A fun question to ask yourself: what books have you read that literally changed your life? I read a lot of great books, but when I went through my list of about 1,000, there were only 8 (!!) that rewired me so much that I can say I was changed after reading them. These books are old—median: 119 years old, average: 743 years old. I explain the impact of these 8 books below.
This post is a replication of an email I sent to members of the book club. I post examples like this a few times per year so you can get a feel for the club. You can sign up here, if you are not already.
These all pair nicely with one of the more popular articles I’ve written, an explanation of my personal philosophy: Growth Without Goals.
I’d love to hear your answer to this same question. What book(s) changed your life? Let me know in the comments.
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.
Self- Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson (175 years old)
The opening quote above comes from Emerson, who urges us to LISTEN to ourselves. Sadly, almost no one does. Instead we rely on others, “experts,” conventional viewpoints. If only we would cultivate an independent, seeking mind, we’d be better and happier people. We must grow from the inside out, not the other way around.
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts…[we must realize that] envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.
Emerson didn’t mince words, when I read the below passage, I always think of George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “the reasonable [wo]man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable [wo]man.” Emerson was “unreasonable.”
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the [wo]manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. [Society] loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Emerson thought that “one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own.” As his biographer put it, “Emerson’s lifelong search, what he called his heart’s inquiry, was ‘Whence is your power?’ His reply was always the same: ‘From my nonconformity.’”
Since reading this for the first time, I have worked hard on nonconformity. It’s a wonderful pursuit.
BONUS: If you like Self-Reliance, you’ll love most of what Paul Graham writes. Especially, What You Can’t Say.
Upanishads (~2,800 years old)
The closest thing I have to a religious text. No book changed my perspective as much as this one. I was a different person when I finished it for the first time, years ago. My wife would confirm this fact! If you want to understand the power of destroying your ego and being kind and generous, this will be your guide. Try starting with the Katha Upanishad—a story of a young boy having a conversation with the God of death on life, knowledge, and liberation.
The hair on the back of my neck stands up every time I read this:
The Self in man and in the sun are one. Those who understand this see through the world And go beyond the various sheaths Of being to realize the unity of life. Those who realize that all life is one Are at home everywhere and see themselves In all beings. They sing in wonder: “I am the food of life, I am, I am; I eat the food of life, I eat, I eat. I link food and water, I link, I link. I am the first-born in the universe; Older than the gods, I am immortal. Who shares food with the hungry protects me; Who shares not with them is consumed by me. I am this world and I consume this world. They who understand this understand life.” This is the Upanishad, the secret teaching.
Influence by Robert Cialdini (32 years old)
The single best book on, well, influence. Once you understand how to use reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity, you’ll be far better at convincing people agree with you, to do things you want, or to buy things from you. These principles can be used for nefarious purposes. Use them with integrity, and they are powerful. This book is ten times better than others in its category. It is probably the best business book of all-time.
A Hero with a Thousand Faces / Reflections on the Art of Living by Joseph Campbell (67 years old)
The story arc of heroes is similar across time and cultures because this arc reflects the universal story of human life and experience. Many never follow the “call to adventure” by crossing the threshold into the unknown, but those that do can be “heroic.” Campbell urges us, like many authors on this list, to make the leap. This is one of those books/authors that have you saying “Wow!” to yourself as you read. I’ve listed two of Campbell’s books here. I loved Hero with a Thousand Faces, but it’s somewhat academic. Reflections on the Art of Living is more accessible and has lots of the same ideas.
“A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.” And so, to return to our opening question: What is—or what is to be—the new mythology? It is—and will forever be, as long as our human race exists—the old, everlasting, perennial mythology, in its “subjective sense,” poetically renewed in terms neither of a remembered past nor of a projected future, but of now: addressed, that is to say, not to the flattery of “peoples,” but to the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves, not simply as egos fighting for place on the surface of this beautiful planet, but equally as centers of Mind at Large—each in his own way at one with all…
Walking by H.D. Thoreau (156 years old)
This essay pushed me into the woods, which is where I now do almost all of my productive thinking and spend time with my family. I now spend 10% of my time walking or running through the forest, and it started with this essay years ago.
“No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers.”
I love this because my middle name (and my mom’s maiden name) is Walker.
Antifragile by N.N. Taleb (4 years old)
This book is thrilling to read. It sparkles with intelligence and authenticity. Say what you will about Taleb, but he lives by his code: “if you see a fraud and don’t say fraud, you are a fraud.” I read this book as a guide to sources of power, and as such it ties in nicely with Self-Reliance (interesting connection: Taleb and Emerson were both heavily influenced by Montaigne—an authentic person if there ever was one). Here are a few passages which reflect what I love about this book.
How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold—it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction—that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention). Naturally, there are classical thoughts on the subject, with a Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger… The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!
There is an Irish revolutionary song that encapsulates the effect: The higher you build your barricades, the stronger we become.
Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it—books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.
As One Is by Jiddu Krishnamurti (~80 years old)
My modern(ish) triumvirate of philosophers: Emerson, Thoreau, and Krishnamurti. Maybe Krishnamurti is the most penetrating and challenging. Krishnamurti will knock you over. He is aggressive. He confronts you. He won’t let you escape. I wrote about one passage in particular that stopped me in my tracks in Growth without Goals.
I kept this list to books and essays, but this is a good spot to mention a 9th work that changed my life: T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets. Like Krishnamurti’s work, Eliot’s poem focuses on the ideas of past, present, and future–making it clear that past and future are illusions.
Tao Te Ching (~2,600 years old) Translation 1 or Translation 2
I read this as much as possible. It is a way of re-orienting yourself and your behavior if you’ve wandered a bit astray. It describes the fundamental truth about the world (Tao) and existence in general, and offers methods for living well. A few ideas that are wonderfully simple and effective:
“create without possessing” “accomplishing without taking credit” “Desiring not to possess or accumulate which is only temporal”… doesn’t exactly describe the western mindset, does it!
“The five colors blind the eyes The five sounds deafen the ears The five flavors deaden the taste Excessive desires will madden the mind Excessive possessions preoccupy the mind with fear The more you desire, the more you’ll be discontented from what you have The Sage fills his belly, not his eyes The Sage satisfies his inner desires with what cannot be seen, not with the external temptations of the world”
A question I always ask myself because of this book: on what external things am I dependent? What desires drive my actions? Then: remove or reduce external dependencies. Don’t just act according to desire. Find stillness. Recognize and participate in unity.
What a beautiful text this is.
You have probably ascertained the most common theme in these 8 books: power and well-being come from within, not from without. But we spend so much time defining ourselves and making decisions based on that which is external and deprives us of power and the potential to experience abiding joy.
Maybe Joseph Campbell said it best: “It takes courage to do what you want. Other people have a lot of plans for you. Nobody wants you to do what you want to do. They want you to go on their trip, but you can do what you want. I did. I went into the woods and read for five years.”
Collectively, these books have given me courage. I hope they do the same for you.