My Favorite Books from 2021

Dec 07, 2021

I love reading—fiction and non-fiction, for work and pleasure—and I’ve been reading even more than usual lately due to some projects I’m working on. I tend to be very interdisciplinary in my reading—this is both due to and influences my holistic approach to intercultural teaching and learning.

I often talk about the books I’m reading with educators in True North Intercultural programs, and many people ask me for recommendations. So I thought I’d close out the year by sharing a few favorites that I read in 2021 (some of which are pictured above).

Jennifer Garvey Berger, Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World

Garvey Berger is a researcher and trainer in the field of adult development and leadership. She discusses how important it is to continue to develop the complexity of our mindsets (not just skill sets) into adulthood in order to have the capacity to meet the complex issues of our time. This is relevant to intercultural work, in my opinion, because developing our capacity to engage across cultures requires increasing the complexity with which we experience cultural differences and similarities. In particular, I appreciate Garvey Berger’s discussion of the “subject-object shift,” which involves identifying ideas, beliefs, or assumptions that we are currently “subject to” (i.e. they are a part of us, something we take for granted as true) and making them “objects” for our observation (i.e. something we can now see, get curious about). 

Notable Quote:

“It's not revolutionary to think that people have different ways of making sense of the world—you knew that. It is revolutionary to remember that and to act as if you really believe it is true. (...) It seems to be a key piece of being human to understand that idea with our heads but not put it into practice. Simply remembering that each of us is a sensemaker, and each of us makes sense of the world in our own way, can change the way you react to yourself and to those around you.”

- Jennifer Garvey Berger


Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization

Read Garvey Berger’s book, mentioned above, then this one, for a powerful education on what true transformational and developmental learning can look like in adulthood. In this book, Kegan & Laskow Lahey walk readers through a process they use to help individuals and groups make the subject-object shift I mentioned above. Their Immunity to Change Map is a means for helping people develop a more complex mindset and discover how we can sometimes get in the way of achieving our own commitments by having one foot on the gas and the other simultaneously (and unconsciously) on the brake.

Notable Quotes:

“True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge or your behavioral repertoire.”

- Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey

“When we experience the world as ‘too complex’ we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world's complexity and our own at this moment. There are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch—reduce the world's complexity or increase our own. The first isn't going to happen.”

- Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey


Daryl Smith, Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work (3rd ed.)

Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education
provides a useful overview of how diversity has been approached in higher education historically, while also being forward-thinking in discussing where we need to go from here. Smith argues that diversity in higher education is a powerful tool for institutional excellence, and suggests it ought to be engaged like technology has been: essentially, as an environmental change that we must embrace and center at the core of all we do—as a fundamental tool to achieve our mission and purpose as educational institutions. Smith also discusses the need for diversity to be discussed within both national and global contexts, which she says adds both complexity and urgency to the topic.

I found it interesting that, like adult development theorists Garvey Berger, Kegan, and Laskow Lahey (mentioned above), Smith refers to the need to build “competence in engaging the complexity of diversity.”

Notable Quotes:

“I believe that higher education must play a critical role if we are to achieve the promise of our democracy: developing a pluralistic society that works. Although few of us have lived or worked in such a setting, this is one of the foremost challenges of our day.”

- Daryl Smith

“Diversity, like technology, represents a powerful change in our environment. Like technology, it is an imperative that must be engaged if institutions are to be successful in a society that is ever more pluralistic and in a world that is both interconnected and challenged by diversity. Diversity, like technology, introduces significant strategic opportunities to fulfill the mission of higher education and to serve institutional excellence. And, as with technology, the challenges and changes keep coming at the same time that the institution must continue to function. This understanding of diversity begins at the institutional and societal levels. Nonetheless, diversity is far more contested than technology with respect to questions about the strategies for achieving change—or even whether it must be addressed at all.”

- Daryl Smith

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race

Tatum is president emerita of Spelman College and an expert on the psychology of racism. Her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? not only highlights the critical need for everyone to engage in racial identity development work, but outlines what that process might look like for folks from various racial backgrounds. This book also highlights the important role colleges and universities play in helping students develop a healthy racial identity and learn to engage in difficult dialogues. I appreciate that Tatum highlights the overlap in racial-ethnic-cultural identity development, suggesting there's really no reason to separate them.

Notable Quotes:

“At the center of these conversations is an understanding of racial identity, the meaning each of us has constructed or is constructing about what it means to be a White person or a person of color in a race-conscious society. Present also is an understanding of racism. It is because we live in a racist society that racial identity has as much meaning as it does. We cannot talk meaningfully about racial identity without also talking about racism.”

- Beverly Daniel Tatum

“As a society, we pay a price for our silence. Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society. Individually, racism stifles our own growth and development. It clouds our vision and distorts our perceptions. It alienates us not only from others but also from ourselves and our own experiences.”

- Beverly Daniel Tatum

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

I love all things Brené Brown and have read several of her books this past year. But if I had to choose just one to recommend to anyone doing work in intercultural teaching and learning, it would be Braving the Wilderness. In it, Brown discusses how polarized our world is, and the many paradoxes that we need to navigate to engage effectively and appropriately across difference (note that this is the definition of intercultural competence, although Brown never uses this term). She says “true belonging” requires us to first belong to ourselves, and essentially be okay belonging nowhere, before we can truly connect with others.

Notable Quote:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

- Brené Brown

Mary Casey & Shannon Murphy Robinson, Neuroscience of Inclusion: New Skills for New Times

I think it’s very important for intercultural educators everyone to understand something about how our brains work when it comes to engaging across difference. In short, our brains are not evolutionarily wired to be inclusive. However, understanding a little about neuroplasticity empowers us to literally re-wire our brains to be more inclusive. The book Neuroscience of Inclusion provides a useful overview of how our brains work in this respect.

Notable Quote:

“It turns out that our biases towards differences exist within a larger set of unconscious processes in the brain. All of our attitudes and behaviors—not just those related to biases towards differences—get embedded so deeply in the circuitry of the brain that they are not only unconscious, but they get normalized by these and other brain processes. Our biases towards people's differences become camouflaged by the larger unconscious landscape and we don't think to examine or challenge them because they just feel normal and right, even if they don't make sense at a conscious, logical level.”

- Mary Casey & Shannon Murphy Robinson


Bonus Recommendations

Bill Burnett & Dave Evans, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Many of you won’t necessarily see connections between Designing Your Life and intercultural learning (although I most definitely do). But I include this book here because I think it’s relevant and useful for all those who are experiencing significant personal and professional transitions right now. Burnett and Evans actually wrote this book—and its sequel, Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work—based on a course they developed and taught at Stanford University, meant to help students use design thinking to intentionally build their desired work lives. While there’s obviously an undercurrent of privilege and U.S. American individualism in the “design your life” idea, I appreciate the book’s innovative approach to helping readers think holistically about their lives and work. If you are in a place of transition, feeling the slightest bit stuck, or would just like an opportunity to think differently about your life and career, I recommend picking up this engaging little book.

Notable Quote:

“Prototyping the life design way is all about asking good questions, outing our hidden biases and assumptions, iterating rapidly, and creating momentum for a path we’d like to try out.”

- Bill Burnett & Dave Evans

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

This memoir from comedian Trevor Noah about growing up in post-apartheid South Africa may be non-fiction, but it reads like a novel. Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable with a prison sentence. His book offers a very real, honest look at one young person’s racial-ethnic-cultural identity development process (see the Tatum book mentioned previously).

Notable Quotes:

“We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them.”

- Trevor Noah

“Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because I’d been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t belong with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe. But the black kids embraced me. ‘Come along,’ they said. ‘You’re rolling with us.’ With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was.”

- Trevor Noah

“A dog is a great thing for a kid to have. It’s like a bicycle but with emotions.” (Couldn’t help including this one. 😄)

- Trevor Noah

What About You?

I hope you found my recommendations and recap useful. Now I’d love to hear from you! What’s the best book you read in 2021? What’s on your reading list for 2022? Please share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments section below!

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