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“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” — Madeleine L’Engle
One of the most common questions that I get after a speech is, “What did you study in college to learn all this stuff?”
Honestly, my formal education has little to do with it. I spent most of college screwing around and trying to game the system so I could get good grades without doing much work.
Everything valuable that I’ve learned in life so far has come from one of three sources:
1) Taking action and learning as I go
2) Other people, particularly mentors, friends, and family
I read about 40 books a year with a rough balance of fiction and non-fiction. So far, four of them have profoundly changed my life…
1. The Drifters
“The Drifters” by James A Michener: this was a gift from my dad when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. It’s the story of a small a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings who drop out of normal society and start travelling the world.
Along the way they navigate through sex, drugs, romance, the draft, criminal underworlds, death, loss, and adventure. These kids see the world and experience life firsthand during their formative young adult years.
How it changed my life: when I started reading “The Drifters”, I was a frustrated college student. I hated spending my days studying the world from the sterile confines of the classroom. I wanted to experience the world and see it for myself.
Before reading “The Drifters” it had never occurred to me that I could leave the well-worn path of going directly from high school to college to the “real world” with no breaks in between. “The Drifters” opened my eyes to the possibility of world travel at a young age.
I finished reading this book in the spring of 2009. By winter of that year, I had dropped out of college and booked a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.
“Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse: at times I find it frustrating to read Hesse. His talents and insights are so profound that honestly, it’s intimidating to me.
“Siddhartha” is the story of a boy who leaves his family, friends, culture, and religion to seek enlightenment. He lives with roaming aesthetics in the woods, meets the Buddha, becomes a successful businessman, learns love from a beautiful courtesan, attempts to kill himself, and eventually renounces it all.
“Siddhartha” is one of those haunting books that is packed with more wisdom and insight than I can digest in one reading. Or ten readings, for that matter. It makes me think that Hesse understands something about love and life that the rest of us probably don’t.
The only other book I’ve ever read that I thought offered as much insight into the human condition was “East of Eden” by Steinbeck.
How it changed my life: “Siddhartha” did two things for me.
First, it helped me understand something I had suspected for a long time: if you want to hit the bleeding edge of your potential, you have to blaze your own trail.
When Siddhartha (also the name of the main character) follows the paths laid out by his teachers, friends, family, and society, his ability to fully express himself is stifled. It’s only when Siddhartha finds the courage to follow his own internal compass that he reaches enlightenment.
Second, “Siddhartha” primed me for an issue I dealt with last year. I used to live under the delusion that if I could only get my business to work, if I could only amass influence and money, that I would be happy.
But that hasn’t been the case. Some of the times when I have appeared to be the most “successful” have also been some of the most miserable moments of my life.
“Siddhartha” helped me understand that success in the material world can be at odds with success in the emotional, spiritual, and mental world.
Note: for anyone who questions whether or not money and success will bring happiness, I urge you to watch the amazing documentary “The Queen of Versailles.”This doc should be mandatory viewing for all people living in capitalist cultures.
3. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
“The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra: I’m not a fan of the new age genre. I think it’s ridiculous. A lot of the authors claim to be scientists and doctors but habitually confuse quantum physics (science) with quantum mysticism (faith).
It’s not that one is better than the other; both faith and science have their place. It’s that passing faith off as science (or vice versa) totally misses the point. It also devalues both fields so significantly that they become nearly meaningless.
So when my mom gave me a copy of “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” as a graduation gift, I thought it was stupid. In fact, I promptly placed it on the lowest shelf of my bookcase and forgot about it.
One evening while I was boxing up books to give away, I came across “Seven Spiritual Laws” and chucked it into the box. It landed with the back cover up. I noticed that several of the testimonials on the back were from authors and thinkers I admired.
So I took it out of the giveaway box and decided to read it, and I am really, really glad I did. “Seven Spiritual Laws” is packed with amazing advice on how to structure your spiritual life.
Chopra’s laws are simple and lucid. They are designed to move your life from scarcity to abundance, from chaotic to controlled, from impoverished to generous.
They fit nicely into an existing life. More relevantly, they work.
How it changed my life: “Seven Spiritual Laws” helped me make two significant changes.
First, it inspired me to start meditating. After reading this book I understood that meditation needed to be a part of my life. This may not be true for everyone, but it is true for me. I took courses on different styles until I found vipassana, which fits me well.
Now I spend about 20 minutes a day meditating. When I started meditating it felt as though I had been forgetting to drink water for twenty-something years.
The other way “Seven Spiritual Laws” has changed my life is by making me more generous. Chopra advocates donating a portion of each paycheck to charity. When I first started doing this, I could only afford to donate a few dollars – like $3-5 -from each check, and even still, I’m glad I did. [Full disclosure: I’m not perfect about this habit, but I do my best].
Creating the habit of generosity has obvious benefits for the organizations you donate to, but there is also a more subtle benefit for the donor. In a world of scarcity and isolation, it reminds you of your good fortune and your connection to other people’s lives.
4. The Inner Game of Tennis
“The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey: Of all the books on this list, this is the one I recommend and give to people the most.
While a student, Gallwey was the captain of Harvard’s tennis team and went on to coach tennis professionally. Then he discovered meditation and applied it to tennis. He became one of the most sought after – and effective – sports coaches in the world.
“The Inner Game of Tennis” isn’t really about tennis. It uses tennis as a vehicle to teach you how your mind works.
You learn how to optimize your mind for skill acquisition, stress management, habit development, focus, and a whole host of other skills. It even helped one of my friends overcome depression (seriously).
How it changed my life: reading the “Inner Game of Tennis” felt like waking up. Prior to reading this book I didn’t have effective tools for controlling and harnessing my mind besides meditation. And even then, I didn’t exactly understand how to apply meditation to my day-to-day.
“The Inner Game of Tennis” changed that. It’s helped me stay focused, eliminate bad habits, release negative feelings, and dwell in the present moment. It’s improved nearly every attribute of my personal and professional life. And yes, that includes improving my tennis and racquet ball game, though my dad still beats me most of the time we play. I don’t want to talk about it…
The average American reads five or fewer books per year (source). This is troubling. Few activities are more mind expanding than reading. If you really want to understand yourself and the world around you, if you really want to get as much out of your experience as possible, read.
What about you? Has a book ever changed your life? If so, let me know in the comments – I’m always looking for good recommendations.
Photo credit: “Books” by Robert Couse-Baker