There are two ways to learn. You can do it yourself or learn from others.
Since most of us don’t have access to the smartest and most talented people in the world (and most of them are dead) books are paramount in educating oneself.
Never stop reading. Build your own library over the course of your life. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have time to read all of the books, just having them around will inspire you to pick up a book often because it’s right there and you picked it out yourself. One book you liked will lead you to new books to investigate.
Unread books are also a constant reminder that there’s so much that you don’t know and may never know.
Reading just 10 pages a day you’ll be surprised at how many books you’ll finish in a year (do the math for your lifetime).
If a book doesn’t connect with you then just abandon that book, no need to kill your joy of reading by trying to be disciplined about finishing a book that you don’t like. There’s always the next book – and that one might change your life.
E-readers are great for travelling where the space is limited but a library at home is better. Having something physical that you’ll see and appreciate on your bookshelf will remind you of the subject and give you pleasure.
Underlining key passages that you like with a pen and inserting a post it to quickly find them again will make sure that the insights that connected with you are always accessible to you – just reach out and grab the book. It also makes reading more involved and helps you to remember. don’t worry about ruining the book – they’re cheap and you can always get another.
Here are 6 books that I have read that have influenced my life (The list changes as I read more).
1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who wrote down key insights to himself while on a military campaign in Germany fighting the local tribes. Marcus was influenced by Stoicism which is a practical philosophy – a way of life. The key in stoicism – to a happy life – is to not let external events harm you.
It is an approach to reacting to your own thoughts about external events that are not either good or bad before your thoughts paints them so.
Marcus also writes about the universe, death, luxury and opens the book by listing character traits that he likes and appreciates about his relatives, friends etc. Something that might seem trivial but is really the key to appreciating the people around us and to feel thankful for them.
The Gregory Hays translation is easy to read, the older translations are in something reminiscent of Shakespeare English.
2. Man’s Search for meaning by Victor Frankl
Victor Frankl was a holocaust survivor and the first part of the book describes what he experienced in the concentration camps in Germany – the second part of the book are his reflections.
No matter how bad and wretched your external events and environment is you always have a choice that can never be taken away from you. That choice is how you respond in your mind to the external events. The attitude you take.
To really simplify this with a banality: Let’s say you drop your glass of milk that splinters and spills all over the newly cleaned floor. Now you can either choose not to get angry about this and let it affect you negatively or you can choose to get angry and let it spoil your immediate mood. The same goes for an argument with a spouse etc.
Another book that illustrates this topic (by example) is “Death Be Not Proud” By John Gunther – this is a book describing the loss of his son the 17 year-old Johnnie to a cancer tumor in the brain.
Johnnie kept a positive attitude through the harrowing ordeal and left a lasting imprint on all that he came into contact with through the strength of his spirit in adversity until his inevitable premature death (He loved chemestry and even corresponded with Einsten in a “fanletter”).
Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust
Death Be Not Proud (P.S. (Paperback))
3. Mindfullness for beginners by Jonn Kabat-Zin
The key takeaways from Aurelius and Frankl really came together for me when I read “Mindfullness for beginners” (Mindfullness is just a fancy word for the same thing that people have been doing for thousands of years in the east) and did some of the meditations on the CD.
When you empty your mind and focus on your breathing you’ll notice involuntary thoughts appearing constantly. If you don’t follow the thoughts they’ll quickly disappear (like rings in water) and after a while there will be longer time between them.
This will illustrate to you that you always have a choice in how to react to thoughts – you are not their slave.
I also read “Zen mind a beginner’s mind” by Suzuki and realized that the method in that book is exactly the same as modern Mindfullness. So there’s nothing new under the sun here.
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment-and Your Life
4. The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
Evolutinoary psychology has a theory to explain just about all of our behaviour from the standpoint of genetic evolution.
A lot of these theories are very plausible and you’ll be surprised at your basic motivations such as “reciprocal altruism” and the pitfalls of your marriage and friendships.
Knowing where your basic impulses comes from will help you to curb them with rational thought and willpower.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are
5. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
Taleb is one of my favorite autors and I like all of his books. Taleb describes how some things are “fragile” and is destroyed/dislikes disorder, some things are “robust” and don’t gain nor loose from disorder (small rock) and some things are “antifragile” the opposite of fragile. These things gain from disorder (this could be evolution, entrepreneurs, your body after weightlifting as it overcompensates for the stressor etc.).
This point of view has influenced me to strive to not be fragile in an economic sense – meaning that I have now payed off all my debt so I owe no one and I now keep ample cash (reduced my exposure to the stock market in anticipation of the next crash that will surely happen sooner or later) on hand. This way I don’t have to worry too much about financial matters in the short term and I may actually benefit from a sudden economic crash (I can spend cash to buy stuff cheaply from those who are laden with debt and hence fragile).
So instead of being molested by a “Black Swan” event (market crash, getting fired etc.) I might have the opportunity to benefit while still benefitting a good deal from upswings. Keep the upside and limit the downside in all things in life.
Another thing to note here is to not constantly check your portfolio (or your subscriber number on a YouTube channel for that matter) as a loss will hurt 2,5 times more than the equivalent pleasure of a gain, so even though you eventually come out on top with (say at year’s end) a big gain all of the variations along the way will net you an emotional deficit.
Taleb can come off in his books as being quite arrogant and that might put you off, but just see past it and benefit from his wisdom.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
6. Letters – and other writings by Seneca
Seneca was a Roman philosoper that was influenced by Stoicism but was also one of the richest men in Rome at his time despite being a Stoic (or maybe because of).
Here you’ll get such timeless advice as this: “To make a man richer don’t give him more money, subtract from his desires” and to further explain “nature’s wants are slight but the wants of opinion are boundless” All you really need (as nature has made it so) is some food to eat so that you’re not hungry as opposed to a feast, all you need is a place to call home and sleep as opposed to a mansion, all you need is companionship as opposed to climbing the social ladder, adultery etc. On top of the basic needs that nature requires that we fill, we build illusions and castles made of sand.
Contemplate that all of the wealth in the world can not procure a better drink for sating a thirst than water (imagine that you just came out of the desert).
Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (Classics)
Naturally none of my descriptions or attempts to explain a little bit of them do the books or concepts justice – That’s the thing – a second hand account, summary, YouTube video or anything else than the direct source never will.
What are some of your favorite books and how have they changed your life?