways that I got from the book was that there wasn’t necessarily one specific background or strategy that was universal to these managers. Indeed, some did come from the “traditional” route of Ivy school to top IB and then on to the buy side. But, one literally started as a UPS driver until his wife finally talked him into going through with law school, where afterwards he clerked with a bankruptcy judge, which led him into distressed debt management.

  1. Straight to Hell, by John LeFevre

When I heard that the guy behind GSElevator wrote a book, of course I had to check it out. As far as pure finance goes, you’re not going to learn too much from this one, as it’s strictly in the “for entertainment purposes only” category, but nonetheless, it was still a funny and memorable read—and perhaps cautionary tale.

  1. The First Billion is the Hardest, by T. Boone Pickens

This was an interesting biography going over Pickens’s move from working in industry to moving to PE and eventually launching BP Capital. He was in his 80s when the book was released, and he said that he’s been having more success in his career at his age now than in the past. He easily could have retired and called it good long ago, but he keeps on working because he finds it enjoyable. The idea that success stops at a certain age is a limiting belief, fully dispelled by this book.

  1. Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder

This book truly highlights that “emerging” markets are named as such for a reason. Browder was one of the first investors in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of a market economy in Russia. Things were going well, until Browder started making enemies with Russian oligarchs, including Vladimir Putin, who don’t play by the same ethics or even rules of law that you would expect in a developed country. I don’t want to give away the rest, but check this book out.

One key lesson: if you do business in Russia, get bodyguards.

  1. The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, by Ryan Holliday

This was a great, practical introduction to stoic philosophy and its wisdom into living a fulfilling life. It’s a quick read, but by no means does that mean it offers little value.


There were a lot of good books that I read this year, so pairing it down to a list had to leave some good ones out, but hopefully this provided some value and gave you some recommendations for 2016.

I’m curious if you have read any of these books, what you thought of them, and if you have any recommendations of your own. Leave a comment in the section below.

Keep hustling,

Alex Cook

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