An Incomplete List of Books that Changed Me
Over the past couple years I've had people on more than one occasion comment on my varied reading interests and wanting suggesting I should create a list or start a book club. I’ve decided rather than simply publishing a list, I’d provide an abridged one of those that I feel have changed and why.
A couple things beforehand regarding my reading
To paraphrase something I once heard from investor Naval Ravikant, I start many more books than I finish. If you’ve ever heard me talking about what I’m reading you should also ask me about the books I've stopped reading because that list is MUCH longer. I have grown to love reading over the years but my attention span is not long so if it doesn’t really speak to me, I move on quickly.
The books below are dear to me and I will tell you whey. That said, some of these I found many years ago when I was in different chapters and phases of life. The impact they had on me then might not be the same impact they’d have today if I found them but I want to acknowledge them for what they were to me in the moment.
I am a big fan of "getting a taste" for something before I dive all the way in. Whether that is starting the book to see what I think, watching a video, reading an article, summary, etc. Below I have included other ways to sample the author’s work or related materials worth considering.
Tribes by Seth Godin
You don’t have to have known me long or well to know of my respect and admiration for Seth Godin. This book was my first glance into the Seth’s world, which in part reflects why it is on this list. It arrived at a point when my horizons had begun broadening dramatically. I read this book in Kuala Lumpur. I had recently bumped into the now infamous TED platform, which had lead me from one big idea to another. At 160 pages, this book is short and yet is one of the first I ever remember reading where most pages seemed to invoke an internal “YES!!” or “Wow! I've never considered that before!”
It did two things for me
It talked about how movements come to be organized around people and concepts
It challenged me the reader to go out and lead one because that is how they begin. Not by the chosen but by the committed.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Brené Brown changed my life because she gave me the world vulnerability. Before her I knew the feeling but do not believe I owned the word. Her concepts not only helped me verbalize and work my way through struggles but better realize that risk taking and discomfort are part of the journey. As Brené often alludes to, I don’t know that I relish the discomfort but have become accustomed to embracing it in exchange for the adventure. I know that when I feel that discomfort is also when I often feel most alive.
In recent years as her work has “gone mainstream” I admire how true she appears to have stayed to her initial message and her more recent work in the business world through Dare to Lead.
References: her two TED talks
First watch the one on vulnerability
Then the one on shame
Art of Manliness: Manvotionals by Brett McKay
I have to give a shout out to my former roommate Courtney for introducing me to this book. Despite the word “manliness” in its title, this book offers a longer-term view on what it means not only to be a good man but a good person. The author states just as much in his introduction.
The author lays out seven virtues he believes a great man (or person) should embody: manliness, courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline and honor. Then he pulls passages from sources like Marcus Aurelius, Frederick Douglas, Aesop’s Fables and many more digging into this.
Whether or not one agrees with the list in totality, I think it is refreshing and reassuring to see that people have labored over the same fundamental traits for millennia.
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
“The business of business is people”, Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines
This book changed my life because it’s about restaurants but it’s really about businesses taking care of their people so they can in turn take care of the clients. All I can say about this book is it is relevant to your business no matter what industry you’re in.
No matter how much or how little automation, innovation, artificial intelligence, [insert other buzz word here] is involved you need people to get your work accomplished. Choice is often vast in business and while we see the end product or service that is delivered, all-too-often the emotion that comes with that is incredibly powerful.
Lines worth mulling from Meyer and then read this book
“I believe the number one reason people return to our restaurants is they feel seen and understood"
“Most people think the primary reason they come to restaurants is to be nourished. I believe it is that they wish to be nurtured"
“Most business are better at coddling regulars than they are at bringing in new clients"
The Circle by Dave Eggers
Whether it’s this book or some other dystopian tale, stories of how the devices in our lives are consuming our time, money and attention are important. This story takes you back to the tech sector of ten or fifteen years ago when at least to many of us, including yours truly, where the positive impacts seemed to dramatically outweigh any negative ones. The benefits brought to us by this evolution are indeed valuable, and yet, if we do not act as stewards of these things, who will? Will social media be built to create strong connections or sew division or any other item in order to sell more ads?
"The thing to keep in mind is that [the internet] is such a young medium. We have not even had a full generation live and die with it. And I think any territory to which we bring the pioneer spirit is bound to have both the good and the evil, and we’re not going to know how it turns out until much, much, much later. But in the meantime, the decisions we make, the microscopic decisions that we make daily, shape it” Maria Popova
Anil Dash on ethics in tech
The Third Plate by Dan Barber
I went through a chapter of life fueled by food journalism of all sorts. This was largely catalyzed by Anthony Bourdain. Having never worked in the restaurant industry at length, I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential but it was not the same cathartic release and feeling of being seen that so many others got from it. I liked his second book Medium Raw but if I’m being honest it didn’t move me the same way this one did. I discovered Dan Barber initially through “Chef’s Table”, profiling his work and restaurants.
This book did a couple things for me that are noteworthy. First, to the professional journey I am on at this moment it gave me one of my first glimpses at the tension between two words similar in their spelling: value and values. It talked about what big agriculture cannot do that small farmers can do because they measure success almost solely based on yield rather than flavor. That tradition is strong in many places, which leads to people holding on to ways that create delicious food rather than solely focusing on more.
Consolations by David Whyte
Discovering this British poet has changed my life and how I see the world. His poetry spoke to me in a way that made it more intriguing and better able to hold my attention. Despite this very post being about what I’ve read that has changed me, I was not a big reader for much of my life. The number of articles and other media I consumed began to accelerate in my mid twenties for a handful of reasons but it would be fair to say until my late twenties, I would not have identified much of a book reader. This especially would have impacted poetry, which can often be hard to follow and abstract.
"I always say that poetry is language against which you have no defenses. Otherwise, it’s not poetry. It’s prose, which is about something. And so poetry is that moment in a conversation where you have to have the other person understand what you’re saying... But you have to say it, also, with the intimacy of care and of understanding at the same time”, David Whyte
Something else I remember hearing said of him is, "I sense all the way through your writing... There’s this sadness in you. It’s in all of us, but you walk with it as a companion, I think, more openly than we’re taught to do.” I would agree with the above statement about much of Whyte’s writing and yet for me it serve as more of a consolation for that pain or sadness, it acts as a comfort for it and encourages me to keep on keepin’ on.
The interview I discovered him through
If you want a true crash course on him check out this 3 minute poem
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
This book feels the most cliché to put on my list because it is so often cited and it beckons me to something I once heard, "when things feel cliché it’s typically because they’re true”. The heartbreaking nature of this book, Frankl being a concentration camp survivor, weighs heavy. And yet, his perspective on the human condition learned through his own and the suffering of others hits so fundamentally deep it’s difficult to ignore.
Acknowledging that for many of us our day-to-day, while perhaps not easy, is neither life nor death, Frankl’s outlook may feel too extreme for some and yet it cuts righ to the core. As someone who has had an inordinate amount of dental work done in his life, especially in the past year, I often think about a line of Frankl's while I’m waiting or in the chair, “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think the worst is still to come, and yet it is already over."
The first third of this book is heartbreaking and important to hear and remember. The second third of this book will transform how you see yourself and think about life.
The Four Things that Matter Most by Ira Byock, M.D.
Dr Byock is a palliative care physician, one who helps people manage and alleviate their pain without addressing their condition, towards the end of life. Through a series of healthcare-related and heady cultural pieces, I began to think about death quite a bit about a decade ago. The surgeon and author Atul Gawande got me started on this posing a scenario: when an advanced diagnosis for something like terminal cancer comes up we often rush to treat and fix the disease rather than ask a simple question like, “what would make these final months most meaningful to you?” He goes on to talk about the final months of life for those who pursue aggressive treatment vs. those who move into pain management and attempting to make the most of what they have left.
I remember reading about how people of Bhutan think about death often, which tends to make mid and later life less of a shock for them. They tend to lose their immortal veneer much earlier in life.
In his book, Dr. Byock talks about what he is often witness to at the end of the life regarding people reflecting back on their lives, their new priorities when they know time is short and the conversations they have with those they care about. The four things people say or wish to hear the most from those in their lives are:
"Please forgive me for the times I injured you"
“I forgive you for the times you injured me"
“I love you"
When I started contemplating my own death, it made my days feel more urgent. What was important to me? Aphorism like, “tomorrow is promised to no one”, are true but all-too-often we say them with a hollow tone. Sit with that for a moment. You or I might die today, tomorrow or next week. If that happened, what would you wish you had done? Are there people in your life you wish you forgave or who had forgiven you? Who do you wish you would’ve said “thank you” to or “I love you” to one more time? Why are we holding back?
While for some contemplating on death can feel dark, the reality I have found in at least some small way for myself is feeling liberated to ask, “what should I be making more and less time for?” Sure, I still have bills to pay and various obligations, but why are we putting the important things off?
I will never forget during an interview with Dr. Byock hearing this cited, "Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past”, Lily Tomlin
“When confronted with an opportunity ask yourself, is this a 'hell yes!' or a 'no' for me?”, Derek Sivers
On the Brink of Everything, Parker Palmer
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen
Deep Work by Cal Newport
You don’t have to read this whole book for it to change you. What is more important that Cal lays out is not only the power of working in distraction-free time blocks but also the cost of being distracted. In a world with constants [dings] from our devices, open-air offices, non-stop meetings and jobs full of easy-to-execute lower value tasks is that we can not only put off the hard work but when we attempt to get into it we do so in a distracted environment that keep us from doing it at our best.
The whole book is worth your read but what you most need to read are his definitions of deep vs. shallow work. Then hang up signs at your desk that remind you to check in how often you are working in shallow vs. deep pursuits.
I'm sure more books will come to mind over time but that wraps that.