Books for Systems Thinkers

A Holiday Note From Diana

Five years ago, I discovered the Icelandic book-loving tradition of Jólabókaflóðið, pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot. Jolabokaflod roughly translates to Christmas Book Flood. The first English translation I read was “Jolly Book Flood”. I like that one.

Jolly Book Flood began in Iceland after WWII. Every mid-November, the Bókatíðindi, (Book Bulletin) is sent to every Icelandic household. On Christmas eve, books are given as gifts and then read together, while drinking a holiday beverage. I can’t imagine a better celebration.

My family has adopted this tradition. Each year, we visit an independent bookstore and buy whatever we want. For ourselves, each other, and other people. During the 2020 holiday season, one of our favorite bookstores offered after-hours shopping by reservation. We had the entire store to ourselves for an hour. Truly a wonderland.

In this Jolly spirit, here are book recommendations for the systems thinker in your life. Which is probably (also) you. Some of these titles have been shared here before but they are worth repeating. Most of them aren’t about “how to think in systems”, they are examples of good nonlinear thinking.

If winter is coming to your part of the world, you can enjoy these on a cold winter night. Perhaps with a hot toddy – I’ve included my husband’s favorite recipe.

Do you have a recommendation that isn’t here? Reply to this email (or send one to I will add it to the webpage. Please include why you recommend it.

May joy, ease, delight and curiosity find you and keep you good company.

Each title has a “Buy this book” link to — a US online retailer supporting independent bookstores. Alas, they do not ship internationally. If you can’t find a title locally, you might try and

by Ann M Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown

This book profoundly changed my thinking. Reading it, I realized that the systems challenges I faced were systems challenges, not technology challenges. My copy has highlights all through it. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. Buy this book

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

by Donella Meadows

This is the book I hope everyone will read. It is a great starting place for building a vocabulary for talking about systems. It might be tricky to give as a gift though, many people have already read it. Buy this book

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal

by Mark Bittman

This is the history of humans through the lens of food. I often have a Bittman quote slide when I speak at tech conferences. Many of the systemic challenges were familiar to me, as an eater and as a systems architect. Buy this book

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization

by Peter M Senge

Learning teams are systems thinking teams. This books was considered radical when it was published in 2006. Reading it reminds me of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Buy this book

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

The way many of us were taught history suggests a linear evolution, a path humans have walked uphill. Sapiens takes a more systemic view and looks at how one species of human has impacted other species and the planet as a whole. As we design human systems for the future – what do we want to matter? Buy this book

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

by James Clear

Clear says that we do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems. Like any good systems thinker, he distills complex topics into understandable and actionable recommendations. He approaches change holistically while still giving us the tools to actually change. Buy this book

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

by John Carreyrou

The thing about this book is … so many of the experiences were the things we’ve been taught are normal. Did they treat their technology workers differently from other high-profile companies? Didn’t they succeed with a product-first approach? This story turns dark — clearly it goes beyond normal. But it’s a cautionary tale about how our approaches to technology innovation are not as benign as they may seem. Buy this book

Chaos: Making a New Science

by James Gleick

It all began with a weatherman. This book is an excellent example of narrative nonfiction, an impactful approach to making complexity visible. For example, the emergence of chaos theory. Gleick is one of the masters. Buy this book

The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts

by Rhiannon Beaubien and Shane Parrish

If you aren’t subscribed to Farnam Street, I highly recommend you do so. Today! It’s one of the best content publishers for systems thinkers. This book is a compilation that helps us improve decision making. Buy this book

The Art of Systems Architecting

by Mark W Maier

I once recommended this book to someone who didn’t think she was a systems thinker. She was, she discovered, and it changed the path of her career. The book is a starting point for integrating heuristic approaches with more traditional thinking. It helps make clear that “integration” is how we get from abstract to implementation. Buy this book

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

by Christopher Alexander

I used this book to design spaces in our house, which is not much different from designing containerized services. Pattern thinking is systems thinking. Every systems thinker I know lights up when this book is mentioned. Buy this book

The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex

by Murray Gell-Mann

This book is still on my “must read” list. Written by Nobel laureat Murray Gell-Man, it comes highly recommended. Systems are all about relationships and, I’m told, nobody understands that quite like Gell-Mann. Buy this book

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

by Carlo Rovelli

This book is science poetry. Ideal for anyone who wants to let their mind wander waaaaaay past day-to-day constructions. Buy this book

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies

by Geoffrey West

I saw an excellent keynote this year called The Fractal Geometry of Software Design, interweaving this book and software architecture. All systems learning helps us understand technology systems. Buy this book

You might also like many of the books on this list. I wish the authors were more diverse, but such is the history of “thinkers worthy of publishing.” As that list changes, so will our systems.

Dom’s Hot Toddy Recipe


  • 1 shot whisky (or bourbon)
  • ½ lemon
  • Cloves
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • Hot water

Cut a slice of lemon and 5 or 6 cloves, piercing the rind or pith (so that they don’t end up floating around in your drink). Add the studded lemon, honey and whisky to a glass. Pour in boiling water. Add lemon juice to taste.

Thanks to the Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland; they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded; every print run is sold.

— Hallgrimur Helgason

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