If you know me, you know I like to read. A lot. Like a nerdy lot. Especially if audiobooks on commutes count. So I’ve read a lot of books! And I strongly believe in the power of reading to help people make sense of life and discover who (and how) they want to be.
I’d love to say EVERY book is life-changing. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words resonate with me: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten–even so, they have made me.” But there are a few books I’ve read that have made such a big difference in my life–personally and professionally–that I can truly say I changed significantly as a person from reading them. 7 come to mind. I’ve found that over the years when people have asked me to recommend some books for them, these are always my go-to’s.
So if you’re looking for your next great read, looking for fuel to grow personally or professionally, or just curious to give reading a shot, try one of these:
1. The Power of a Positive No
This is almost always my top recommendation. I think it’s a universal thing to have trouble saying “no”–no to more busy schedule stuff, no to what people want to get from you, and no to how someone is treating you.
William Ury, a world-famous negotiation specialist, gives an incredibly simple and useful formula for saying no in a way that communicates deep care for the person you’re saying it to. He takes a motivating look at what’s so difficult about saying no in the first place, and why it’s so important to learn to say it anyway. And he makes it all so tangible and relateable that by the time you finish the book, you’re feeling ready and excited for your first opportunity to put it into practice.
I’ve used what I learned from it countless times, including for some of the biggest, scariest no’s I’ve ever had to say. I can honestly say this may have be the most influential book in my life–an absolute lifesaver! (Reading difficulty: 5 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
This book is exactly what the subtitle says: A surprising and eye-opening look at what makes people want to do things. Whenever I’m asked to recommend a good business, leadership, or professional book, this is the one!
Anyone who leads people, manages people, leads or manages themselves (or is a people), will find this an incredibly helpful read. I remember having so many “aha” moments. It explains so much about why we frequently burn out or lose interest when driven by things like authority or money and other carrots and sticks. And it opens your eyes to a whole world of internal fuel and energy. We do the things best and longest that we really want to do. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
This translates exceptionally well into practical management strategy. “Intrinsic motivation” seems truly to be the strongest driver you can help your people find. This book is a game-changer! (Reading difficulty: 6 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
3. Coming to Our Senses
Here’s a good example of a book you don’t know you need to read until you read it. We live in a crazy, noisy, busy, overwhelming world. This book helps find and grow peace, calmness, happiness, and beauty in that world–all in a down-to-earth, accessible way.
Jon Kabat-Zinn helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west, through developing practices like clinical meditation for stress reduction and, and through popular writings like Full Catastrophe Living. Do yourself a huge favor and give this a shot! I hesitate to say much about it, because there are already so many stereotypes and misinformed cliches about “meditation.” Just know that it’s not what you think. And that if you’ll invest the time, reading this can be one of the most mentally cleansing and freeing experiences in your life, and can equip you to keep that peace with you all through life.
Pro tip: Unless you’re ready to seriously take the plunge, ease yourself into this one by first listening to the abridged audiobook (his own narration, about 3 hours), or through his shorter book Wherever You Go There You Are. Just know that the unabridged Coming to Our Senses is a long one and worth taking the time to chew on. (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10) | Get it on Amazon) (Abridged audiobook difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Audiobooks)
4. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
This always feels like an awkward one to recommend, but I wish the big scary personal life things were less awkward. We’re all human, and we’ve all been through rough times, made mistakes, and struggled with hurt. The truth is, whether this book is about your own experience or about understanding the experiences of other people you love, this is an incredibly eye-opening book. With each page you turn, your appreciation grows a little more for the big-ness of emotional abuse and neglect, and for how it continues to affect people deeply, straight through adult life.
This book is about understanding your own struggles or those of your loved ones. But it’s also just as much a book about hope and healing. It powerfully humanizes the people who have done the hurt (that really impressed me), and it draws clear, freeing pictures of where that hurt came from. It helps you find a way for yourself or your loved ones to step out of the cycle of trauma, to see things for what they really are, and to make positive, healthy, happy decisions about how to do life.
Fair warning: This book is not for the faint of heart. It can be an emotionally exhausting read, but it’s also an incredibly empowering one. (Reading difficulty: 4 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
5. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization
This book could be called Long-Term Thinking 101. It’s a management classic, and it’s one I honestly think should be required reading for all executives and mid- to upper-level managers in companies everywhere (or really for everyone).
Peter Senge delves deep into the world of “Systems Thinking,” identifying cycles and patterns that continuously reappear in business, politics, and even in personal life. History repeats itself again and again and we learn too many lessons the hard way, largely because it takes so long to realize the long-term effects of today’s actions and decisions. By the time one initiative brings a part of the company crashing down, the waters have been muddied by ten other initiatives that have kicked off more recently, and few of the managers have been around long enough to trace the cycle of cause-and-effect.
This book is an amazing primer on thinking carefully about how we got where we are today, and how to actually get where we want to go tomorrow–and how to not ruin everything in the meantime. It’s also pretty heavy academic reading, so buckle up and get ready to think hard! (Reading difficulty: 9 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
6. Escape from Freedom
I feel a little bit weird about putting this on my list. In fact, it might have sneaked its way on here due in part to how recently I read it. But I have a feeling this one’s effects will last a lifetime. It was originally published during World War II and explores why individuals and entire populations make weird and disturbing choices.
Big disclaimer right off the bat: I got to the end of this one and still totally disagreed with a lot of Fromm’s outlook on life and its meaning. But reading this also seriously stretched me. It made me think harder than just about any other book I’ve read. And it made the whole world make so much more sense. Best (and worst) of all, it opened my eyes to a lot of manufactured safety nets I’ve depended on through life that, at the end of the day, won’t provide me the safety I’m looking for. The gist is this: We’re born into a very structured environment. As we grow up we start to see just how arbitrary a lot of authority and tradition is. So we kick and scream for our freedom. And then we get our freedom. And it is terrifying! The intense anxiety that true freedom produces is staggering. So we try to re-submit ourselves to whatever authorities or thoughts used to give us security and confidence in our roles. But it’s too late–we know better, and pretending we still fit into the world we escaped from will drive us (literally) crazy. The other option is to bravely accept the freedom we have found, and live and love honestly.
Don’t read if you’re not ready for some deep reflection. This one is pretty brutal. (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
7. Social Intelligence
I’m going to cheat and combine two books: You really should read Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence before this one. Goleman popularized the scientific study of “EQ” (as opposed to “IQ”). In most areas of life, having emotional maturity, strength, understanding, and awareness provides more benefits and leads to more success than does IQ–the more traditional measurement of potential, focused on logic and intellect.
Social Intelligence goes a step further than his first book and explores the intricacies of relationships and communication. It includes fascinating stories about how people work and fit together and great practical tips about how to communicate, work, and live effectively with others. So many things will click into place as you read this. “Oooooh, that’s why…” is a thought I had over and over while I read this, as past and present relationships suddenly made sense.
Both Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence are very easy and very rewarding books to read. I found the second even more helpful for me than the first. Need help being a person? Read Daniel Goleman. (Reading difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
So those are my favorites–the ones that have made the biggest difference in my life.
I always love helping people find helpful books to learn and grow from, so if you’re ever looking for a good recommendation–even if it’s for a specific topic or situation–don’t hesitate to ask!
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford