7 Life-Changing Books For Your Reading List

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!

Happy reading!!!

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford

12 Little Ways to Find Magic in 2019

magic - roald dahl
A picture of magic I took this last year

“Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I’ve decided, is only a slow sewing shut.” – Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Every winter the day comes when we box up the Christmas decorations and close the door on the last little reminders of the wonder that the holiday brings. It won’t be long before I start looking forward again to the next first snow and the accompanying cheer. Whenever I’m asked my favorite Christmas movie, I have to say it’s The Polar Express, because it’s about a kid who learns not to outgrow magic.

As well as being a time for magic, jolliness, snowy walks, and hot chocolate, December is also a time where a lot of people who should feel love and belonging instead feel especially alone, confused, and hurt. Maybe your holidays are a mix of both. We’ve all just made it through the holidays and as we return to working full time through the cold, short days of winter, many people are left aching a little more than usual, a little more numb to the possibilities of joy and hope. Seasonal depression is ready to kick in. January can leave us feeling like, “Where did the magic go?”

As we get older and experience more stress and disappointments in a big and confusing world, I’m afraid we tend to lose sight of the little bits and pieces of the world that are beautiful and happy. The constant drip of stress rewires our brains and we might find ourselves daily a bit more “Bah humbug” about it all.

But guys… the magic is still there. I think no matter how much we grow up, if we look and listen closely enough, we can still find it. I promise.

If you’re struggling to find the magic you knew as a kid, you’re not alone. Here are a few  places I’ve learned I can find magic. And maybe these will help you also find magic this year–if you look closely…

1. Watch a nature scene for a while. There are beautiful sights all around you. Bumblebees buzzing around flowers, leaves rustling in the breeze, fish jumping, storm clouds rolling in, little spiders, soaring eagles, and silly squirrels, the smell of rain and the burning warmth of sunshine… Nature is free. And beautiful spots are closer than you might think. Open Google Maps and zoom in on the sections shaded green. And if you need any recommendations, let me know! The only catch is: You have to sit still long enough to still be watching when the magic moments happen.

2. Learn to give someone a massage. Even if you don’t go to massage school and become a pro, there are lots of easy books and YouTube videos to teach you some basics in giving someone the gift of a relaxing massage. And honestly, just giving it a shot without any help will still be worth it. The soothing and caring touch of massage can be a comforting and relieving experience. The simplest massage can be an amazing gift for someone you appreciate, and giving that gift can be just as gratifying as receiving it.

3. Read a story from history. Our planet’s history is colorful, intriguing, and downright entertaining. Take a break from the modern world and immerse yourself in tales of Montezuma’s bustling old city of Mexico, fierce raids by the Vandal tribes, or the beautiful arabesques of the old Arabic world. If you don’t know where else to start, try E. H. Gombrich’s book A Little History of the World, which reads like a fairy tale.

4. Cook a recipe from a different cuisine. If you can read and if you can be patient with the slow, imperfect process, you can do this no matter how little cooking you’ve done in your life. And you may find it a delightful (and tasty) adventure! I especially love the idea of experiencing the creation of a meal like another culture traditionally does it. With thousands of recipes online and a variety of ethnic cookbooks at your local Barnes & Noble, and with a little help from Google in deciphering the weird ingredients and tasks–this can be an awesome experience. For Christmas this year we made a few traditional Italian country meals, like linguine with lentils and pancetta. I’m no chef, so it took a few hours, but how much fun (and what a delicious celebration)!

5. Take a simple hiking trip. Guys, here’s the thing: Outdoor hiking adventures aren’t nearly as expensive or complicated as you’d think! Seriously. Big airport hubs like Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas often offer cheaper flights than you’d expect. Or you can rent a car with unlimited miles from Enterprise for a several day road trip. Airbnbs can be way more affordable (and way cozier) than hotels. Local grocery stores have the same food you buy every week at home. You can cover a lot of ground in just a couple days. And nature is not expensive! National Parks are a great place to start–guides and information on experiencing them are plentiful, their trails are well maintained, and park rangers are there to help. Some even have free entry, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An annual pass to all US National Parks costs less than a fancy dinner at a resort. And guys, once you get out into the nature and start moving… and seeing… the beauty you can find in nature is just indescribable. Hiking trips can become the most thrilling memories in your life. (Need any tips? Let me know!)

6. Make some new music. Don’t play an instrument? Can’t get one? Then sing! You don’t have to be a master musician to feel the magic of music. It can carry deep and powerful emotion and can move the toughest people to tears. Try picking up the guitar. Or the piano. It’s not too difficult, really. Or just turn up your favorite songs in the car and belt them out like there’s no tomorrow. Nobody’s watching, I promise. And if you can’t do any of those, find a beautiful piece of music and just sit down, close your eyes, and feel it. Music doesn’t have to become your “thing,” but maybe once in a while you can find magic there.

7. Find an epic make-believe movie. A lot of us adults decide we can’t like “kid stuff” as much when become older. Fantasy and imagination… aren’t those supposed to fade from our focus as we get older? But why not just embrace the fun and the artistry of it every once in a while? Epic visual story-telling can be a genuinely fun experience. Find some unique and enchanting animation. Shamelessly binge your favorite superhero movies and get excited about them. Why not? You can

8. Have a conversation with a child. Nothing will remind you of the magic all around you quicker than having a chat with a little kid. They see monsters and epic battles and plots and imaginary friends and amazing animals all around them. Christmas and Halloween are just out of this world exciting to them. Accidentally walking into a wall or leaves them in hysterics. Every little leaf is fascinating. And each day is a new adventure. Listen to them tell you about their magic.

9. Start learning a new language. How cool is it to hear someone fluently carry on a conversation in another language? Isn’t it fun to learn how to greet someone from a little country on the other side of the globe? And what a magical connection when you meet somebody whose first language you’ve learned, even just a little. Languages aren’t that hard to pick up. They’re hard to master, but a few basic greetings and common words aren’t too complicated. And it can be loads of fun! Download the Duolingo app!

10. Take a long, quiet walk. Detach. Leave your phone in your pocket, if not at home. Just walk out the door and keep walking. A quiet, peaceful walk can be a grounding experience. Have some you time–time to catch up with yourself like you’d catch up with a friend. Time to think and feel while you’re not racing around accomplishing things. Maybe even bring a friend or two. A long walk can reconnect you to yourself, reconnect you to a friend, or even just reconnect you to the earth that is your home.

11. Make an elderly friend. I love listening to people reminisce about their years and years of unique experiences and adventures, the people and places they’ve known, the happy, sad, or funny things they’ve seen. And I love hearing the perspectives and words of wisdom their lives have given to them. And I love seeing what is truly important to people towards the end of their lives. Try getting to know someone who has lived a long life they’re willing to share with you. Not only can hearing all their stories be fun, and listening to their advice be helpful, but it can be incredibly happy for them to have a friend to talk to when some of their own friends have started to pass on, and their accomplishments have started to fade into the past–it can be a magical friendship for both of you.

12. Try meditating. Just try it. There are as many different reasons and ways to meditate as there are people who do it. Two of the things I love to find in meditation are: A grounded connection to yourself and the real world around you; And an acceptance and “okayness” with the way things are. If you’d like help getting started, look up Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west. His books Wherever You Go, There You Are and Coming to Our Senses were very helpful for me. His abridged audiobook version of the latter is a breeze. Or check out the Headspace or Calm apps. Or, if you’re brave enough, just take 20 minutes, sit quietly, and stop trying things. Just let things go. Observe. Allow feelings. Be still. If you’re not sure it’s “working,” you’re probably doing it right. Meditation doesn’t have to be about achieving some euphoric state. It’s more about learning to accept–that it’s all okay.

I hope this list has inspired you a little. If you’re feeling adventurous, try one of these every month. They’re all easy and affordable adventures. And I promise by the end of the year you’ll have made lifelong memories and you’ll have tasted a little bit more of the magic this life has to offer.

Happy adventuring!

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Urgent vs important

Henry David Thoreau - Not enough to be busy

Can you imagine the feeling, finishing up a task, sitting back, and thinking to yourself, “Hmm… I literally have nothing left to do today!” That would be really weird, right???

Life just needs to slow down. Right? But I have a hundred things to do today. So much to catch up on. So much to organize, fix, clean, or find. So many people to get back to. Those things I’ve been wanting to try, and stuff I’ve been invited to.

I happen to think it’s a particularly American tradition to live every day at a breakneck speed. We never, ever, ever run out of things to do right away. When my wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy we learned that the entire country traditionally closes its shops and sends its people home from work for a few hours over lunch. I often reminisce about my days in Ethiopia and Uganda, where even hard-working people walk slowly wherever they go and spend hours in peace and quiet with family or friends.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in the States. We have stuff to do. Always. We wear our over-flowing inboxes and day-planners like a badge, like there’s something special about our ability to cram a thousand little things into every single day.

But what are we even busy doing?

 

When are we going to do those deeper, bigger, more meaningful life things? The things we keep putting off “until we have more time.”

I think the big things that we want to do–that we want to look back and be happy about at the end of our lives–we want to do just right, and we want to do with unlimited time and attention. So we keep putting our real life off while we try to catch up with our bottomless stack of to-dos.

 

What would happen if you set aside the urgent stuff today? Let them just not happen? Would you finally start writing that book? Take your kid out to do something fun together? Make a plan to eat healthier and exercise?

And what if you kept ignoring so many of those “urgent” things–would you keep writing, stay more connected to your loved ones, and discover you actually have time to get to the gym most days?

 

Urgent vs Important–we constantly face a choice between the two. Urgent is the squeaky wheel whining for your attention. But at the end of your life, which will you wish you had chosen more often? Urgent or important?

What big life thing have you been putting off for years because you’re always too busy? What if you decided this weekend you were just going to start it–no matter what notifications pop up?

Noticing this moment

Eckhart Tolle - Most humans are never fully present

I have this compulsive habit of doing stuff on my days off. Lots of stuff. Too much stuff. It’s all stuff I love to do, totally worthwhile. I get really pumped about all these things I can do with all my free time. And then I do as much of the happy stuff as I can. But sometimes the more happy stuff I do, the less happy I feel.

In fact, I often find myself feeling anxious when I have spare time. Anxious that I won’t make the best of it. Anxious that I won’t do enough stuff that needs to be done or that I want to do. Anxious that the time will run out too quickly.

Does that ever happen to you? You get to the end of a weekend or a vacation, only to realize you spent so much time worrying about making the most of it that it slipped right through your fingers?

A couple weeks ago I took an afternoon off. This time I decided on a whim to go for a walk. No running, just a walk. No earbuds. No phone. Just walking and being with myself. Lots of freedom to think and feel. And see things! Things I don’t notice when I’m hurrying. Things like a colorful grasshopper I watched up close for a while.

I felt more peace and happiness in that quiet hour than I do in some entire weekends packed full of stuff to do. These kind of days always end up being my favorite.

I don’t think the problem is the stuff I do, either. One thing isn’t necessarily better or worse than the next. Some people take walks, some people go for runs, some people watch movies, and some people read books–and no matter what the activity, they can feel complete peace and freedom the whole while.

I think the key is incredibly simple. Whatever you are choosing to do, be there.

Be where you are right now. Notice the present moment. Your life in this world at this moment is exploding with color and music and flavor and feeling. But we spend so much time trying to make sure that right now becomes a good memory, that we miss the very thing we wanted the great memory to be about. We spend so much time trying to make this moment great, that we don’t see how incredible this moment already is.

Are you going to miss this moment?

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now. And that’s a revelation for some people: to realize that your life is only every now.” – Eckhart Tolle