Confronting the new normal: Our 2021 summer reading list

Summer arrives this year with brighter days in store—literally and figuratively. The successful deployment of vaccines has led to widespread reopenings in most regions of the world where our firm does business, allowing most of our associate base to begin the transition to post-pandemic life. But if there’s one thing that’s become abundantly clear over these past 16 months, it’s that’s the world we’re reentering is one drastically altered by the impacts of COVID-19. Adapting—and thriving—in this so-called new normal environment will require a large, collective effort from all of us.

Amid this backdrop, we’ve chosen the theme of confronting the new normal for our summer 2021 reading list. In some cases, this may mean broadening our skillsets to align with new technologies that have emerged since the pandemic, and in other instances, this may mean shifting how we think about long-standing and sometimes uncomfortable issues that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront. The following five books, recommended by our associates, are intended to serve as guides to accomplishing both. Let’s get started.

How the Word Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
Clint Smith
Little, Brown and Company

New York City’s financial district is not the first place that comes to mind when we think collectively about the United States’ history of slavery. But a plaque marking the site of a former slave market on Wall Street is a harsh reminder of just how embedded slavery was in U.S. history and how, today, we need to both recognize that fact and continue to work to rectify the continuing results. Author Clint Smith, a poet and staff writer for The Atlantic, addresses this history and its impact, one location at a time. His book, How the Word Passed : A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, is a cross-country survey of nine sites significant to slavery’s history, combining his personal observations with research and interviews. He begins in his hometown of New Orleans, continues on to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and finally ends up in Africa, where he discovers schoolgirls more knowledgeable about the slave trade than most Americans. So then, how is the word passed? Smith answers that question when he writes, “We’re telling history by telling the full story, more of the story of everyone who lived here, not just certain people who were able to tell their stories.”

The Uninhabitable Earth
David Wallace-Wells
Tim Duggan Books

In The Uninhabitable Earth, veteran journalist David Wallace-Wells cuts right to the chase: The climate crisis is intensifying—and many of the impacts are likely to be more severe than most of us have comprehended. Based on extensive research with leading climate scientists from across the globe, Wallace-Wells devotes the first part of his book to exploring—in devastating detail—the degree-by-degree ramifications of a planet that could warm by as much as 6 to 8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. From rising oceans to deadly heat waves, from water shortages to extreme wildfires, Wallace-Wells pulls no punches as he lays out the nightmarish scenarios that could become reality for our planet in the not-so-distant future. In the second half of the book, Wallace-Wells shifts gears to focusing on the potential economic, political and social impacts of a much-warmer world. Hint: It’s not a pretty picture.

While the author’s no-holds-barred approach makes for an unsettling read, his willingness to address the harsh realities that lie ahead for our planet if we fail to limit the pace of warming is necessary. As we know all too well from the tumultuous events of the past year, the truth can be painful—but if we desire meaningful change, it must be told nonetheless. As Wallace-Wells writes, given the enormous stakes confronting our warming world, “there is no single best way to tell the story of climate change … any story that sticks is a good one.”

To me, this underscores the need for all of us in the financial industry to do our part in getting the message across. Whether it’s done by accelerating efforts to combat the crisis by committing to a net-zero carbon emissions goal, or by stressing the importance of materiality when it comes to integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into an investment process, no job is too big or too small in the battle against climate change. As Wallace-Wells makes abundantly clear near the end of the book, we, as a society, still have the power to prevent really bad outcomes from taking place—but only if we collectively disavow climate-change complacency, roll up our sleeves and fight back.

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail
Clayton M. Christensen
Harvard Business Review Press

If you’re a successful company, when do you abandon proven, traditional business practices in favor of innovation and adaptability? This is no easy question, but in light of the revolutions that seem to be occurring in the way we work right now, due to COVID-19, it seems like the relevant question to ask. That’s why we’re circling back to The Innovator’s Dilemma, first published in 1997, but with a recent-ish edition updated in 2016. If it seems counterintuitive to turn to a five-year-old edition to help navigate post-COVID change, so be it. The principles in this guide to innovation and change management have proven themselves to be sound. The book has been named by Fast Company as one of the most influential leadership books in its Leadership Hall of Fame. It doesn’t matter if the industry is tech or asset management, Christensen says a successful company with established products will get pushed aside unless leaders know when to abandon business practices—even successful ones. As a guide, Christensen tells stories of success and failure from household-name companies. We all need a guide right now to navigate this next phase in business. Looking at what has worked—and failed—for others seems like a good place to start.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
Adam Grant

As human beings, we’re inherently creatures of habit, born with a hard-wired reluctance to change how we think and act. This is especially true when it comes to the knowledge we acquire and the beliefs we develop along the way—the older we grow, the more entrenched and set in our convictions we become. But as famed Wharton professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes, in order to succeed in today’s world of rapid change, the ability to unlearn and rethink what we’ve been taught is just as critical.

In Think Again, Grant teaches us that disagreements with others shouldn’t be looked at as dead-ends, but rather as opportunities for additional learning. We should surround ourselves with people who challenge our ways of thinking, Grant argues, rather than only seeking out the comfort of our echo chambers. Sometimes, we may have to agree to disagree, and other times, we may have to admit we’re wrong—but is that such a bad thing? Or is there a certain joy we can derive from being wrong and having the chance to re-examine a previously-held conviction?

The best leaders, Grant says, are those individuals who realize they don’t have the answers to everything—those who are aware of what they don’t know, and in turn approach life’s problems with an open, flexible mind. Reading this book struck a particular chord with me, in light of all the changes we’ve seen in the world since the pandemic struck. Ultimately, by constantly seeking out new information and exhibiting a willingness to adapt the ways in which we think, we’ll be better positioned to solve the problems of today—setting the world up for a more successful tomorrow. And that’s something I think we can all agree on.

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming
Paul Hawken

Penguin Books

In Blessed Unrest, distinguished environmentalist Paul Hawken discusses the many non-profit and community organizations dedicated to ecological sustainability and social justice. In doing so, he draws examples from history, current events and his own experiences as an environmentalist, entrepreneur and activist researching organizations dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice. Hawken explains the key factors that make the ongoing movement unlike any other: it's diverse, has no charismatic leader and emerged at the grassroots level. While the movement differs from previous social movements in that it follows no unifying ideology or orthodoxy and is not recognized by politicians, the public, or the media, Hawken argues that it has massive potential to benefit the planet. Written in 2007, this book is especially appropriate today as the world grapples with the ongoing impacts of climate change, the widening gap in income disparity and long-standing matters of racial injustice. In particular, I found Hawken’s overarching message in the power of manifesting change from the bottom-up to be especially uplifting as the world navigates through difficult times. Collectively, by raising all of our voices, we can—and will—make a difference.