My 5 Favorite Books
Below I’ve lumped books into specific categories. However, these five books have impacted me the most:
- Getting Things Done. The best book on personal productivity, it inspired me as it has countless others with a systematic approach to getting work done.
- The Enigma of Reason. What is reason? Why are human beings the only animals that seem to possess it, and why does it fail so often? The theory proposed in this book transformed my view of what it means to think and live, with implications that go far beyond the seemingly narrow topic. Read my summary here, or listen to the podcast discussion episode.
- Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Cal Newport’s two best books (in my opinion) which have formed the basis of much of my thinking on career and productivity.
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. Richard Feynman is my hero, and his autobiography teaches more lessons on how to live than most books explicitly devoted to the topic. Smart, funny and wise, everyone should read this book. Listen to my review
- Dao De Jing. The Chinese classic, this book is an antidote to much of Western culture’s obsession with improvement and achievement. Listen to my review here.
Honorable mention: Although not technically a book, or even finished, I would also like to include David Chapman’s hypertext book Meaningness, as incredibly influential in my own life philosophy.
Best Books on Career, Productivity and Achievement
- Digital Minimalism – We all know we spend too much time on our phones, distracting and deluding ourselves. Cal Newport offers the antidote, a deliberate philosophy to the role devices play in our lives and to replace them with something better instead. (Another worthwhile book is Indistractable, which covers similar themes.)
- Average is Over – This economics book makes a provocative argument: that because of outsourcing and automation, being average isn’t an option any more. Either you grow and get ahead, or you fall to the bottom.
- The Power of Full Engagement – We often try to optimize for time management in our busy lives, but as the authors of this book argue, that’s rarely the resource that is most limited. Instead our energy–physical endurance, mental stamina, emotional bandwidth, attention and meaning–all tire out before the clock is done.
Best Biographies and Stories
- Mary Somerville – Polymath, genius and 18th-century Scottish housewife, her story speaks to making remarkable accomplishments, even when the world around you isn’t supportive.
- Jack Ma (马云) – China’s richest man, Ma’s story of overcoming adversity, unorthodox leadership style and entrepreneurial success is a case study for anyone who has big ambitions.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger – Famous bodybuilder, movie star, politician and philanthropist. A case study in the importance of confidence and unshakeable ambition.
- Marie Curie – Won the Nobel Prize twice, discovered radiation, overcame oppression in her native Poland and raised a family.
- Albert Einstein – Perhaps the world’s most famous scientist, his accomplishments are so vast that, he may still be underrated for his contributions to science.
- Benjamin Franklin – The original Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin is the prototype of self-improvement, hard work and optimism. Entrepreneur, author, inventor and statesman, there’s plenty to learn and admire.
- Deng Xiaoping – A complex character, he reformed and opened up China to the world, which many attribute to the country’s rapid rise. His role also secured power for the Communist Party as he navigated political intrigues and survived the purging of his colleagues. A fascinating glimpse into the politics and policies of the world’s largest nation.
- Vincent van Gogh – Most stories of success deal with those whose life situation made their achievements seem easy. Not so with van Gogh, who struggled throughout his life with learning to draw, paint and cope with mental illness.
- Daniel Everett – Linguist and anthropologist, Everett spent decades living with a remote tribe in the Amazon jungle. In doing so he reflects on what the experience has taught him about languages and life.
Best Science Books
- The Hungry Brain – Seriously researched and articulated, this book explains the science behind how diet meets behavior. Why do we overeat? Why is losing weight so hard? What’s actually going on in your brain?
- The Elephant in the Brain – Signalling explains much of human behavior, whether we’d like it to or not. This book exposes the hidden motives behind why we do what we do.
- Predictably Irrational – A classic on biases and heuristics, this book explores how we systematically make bad decisions, and how to avoid those traps.
- Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World – Who could have thought material science was this interesting? Exploring the hidden intricacies of concrete to chocolate, you’ll never think about stuff the same way again.
- The Emperor of All Maladies – A biography of cancer and our unending battle with it.
- The Secret of Our Success – We are not merely biological creatures, but cultural ones. The cultural evolution, adoption and adaptation has transformed humans far faster than our genes.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow. Why do we make mistakes. Although this book often contradicts another favorite of mine, The Enigma of Reason, I think they’re both essential reading, forming a piece of the puzzle of why we think, and more often, why we make mistakes.
- The Language Instinct. I love all of Steven Pinker’s books, but this is one of his best, exploring what language says not only about how we communicate, but how our minds work.
- The Big Picture. What does physics tell us about how the world works? Caroll’s book is probably the best overview of what we know about life and reality as a result of science.
Best Books on Learning, Habits and Popular Psychology
- Atomic Habits – The best book out there on how to change habits. Written by my friend, James Clear, (who also wrote the foreword for my book, Ultralearning) this book provides actionable plans, solid science and inspiring stories to change your habits–bit by bit.
- Peak – The best book on deliberate practice, co-authored by the psychologist who first studied it, Anders Ericsson. Detailed and informative, the ideas behind this book has shaped everything I do in my career and learning.
- Flow – The feeling of being “in the zone” when your attention is fully absorbed, anxieties are gone and you’re doing your best. This is what this book is all about, and the researcher who first sought to describe and study it.
- The Checklist Manifesto – We tend to think of medical innovations as being spurred from big, fancy technology. But can something as simple as a to-do list save people’s lives? Doctor and author, Atul Gawande explores how simple checklists can be transformative (and, indeed, life-saving).
Best Books to Make You Think
- Seeing Like a State – We live in a world of metis, but believe it is dominated by techne. This deep book explores why many visions of society have failed, and why a different kind of knowledge actually runs the world.
- Godel, Escher, Bach – Life, and human consciousness, is a strange loop. In this thesis of what makes life special, strange loops are explored in computers, music, math and art.
- Sapiens – What makes human beings unique? Harari argues that it is our capacity for myth–to live in invented social realities–that has made us great.
- The Son Also Rises – Using a novel technique–tracking rare surnames–Clark argues that social mobility is far less than it first appears.
- The Case Against Education – Economist Bryan Caplan argues that education is mostly about credentials–not teaching useful skills. He argues this powerfully despite the unpopularity of his conclusions. His ideas are worth grappling with even if you’re an ardent supporter of school.
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – We imagine science as the steady progress from ignorance to insight. In practice, it is often punctuated by revolutions where entire ways of thinking are discarded as a new view takes hold. This book coined the term paradigm and will likely overturn your thinking as well.
Best Books on Philosophy, Religion and Spirituality
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – A journey into speculative philosophy. Maybe the Greeks got it wrong, and the quality of things precedes their objective truth?
- The Wisdom of Insecurity – Alan Watts is one of those philosophers I enjoy who sometimes says stuff that sounds completely wrong to me, and other times says things that totally flip how I view life. Worth pondering over.
- God: A Biography – Instead of asking who God is from a philosophical or religious angle, this book takes a different approach–consider the Hebrew Bible as a work of literature (true or not) and ask what kind of inferences we can make about the character of God as He is portrayed there. The book is deep and insightful, as are its sequels examining the New Testament and the Quran.
My Favorite Fiction
- Le Compte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo) – My favorite novel. Locked away for a crime he didn’t commit, Edmond Dantes escapes from prison, finds buried treasure and plots his revenge. Attendre et esperer!
- 活着 (To Live) – Yu Hua has the ability to make the most tragic stories bittersweet. The protagonist in this novella begins as a despicable lecher who gambles away his family fortune. After being conscripted, surviving starvation and the deaths of those around him, life goes on.
- Dune – My favorite science fiction novel. Herbert’s masterpiece combines political intrigue, religion, environment, revenge, heroism and comments on the powers of myths and stories themselves.