Books are the best way to get a deep understanding of what a person is trying to convey. They're there for us when we're ready for them. They're patient teachers who allow us to set the pace. And the very best books are those that offer perspective without pretence, unexpected lightbulb moments that enable us to make positive changes in our lives, or an experience that ignites our desire for more in real life. In short, books help us better understand our world and, ultimately, ourselves.
With so many to choose from, it’s hard to know where to turn to next. That's why I’m hoping the following list of my top 12 recommendations can offer some assistance. I assembled it based on the last number of years of reading and present them in order of impact.
I’ve kept the list to works of non-fiction, as these tend to be my focus. That being said, as I’m slowly discovering, there are many wonderful works of fiction that offer just as many insights as the list I offer below.
My hope is that you'll derive at least as much benefit from reading some or all of the books below as I did.
1. Man’s Search for Meaning By Victor E. Frankl
This book is a recent addition to my list, but it is my top pick nonetheless. Though Frankl is a concentration camp survivor, he focuses not on this difficult part of his life but on the fundamental lessons he learned while surviving in these camps. As a psychiatrist, we was able to note his and his comrades’ perceptions and actions while incarcerated with little hope for survival. His work should be required reading for everyone (preferably at least once a decade), serving as a reminder that establishing a meaning for one’s existence—one that only we and we alone can fulfill—provides a reservoir of resilience and the drive for continuous personal growth. Ultimately, it's the stuff that makes life worth living.
2. A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine
Perception is everything. How we think of a situation and how we react to it is more important to our happiness and wellbeing than the situation itself. That's the essence of stoicism. Part I walks the reader through a history of stoicism which is not essential to the usefulness of Part II, in which Irvine helps the reader apply stoicism to real life situations. It's been my "how to" book to leading a better life.
3. Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez
The most important book on personal finance. Ever. It addresses the ultimate tradeoff we make when it comes to money: we trade our life force—our time—for it. We can always create more money, but we can't create more time and, because of this fact, we must guard our use of time more fiercely than we've been taught. The fundamental question this work raises is why we blindly seek to make more than we can possibly use to lead a happy life. By making enough money to sustain ourselves without working—by having investment income displace earned income—we can remove money from our consideration and do what we find most valuable and fulfilling with our time. A priceless book.
4. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
This book, and the lecture on which it was based, is a good reminder that childhood dreams are not only important but that we are not being true to ourselves if we don’t pursue them. Sometimes by accident and sometimes with great intention, Pausch shows us how he managed to make his dreams a reality in interesting and unexpected ways, despite the fact that his life would be cut short by pancreatic cancer. Pausch was wise beyond his years and I dare you not to be inspired.
5. Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
We behave differently when we don’t have enough of something. That something can be time, money, love, meaning or anything else that monopolizes our thoughts by its absence. The authors provide a compelling case for creating more of what we lack in order to reduce the potential for a state of scarcity. The insights and lessons are paramount for anyone who wants to be comfortable and able to focus on what matters most. When we take care of our needs and create a life of abundance, we can be the best version of ourselves, which is to our benefit and to the benefit of those around us.
6. The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
We’ve been lied to. Choice is not everything. It paralyzes us and leads to dissatisfaction when we finally choose one product over countless others. Expansive selection has lead us to constantly second-guess our decisions as we wonder whether we could have been happier with something else. Schwartz invites us to put our blinders on and successfully argues that we are better off by making choices quickly and by considering a very small number of options. The chances of being disappointed over the long term by making decisions this way are surprisingly low and, best of all, it allows us to reclaim a great deal of time lost to comparison shopping. Fulfilling your needs and wants will never be the same. If you want a sneak peak at his key messages, here's his Ted Talk.
7. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Human nature remains the same over centuries. Pecking orders have always existed in our society. De Botton establishes this nicely by showing us how status symbols evolve over time but that our anxieties about being “enough” endure. By understanding that what preoccupies people across time and across cultures, we understand that the external symbols of achievement are only that, symbols. This insight enables us to understand the artificiality of what society invites us to value and to instead turn to our own personal growth as a means of evaluation. We’re more likely to lead a satisfying life by not chasing external rewards such as social status because it—unlike a sense of personal self-worth built on internal drivers—can be taken away in an instant by fickle supporters or persecutors of all sorts. This book's message is both comforting and liberating. A must read.
8. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
We need to unlearn what we’ve been told about how to be. What we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves and others is fundamentally flawed. Ruiz invites us to reinvent our relationship with ourselves and others in order to be happier and more fulfilled by observing the following rules: 1. be impeccable with your word, 2. don’t take anything personally, 3. don’t make assumptions and 4. always do your best. Though these rules appear straightforward, it's the author’s explanation of why they're important and how to successfully apply them that's most valuable. This is as close to a religious tome as I've ever come to read and it made me carefully consider my internal dialogue. Observing these rules as best I can every day is helping me be truer to myself and to others.
9. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Pure genius, despite being somewhat overwhelming. Every chapter of this book could be a book in and of itself and I'd suggest approaching it this way. Indeed, that's exactly how I've approached reading it—by chewing on a chapter for a while before tackling another. Kahneman provides a tremendous amount of insight regarding how we think, which helps us make better use of the most powerful tool in our possession: the human brain. The surprising information the author offers explores both the strengths and weaknesses of human thought and problem solving and helps us understand them by applying these to real life problems and situations. I learned a great deal from this book and it's one that I go back to regularly to remind myself of how best to go about deconstructing a problem or opportunity to help increase my likelihood of success.
10. Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton
This work, based on solid research, shows that how we spend money in Western society is at odds with maximizing happiness. Think a bigger home and a nicer car will make you happier? Think again. If you’re like most of us, chances are you are spending over 50% of your yearly income on things that barely increase your potential for happiness. What matters most? In short, it lies in the less tangible (such as experiences & relationships), especially when delayed gratification and paying in advance are involved. It's changed how we spend our money. Definitely worth the read in more ways than one.
11. The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau
The title of this book doesn't mislead. Guillebeau invites the reader to explore the unconventional in all aspects of life, including work and education. The book contains the implicit message that our personal growth and value lies in how we use our strengths to pursue and achieve what we want, not in following a preset pattern of behaviour. He easily convinces us to step outside our comfort zones in order to grow and, most importantly, ensuring that this personal growth is on our terms.
This is a book about possibilities; a book about reinventing how we get from A to B because following convention might not be the right path for you. I’ve been living this art form for a few years and I feel I'm a much better, more fulfilled version of me. I dare you not to at least consider a different “how” after reading his work. You can also find much of Chris’s work at www.chrisguillebeau.com
12. Drive by Daniel H. Pink
What we know about motivation is all wrong. Pink offers compelling evidence that we need to rethink how we motivate ourselves and others in all types of organizations: at home, at work, in sports and in all types of relationships. In essence, he invites us to relearn how we interact with each other in order to help everyone be more satisfied and fulfilled, whether we happen to be the leader or the follower. The key message? External motivators—carrots and sticks—don’t work over the long term, whether they’re self-inflicted or not. Meaningful work and the opportunity for personal growth are far more powerful drivers of good work than money (once a reasonable level of remuneration is provided of course).
BONUS Book: The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
Let's make it a baker's dozen. I struggled with whether to include or exclude this book, so why not throw it in for good measure. It nagged at me because it's powerful, thought-provoking...and funny. I love books that can make me learn and make me smile at the same time. Achor offers insights that change a reader's view of what makes us successful. Hint: you'll be more successful if you're happy, not the other way around. Oh, and manufactured happiness is even stickier than the natural happiness we've been taught to pursue. I'd be surprised if his stories, some of which he shares in his TED Talk, don't stick with you long term.
I hope I've whet your appetite with the list above. They really are fascinating reads.
If you want more ideas on what might peak your interest read, I offer additional suggestions in my library. You may also be interested to check out David Cain's list of life-changing books over at Raptitude.com. I always appreciate well-considered his suggestions.
Have you read any of the above? Have others for us to consider? Please share your thoughts below.