Rachel Romer Carlson’s Top 10 Books of 2021

Reading is truly my favorite hobby, and a good book recommendation is both my love language and my absolute favorite gift.

Reading served as both my escape and my mirror in 2020, and I managed to plow through more books than ever before. Reading served a similar but distinct purpose in 2021 as I found so many books that challenged my way of thinking. I didn’t quite hit 100, but I found myself reading more intentionally, and often turning back to passages and whole books to explore more meaning and dig deeper.

This year, the best books helped me reframe how I thought about major issues – like the rise and fall of institutions, organizations, and governments – but also helped alter my mindset in the moment or change how I was approaching certain problems in life and work. I found new insights into meditation, management, & motherhood, as well as some great fiction along the way.

With that, here are my 2021 Top 10 Book Recommendations:

  1. Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. This wins the top book of the year for me. My meditation practice, something I’ve focused on for a few years now, broke open in new ways thanks to this book. If you’ve hung out with me since April, you’ve heard me talk about this book, and I’ve probably done the “hello” exercise with you. If you’re curious about meditation, the human mind, or if you are still wrestling to overcome the Western bias to understand “we are not our thoughts,” read this book. If that doesn’t apply, you should still read the book! I’ve come back to it again and again this year, and it’s earned a permanent spot on my nightstand.

  2. Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was my favorite fiction of the year – the vivid imagery seeps the reader in the glitz and glam of the characters’ lives, while taking you on a heartbreaking and well-written journey all focused on truth – what it costs, and what it brings.

  3. The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life by Dr. Edith Eva Eger. I’m curious as to why I left Eger’s first book “The Choice” off my list in 2020, and it tells me something about the tender state I was in, as it was certainly the most powerful book I read in 2020. To my great appreciation, Eger came out with her second book this year – The Gift – and it had an equally powerful impact on me. As a Holocaust survivor and therapist, Eger brings one of the clearest, most distinct voices to the human condition. I’ll never forget the chapter on “finding the bigot in you”, and how that framing has now permanently changed my mindset in all hard conversations – on diversity, equity and inclusion, but also so much more – as well as my own shame resilience. She’s a living prophet, and the world would be a better place if everyone read this book!

  4. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. This summer, as travel and work conferences burst back into life, I found myself in four distinct conversations with some of the colleagues I admire most – all about books by Holocaust survivors. There’s no coincidence that in this time of pandemic suffering in 2020 and 2021, so many folks were turning to the cannons of some of the greatest suffering and trauma the world has known. Frankel’s book was recommended to me by Paul Freedman. The book helped me understand both myself and others better, and it left a deep imprint on my heart.

  5. Matrix by Lauren Groff. This was also on Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year list, but that isn’t the only reason I named it to my list…This book features the kind of female heroine we need more of, and it feels like a new kind of feminist writing. It also does such a phenomenal job of bringing to life the experience of being alone and lonely, in a year where many of us are searching to be content in the former and experience less of the latter.

  6. Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown. Would it be a good year of reading without a top-10 from Brené? I think not, and this book is a new varietal from my favorite researcher-meets-author. Brown does what I think might be her most complex work yet, breaking down the 78 emotions that drive us most, and the families those emotions belong to. The part I loved most is her explanation of the Buddist concept of far enemy and near enemy, and how those apply to our emotions. I’m recommending this book to anyone who leads teams or families – it’s a window into the soul of our human operating system.

  7. Mom Genes by Abigail Tucker. I read a review on this book that described it as both “important” but then criticized the science as “anti-feminist”, and I knew I had to read it. The book takes a provocative look at maternal instinct, and while I sometimes struggled through it (it triggered some real mom guilt), I deeply appreciate what the author did. She shared the science in a matter-of-fact way, and while some of those insights conflict with choices I or other liberal communities champion, I’m better off for having read it. One of my goals is to keep reading and dialoguing with those who I sometimes disagree with, and this book delivered that.

  8. Play Bigger by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, Kevin Maney. My favorite part of my job is learning whole new disciplines in service of Guild, and this book unlocked “category creation” for me this year. It’s a great read for anyone in tech or entrepreneurship, but I also wish more folks in Washington would read it as we think about the work we need to do to reinvent core institutions like our political parties. Thanks to our brilliant colleagues Sarah-Beth Anders and Natalie McCullough for recommending it, and for our friends at Firebrick for working with us to bring those learnings to life.

  9. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. A friend of mine shared how this book influenced his perspective on 2020 and the challenges and opportunities facing America, and I named it my own #1 must-read for 2021. Well, I’m glad to report back that it exceeded my lofty expectations. If you find yourself currently wrestling with your perspective on the future of democracy, the role of the U.S. on the world stage, relations with China, or the partisan divide – you’ve got to read this book. Then call me 😉

  10. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better by Rob Reich. Rob was my favorite professor in undergrad, and I flipped through this book then, helping inform my view on philanthropy vs. social enterprises. As we embark on Guild’s philanthropic journey with our own charitable giving, I wanted to revisit this book to think about how we can do it better so it was my #2 2021 must-read. It too was deeply impactful, and while I had read it in my twenties, it took on an entirely new meaning at this point in my life. This book is one I recommend to everyone I know who is exploring their own or their company’s philanthropic work, as well as anyone with economic privilege. Call me after this one too!

  11. My bonus re-read for 2021 is The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Diana Chapman, Kaley Klemp, and Jim Dethmer. This is hands down, the best leadership book I’ve read. I re-read it this fall with our executive team, and fell in love with it all over again, finding new insights that weren’t available to me in times past. We also had the great privilege of doing work with Kaley this fall, and the book’s insights just keep on giving. I’m encouraging all of Guild’s leaders and managers to read it as well, and hoping I’ll keep finding new nuggets in it as I progress on my own leadership journey.

If you’re still reading, then you’re my people.

Read on and happy holidays!

Written by Rachel Romer Carlson
co-founder and CEO of Guild Education