Updated October 2018
A few years back there was a meme that went around Facebook about the 10 books that had the greatest influence on you, and my friend Brian asked for mine.
I put this together then, and have updated it with a few newer entries. But it’s a simple truth that reading has been a a consistent and constant source of learning and education throughout my life and career. In the past I would tell people that I read a lot, and then dismiss it by making some comment about “being a nerd or somesuch.” I’ve stopped apologizing for reading a lot and making constant learning a priority in my life.
You’ll notice that most of these aren’t business books and they aren’t all non-fiction. I think it’s a mistake to think that you have to read the latest business book du jour to find useful nuggets. These are books that I come back to frequently in my own life. I’m sure I left one out that will cause me to slap my forehead and go, “How did I forget that!”. But these ten books made a lasting impression on me, for which I am incredibly grateful.
My Top 10 Book List (In No Particular Order)
Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb
I was blown away the first time I read this, and along with The Black Swan, Nassim’s writing and analysis allowed me to move my inherent iconoclastic nature (read “tendency to be a dick”) from just being petulant to having some intellectual heft. It impressed upon me the need to challenge conventional thinking; and also why the “conventional” thinking is the “conventional” thinking even when it’s incorrect. On a practical level, it helped me understand why the numbers game in sales didn’t actually make sense, but why it was still worth using as a motivational tool (and that’s important to know when your job is to motivate salespeople).
Hardcore Zen – Brad Warner
How could I not like a Zen book written by a white guy from Ohio who played in a punk band and worked on Godzilla movies? Besides being an interesting and modern take on Zen (you can only read so much from the medieval monks…), I was very intrigued by how his Buddhism interacted with the very real-world issues of his day-to-day life. The fact that he is American also gives his approach to the Dharma more accessibility to me, because the cultural underpinnings of the practitioner influence how we approach out practice, and sometimes Asian Zen seems a little otherwordly.
To Sell is Human – Daniel Pink
When I started selling Cutco knives as a kid, I heard the phrase “Everybody sells” consistently. And it made sense. When we peel away the stereotypes and the prejudice, being a social creature means that humans are always interacting with each other and trying to influence each other. This is still one of the most direct and clear descriptions of what selling is and why it should matter to everyone. It’s basically a sales book for non-sales people. And I’ve been influenced by all of Dan’s books since Free Agent Nation, so it made sense it would show up here.
Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille – Steven Brust
I’m not sure why, but this book is the first time an author conveyed melancholy to me. Not sad, sappy melancholy; but the real melancholy brought on by the realization that life has its joys and with them its corresponding pains. I totally didn’t see the end coming, and I still tear up when I re-read it. I won’t lie, though, I want to play in an Irish trad band that hops across the galaxy in a time-traveling pub (or maybe I’ll just open my own Cowboy Feng’s someday).
The Art of Possibility – The Rosamund and Ben Zander
“It’s all invented.” “Remember Rule #6.” “Give everyone an A”. I can’t think of a book that has more ideas bubble up into my daily life. When you aren’t sure why some of the social norms you see are social norms, you read “it’s all invented” and everything makes a lot more sense. That was invaluable for me. It made me more understanding of people with different perspectives – I realized they had simply invented a different worldview. And it helped me understand that I could take an active part in creating the world I lived in by changing my perspective.
Count Zero/Neuromancer – William Gibson
I know these are two books, but I couldn’t decide which one I liked better and well, dammit, it is my list and I’ll do what want. I first read them in highschool and I was blown away by how William could make prose move fast, and his imagery continues to be poetic to me. His characters were all so real and fantastic at the same time – and they went beyond the hero/anti-hero dichotomy into something much more nuanced and real. One of my favorite quotes is his, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” These books were my first glimpse into what the future could be and what issues I’d wrestle with.
The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz
I read this early on when I was trying to wrap my head around what spirituality means to me. It started a little corny, and there were a few eye rolls in the first chapter. But as I kept reading, it just made so much sense. It still remains one of the clearest explanations I’ve found of the emotional effects of the unspoken contracts we make with ourselves and those around us. Even though he’s a Native American shaman, his work feels very Buddhist to me and I find it one of the easiest ways to contemplate the idea of living with intention.
Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert
When we look back at the book trends of the 1990s and 2000s, it will be very apparent that it was a time perfect for scientists who could take the research being done in universities and tie it into our daily lives. I could have just as easily put down books by Ariely, Gladwell, or Levitt. And I love them all; because even when I don’t think they are always spot on with their analyses, I think it’s important to ground our understanding of how we operate with the research of the day. I especially liked Stumbling on Happiness because I have an overactive mind, and I think too much about trying to be happy and making good choices. At least now I have some scientific underpinnings to my search.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
I’m not sure if I hated injustice before the 8th grade… but I sure did afterwards. I was so mad during the courtroom scene when I knew that Tom Robinson was innocent. And then I remember being scared when Scout was running through the field at the end of the book, and feeling profoundly sorry for Boo Radley. All of these emotions from a book! It showed me the power of literature to teach and of story-telling in general; a lesson that I have tried not to forget in my professional and personal life.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I read Adams over and over again. He’s my version of a Saturday afternoon movie. And years later I still find myself laughing out loud at a part I forgot about. I didn’t realize it when I was reading it for the first time as a teenager, but Douglas found this rare place to hang out: he knew that there was so much pomposity and ego in life, but instead of getting bitter he found it infinitely amusing and worthy of engaging with. He could have been a cynic but instead he became enthralled with people and life. My friend Jeff once said to me, “D., you’re like the Ford Prefect of our group.” It was one of the proudest days of my life.
The Four-Hour Workweek – Timothy Ferriss
I hated busywork in school. When I read this as a young professional, it was the first time I had read an argument about why busywork (low-value activities) is anathema to success- and making no apologies for it. It was also the first book where I distinctly remember thinking, “This chapter is great, but this one here is crap.” I was actively engaging with the author’s ideas and deciding whether or not I wanted to agree. I also learned how to do the most important activities first thing in the morning from Tim – a tool I still use.