7 Books That Actually Led To Long-Term Change In My Life
I have read hundreds of books and listened to many more summaries. Do you know what I realized? Overwhelmingly, most of these books were forgettable.
You shouldn’t be impressed by how many books I’ve read because it’s irrelevant when most information comes through one eyeball and straight out of the other. Most of the non-fiction I’ve read have ideas I thought were great at the time but stay stuck at that moment rather than accompany me through life.
Muhammad Ali said “Don’t start counting until it hurts” and a similar idea works for books if you are reading to grow. Only count books if they led to real change in your behavior or the way you see the world. Reading for fun is awesome but don’t strain through books you won’t remember for the illusion of being productive. You only impress people with your book count if you show the insight the number implies.
Sometimes the best books you’ve ever read don’t change your life but the first great one opens your mind and makes you seek more. It didn’t take me long to come up with a shortlist for my own list. I can confidently say I’m a different person because I read each of these books.
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“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
Paul hit me like a brick wall with his story. After picking myself up and brushing the dust off, I was filled with gratitude that he chose to share his final few months.
He was a superstar neuroscientist and neurosurgeon who had a glittering career ahead of him at Stanford. Then terminal cancer polluted his lungs and slammed the door shut on his potential. A man who had worked so hard for so many years now needed to decide how to spend whatever time he had left.
My achievements in life pale in comparison to Paul yet I could relate to his drive to keep striving for more titles and awards. In the end, none of those mattered to him as much as his relationships with his family and friends. When Breath Becomes Air made me pause and reevaluate what I considered a successful life. A life on paper that looks great might not be great to live.
Although I already knew about concepts like ikigai and finding joy in daily life, I didn’t apply it. I’m not perfect now but thanks to Paul, I’m at least trying. If you keep delaying life until one day when your dreams are reached what happens if life is taken from you before then?
“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”
If I had to choose one book that all humanity should read, Sapiens would top the list.
My education in British high school meant I knew about the major events of the past few thousand years. Yet Yuval makes me cringe that I once thought I had a good understanding of the history of our species. It’s not just the fascinating detail of the milestones humans reached but his analysis into what got us there. I had never considered moving from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society would make life worse for most humans.
There are many ideas in this book that could change your life but Yuval’s emphasis on the importance of storytelling changed mine. It triggered several existential crises as he systematically tore some of my beliefs to shreds. My principles were just a result of the stories I had been told and so much of what I considered hard truth was really just made up by another human.
Sapiens has stopped me from being absolutist. Immaturely, I considered people with different views as stupid or evil but this changed to realizing they have simply been raised with different stories to me. I’m not holier than thou, I still get irritated but Sapiens has made me try to understand people who disagree with me. This “history” book has opened my eyes to modern humans like no other.
Other great books with this lesson: Guns, Germs, and Steel — Jared Diamond
“Where humans are concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure…”
Warning: this is not a happy book.
The only fiction book on this list is an epic and I can’t recommend getting through the slow beginning enough. The story features life in all its glory and tragedy. An unlikely group of four poor people’s lives becomes intertwined as they try to survive together in the hostile world of 1970s India. My Indian descent has no bearing on how this book moved me because our lives are incomparable.
I’m not sure I’ve ever cheered for characters as much as I did for Dina, Ishwar, Om, and Maneck. Although I’ve read brilliant autobiographies of people who’ve experienced the kinds of hardship seen in this book, this is different. When Nelson Mandela struggled in prison, I already knew he was going to go on to great things. In A Fine Balance, I was denied this comfort.
We know people are struggling in the world. We can see it on the news. We can even meet people and learn their stories. Yet I can remember visiting a Mumbai slum and feeling heartbroken then returning to my fancy hotel and wondering what’s on the menu. It’s one of the beautiful things about a good book read slowly; you see the world through their eyes.
Next time you hear about a problem in a faraway place, humanize the people. They have lives just as meaningful and as deep as ours. If you’re in the West and find yourself outraged by minor inconveniences remember how many people can dream of having your country’s problems. When it comes to helping people think of humanity as your tribe.
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
Anyone who thinks they are logical and rational needs to read this book. I came across it as a first-year Economics student and it was exactly what I needed.
Classical economics tries to explain the world through the perfectly rational human being. When many experts from the past made estimates of human behavior, they created similar imaginary figures which don’t stand up to reality. There was a gap between what people should do and what they actually do.
Daniel Kahneman didn’t plug the gap by himself but he collated the work of many great psychologists into an accessible masterpiece. I don’t know anyone who has read Thinking, Fast and Slow and not been blown away by at least some of the examples. It took me a long time to read because I needed time to think after every bombshell he dropped.
Learning about the unconscious biases gave me great comfort as a chronic overthinker. Some of my own behavior which seemed crazy to me now made sense and I could take into account the imperfection of the human mind in my decision-making.
“Be less stressed by the imaginary problems of an overdramatic world, an more alert to the real problems and how to solve them”
At some point when chasing a spot at a good university, I fell in love with reading the news all the time. I checked multiple sources throughout the day as my go-to time-filler. I wanted to know all the exciting things happening in the world but I ended up knowing every terrible event too.
Hans Rosling in Factfulness permanently broke this habit. The book starts with a short multiple-choice quiz about the current state of the world. I thought it would be easy but got more wrong than I did right! The news focuses on drama and what sells headlines not on giving an accurate perspective of the world. The rest of the book makes this case powerfully.
It’s not that we should aim to be ignorant but we should reduce the noise we take in. If you already think a politician is a terrible human being, what do you gain from finding out about his latest tweet? There are many humans out there doing great things so give them your attention and help them make a difference.
Other great books with this lesson: Enlightenment Now! — Steven Pinker
“Love people and use things because the opposite never works”
I can’t remember why I stumbled across The Minimalists podcast in 2017 but once I did I was hooked. The marketing paid off for them because I then bought their books.
Minimalism, intentionalism, and essentialism are buzz words for the same underlying concept of keeping life simple and valuing what you have. It was a concept I was failing at without even noticing. I accumulated so much stuff I didn’t need because of marketing or trying to appear “cool”. Looking back, I failed at looking cool too.
Other than inspiring a mass clearout, Minimalism made me narrow my focus. I tend to spread myself too thinly and be everywhere and nowhere all at once. I used measures like social media friends as proof of my value. While I’m still working on it, I now choose depth over breadth; I’d rather have 5 friends I can count on than 100 friends who I can’t.
“A man who has attained mastery of an art reveals it in his every action.”
There are many books on zen and mindfulness but none spoke to me as Joe Hyams did in this book. It isn’t steeped in mysticism or big claims to change your life. It’s one man’s philosophical learnings from training with some of the greatest martial artists of his time including the legend known as Bruce Lee.
Joe’s lessons are universal even if you couldn’t care less about martial arts. By the time I read this, I was already a black belt in Karate by rank but I hadn’t bought into the deeper side of the art yet. The simplicity of the way Joe writes made me want to learn more and led to much greater knowledge and several trips to Japan.
My favorite story is where Joe was frustrated with his training and tried to force improvement. Master Bong Soo Han reframed his thinking (and mine) through one conversation. Rather than attempting to be patient with slow progress, remove the time pressure, and improve because of your love for your art. Give yourself time rather than be patient.
It’s a lesson I often forget so I keep returning to read Zen in The Martial Arts again and again. It’s my companion for whenever I am my own worst enemy.
I hope one of the books on this list resonated with you. In the comments share which books actually led to long-term change for you, I’d love to read them.