The Best Books for Improving Your Life & Work
If I had to identify one activity that has had the most profound impact on my life and work it is reading.
I come from humble beginnings and reading provided visions of a world that was richer than my immediate surroundings. Reading fueled my curiosity and convinced me that I didn't have to be a product of my environment. I could transcend it, or better yet, imagine the life I wanted — and then achieve it.
I consume books with voracity. Reading is indeed a life source and as fundamental to my sense of wellbeing as food. As I transitioned from childhood to adulthood I depended on a variety of texts to help me define my own beliefs and determine my core values vs. blindly following ideals that were passed down to me.
As a result of exploring and improving myself through books, I have what feels like a perpetual ember of confidence and contentment. And if ever that is disturbed I feel secure in knowing that my fellowmen — those who came before and some with which I coexist — have gone through similar challenges and may have sound counsel to offer.
Most books I read are non-fiction though even imaginative works have nuggets of truth that can be unearthed and cherished. Sometimes it's not even about the book but the state of mind you're in when you open it. Even if nothing substantial is within reach, I'll take to reading the backs of food packaging and random pamphlets left behind at coffee shops because I'm fascinated, in a general sense, with the power of the written word.
In the spirit of sharing my enthusiasm with reading aficionados, I've compiled a list of books that I consider eye-opening and/or life-changing and most critical for personal growth and business growth. Bookmark this page as I update the list regularly.
I read this book when I was in business school taking an interpersonal dynamics course we called "Touchy Feely" and it immediately came to mind shortly after graduation when I entered into a relationship with my partner. Almost 5 years in, I can vouch for the wisdom of this book and I use the insights daily. Chapman gives very prescriptive advice on how to identify the often unspoken needs and desires of our significant others which, according to research, typically fall into 5 main categories. If you want to stay in love after you fall in love then this book's for you.
Although classified as a business and leadership book I think there are many everyday lessons you can pick up from this enduring text. Covey focuses on the "character ethic" of incredibly successful people and distills the most favorable traits into a short list of habits that he deems to be universal must-haves for reaching your goals. My favorite is Put First Things First and his 2x2 matrix that is an excellent prioritization tool.
William Braxton Irvine
Irvine shows us how Stoicism, one of the most popular school of thoughts in ancient Rome, is still applicable to us in modern times. It serves as a roadmap for applying Stoic techniques to the attainment of self awareness, peace of mind, and contentment.
Tolle explains how transcending our ego is essential to personal and societal happiness. Our attachment to the ego creates emotional unbalance and negativity (anger, jealousy, dissatisfaction, etc.) but elevating our consciousness (being present, pursuing happiness without the need for possessions, etc.) leads to a more fulfilling existence.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
"In The Black Swan (see below), Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better."
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
"A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. Why do we not acknowledge the phenomenon of black swans until after they occur? Part of the answer, according to Taleb, is that humans are hardwired to learn specifics when they should be focused on generalities. For years, Taleb has studied how we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world. Now, in this revelatory book, Taleb explains everything we know about what we don’t know. He offers surprisingly simple tricks for dealing with black swans and benefiting from them."
This is one of the most fascinating studies on human differences I've ever read. As an avid traveler and member of an interracial and intercultural relationship, I loved exploring how to translate these codes to gain an deeper understanding of people who aren't like me. The publisher explains: "Why are people around the world so very different? What makes us live, buy, even love as we do? The answers are in the codes. Rapaille’s breakthrough notion is that we acquire a silent system of codes as we grow up within our culture. These codes—the Culture Code—are what make us American, or German, or French, and they invisibly shape how we behave in our personal lives, even when we are completely unaware of our motives. What’s more, we can learn to crack the codes that guide our actions and achieve new understanding of why we do the things we do."
Renowned historian and author James Burke had a 1985 documentary series and book that opens our eyes to the concept of Zeitgeist. We tend to be so confident in what we know, not realizing that knowledge is relative. History has shown that our beliefs and ways of life shift constantly as our body of knowledge changes. The takeaway for me is not to be so quick to disregard that which doesn't fit your limited view. What you think to be the "real" truth on how the universe functions will likely become obsolete.
Bill Burnet, Dave Evans
In this book Stanford professors show us how design thinking can help us create a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of who or where we are, what we do or have done for a living, or how young or old we are. The same design thinking responsible for amazing technology, products, and spaces can be used to design and build your career and your life, a life of fulfillment and joy, constantly creative and productive, one that always holds the possibility of surprise.
This collection of essays by philosopher Alan Watts explores man, money, and material things. He gets deep into how we use things as symbols for status not realizing how this way of thinking detaches us from reality. I want so very much to learn how to lessen my dependence on money but haven't sorted out how to get the rent paid without it! However, I have challenged myself to see money as what it is — just one of many tools of obtaining what we want in life but not the meaning of life.
Don Miguel Ruiz
"In The Four Agreements, bestselling author don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love."
I thoroughly enjoyed this book especially because I suffered through Wealth of Nations as a kind of self-imposed required reading prior to starting
my short-lived career in finance, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that Mr. Smith wasn't just an economist but a philosopher with a wealth of wisdom on how to live well (completely separate from money and capitalism). Well, who would've thought! Roberts provides an excellent summary of the practical life tips in Smith's relatively unknown work The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
A Harvard innovation professor and author of The Innovators Dilemma turns philosopher by challenging us to forge a path to fulfillment using a set of well-researched tools for finding meaning in life. Christenesen does a great job at borrowing business principles and showing us how to apply them to our professional and personal lives.
Will & Ariel Durant
This is an outstanding distillation of key historical events that is incredibly useful in illuminating current affairs. It is a thoughtful survey of the human experience jammed packed full of insights that are sure to change the way you think about the world and its inhabitants. What I especially appreciated is that in each chapter the Durants injected a bit of philosophy and provided "lessons" to assist the reader in digesting the contents of the book. Whether you agree or disagree with their viewpoint, you'll be sufficiently challenged on both an intellectual and emotional level.
This book had a profound impact on me particularly by initiating my ongoing investigation into the power of thoughts. In this two-part text, by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl first discusses his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp and how having purpose and using imagination enabled him to survive. He then transitions into a more academic study of meaning and a theory he calls logotheraphy: that striving to find meaning in life is the powerful motivating force in humans.
This is a series of personal writings and accounts by the great philosopher Emperor. Intended as a private journal for his own personal development, we find the intimate notes and ideas that Aurelius recorded on Stoicism. Central themes in the book are understanding one's self and having a perspective on the world and how you fit into it. He also waxes eloquently about how to be a good man.
Carol S. Dweck
After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this brilliant book, she shows how success in school, work, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed. Mindset reveals how great parents, teachers, managers, and athletes can put this idea to use to foster outstanding accomplishment.
Seneca's Stoic writings offer powerful insights into how to live, how to reason, and how to have integrity. His elegant work is timeless as it addresses a fear we've long struggled with as humans – running out of time.
Another insightful read by Tolle that tackles the pain and suffering caused by our thoughts – particularly when our minds dwell on the past or worry about the future (things we have no direct control over). However, we do have control over what we do in this moment. Living in the here and now is not a new or original concept but Tolle packages insights pulled from other schools of thought to present a very inspirational perspective on how being present can make us more aware and ultimately more at peace with ourselves.
This is the type of book that ends up being obsessively highlighted because of all the really good nuggets of truth. Though not religious, I can't resist consuming pearls of wisdom from those who came before us. Who better to learn from than the supposed wisest man to ever live on earth — King Solomon? Clason interprets Solomon's proverbs and parables to offer enlightening principles on creating, growing, and preserving wealth. As I mentioned, I've had to re-set my beliefs about money and this book provided a lot to ponder on.
Yuval Noah Harari
Though taught briefly in grade school, most of us probably forget that our species – Home Sapiens – was one of several human species that walked the earth. Dr. Harari explores how Sapiens were able to dominant the earth, how we came to believe in myths (gods, nations, human rights), and how we ultimately became enslaved by the very breakthroughs (cognitive, agriculture, scientific) that have pushed our species forward. What resonated most with me was the idea that the very things that allow us to flourish as a collective species are often the source of individual unhappiness and hardship. But even more than that Dr. Harari's provocative book will leave you wondering what this all means for our future.
A concise and very readable account of the ideas and lives of the great philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Kant, Nietzsche, and many more. It is an excellent historical survey of the development of philosophy in the Western world.
Sharif Sendhik & Mullainathan Eldar
Stephen Covey actually coined the term "abundant mindset" in 7 Habits but Sendhik and Eldar revived it with this book. It's hard to think abundantly when it seems (or rather it has been scientifically shown) that a natural law of the world is competition, survival of the fittest, and limited resources. Nevertheless, humans have a knack for defying nature and for that reason I'm committed to overcoming scarcity thinking. This book analyzes the self-imposed burden we put on ourselves because of our limited thinking and provides some insight into how we might better manage scarce resources (time, money, etc.) and increase our happiness in the process.
Note that the summaries were either written by me or borrowed directly from the publisher (in cases where I didn't feel compelled to add to their synopsis). The book images were taken by me. This website participates in select affiliate program including Amazon Affiliates, program designed to provide a means of earning fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliate sites at no cost to you. You can learn more here.