50 Books That Will Help You Shape Reality

Reading is a joy, but not all books are useful. Here are the best by category.

Best Behavioral Psychology Books

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.

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.

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Willpower has been shown to be a greater predictor of success than IQ, and yet, a majority of people would probably struggle to define what it even is. Kelly McGonigal teaches one of the most popular courses at Stanford University, and this book is essentially a summary of her lessons. It’s informative, and it’s filled with practical advice.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Over the last few years, the psychology of habits has made its way into the mainstream. It’s in large part because of this book. Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, and as far as non-scientists go, he has an impressive ability to dissect research without cheapening it. This book contains enough useful information to better your life.

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.

Best Practical Philosophy Books

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius is considered to be a prime example of what Plato called a Philosopher King — a noble and self-aware leader. Meditations is less a book than it is a collection of thoughts. Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the world, when he penned it. He wanted to record his lessons on how to live a good life. It’s timeless.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

A student of psychology was sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War, and this is the story of his observations. Heartbreaking, infuriating, but always insightful, it’s a fascinating account of human nature and the concept of meaning. Frankl breaks the book into two parts: his experience and his psychological theory. It’s a useful perspective.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

De Botton either gets immense credit for making philosophy widely accessible or he gets criticized for oversimplification. I’m of the opinion that to be broadly practical, sometimes, philosophical theory has to be simplified. This book summarizes the work of some of the most influential thinkers in history in an engaging way through the lens of our everyday problems.

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Seneca was another powerful man in ancient Rome. These letters contain advice on everything from success and failure to grief and poverty. A particular theme with Stoics, like Seneca and Aurelius, 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 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.

Best Timeless Business Books

The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker

One part business educator and 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.

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Catmull is a pioneer in both business and technology innovation. Creativity Inc. takes us through his experience managing Pixar Animation Studios over the years where his teams were incredibly successful over a long and consistent period. Exploring the intersection of business and creativity, it shares a lot of really original lessons about driving results.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger

Everybody has heard of Warren Buffett, but few know of Charlie Munger: his equally ingenious partner in crime. This is a collection of many of Munger’s talks and speeches over the years. Although it will resonate more with those interested in the art of investing, there is enough general and cross-disciplinary wisdom squeezed in to keep most people engaged.

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.

Best Career Strategy Books

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

Achor is a proponent of positive psychology. He does, however, manage to stay away from much of the noise that comes with it. He builds his arguments using extensive research, and he shows how the conventional wisdom about success leading to happiness is actually more true in reverse. This book is an action plan for both individuals and organizations.

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 a famous Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn), and his Chief of Staff, Ben Casnocha. 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 continually evolving 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.

Smartcuts by Shane Snow

Journalist and entrepreneur Shane Snow works through case studies of individuals and companies that have applied examples of lateral thinking to achieve success in a relatively short period. Smartcuts contains some good ideas on how to get more out of a career or a business. It’s easy to read with some actionable advice.

Best Personal Health Books

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

When McDougall hurt his foot, he wanted an answer as to why that was. This book was the result. Whether you are a runner or not, this is a fascinating account of a journey from science labs to tribes of distance runners. It makes many bold but captivating assertions. At worst, Born to Run will make you want to move. At best, it could change how you see yourself.

Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle by Tom Venuto

This book covers everything that most people could ever want to know about physical health. It goes over weight-loss, exercise, nutrition, and even advice on how to stay motivated. It’s simple, and it lacks much of the disorienting noise that often comes out of the fitness world. For the average person, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle has it all.

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 straightforward 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 quite vivid narrative of what it means to live with depression and anxiety. Haig was on the verge of committing suicide at age 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.

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Harris is a famous public intellectual and neuroscientist. In Waking Up, he explores the idea of spirituality outside of faith. Given the subject matter, it won’t sit well with everyone. That said, Harris combines science and rationality to make a case for a richer life through mindfulness. It’s an easy introduction to meditation for anyone who is curious.

Best Human History Books

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 ranging from anthropology to science to economics, he paints a fairly comprehensive picture. It may well change the way you think about being human.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Diamond is a long-time professor at UCLA, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. The premise of his work is to understand the cause of the imbalance in power between different human societies. He argues that environmental factors have significantly influenced outcome over many millennia. The reasons behind his insights are interesting. It’s a very original book.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

This is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated 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

Thomas 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 also the different ways in which science has its own biases. It provides an incredibly valuable model for thinking about life beyond just how it relates to the natural world.

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Cosmos is arguably one of the most famous science books in print, and Sagan is one of the most revered modern science educators. This book will take you into the depths of what we know about our place in the universe. It’s beautiful, humbling, and at times, mind-blowing. Sagan will surprise you, inform you, and challenge you, but he will never bore you.

Best Future Trends Books

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a big topic when it comes to future trends, and it may just be the most important one. In fact, if machines pass human intelligence levels, it’s likely that little else will matter. Bostrom is a philosopher at the University of Oxford, and he asks a lot of the big questions as they relate to AI. Not enough people are rationally thinking about this.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

Income inequality will be one of the defining issues of the 21st centuries. There is increasing polarization between the rich and the poor, and it’s not good for anybody. In this book, Piketty presents centuries of research to help us understand the concept of wealth. It’s a sobering read, and it will likely be a point of debate for decades to come.

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.

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.

Best Smart Thinking Books

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.

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 one of the most prolific writers 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.

Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley

Written by the brothers who lead the prestigious design and consulting firm IDEO, this book breaks down the myth that creativity manifests in only a select group of people. And more importantly, it clears up any confusion on what creativity actually is. With easily digestible principles, Creative Confidence shows how anyone can better build and solve.

5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger & Michael Starbird

This is a short and concise book written by two mathematics professors. The title explains the general idea. They dissect the process of effective thinking into five simple steps, and each step is practical and to the point. Their experience has its roots in the world of academia, but the methods have application far beyond. It’s a reminder of the power of thinking deliberately.

Best Contemplative Fiction Books

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

DFW is arguably the most talented writer of the last half-century. This is by no means an easy read. It’s long and meticulously detailed, but it’s also incredibly unique. Scattered, and one part comedy and one part philosophical inquiry, it’s set in an imagined near-future. It questions the paradox of what we consider entertainment and what that means for our pursuit of happiness.

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.

Best Biographies and Memoirs

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel

The story of Srinivasa Ramanujan is vastly under told compared to that of other modern geniuses. Kanigel follows the relationship between the young Indian mathematician and his mentor, G.H. Hardy, at Cambridge University where they published some of the most original work of the past century. Beneath the numbers, however, hides an incredibly touching tale.

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 a long but rewarding read. We can all learn something from Lincoln.

Madame Curie by Eve Curie

Marie Curie is a two-time Nobel Prize winner and one of the greatest modern 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.

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell by Bertrand Russell

Russell was a Nobel laureate, a historian, a mathematician, and a philosopher. He had one of the most lucid minds of the 20th century, and he rarely shied away from an intellectual debate. This book is as much an insight into Russell’s life as it is a work of philosophy itself. If nothing else, it’s worth reading just for the hauntingly beautiful prologue.

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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