What are some of the best life-changing books?

 

Here are 7 books that have made a big impact on my life most recently, along with a few details on why I think they’re important:

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca.

There’s so much timeless wisdom in this book! A collection of letters written by Seneca, it’s a dense read but be warned—you’ll be taking notes from every letter because each one is full of practical advice we can incorporate into our lives. And maybe it’s an even better idea to read it through once, then go back and take notes the second time—you’ll be glad you did. The letters cover quite a large selection of topics. You’ll get to the bottom of what is the importance of true friendship, to why you should exercise your mind daily, to specific ways of reducing anxiety about all the different events that are happening in your life, Seneca’s ideas are a blueprint for living a high quality of life every single day.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

Written by two decorated, former Navy SEALs who fought during the war in Iraq, this book is a glimpse into what happens on the battlefield, and even more how a leader makes (or breaks) the success of a team. It’s a fascinating read about the importance of setting a strategy, how to prioritize what needs to be done first, how critical it is to check your ego, and why taking full responsibility when things go wrong promotes good leadership and success. At times the book reads like a thriller, and then you realize all the scenarios that are described are based on real events and experiences we can learn from and apply to our daily lives.

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, PhD.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to acquire a growth mindset, this book is an informative and excellent read. Written by a psychologist PhD who teaches at Harvard Medical School, the book introduces the concept of emotional agility—being flexible with our thoughts and feelings (the equivalent of having a growth mindset), instead of being rigid and holding on to beliefs from our past (the equivalent of having a fixed mindset). There are four key concepts of emotional agility: showing up (facing your thoughts and feelings), stepping out (detaching from them), walking your why (focusing on your core values), and moving on (getting proactive in changing your habits and mindset).

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport.

The title comes from advice that the comedian Steve Martin gave a while back to aspiring entertainers: be so good they can’t ignore you! Newport challenges the advice we often hear that we should follow our passion, and says that going down this path can be dangerous, invoke anxiety, and feed into a constant need to reinvent ourselves. Instead, Newport argues that matching our dream job to a preexisting passion doesn’t matter, but that passion comes after we put in the hard work to excel at something that provides value to others. This is a must read for anyone who feels they don’t really have any specific passion and are not sure how to choose their career path or move forward with their life.

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss.

This book looks and reads like an encyclopedia: there’s so much information included and it’s best if you read it in small chunks! In essence, the material is divided into three sections (Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise), and consists of a comprehensive collection of life experiences, tools, and hands-on tactics compiled from a series of interviews Ferriss conducted with world-class leaders in diverse fields of expertise. These leaders range from top athletes to best-selling authors to Special Ops commanders. It’s like drinking from a very concentrated cup of wisdom!

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic is almost like a workbook: it offers 366 days of quotes of Stoic philosophers as well as practical applications of their wisdom through exercises. The philosophers mentioned include Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Zeno, and Cleanthes. Here are two examples of powerful quotes: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality” (Seneca), and “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own” (Marcus Aurelius). In other words, everyone can find something here they can relate to! There’s also a ton of commentary to accompany each quote, and a super useful glossary of Greek terms.

Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story by Jewel.

The artist provides a blueprint on how we can build strength and resilience in order to become a stronger, better balanced, and happier person. Instead of being impatient with ourselves, we should be more like hard wood that grows slowly: not look for quick fixes, but focus more on who we want to become in the long run. Jewel suggests this is possible to do by making decisions that aren’t focused on only the present, getting to the root of the problem we’re facing, and giving ourselves the permission to grow so that we can become the architect of our dreams.

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What should one do in one’s free time?

As long as you have free time, that’s a good thing!

Just one suggestion: use it wisely. Because it’s finite. And because it’s the perfect opportunity to lead a high quality of life.

Here are 5 tips on what to do in your free time.

Tip 1. Spend it on your future self.

Those 48 hours sound like an opportunity to put school or work on pause and just look for what can entertain you. That’s perfectly okay! But many times we end up spending a lot of time doing things that other people want to do. It can be hanging out with a friend because they want to go to a party, even though we don’t feel like going. Or it can be spending a whole afternoon shopping because someone asked us to come along.

How about making a change and devoting some time to yourself? You can create some space to process what you’re going through, and to think where you want to be in 5 or 10 years from now. It’s a good time to dream big: think of that life you want to have in a specific city, with a career in an industry that motivates you, and maybe a partner who’s the right fit. Which is why it’s a good idea to set aside a few hours to do the following:

  • Write down your top 3 goals: they can be personal, professional development, or both.
  • Under each goal, write down 3 things you would need to do on a consistent basis to get you closer to each goal.
  • Create a plan for the week ahead so that you can devote blocks of time to making progress in the areas you’ve identified.
  • In a week, do an assessment of the progress you made. Did some activities take more time than you anticipated? Did you need to plan better? What could you have improved? Then make adjustments for the following week.

Tip 2. Feed your brain.

Use your free time to learn something new, expose your brain to different ideas and perspectives, maybe even others’ point of view. You never know when you might find an idea or two you can implement into your daily life. Use this time to learn, be curious, wonder, question, pause, think. One way to do this is to listen to podcasts. They help to feed your brain, keep you alert and focused, and boost your curiosity. Try some of these podcast ideas:

  • The Tim Ferriss Show. He’s the author of the famous book The 4-Hour Workweek, but this entrepreneur powerhouse is the author of many more—my favorite is Tools of Titans. His podcast is full of interviews with smart people, useful tips on living a high quality life, and excellent advice on everything from important life lessons we can learn from Warren Buffett and Bobby Fischer, to deconstructing concepts such as meditation, mastery, and mindset.
    • Episode ideas: Look for Testing the Impossible: 17 Questions that Saved My Life (#206), How to Design a Life – interview with Debbie Millman (#214), Seth Godin on How to Think Small to Go Big (#177), the Canvas Strategy (#165), and On Zero-to-Hero Transformations (#155).
  • Optimize with Brian Johnson. This podcast feels like getting an education in how to live smarter. It’s about gaining more wisdom in less time to help you live your greatest life. Brian condenses big ideas from the best books on optimal living and micro classes on how to apply these ideas.
    • Episode ideas: Look for The Power of WOOP, based on brain training research by Gabriele Oettingen, PhD; Create Zen Habits with Leo Babauta; and Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. Then check out his micro classes on a variety of topics, from overcoming procrastination to how to train to be a hero.
  • The Model Health Show with Shawn Stevenson. Shawn is an author, nutritionist, and coach and he hosts a fantastic educational show on many interesting topics related to health, fitness, and personal growth. He does a ton of research to prepare for each episode.
    • Episode ideas: Look for tips on how to learn faster and increase focus with memory expert Jim Kwik (#197), how to embrace change and become emotionally agile with Dr. Susan David (#185), how to exercise your “NO” muscle with Michael Hyatt (#206), and how to stop the stress cycle with Dr. Pedram Shojai (#142).

Tip 3. Read books.

Why? It’s the equivalent of living multiple lives; reading can stimulate your imagination, utilize your critical thinking skills, and ultimately, give you food for thought (regardless of whether you agree with what you’re reading or not). And find your thing, fiction or non-fiction, that you’re super interested in.

  • Fiction: Dive deep into the lives of others and get lost in private lives of fictional characters, find out what makes them tick, ask yourself what would you do in their place.
  • Non-fiction: Learn from the experiences of others in their quest to live a happier life, become healthy, start a business, excel at a skill, overcome an obstacle, live a life with more meaning and a sense of purpose.

Tip 4. Forget about TV and find interesting documentaries.

The downside to TV is that it can easily take hours, where you might start watching one show and end up channel surfing. Next thing you know, that precious free time you had is gone. You’re much better off customizing what you watch, which is easy when you look for topics that suit you and your interests the most. Here are a few documentary ideas:

  • Finding Joe: It’s a documentary based on the work of professor and writer of mythology, Joseph Campbell, and the concept of the hero’s journey: why the myth of the hero is still important to us, how we can discover what excites us and gives us greater purpose, and what we can do to apply these ideas to the personal journeys in our lives.
  • The Ancient Worlds: British historian Bettany Hughes shares her passion for ancient societies and talks about everyday life in ancient Alexandria, Rome, and Athens. She gives an in-depth look into the way society was organized among Minoans, Spartans, and the Moors.
  • Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit: Mary Beard, a professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, explores questions such as how the Roman Empire was constructed, how it functioned, what the infrastructure was like, and how different parts of the world merged together to expand one of the most powerful empires of all time.

Tip 5. Be good to yourself.

And here, like everywhere else, you’re the best judge of what this means. Being good to yourself simply means knowing what helps you to relax, what can charge your batteries, what makes you happy. This of course depends on your personal interests, your passions, as well as your personality. And bottom line, it depends on how well you know yourself. Because regardless of whether you’re a true introvert and prefer staying in each evening, or an extrovert who likes to go to concerts and parties, you need to spend quality time doing what is best for you.

  • Do you enjoy spending time with friends? Get a couple of close buddies together for an evening out to watch a movie together, attend a concert, catch up over coffee or dinner at your favorite restaurant.
  • Would you prefer to spend some quiet time alone? Schedule a night in, order takeout, watch a film or a documentary that interests you, or do something else that makes you feel really good, like playing guitar, painting, writing, or any project that really gets your mind engaged.

How do I cultivate a growth mindset?

Let’s be specific: cultivating a growth mindset means that you push yourself wayoutside your comfort zone, challenge your beliefs on what you can and cannot (or “should not”) do, and reprogram your mind so that you can develop your core qualities and skills through deliberate and continuous efforts.

The biggest benefit of having a growth mindset?

It’s incredibly empowering and can make you feel limitless!

Is it possible to do?

Yes.

Having a growth mindset is not something abstract. It’s not for the chosen few. It’s not even related to your age, your social status, or your level of income. But it can definitely impact how old or young you feel, which role you have in your community, and even which level of income you can earn.

And it doesn’t stop there – it can affect your attitude, your confidence, and your levels of happiness.

That’s why cultivating a growth mindset is a worthwhile investment of your time.

If you want to get proactive about it, here are a few tips on where to start:

Tip #1. Learn something new every day.

It can be anything that’s outside your current school curriculum or beyond a particular interest you’re already familiar with. Maybe this month you’ll spend a few evenings watching documentaries on how the Roman Empire was built or what were the biggest achievements of the Renaissance period. Or maybe you’ll want to research something more practical and useful in your daily life, such as which foods can keep you healthy, which tips and shortcuts can save you time, what kinds of habits can help you increase the quality of your life, or which skills you can develop to provide value not just to you but also to your community.

Tip #2. Be adventurous when it comes to absorbing new things.

Why should you limit your learning experience? Just because it’s not taught in school or your friends or family are not interested in pursuing it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time learning something that’s of interest to you. There are many alternatives to how you can learn something new. You can go to the library and pick up books on a topic that you find intriguing. You can take an online class in the evening, or watch free tutorials on YouTube on how to develop a skill you think would be empowering to you. Or, you can ask an expert or someone highly knowledgeable to give you advice on doing something better.

Tip #3. Surround yourself with “growth mindset” people.

Did you hear of the quote, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with”? You may not even be aware of how much those closest to you (which could be family, friends, your partner) can impact your mood, your attitude, your belief system, and even what you perceive to be your strengths or weaknesses? Growth mindset people are easy to spot: they are the ones with a can-do attitude, they exhibit positive and optimistic behavior, and they work hard every day on getting better at something. Conversely, fixed mindset people tend to be constantly negative, they like to criticize and point out what they or others are lacking in, and they may spend too much time talking about other people and not enough time working on bettering themselves.

Tip #4. Change your definition of success.

You may think being successful means that things come easy to you, whether it’s being a straight A student or a swimming champion. The downside to that way of thinking is that you get too comfortable in doing something well with little effort. Instead of thinking that success is being the best, start thinking of success as doing your best. This means you switch your focus from staying in the comfort zone to coming up with ways to improve the way you do your work and manage your personal development. It could means anything from planning a difficult task ahead of time so you can manage it better to waking up 30 minutes earlier so you can work on a habit that can improve your life in some way.

Tip #5. Challenge your perception of failure.

One of the biggest disadvantages to having a fixed mindset is that if you consider yourself successful at something, the first time you encounter a challenging situation in your personal of professional life can make you feel paralyzed and even make you want to give up completely on something. That’s because you don’t have a coping mechanism to fall back on. And that’s why many people feel that if they can’t be the best at something, they shouldn’t even continue doing it. That’s not failure! Instead of seeing your failures as confirmation of your inability to do something, you can start training your brain to see failure as merely a setback. The benefit? This way of thinking can be motivating, informative, and it can even build character. For example, if you fail an exam, don’t automatically think it’s the end of the world. Be honest with yourself how you may have contributed to it, then think of specific ways to make changes so that you do better next time.

Tip #6. Don’t get lazy.

Another drawback to having a fixed mindset is doing something well and then just slipping into complacency. You sit back, take it easy, and expect things to go smoothly from now on. How about making sure it stays that way? For example, if you’ve successfully passed your exams, you don’t have to spend your entire vacation watching TV or gaming; instead, you can make a plan to improve a skill that is important to your personal development, and then work on it for 30 minutes a day. If you finished a big project at work, you don’t have to chitchat with co-workers for hours while the boss is in meetings or taking the day off; you can look for something else that’s relevant to your professional development, such as adding relevant skills to your LinkedIn profile or spending time learning about a new app or tool that can help you do your job more efficiently.

Tip #7. Be open-minded whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Imagine you meet someone who tells you about a personal project they’re working on. Maybe they’re training for a marathon and they’re doing strength training and changing their diet. Or maybe they’re taking a business course so they can learn how to start a side business doing something they’ve always wanted to do. Instead of feeling envious about their pursuits or thinking that you couldn’t possibly do anything similar, you could take a cue from them and spend some time brainstorming an idea or two. Which project can you start or which skill can you work on that can improve the quality of your life? Instead of dismissing new endeavors with a shrug, you can start asking a simple question: “What if…?” For example, what if you conquer something important that you thought you’d never be able to do when you were younger? What if you change your lifestyle (eat more healthy, get strong, read more books, or adopt a pet from an animal shelter) and this opens new doors that will take your life in a different direction? What if feeling better about something you’re doing differently also makes you feel limitless? When you’re open-minded about opportunities, you are constantly growing; you’re challenging yourself daily and you’re taking your future into your own hands. That’s what having a growth mindset really means!

What’s a great educational podcast?

Optimize with Brian Johnson

What makes it a great educational podcast?

It’s a collection of condensed big ideas from the best books on optimal living, from philosophers from ancient Rome and Greece, to contemporary philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and thought leaders from around the world. The episodes are of different lengths: some are 30-minute interviews with writers of the books being discussed, while others are 5-minute micro classes on how to apply ideas from the books to your daily life: in school, at work, in your personal life, and towards achieving your personal goals.

What makes it unique and different?

It’s both fun and informative: the approach, language, and style of presenting the material is engaging without sounding too academic or dry. Every episode has ideas for practical application of the concepts that are covered.

What are some examples of topics presented?

Some of the most important topics covered in the podcast are developing mini habits, the benefits of positive psychology, how to achieve mastery, what helps you keep your focus and motivation on work, the importance of emotional intelligence, tips for mind hacking, why fear is the #1 enemy, how strategy and a good plan can help you master your life, and others.

What’s an example of a book that is recommended?

This is my #1 podcast where I get the majority of book recommendations, including most recently Seneca’s small book On the Shortness of Life. I wrote a review of the most important ideas from this book in this post.

Any suggestions on what’s a good time to listen to this podcast?

Try it at the beginning of your day: as you’re getting ready, while you’re having breakfast, or during your commute to work or school. You can also maximize the time when you’re running errands, doing household chores, or taking a walk during your lunch break or in the evening when you have some time to yourself. All of these times are an excellent opportunity to feed your brain and get new ideas for making a positive change in your life and taking your education to the next level.

What kind of books should I read if I want to become a smarter person?

Get super strategic about the types of books that can help you discover the world, enhance your learning experience, give you skills to become smarter about what you can do, and overall improve the quality of your life.

 

Start with several ideas to customize your own fun and informative reading experience:

Idea #1. Download the Goodreads app as your starting point.

It’s one of the most practical ways to stay on top of reading. With this app you can:

  • Discover new books and authors and check out book lists
  • View book summaries, reviews and updates from your network
  • Get recommendations based on your personal reading preferences by genre, topic, and author
  • Use the barcode scanner to scan books you find in a bookstore or library
  • Keep an up-to-date status of your reading by selecting books you want to read, those you’re currently reading, and those you’ve finished

Idea #2. Use Quora as a source for what to read.

  • Get a list of recommendations on the best books of all time
  • Regularly check and skim through answers under the Book Recommendations topic
  • Follow writers who post frequently about books and book recommendations, and write down the names of books they write about if the topics intrigue and fascinate you

Idea #3. Get condensed book ideas to speed up your selection process.

Idea #4. Read books on developing a life philosophy by discovering unique life stories of interesting and wise people.

  • Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl: the psychology of survival and finding strength to live in circumstances where most would give up. It is written as a real life story by a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. A very humbling reading experience.
  • The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer: it reads like a roadmap to achieving happiness. The author explores what letting go can do to one’s life and what can happen when we tune out the noise of our busy lives.
  • The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer: a book about transforming your relationship with yourself and the world around you. It reads as a practical guide to letting go of painful experiences, living mindfully, and freeing yourself from habitual thoughts, emotions and energies that limit your growth, your work, and the quality of your life.
  • Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh: it is a practical guide to finding peace, reducing daily stress, and overcoming fears, written in a voice that is kind, calm, reassuring, and wise – a true mark of a spiritual leader.
  • Mastery by Robert Greene: this book debunks the myth that it takes a genius with innate talent to produce work of timeless quality. It’s full of examples of some of the biggest minds through history, and it emphasizes how focus, true passion and dedicating ourselves to doing deep work all make us successful in what we do.

Idea #5. Pick books to boost your strategic and leadership skills that you can use to build your career or personal development.

  • The Prince by Machiavelli: learn in depth about human behavior, politics, and gaining power.
  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu: think ahead, develop tactics to manage conflict, and ensure victory.
  • Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield: find out how to go from amateur to a complete professional, and what it takes to gain respect from others as well as yourself.
  • The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin: learn the importance of working on the resistance you feel when faced with a challenging situation, instead of simply giving up.
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: learn from high-achievers and what makes them different, and discover whether it’s genius, talent, or mastering a skill through overcoming a difficulty that makes them be the best in their field.
  • The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: it can help you understand the impact of the highly improbable and our error of placing too much weight on the odds that events from the past will repeat themselves.

Idea #6. Work on developing a more positive mindset.

Idea #7. Ask!

Whenever you have the chance, ask people which book they’re reading and if they’d recommend it. You never know: sometimes you might get an answer you couldn’t have guessed, and many times you’ll be glad you started the conversation to get to know them better. Some places and situations where this can work best:

  • Waiting in line at the bust stop or coffee shop
  • In a bookstore
  • During lunch break at school or work
  • Hanging out with friends on a walk, hike, or anywhere outdoors
  • Catching up over the phone with someone you haven’t seen in a while, but whose opinions you respect

How do you find and choose good books to read?

There are many outstanding books out there! My toughest question isn’t only to identify which ones I want to read, but also when and in which order to read them. If I have more time, that’s easy. But if I have a crazy schedule, it takes some negotiating with myself. Regardless of how busy my day gets, my goal is to always schedule in an hour in the evening (at least) or else during an afternoon break to get away and spend some time by myself.

Now for the selection process. Here are a few guidelines I use to select which books to read:

  • Getting recommendations from a friend who is a published writer and has an excellent reading track record. This means years of serious reading, discovering interesting writers from all over the world, and going in depth with those whose writing style commands respect and a unique perspective on life and the human psyche.
  • Picks from GoodreadsWhat a great app for reviews, summaries, and keeping track of what you’re reading and want to read! I’ve found that skimming the reviews gives me a good idea of what to expect, especially when the review comes from someone who takes the time to explain the book in detail.
  • Going by mood and geography: I’ve noticed that I sometimes have a pattern in picking one continent, then zooming into one specific region. For example:
    • Africa: Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana
    • Europe: Italy, France, Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden
    • Asia: India, Japan
  • Letting one good book lead the way: discovering one author, then getting everything they’ve written: for example, this happened when I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s  AmericanahI had to immediately get Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, even the tiny and less known We Should All Be Feminists.
  • Going deep into the brilliant mind of one particular author: because of the way they describe how human beings think and feel and because of their unwavering love for one country. I have tremendous respect for these two writers whose books and inner worlds just blow my mind:
  • Reading Nobel Prize winners: For the timeless quality of writing. Recently from the contemporaries it’s been:
  • Going back to the classics: because in their work there is something that applies to all of us, even to this day. I am amazed how well many of them portrayed the human spirit, our struggles, our passions, and the thoughts that keep us up at night. It’s a diverse range of what I consider the classics; this group might include:
    • the Sufi mystic poet Rumi
    • the Stoic philosopher Seneca
  • Picking non-fiction books based on my personal interests: lately I’ve been exploring in depth the topics of mastery, mindset, and the hero’s journey:

How do you stay productive and engaged when you’re on vacation?

What a great question!

 

Here’s what not to do:

  • Sleep in until noon every day.
  • Be on the phone most of the day.
  • Watch TV until the early hours of the morning.

That would be such a waste!

Treat the extra time you have as a gift: be grateful for it, enjoy it, make the most of it.

So what does that look like?

Use some (or all!) of these ideas to make this vacation a different, better, and more productive one.

Make a vacation plan.

  • First, consider how much time you have: one week, a month, or just 5 days? Write down the actual number of days at your disposal.
  • Next, write down a list of the top 5–10 things you’ve been wanting to do all year but didn’t get around to doing, or just barely started doing. These should not be things you’ve been putting off, such as chores. They should be activities that you enjoy doing, that are important for your personal development, or that you’ve been thinking about doing for a long time.
  • Finally, circle the top 3–5 things that are the most important to you. Here’s where you get to practice your prioritizing skills. Which items on the list do you believe you would regret not doing on the last day of your vacation? Which are the things you know right now you will not have time for later? Those should make your final list.

Schedule your vacation.

  • In a notebook, devote one page for each day of your vacation. Write the day on top of the page. Then divide up the page into 3 sections: for morning (until noon or 1, when you have lunch), afternoon (1–6 p.m.), and evening (6 p.m. to bedtime).
  • Block off times for your meals and when you need to tend to any responsibilities, if you have them (running errands, for example).
  • For each day, block off one hour in the afternoon and write “JUST ME!” in that time slot. This will be the time for – you guessed it – just you. Use it as you wish: sit outside in the sun, lie on the floor listening to music, or look out the window with a cup of coffee in hand and observe the world. Let this time be the space for free thinking, daydreaming, or just breathing.
  • Then, go back to your list of 3–5 most important things, then schedule them in so you are doing a little of each every day. How much? Select the time that works best for you, but keep it to 1–2 hour blocks of time. For example, if you want to start (or continue) learning a foreign language, you’ll need a continuous block of time to cover one chapter, which might take 90 minutes.

Max out your mornings.

Get smarter about entertainment.