The 16 Non-Fiction Books That Changed My Life

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone

It’s not everyday I can write a Buzzfeed-esque headline that speaks the truth. I know, this headline looks like it could have been spit out of a clickbait generator tool. But in reality, each of these books have dramatically shifted my attitude, career, and general philosophy. These are the 16 non-fiction books — alphabetically ordered — that changed my life. I hope you find them as transformative as I did. 

📚 A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

I discovered A Mind for Numbers as a student of Dr. Oakley’s incredibly popular Learning How to Learn course. Both the book and course teach students, of all ages, scientifically backed learning techniques. The book is geared toward students struggling with math but is jam packed with advice for anyone eager to learn new things. It simplifies complex studies of the brain, motivation, and memory into an approachable format with actionable techniques. I wish this book existed when I was in high school. 

“Mistakes are inevitable. To work past them, start early on your assignments and, unless you are really enjoying what you are doing, keep your working sessions short. Remember, when you take breaks, your diffuse mode is still working away in the background. It’s the best deal around—you continue to learn while you are taking it easy.” 

📚 Awareness: Conversations with the Masters by Anthony de Mello

Every page of Awareness is spilling over with wisdom. I’m not talking about cute little anecdotes that make you smile and feel warm and fuzzy inside. No, these are paradigm shifting insights that make you stop, close your eyes, and evaluate how you’re living life. De Mello, a Jesuit priest born in India, has created a spiritual masterpiece that weaves together insights from his life and nearly every religion. 

“To say no to people—that’s wonderful; that’s part of waking up. Part of waking up is that you live your life as you see fit. And understand: That is not selfish. The selfish thing is to demand that someone else live their life as YOU see fit. That’s selfish. It is not selfish to live your life as you see fit. The selfishness lies in demanding that someone else live their life to suit your tastes, or your pride, or your profit, or your pleasure. That is truly selfish.”

📚 Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins

I can’t stop recommending Can’t Hurt Me since finishing the book a few months ago. On the surface, it looks like any old self-help book urging you to get off your ass and attack life. I’ve read a lot of those books and I usually revert back to my old ways within a few days. This book is different — I just can’t get it out of my head. I think the differentiator is that David Goggins has lived every word. Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, world-record holder, ultra marathon athlete and professional surmounter of impossible odds. Goggins’ message is all about conquering your mind and his story is so truthfully brutal that it can’t be ignored. I also recommend his Instagram account for a weekly dose of motivation.

“What am I capable of? I couldn’t answer that question, but as I looked around the finish line that day and considered what I’d accomplished, it became clear that we are all leaving a lot of money on the table without realizing it. We habitually settle for less than our best; at work, in school, in our relationships, and on the playing field or race course. We settle as individuals, and we teach our children to settle for less than their best, and all of that ripples out, merges, and multiplies within our communities and society as a whole.”

📚 Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Constantly focusing on trying to do more in less time is a loser’s bargain. Instead, McKeown urges us to flip the rules in our favor: only do what’s important. I picked up this book while I was juggling several personal and professional projects and struggling to keep all the balls in the air. After finishing Essentialism, I took the time to figure out which balls are important and that it’s OK to let the other ones fall to the ground. 

“Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. People and companies routinely try to do just that.”

📚 Leonardo DaVinci by Walter Isaacson

Lenoardo DaVinci is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. We’re quick to classify DaVinci as a just an artist but this book reveals him to be a true student of life. I couldn’t help but compare DaVinci’s methods for satiating his thirst for knowledge against modern times. He sought to understand by personally observing and experimenting. Compare that to today, where I can rattle off a quick Google search to answer any fleeting question. Is my reliance on instant results stifling my capacity for experimentation? 

“So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. Florence flourished in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable with such people. Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.” (Walter Isaacson , Leonardo Da Vinci)

📚 Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I’ve always been drawn to philosophy books and Meditations is a classic. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD and is considered a father of Stoic Philosophy. In this book, Aurelius shares his advice for putting life into perspective and how to find tranquility in almost any situation. 

“To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.” 

📚 Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

Mistakes Were Made is all about cognitive dissonance — how our brains despise conflict and will go to extreme measures to create a consistent storyline in our heads. This phenomenon happens to everyone, everyday, and we’re none the wiser. The book exposes the tricks we play on ourselves and is a treasure map to uncover the blind spots in our minds.  

“Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it.”

📚 Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss & Tahl Raz

Voss was the former lead FBI hostage negotiator and his book focuses on the softer negotiation skills. Your BATNA and ZOPA are less important when you’re on the phone with a bank robber holding six hostages at gunpoint. His book explains how to extract more information from the other side and how to encourage them to negotiate with themselves. It’s a great blend of practicality, with exact scripts to use, and entertainment, with war stories from negotiations with international terrorists. 

“It’s almost laughably simple: for the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective.” 

📚 On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler

I would expect most people to open On Grief and Grieving when they’re experiencing extreme loss. That’s what I did. I picked it up shortly after my mom died after a twenty month battle with pancreatic cancer.  But I wish I didn’t wait for such a traumatic experience to learn the principles from this book. Yes, it helped me get through an extremely challenging time. But it also empowered me to face the smaller, yet still important, losses that we experience more frequently. It also taught me ways to better support others while they are grieving.

“As tough as it is, depression can be dealt with in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety. When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will leave as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.” 

📚 Suggestible You by Erik Vance

Suggestible You opened my eyes to the seemingly impossible powers of the mind. Vance digs deep into the placebo effect, false memories, and the pharmaceutical cabinet between our ears. The placebo effect is usually discussed in a negative fashion but Vance clarifies how it works and how it can be harnessed. He also keeps the storyline interesting by playing the role of human guinea pig —  voluntarily hiring a Mexican witch doctor to curse him and trying his luck at hypnosis.

“In fact, placebos and expectation are so effective against depression that it is difficult to find a drug that’s more powerful. From 1987 to 1999 the pharmaceutical industry exploded with depression meds like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Luvox, and Celexa—each of which has become a blockbuster drug and presumably helped millions of suffering people. But if you look at drug studies during this time, about 75 to 80 percent of their efficacy can be attributed to placebo effects. And if you look carefully, there was no real difference between high doses and low doses, which is odd and suggests the meds weren’t as effective as we thought. (Usually, for a truly effective drug, you would expect a difference. Imagine a high dose of morphine versus a small one.”

📚 The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

This book was a masterclass in changing my outlook towards the accumulation of money. The prevailing wisdom in America is pretty straightforward: sacrifice time to gather money now in the hopes we have time in the future to enjoy that money. Ferriss urges us to challenge that notion and, instead, treat money as a tool that lets us achieve specific goals — right now. The book frames this outlook with modern tools and work styles that fly in the face of the traditional 9-to-5. 

“$1,000,000 in the bank isn’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the lifestyle of complete freedom it supposedly allows.”

📚 The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Most business books speak hypothetically about how things should be. Horowitz throws the rose colored glasses out the window and focuses on how to deal with the inevitable difficulties inherent to every business. What to do when your business is tanking. How to manage difficult employees. The best way to communicate bad news. It’s all real and it’s all in this book. 

[advice given to Ben on how to communicate a dire business situation]
“No matter what we say, we’re going to get killed. As soon as we reset guidance, we’ll have no credibility with investors, so we might as well take all the pain now, because nobody will believe any positivity in the forecast anyway. If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble.”

📚 The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by John Bogle

This is an excellent introduction to anyone who’s interested in taking control of their personal finances. Bogle founded investing behemoth Vanguard and essentially invented the index fund. His simple principles are the foundation for my personal investing strategy. He explains why index funds are your best friend and how, lucky for you, a successful portfolio is pretty damn boring. 

“Adding a fourth law to Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion, the inimitable Warren Buffett puts the moral of the story this way: For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases.”

📚 The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson

I love this book because it flies in the face the “overnight success” mantra we’ve all been conditioned to chase. Olson’s premise is simple. You don’t need incredible skill or a brilliant idea — you just need to do the little things, every day, for a long time. Those little things are easy to do, but they’re also just as easy not to do. This approach was the driving factor in my dramatic increase in writing output this past year. Instead of trying to write a certain number of articles, I used the Slight Edge principle and attempted to write twenty minutes each day. The results didn’t matter, just that I spent twenty focused minutes on writing. That effort turned into twenty articles in a single year — the same amount I wrote in the prior seven years combined.

“The secret of time is simply this: time is the force that magnifies those little, almost imperceptible, seemingly insignificant things you do every day into something titanic and unstoppable. consistently repeated daily actions + time = inconquerable results.” 

📚 Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Paying $9.99 for a few hundred sheets of paper can feel expensive. And then you pay $9.99 for a few hundred sheets written by Kahneman, the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, and your opinion changes. Kahneman discovered the two systems that drive how we think: System 1 — quick, intuitive, and emotional; and System 2 — methodical, paced, and logical. How do these forces impact our decision making? How can System 1 impact our judgement? When should we trust System 2 vs System 1?  Tap into decades of groundbreaking research for under ten bucks and find out. 

“…it is an anchoring effect. It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered—hence the image of an anchor. If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35. If you consider how much you should pay for a house, you will be influenced by the asking price. The same house will appear more valuable if its listing price is high than if it is low, even if you are determined to resist the influence of this number; and so on—the list of anchoring effects is endless.” 

📚 Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Matthew Walker, neuroscience professor and sleep expert, awakened me (bad pun intended) to the life altering power of sleep. In my post about The Forgotten Foundation of Human Performance, I summarized three book themes: Sleep improves almost every facet of human performance, not enough sleep will significantly hinder our capabilities, and virtually all of us need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. The science is powerful and the book is persuasive.

“I doubt you are surprised by this fact, but you may be surprised by the consequences. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure.”

What books have changed your life? 

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  1. This is an amazing list. I want to check them all—except the first one. The math ship has sailed.
    The (non-fiction) books that have changed my life are:
    The Bhagavad Guita, The Four Agreements, The Defining Decade, The Power of Habit, Lean In, and more recently, The Untethered Soul.

    1. Will have to add these to my reading list! Also, don’t write off “A Mind for Numbers” — it’s all about scientifically proven ways to learn anything…not just math.

  2. I haven’t read that many nonfiction books in my life but I’m excited to dig into your list! Two I’ve read recently that I love:

    —You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero

    —Good Morning Good Night by Lin Manuel Miranda (more of a daily devotion than a book).

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