Ten Books that Could Change Your Life


No one has ever invented a more effective way to transmit a block of thought than a book. If you hand someone a book you are handing them an open window. A way to think about something differently. - Seth Godin

Flickr @loughboroughuniversitylibrary

Flickr @loughboroughuniversitylibrary

What is writing?

Stephen King argues it’s telepathy - a writer sending thoughts into your head. In On Writing King describes “...a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.”

Did you see the rabbit? Of course you did.

Fiction writers want you to see their story indelibly in your mind, transmitted from their own.

If fiction is telepathy, non-fiction must be epidemiology: non-fiction writers want to infect you with their ideas.

As you read a non-fiction book, you are crawling inside the writer’s mind, trying on her thoughts, her perspectives, her conclusions. You are opening yourself to thought transmission, providing the author a chance to re-wire your brain to see things in a different light.

The reengineering of your thoughts by a book is a rare occurrence. It may have never actually happened to you, since few books have the potential to make a profound impact.

This is a list of some of those books. Reading one of them may indeed change your life. Reading all of them almost certainly will.

Books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves. - E.M. Forster

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

To grab our attention, journalists, politicians, pundits and shysters manipulate the most potent of all our emotions: fear. They tell us the world is ending, people are out to get us, and this thing you put in your coffee is killing you...learn more after your local news. Ridley takes a bold, contrarian look at the world, and concludes the opposite. In fact, Ridley argues, the world is getting better, safer, and more prosperous, and will continue to do so. History and data do not support alarmist fallacies, and most if not all of the dire predictions of the future will not come true. Ridley argues cultural evolution through the novel combination of ideas will continue to push our society forward, helping us to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. The Rational Optimist is refreshing among the apocalyptic pessimism rampant in our vernacular, and provides the foundation to view such negativity with skeptisism and stave off the fear others would like to serve you.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Humans are compelled to try to understand the world around us. For millennia, our desire to know vastly exceeded our capability to know, leading to myths, legends, and religions to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Sagan's book illustrates that despite the fact that we now know more than we ever did before, and we have the tools required to interrogate the very fabric of our universe, we humans still seek solace in our false beliefs and resist to admit we've been misled. Sagan's passion for truth is palpable. This book is a love letter for seeing the world and the universe as it is, not as we want it to be. While that may be tough and unpalatable in some cases, in others it reveals a wonder and fascination unparalleled by any religion, sect, or politic. You cannot avoid feeling his frustration, satisfaction, and hope for humanity as a whole. It is as if you are having an intimate conversation with him over coffee or a beer, and talking about his hopes and fears for all of us.

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford

Have you ever found yourself infuriated by someone's political stance? Have you ever been flabbergasted that someone you know, love, and trust holds a view of policy that is heretical to your own? Have you ever tried to change their mind? If so, I'm sorry, because that couldn't have gone well. In Predisposed, Hibbing, Smith, and Alford introduce an astonishing new field of research: biopolitics. Buried deep within each of us are predispositions that incline us towards liberal or conservative political convictions. Our genetic, physiological, and psychological selves influence us in ways out of our conscious control, including our views about politics, and there are compelling evolutionary explanations for why it is so. This suggests that instead of trying to convince your uncle that he's completely wrong about an issue you care about, you rather need to acknowledge that he experiences the world fundamentally differently than you, and there's nothing that can be done about it. Indeed, Predisposed proposes that there are irreconcilable differences between liberals and conservatives, not just politically, but physically. It will change the way you think about politics and partisan conflict.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is a book about happiness. But not a touchy-feely-I-love-myself-people-like-me self-help book. Csikszentmihalyi is a renowned psychologist who has worked for decades on understanding human experience: what makes us feel good and what makes us feel bad. His findings will surprise you. It's not travel, or money, or love, or any of the other tropes of society that make us happy. We are at our most satisfied and gain the most positive impact when we are fully consumed in an activity. Most shockingly, it doesn't matter what the activity is. It is the depth of concentration and focus that matters. Putting our full attention, to the exclusion of anything else (worries, stress, stray thoughts), creates a flow-state where concern for one's self disappears, time seems to stretch or compress, and we experience a sensation of connection to whatever it is we are doing. Flow is certainly well known in sports (think "having your head in the game"), but seeking it in other areas of life is deeply transformative.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

How you think has a massive impact on how you act, and thus how you treat yourself, those around you, and opportunities and challenges that you come across. Dweck's research reveals that how you think is largely determined by your mindset, which she categorizes into two distinct groups: fixed and growth. In a fixed mindset you view your talents and abilities as unchanging, where you are either smart or dumb, successful or a failure, strong or weak, fast or slow, and so on. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, you see yourself as always changing, always growing, always learning and responding to challenges and opportunities. It surely is no surprise that those who hold a growth mindset live happier, fuller, richer lives than those with a fixed mindset. But if you feel you have a fixed mindset (and we all do in some areas--no one is 100% either way), don't despair: mindsets can be changed, and she provides plenty of examples and tools to take steps in the growth direction. It is a simple idea about the brain, but it echoes and affects all great parents, kids, teachers, CEOs, and athletes alike.

Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra

Personal reinvention--particularly through a career change--is a common fantasy. Most career advice can be summed up as "think, then do." Ibarra flips this upside-down to "do, then become." Introspection can only get us so far in understanding what path we would most value. We are usually taught to define our identity (often called "passion") and then diligently work towards it. However, Ibarra convincingly argues that we don't have one unique career identity: we have many potential working identities, and determining which one will speak to us the most is a process of trial and error (and can change over time). She does not suggest that everyone quit their job and hop around until something sticks, but craft experiments and explorations to understand what resonates. Her book includes many compelling profiles of career changers and their process, illustrating the key messages. For anyone who has ever contemplated a complete career switch, this book is an invaluable resource.

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Seth Godin is a prolific author, marketer, and inspirational speaker. If you work for a living his entire catalog of books and blog are worth your time. Godin challenges his audience to look at the world through a different lens, to question the status quo, and to make a difference in the lives of others. Perhaps his most potent and impactful book is Linchpin. In it he argues that there used to be two groups in the workplace: management and labor. Management said “do this” and labor went and did as they were told. Godin believes that the world is different now, that you aren’t (or should not be) a faceless cog in the machinery. You have a choice to make, a choice to exert ‘emotional labor’ and be seen as indispensable. A choice to create Art. Not art as it is thought about in the traditional sense. Godin defines Art as a gift that changes the recipient. If you are obedient, you are not creating Art. If you lead, connect others, and make things happen...if you take risks, seek unique solutions, and manage complexity: you create Art. You become a Linchpin.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Pressfield gives name to the force that prevents us from accomplishing what we want and dream to achieve: the Resistance. "Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance." Resistance is everywhere, in every discipline, whether an artistic pursuit, entrepreneurship, education, personal change, or love. If it requires courage, Resistance is there to hold you back. The personification of this negative force is powerful. If you are paralyzed with fear, that is a good sign, says Pressfield. He asserts that the more scared we are of work or a calling, the more we can be sure that we have to do it. If you don't care, there is no Resistance. Having given name to it, he discusses how to combat it: you 'turn pro.' That is, a Professional does her work in the face of Resistance. Amatures do not. Professionals seek Resistance because when they feel it, they know they are on the right path. Amatures flee. You are already a Professional in your job: you show up and do the work everyday. Now it's time to be a Professional in your Art.

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller

Sabbath, in its original definition, was a day of abstinence from work in order to provide time for religious observance. Here Muller takes a broader view of sabbath as one of rest and renewal. He makes a potent case that our driving need to feel useful has created a toxic pace of life from which we never take a break. He points out that most of us feel so busy with too much to do that rest isn't seen as an option, or that we think we will rest when we are finished. Yet if we don't rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we are dead. Muller asserts: we need to stop. We need to rest. We need to cultivate time, mindfulness, and love. He uses a great example: even if we were to hide away in a monastery, we would be handed a broom and told to sweep the walks--even in monasteries there is work to be done. But there is a time to sweep, and a time to put down the broom and rest. Although Muller is Christian minister, this book resonates far beyond any religious belief system, and the messages here are as important for atheists as for theists.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

What is the meaning of life? This short, simple question has haunted the human race since our time began. Philosophers have wrestled with it, pundits have pontificated upon it, and self-help gurus have written books on it, yet meaning remains elusive for most of us. It is a sobering conundrum that as the prosperity of our society increases, so does our existential angst. Why is it the more we have (opportunities, things, years), the more difficult it is to find meaning? Could there be a lesson in the opposite direction? If we had less, would meaning reveal itself? What if we had nothing? What then? Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was captured and interned in a Nazi death camp from 1942 to 1945. Frankle labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. His was as bad of a situation as can possibly be imagined. This powerful, moving book recounts his experience. Fascinatingly, he approaches it from a clinical perspective, analyzing events and how they affected his co-prisoners, and the attributes of those who persevered. Frankle concludes (and based his life-long psychiatric practice upon) that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can chose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.

Now it's your turn...

What books have changed your life?

Connect with me and tell me about the writers and works that made a lasting impact on you.