If you look back at your life you can see several watershed events that completely changed the direction of your life or completely changed the way that you thought about something.
It might be a hobby a friend turned you onto, a piece of advice about men or women that completely changed your success in dating, or exposure to a particular mentor or role model who completely changed your idea of what you thought possible for your life.
Books have a particularly magical way of changing your life. For $10 and a 300 page read, you can learn in a few hours what it took someone else years or even a lifetime to figure out. It’s nothing short of miraculous if you think about it.
Reading one book often leads to reading other related books in a continually branching tree of knowledge.
If my knowledge is a tree where one book lead to reading a bunch of other books, then these 10 books are the original large branches. If your interests are anything like mine, perhaps you can find new branches of your own life that you haven’t discovered yet.
(in roughly chronological order…)
1. The Hobbit (Sci Fi / Fantasy, 1st grade)
The Hobbit is probably more personally significant to me than you than other books I will write about. It was both my first “big boy” book and my first introduction to the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre.
In first grade they did some intelligence testing with me and figured out I had a pretty good noggin. This had unexpected benefits like being able to ask my teacher for something “more challenging” when I didn’t feel like doing the current assignment and getting to do Spiderman crossword puzzles instead.
Anyhow, one benefit I got was access to the older kids’ library at the school that first graders were not ordinarily allowed to use. The first book I happened to check out was The Hobbit. I knew nothing about it and picked it completely at random.
And… I loved it. Though I don’t read much fiction anymore, I still love watching shows like Game of Thrones and Merlin. And I still feel like a smarty pants.
2. Total Immersion (Swimming, 9th grade)
At first glance this is just a book on swimming (they also have several great instructional DVDs), but it is so much more than that.
Total Immersion is really a blueprint for how to learn anything. Terry Laughlin, the creator, takes an incredibly complex skill (swimming) and breaks it down into easily digestible bite-sized chunks. He teaches drills that help you easily master individual pieces of the whole stroke and then weave them back together into masterfully graceful swimming.
To this day whenever I want to learn something new or teach something to someone else a piece of me says, “is this how Total Immersion would do it?”
In addition to modular learning, I also learned about cumulative incremental improvement (or “kaizen,” if you will) from TI. Terry teaches that you don’t have to make huge leaps in your training–in fact you probably shouldn’t even try to. If you just keep working on one skill trying to do it a little better the next day than the day before then over time you can make huge improvements.
More than just changing the physical how-to of learning, TI changed my philosophy of learning. It’s sexy to try and use complicated, technical strategies, but even at highly advanced ability levels you will generally get better results by focusing on relentlessly refining skills in the basics.
I learned so much from TI that it’s really hard to give it enough credit. It also taught me about diminishing returns, looking out for the counter-intuitive skills where you should actually do the complete opposite of what you would expect, and learning about common pitfalls upfront.
Today, Total Immersion is held up as an example of exemplary teaching by many, notably including Tim Ferriss. As a point of personal pride I like to think that I was swimming TI style before it was popular.
3. Beyond Brawn (Strength Training, 10th grade)
- Bench Press: 10 sets of 20 reps max weight
- Pec Fly: 10 sets of 20 reps max weight
- Dips: 10 sets of 20 reps max weight.
You thought “okay, max weight!” so you loaded up the bar, cranked out 20 bench press reps–barely, and then when you hit the next set you ran out of gas after only a few reps. Or maybe you did make it to the pec fly only to find out your pecs were already fried.
Beyond Brawn changed all of that for me. The author, Stuart McRobert, is famous for teaching “hardgainers” how to build muscle. He advocates bare basics training. Do few sets, of few reps, of few exercises, and go heavy. Focus on prime movers like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. Ignore silly light-weight isolation exercises like bicep curls and leg extensions.
It’s a simple fact of biology that your body is only capable of going all out for short bursts. The bajillion rep muscle magazine workout sounds impressive, but it won’t do much other than tire you out–especially if you’re a hardgainer or even a “normal” person. The genetically gifted often have huge muscles in spite of their training rather than because of it.
[Editor's note: I would not recommend Beyond Brawn as a first book for someone getting into the iron game today. Instead see Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe or Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline.]
Once an underground training ideology, “bare basics” style training has become increasingly popular as the scientific vindication has come pouring in. I’ve also enjoyed books on strength training of similar philosophies like Power to the People, Underground Secrets To Faster Running, and Convict Conditioning.
4. Japanese Word Usage Dictionary (Ruigigo Jiten, Age 21)
Yes, even dictionaries can change lives.
I’d been studying Japanese for about 5 years when I finally became good enough to look up definitions of words in a real Japanese dictionary instead of a Japanese-English dictionary. Shortly after that I discovered the Ruigigo Jiten.
Unlike a regular dictionary that just tells you the meaning of a word, a usage dictionary tells you how several similar words are different from each other.
Up until high school and some of college I had a habit of reducing the connotation of all words to either positive or negative. All that really mattered is whether what you thought you were saying was a good thing or a bad thing. The usage dictionary opened me up to the rich-ness of vocabulary and wide-range of intentions and implied meanings behind words.
Words became almost like molecules where this little bit of meaning attaches to these little bits of meaning. If you add or subtract one bit of meaning you don’t just get more or less of the same thing, it changes the whole nature of the word.
Consider the difference between flexible and supple. They both mean approximately the same thing–easily bendable. For “flexible” you might think of stretching and someone who can do the splits. Or it might make you think of construction materials that bend, but don’t break. You can describe a body as “supple,” but it seems a bit strange to talk about supple building materials (my word processor even kicks out a grammar error for it). Even when describing a body, “supple” has a different, almost sexual vibe to it.
If I had been seeing words in black and white before, now I was seeing them in full HD color. Aside from bringing new life to my language studies, becoming more in tune with the finer distinctions between words has helped my communication, persuasion, and marketing abilities.
Choose the Right Word is a similar usage dictionary for the English language.
5. Double Your Dating (Dating Advice, Age 24)
I’m almost embarrassed to put this one on the list because of how scammy/sleazy/cheesy it sounds, but Double Your Dating is the single most pivotal life-changing book I have read in my adult life. Not only for what is written in the book itself, but for all other books and life changing experiences I went on to pursue as a result of reading this book. It (and other works by the same author) also led me into wide ranging interests like personal development, evolutionary psychology, sociology, primatology, sales, and marketing.
In one short volume Eben Pagan (pen name David DeAngelo) managed to describe just about every mistake I’d ever made with women. I began to wonder if he had secretly been taking field notes on every date I’d ever been on.
He also described, how by pure accident and certainly no conscious intention of my own, I had managed to do several things right with women as well.
It was like I had taken the red pill and was now starting to see The Matrix of male-female relations for what it really was.
I learned about how I was unconsciously projecting neediness, how my attempts to make women feel comfortable were actually having the opposite effect of creeping them out, and that women are actually just as nervous and uncomfortable (and human) as I am rather than being all-powerful judgers.
Perhaps most painful of all, I began to recall numerous times in my life that women had shown clear, unambiguous interest in me and I didn’t even know it!
After reading this book I embarked on a long campaign of personal development that has dramatically enriched my social, romantic, and even professional lives. In fact, without this book the past decade of my life would be completely unrecognizable. And this blog would not exist.
6. I Will Teach You to be Rich (Personal Finance, Age 25)
I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi saved me from years of fumbling in the dark with investing and personal finances. It’s another book with a scammy title, but priceless advice.
Though Ramit has no idea who I am, I first ran into him when we were both students at Stanford and he was doing a student-led session on personal finance. He gave advice like have multiple credit cards to increase your credit score (though obviously don’t max them out and accrue high interest debt).
I didn’t think about him much until a couple years later when I was working and finally had some money to actually worry about doing something with, so I cruised over to his blog (www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog) to see if it was still active and if he had anything interesting to say.
I didn’t know much about investing, but assumed it would involve some kind of stock picking and eventually hiring a financial advisor as I got wealthier for ever more complicated investment strategies.
On Ramit’s blog I learned about dumping my high-fee bricks and mortar bank accounts for high-interest online accounts, rewards credit cards, the folly of stock picking, and automated investing with simple, low-cost index funds.
Personal finance turned out to be the opposite of complicated. In fact, the complicated investing strategies like hedge funds and money managers typically overwhelmingly underperform the modest passively managed index fund.
Ramit encapsulated all his best advice into the eponymous NYT bestseller I Will Teach You To Be Rich.
7. The Paleo Diet (Health & Nutrition, Age 26)
Nutrition, like golf, had always seemed like one of those voodoo sciences of complicated and contradicting advice that you could never be sure of. One day cholesterol is good, the next it’s bad. One day bacon is the devil’s food, the next it’s the cure to cancer. The “scientific” advice seemed to flip-flop so often as to make any kind of informed decisions impossible.
Then I discovered The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain which prescribed a simple formula: eat the foods that your body has been programmed to eat over millions of years of evolution. Already being a big fan of evolutionary psychology, this approach made a lot of sense to me.
I’ve already written quite a few things about paleo health, so I won’t cover them here. Suffice it to say my health and fitness have dramatically improved since I made meat, fruits, and vegetables the staples of my diet and eliminated or greatly reduced grains, beans, seeds, and tubers. Simply eliminating soy and wheat from my diet greatly cleared up itchy skin problems I’d been having.
8. The 4-Hour Workweek (Business, Age 26)
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss completely changed what I thought possible for myself and my career.
I had always assumed I’d be stuck in some company somewhere for the rest of my life. Even if I had a prestigious title or founded a company it would take me decades to get there and I’d still be wedded to wherever our office was.
In this book I learned about online solopreneur businesses, virtual assistants, drop shipping, fulfillment companies, and working remotely. I could see the whole architecture for how to setup a business on the internet and run it from anywhere in the world. It was everything I never knew that I always wanted in my business life.
The 4 Hour Workweek also got me thinking about minimalism and productivity. The greatest waste of energy is doing that efficiently which should not be done at all. Tim talks a lot about the 80/20 rule which reminded me of my Total Immersion swimming days, in fact Tim even talks about Total Immersion.
One thing I had learned from my first job is that there is always a never-ending stream of things you could be doing. You need the 80/20 rule to focus you on the things that you should be doing and reclaim your life by not wasting time on activities that produce no or minimal results.
9. Looking Backward: 2012-2062 (Politics, Age 30)
Unlike other books I’ve chosen, Looking Backward by Beth Cody is the end of a branch and not the beginning. The title is a play on the book Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy. I’ve mostly ignored politics for most of my life, but after reading this book I now feel like I have an informed set of principles for evaluating what the right types of solutions to society’s ills are.
I’ve always had a self-reliant and atheist bent which drew me to books like The Psychology of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I believe our minds have the ability to understand the universe as it is rather than “divine” it from supernatural beings, that the facts are the facts–whether you like them or not, and that it’s flagrantly irresponsible and criminally unjust to put social welfare programs into place that benefit some at the forced expense of others (though true charity and donation based systems would be okay). While it was helpful to see the philosophy spelled out on paper, these books felt more like preaching to the choir to me than teaching me something new.
Like the growing majority, my political views tend to be socially liberal but financially conservative.
But I really had no vision for what that could look like in the real world. There are real problems like environmental pollution, food safety, and consumer protection that need to be addressed. Sometimes even the best intentioned of us find ourselves unemployed and need assistance (as I was after the market crashed in 2008).
The government has so overwhelmingly taken over these functions through onerous regulatory agencies that it’s hard to imagine things not falling apart without them, and indeed transitioning these functions to the private sector would not be simple or short.
Beth describes a possible future Libertarian republic with a minimal government and does a great job of touching on every aspect of society and government that you could think of. You’ll have an answer for every, “But how could that possibly work?” question you can think of.
If you have any inkling of Libertarian in you or felt that something was inherently wrong with the current political system that you couldn’t quite put your finger on, then you owe it to yourself to read this book.
10. The Spectrum of Consciousness (Philosophy, Age 30)
Ken Wilber… what to say about you. Outside the academic sphere, Ken Wilber has been quietly revolutionizing the field of philosophy by attempting to create a theory of everything he calls “Integral Theory.” The Spectrum of Consciousness is his first of many books, and will completely change how you think about the nature of the universe.
The basic premise of this book is that as we grow up, our sense of self fragments over a series of dualistic splits. Right after we are born the world is just a mass of sensation and eventually we learn to distinguish self vs other. Sometime in early childhood we learn about death, and then distinguish life from death. The shock of life vs death drives us into the distinction between mind and body. We think the body is not the real me, my mind is the real me. My body will die, but my ideas can live on. But we don’t stop there, we continue dividing ourselves. We learn that some personality traits are good and some personality traits are bad, so we choose to identify only with the good personality traits (the psyche) and disown the bad ones (the shadow).
Over the years and divides we keep saying “not me, not me” until we are left with just a sliver of ourselves that we identify as “me.”
But even though we have disowned all of these aspects of ourselves, they still belong to us and affect our lives. We tell ourselves we are not angry people but we have road rage, our bodies are attached pretty firmly to our minds, we will die someday, and our inner sensations are indivisible from our outer stimuli.
So once we have become completely fragmented into the psyche vs shadow level, our developmental challenge is to re-integrate all the disowned parts of ourselves and arrive back at a state of non-dualistic consciousness. To experience all of these dualities as two sides of the same coin.
To further clarify the idea of non-dualism, there are two types of knowing: symbolic knowing and direct knowing. The difference is like that between a map and the actual territory. The non-dualistic form of experience is what Buddhism calls “enlightenment.”
Once again the long reach of Total Immersion swimming’s influence came up for me. You could describe the feeling of swimming with words like wet, a rushing sensation, and cool temperature. But these only capture impoverished slices of the total raw experience of body against water. Little did I know in my early years that while I was swimming I was having a transcendent, enlightened experience.
Ken Wilber has also complicated my views on religion. His basic premise is that all religions are incomplete attempts to describe reality itself. If “god” is all present for instance and you extend that out far enough you reach the conclusion that god is equal to all of existence. It wouldn’t even be enough to say that god is entwined in all things because it would imply that god is not present in the thing itself he is entwining. Therefore god literally is all things. In that case saying that you believe in god is the same as saying that you believe existence exists. This erases the distinctions between religions, and even atheism. We are all just attempting to know the universe as it is and some folks have attached a “being-ness” to it.
There is still so much more I could say about Ken Wilber’s work, but suffice it to say if you want your assumptions about human nature and the nature of the universe seriously challenged you should give Ken Wilber a read.