I write because I read. This is a list of 50 books that cover a good, broad range of ideas.
Naturally, some of these books have had a big impact on how I think, but there are also many other valuable reads that I have left out. Not everything that moved me will move you.
The goal here is simply to provide a general starting point for the big topics. I hope it helps.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Seneca was a very powerful man in ancient Rome. These letters contain advice on everything from success and failure to grief and poverty. A particular theme with Stoic philosophers, like Seneca, was their focus on practicality over theory. And these letters are a reminder that in spite of all that has changed, most of what they knew then still applies today.
The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
Philosophy can be difficult to comprehend, especially if it’s read directly from the source. Durant provides a wonderful alternative with this book. He weaves together a compelling, straightforward narrative around the ideas and stories of some of the greatest philosophers in history. While not a full replacement for each thinker’s work, it is a great introduction.
The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s hard to understate the influence of Nietzsche’s thought today, and it’s even harder to overlook how much of a role he will play in shaping the next few hundred years. Fortunately, he is one of the easier philosophers to read. The Gay Science covers many of his biggest ideas, with all their confidence, strangeness, thoughtfulness, practicality, and genius.
Meaningness by David Chapman
Meaningness isn’t a book in the conventional sense. It’s an outline of essays formatted like a book and posted online. Chapman combines his knowledge from many disciplines to build a fluid framework for interacting with meaning. This is one of the most fascinating approaches to the topic right now, and it will likely keep picking up interest in the future.
The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
In the western world, we naturally feel the influence of western philosophy more greatly than eastern philosophy. British thinker Alan Watts sought to change that. This book was published in 1968, but it has arguably more application today. You might agree with it, disagree with it, or sit somewhere in between, but you will come out of it with new thoughts.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Kahneman was the first psychologist to win a Nobel Prize. This is his life’s work, and it will make you reconsider a lot of what you presume about how we think. The implications of his research go far beyond our personal lives. The field of behavioral economics, which he helped invent, will shape how the world operates for decades to come.
The Evolving Self by Robert Kegan
It is well-known that children go through different stages of development over time, but what is less talked about is that adults, too, follow a predictable personal growth pattern. Kegan is a Harvard psychologist who has built a framework on top of other giants in developmental psychology. This is a dense read, but his ideas couldn’t be more relevant.
How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Over the last few years, there has been a shift in how we see our emotions. It’s in large part due to the research of Barrett and her colleagues. This book covers their new theory, which argues that our brain is a prediction engine where emotions are more fluid and emergent than just simple labels like fear, anger, and happiness. It’s a good model for introspection.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi has researched happiness for longer than most of the world has been alive. His theory on the concept of flow – a mental state of complete immersion – should be mandatory reading for everyone. Primarily scientific, but part philosophical, this book breaks down a big part of the happiness equation, and it does so really well.
Mindset by Carol Dweck
Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford University, and she has contributed some of the most important research on success and performance in the last few decades. Mindset breaks down the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset and how they each relate to the process of achievement. It’s something everyone should know.
The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker
One part business educator, one part economic philosopher, Peter Drucker was the father of modern management theory, and the foundation of most of his work has only strengthened with time. This book is a comprehensive compilation of his previous works and publications. It covers pretty much everything worth knowing about the discipline of management.
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
This is the book that coined the term “disruptive innovation,” and it’s essentially a full-length case study on the problems companies face as they mature in a particular market. Christensen teaches at Harvard University, and he is considered a giant in the business and academic worlds. It’s a must-read for anyone with interest in how markets evolve over time.
Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb can be difficult to read, and he can be even more difficult to fully align yourself with, but the importance of Antifragile is hard to ignore. While his big ideas are most urgently relevant in the worlds of business and economics today, their reach extends far beyond any single domain. As the world gets more and more complex, he’s worth paying attention to.
Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital by Carlota Perez
Perez takes a cyclical approach to describing how innovations occur. Building on past theories, she uncovers the relationship between new technologies and the deployment of financial capital to illustrate how socioeconomic paradigms are built. While mostly a primer on the past, it’s a sound framework for understanding the fast-changing world of today.
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Silicon Valley has very much changed our world, and this book provides insight into the very different mind of one its legendary investors. Thiel is big on thinking for himself, and it shows throughout. Some will disagree with his views, but no one will argue that they’re not at least thought-provoking. Zero to One contains more than a few hidden nuggets of wisdom.
Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer
Gigerenzer is a German psychologist, and he has spent his career studying human decision-making. Risk Savvy shows us how misinformed the conclusions of even experts, such as lawyers and doctors, often are and provides a framework for making better choices in the face of uncertainty. It will teach you how to be risk literate.
Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
Reductionist thinking is the predominant mode of reasoning for many, but as the world gets more complex, understanding how systems work and the characteristics they possess will become increasingly crucial. Not everything is best understood as an individual unit. This is a simple and accessible introduction to one of the most important fields of the 21st century.
Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
Building the habit of thinking in probabilities is the most effective way to make predictions about anything, but it’s not easy. In an age of data overload, we need the skills to understand which variables are relevant and which ones aren’t. Silver, who rose to fame for his impressive predictions in the 2008 US Presidential election, decodes the difference.
Lateral Thinking by Edward De Bono
De Bono is a prolific writer on the art and strategy of thinking. Lateral thinking is a method of solving problems indirectly, termed and invented by De Bono himself. It relies on a more creative and less structured approach than critical thinking. This book is a little dated, and it’s not exactly a page-turner, but it’s worth scanning through to grasp the concept.
Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin
Seeking Wisdom is a product of Bevelin’s quest to better understand how we think and interact with the world. He covers everything from evolutionary biology to cognitive biases to mathematical decision-making to guidelines for effective thinking. It’s ambitious in its scope and variety, but it’s precisely this multidisciplinary approach that makes it valuable.
Principles by Ray Dalio
Dalio is a legendary investor, most famous for leading the largest hedge fund in the world – Bridgewater Associates. In Principles, he lays down all of the crucial ideas and frameworks he has refined over the decades to help him optimize his work for success and fulfillment. It’s an engaging and straightforward read, with immediately actionable thinking tools.
Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Creativity is an attempt to distill the lessons drawn from studying 91 different individuals (including 14 Nobel Prize winners) who achieved culture-disrupting success in their domain. Filled with personal interviews and unique insights, it provides a window into the minds of people with some of the most interesting and satisfying careers in the world.
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen
A few years back, Christensen gave a speech to the Harvard MBA class of 2010. It was so well-received that he was approached to write a book about his wisdom. Using well-known principles from the business world, he helps us better think about the demands of work and life. This book will make you rethink your career strategy.
The Start-up of You by Ben Casnocha & Reid Hoffman
The Start-up of You is a product of two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn; and Ben Casnocha, founder of Village Global. As the name implies, it’s about the idea of directing a career with an entrepreneurial touch. It’s not as much a job-hunting manual as it is a call for cultivating the mindset required to succeed in today’s job market.
Give and Take by Adam Grant
Grant is The Wharton School’s highest rated and youngest tenured professor. In this book, he takes a look at how different ways of interacting with others yield different results in professional work environments. He defines people into categories of givers, takers, and matchers, and he uses a mountain of research to show who comes out on top.
The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner
Blue Zones are specific regions around the world where a disproportionately large number of people in a population live long, healthy lives. Buettner got himself funded to research these populations, in the process discovering many surprising commonalities between them. It’s an excellent primer on important lifestyles changes with relatively substantial health payoffs.
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle by Tom Venuto
This book covers everything most people would want to know about physical fitness. It does a great job of going over weight-loss and exercise, but it’s perhaps a little weaker when it comes to nutrition. There are many disorienting opinions coming out of the fitness world, but for the average person, when it comes to working out, this is a good place to start.
Food Rules by Michael Pollan
Pollan is a journalist who has written extensively about nutrition and food. His previous works have received both wide acclaim and some criticism. That said, this concise book is difficult to argue with. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. It provides good advice on how to eat better, and his general rules of thumb are memorable and practical. It’s a great place to start.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
This is a vivid narrative of what it means to live with depression and anxiety. Haig was on the verge of committing suicide at 24, and this book takes us on a journey from there. He shares his reasons for choosing to live and how he has learned to cope with his illnesses. It’s a valuable read for anyone suffering. And maybe more importantly, for those who never have.
The Mind Illuminated by John Yates
Over the past decades, meditation has infected our cultural memory due to its health benefits. In The Mind Illuminated, Yates does a fantastic job of combining modern science with the experiences of veteran meditators to show how it works and how to get started. It’s a fantastic step-by-step guide for anyone looking to establish or deepen a practice.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
This is one of the most important books written in the last few years. Harari takes us on a trip through history to answer one question: How did Homo Sapiens become the dominant species on Earth? Covering topics from anthropology to science to economics, he paints a fairly comprehensive picture. It may well change the way you think about being human.
The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
After finishing a ten-volume history of civilization, Will and Ariel Durant compiled their most important lessons into a little more than 100 pages. With pure concision and almost no wasted space, The Lessons of History shows the patterns that come up in our cultures again and again. It’s not always the most optimistic, but it’s generally thoughtful.
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett
This is a pretty dense book. It focuses on the effects of the theory of evolution. Dennett breaks down how the idea has influenced modern thought and how it might continue to do so in the future. It very much puts in context everything we think we know about how the world works. It’s not an easy read, but it asks some pretty big and important questions.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
Kuhn is considered one of the most influential historians of science, and the ideas in this book should be required reading for everyone. It explores his theory of how scientific thought evolves and the different ways in which science has its own biases. It provides a valuable model for thinking about life beyond just how it relates to the natural world.
The Information by James Gleick
It’s often said that we now live in the Information Age, but how many of us truly know what information is? In this book, Gleick leads us through history to show how information technologies that have changed the world, leading us to where we are today. While bold and provocative at times, it’s a very clear account of information theory and why it matters.
Breaking Smart by Venkatesh Rao
In 2011, Venture Capitalist Marc Andreasson famously announced that “software is eating the world.” This collection of essays shows how, and what we can do to prepare ourselves. According to Rao, software is the third major “soft technology” in history, after written language and money, and that fact has seismic implications for the future of work and life.
The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee
Two MIT professors take a look at how close we are to large-scale automation, what the implications will be, and what we can do to mitigate the many risks. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s a dose of reality that more people need to accept if we are to take effective action. The future is coming, and this book is a reminder to prepare ourselves accordingly.
Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo
Rather than capturing economic growth using traditional measures such as gross domestic product and income per capita, Hidalgo suggests a model that puts information at its center. He argues that the way we order and arrange information in different networks has a profound effect on our productivity and output. It’s a new approach with a lot of promise.
Abundance by Peter Diamandis
Diamandis is known primarily as the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation – an organization that functions to promote technological advancement. Abundance takes a more optimistic approach to what the future has to offer. It looks at our most pressing issues and points towards possible solutions. The insight is both refreshing and hopeful.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert is a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in the non-fiction category for this book. She walks down the road of history to previous mass extinction events known to man and then compares them to the effects of human activity. It’s one of the best books written on the topic, and Kolbert maintains a fair degree of objectivity on a challenging subject.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Many consider Tolstoy the greatest novelist to live, and it’s hard not to agree if you have read this book. Anyone can create good characters and bad characters, but it’s an art to create real characters with both good and bad. The world is a messy, confusing place. Anna Karenina is a good reminder that there are a dozen different dimensions to us all.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
There are few books with better character development than this masterpiece. It’s set as a murder mystery, but in reality, it’s far more than that. It follows the story of four brothers with very different and very complex takes on life. They are vivid and contradictory and alive, and through them, Dostoyevsky embarks on a quest to uncover and challenge human nature.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This is a charming tale about a boy on an adventure. It’s illustrated as a children’s book, but the lessons hold more value for adults. Short and easily digestible, it’s a beautiful reminder to have our inner child question the seemingly practical ways in which we live. Life is more than much of the mundanity of adulthood. The Little Prince is about showing us that.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Camus won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, and The Stranger shows why. It’s an easily absorbed book on the surface, but the hidden depth in each chapter is captivating. It’s a philosophical account of what it means to be an outsider, and it also explores the themes of morality and meaning. This is all done through a straightforward yet compelling narrative.
The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
Kafka is one of the most influential fiction writers ever to live, and this is a collection of all he wrote, except three novels. The stories range from sad to funny to both. The beauty of his work is that as strange and detached as some of it appears, it’s irrevocably human. At his core, Kafka wrote about very ordinary things. He just looked at them differently.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
Everybody knows Leonardo as a towering figure of history, but few think of him as a man of flesh and blood. Isaacson manages to illustrate just the right mix. We learn about his curiosities and eccentricities, fears and weaknesses, and all about how he did what he did. It beautifully captures the potential that exists at the intersection of the arts and the sciences.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin spent 10 years working on this book, and it shows. It describes the life of Abraham Lincoln, but with a focus on his leadership style and his relationship with five prominent men in his cabinet. Though a historical account, the text flows with a rich and engaging narrative. Team of Rivals is long but rewarding. We can all learn something from Lincoln.
Madame Curie by Eve Curie
Curie is a two-time Nobel Prize winner and one of the greatest scientists the world knows. Her daughter wrote this biography. Though not entirely objective, it paints a vivid image of an inspiring women’s work ethic, the legendary love affair and professional partnership she had with her husband, and the struggles and tragedies she persisted through.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung
This book is as much a summary of some of the most influential work in modern psychology as it is an autobiography. Jung walks us through his story from childhood to old-age, and in the process, we gain direct insight into how interconnected his life and work really were. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, you can’t help but be fascinated by his mind.
Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance
Musk is one of the most influential men in the world right now, and depending on how the next few decades play out, he could very well go down in history as one of the most influential people who ever lived. This is a biography authorized by the man himself. It begins with his childhood and ends at the feet of his vast ambition. Musk’s story has a lot to teach.
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