The Best Books I Read in 2014
I’ve always tried to read as much as possible.
While making time for it doesn’t always happen, I know that I’m only limited by the information in front of me.
As I’ve heard human performance expert Kelly Starrett quip (paraphrased): ‘In the past we didn’t know. Now we know: the best way to eat, the best way to train–all the information is available. If you’re not awesome now, it’s your own damn fault.’
So inhaling large amounts of information and integrating it always has to be part of the schedule. The only problem is that with limited time we have to make sure we’re focusing on the right information. That’s why I rely so heavily on recommendations, and why I thought this list might be useful.
A caveat: “best” is totally subjective and ignores the importance of timing and experience. The right message at the right time can change your life, and while most of the “best” books are important just for getting the same message in a slightly different way, they won’t blow the doors off your imagination if it isn’t new stuff.
That being said, here are the books that made a big impression on me last year (I’ve also included a few favorites from 2013 at the bottom.)
#1 The One Thing
In one sentence: Learn how to get shit done by doing things that actually matter.
Summary: In a string of dominoes, each domino can tip another over another larger domino, even if the second domino has 50% more mass. This means that if you set up a chain of dominoes where each piece was 50% bigger than the last one, the 31st domino would tower over Mt. Everest by 3000 ft. Tipping over the first domino on the road to any goal is easy, the question is: how do you figure out what the first domino is?
Key Quote: “To-do lists inherently lack the intent of success. In fact, most to-do lists are actually just survival lists—getting you through your day and your life, but not making each day a stepping-stone for the next so that you sequentially build a successful life. Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results. “
I have a (virtual) stack of books now related to productivity and execution, but few deliver like The One Thing.
In my 4-Hour Workweek tribute post I mentioned that while writing down your goals (via the Dreamline exercise) is the most important part, not having an execution roadmap (beyond a few initial steps) means it’s easy to get lost before you reach them.
This book helps solve that problem by:
- giving you a chain of actions to reach an endpoint,
- simplifying the crucial question of “What do I do next?” and
- making a lot of action obsolete by focusing your effort on the one thing that makes everything else easy or irrelevant.
This is one of my absolute favorites for 2014 and I’ll be revisiting it often.
Get it on Amazon: The One Thing – Jay Papasan and Gary W. Keller
#2 The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers
In one sentence: Challenge you’re ultimate fears as a vehicle for self-improvement.
Summary: Written for rock climbers–although in no way restricted to them as an audience–this book sums up the stoic warrior traditions that have timelessly helped individuals conquer fear and inspire massive action.
Key Quote: “The warrior philosophy derives from the uniquely demanding situation facing a soldier or combatant, such as a samurai, in a deadly duel. He must perform with absolute mastery and calm in the face of horrendous mortal danger. In preparation, the warrior hones his body and mind. If he does not, he will not live long. In battle, he must be acutely aware of subtle details in the environment, his behavior and his opponent’s behavior, yet remain completely impassive about his own peril. If he clings too dearly to his own life, or is ruled by his Ego, he will seek escape; his attention will waver; he will be destroyed. Paradoxically, if he adopts a stance of embracing the risk and accepting the consequences, he is far more likely to survive. It is easy to see how the warrior mentality can be applied to the risky business of rock climbing.”
I started this book in June while rock climbing in Mallorca, Spain, and was blown away. How do you systematically confront the fears in your life? This book has some answers.
Will I survive this? Why am I doing this? I’m definitely going to fail and fall and die. Very few things in life confront fear so directly.
I’ve always been interested rock climbing as a sport, but especially as a tool for self-improvement. Becoming a better rock climber, the thinking goes, should make me a better person.
The beauty of the book is the generalized framework for using fear–in the moment of action–as a vehicle. But even more importantly, teaching you that fear is derived from your Ego’s fixation on outcomes and not understanding the ultimate goal: learning.
Basically if it scares the hell out of you, make a plan, deal with your ego, commit, and go big.
The framework can be applied to any part of life and I recommend the book to anyone, especially entrepreneurs.
Get it on Amazon: The Rock Warrior’s Way – Arno IIgner
#3 The Art of Learning
In one sentence: Former chess prodigy, Tai-Chi master, and black belt in Jujitsu discusses his framework for systematized learning.
Summary: Josh Waitzkin, now a full grown adult, was the child prodigy depicted in that chess movie we all watched as kids, Searching for Bobby Fischer. If that wasn’t amazing enough, he later become a world champion in Tai Chi and is now a black-belt in Jujitsu under the undisputed champion of the sport. Profoundly intelligent, Josh discusses his approach to learning.
You could say that Josh is the other end of the spectrum from Tim Ferris. Where Ferris is focused on achieving 80% proficiency in the shortest time possible, Waitzkin is focused on mastery of very few disciplines. The amazing part is, he’s risen to the highest level of everything he’s practiced.
This book is about how he approaches the learning process and lessons learning over his career as a chess master and world competitor in Tai Chi.
Part of the discussion centers on one of my favorite topics: skill transfer, i.e. the justification for being a jack of all trades. As Waitzkin writes, “I was focused on the water trickling back out to sea and suddenly knew the answer to a chess problem I had been wrestling with for weeks. Another time, after completely immersing myself in the analysis of a chess position for eight hours, I had a breakthrough in my Tai Chi and successfully tested it in class that night. Great literature inspired chess growth, shooting jump shots on a New York City blacktop gave me insight about fluidity that applied to Tai Chi, becoming at peace holding my breath seventy feet underwater as a free-diver helped me in the time pressure of world championship chess or martial arts competitions. Training in the ability to quickly lower my heart rate after intense physical strain helped me recover between periods of exhausting concentration in chess tournaments.”
Get it on Amazon: The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin
Also: Check out the podcast interview with Tim Ferris here.
#4 Millionaire Fastlane
In one sentence: The 4-hour Workweek on steroids.
Summary: A much more detailed explanation of how to write down what you really want (monetarily speaking) and go after it.
If you can get past the sort of “I’m rich and you can go f*ck yourself” ethos of this book it offers a tremendous amount of useful information. Part practical guide, part mindset coaching, and part kick in the ass, I’m suggesting this as a follow-up to the 4-hour Workweek, what you read when you decide you really want to make some money.
For example, if your goal is $1 million a year, that’s ‘only’ $2739 a day. The point is: let’s break this down into manageable pieces and define our endpoints (how much money do you actually want) before we go after it. If you’ve done any kind of business you know how a) important it is to have financial targets b) how quickly you can change numbers when you write down a roadmap to achieve them.
The other key is developing a mindset that allows for whatever amount of success you really want: if you don’t think you can make a million dollars (assuming you want to do that) you never will.
Don’t kid yourself either–if you want to make a lot of money you’re going to bust your ass for a long time.
Get it on Amazon: The Millionaire Fastlane – MJ DeMarco
#5 Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival
In one sentence: Your lack of sleep–and excessive exposure to artificial light–is killing you.
Summary: Late night exposure to blue light means no melatonin production (sleep hormone and most potent antioxidant in the body) which means no anti-cancer, anti-aging machinery, growth hormone, repair, etc. etc. The answer? Install Flux onto all devices, sleep in total darkness (where you can’t see your hand in front of your face), and in general, turn the damn lights off.
At first I thought this book–and the notion that lack of sleep is at the root of all of our illnesses–was a bit alarmist. At least until two qualified friends (doctors, and one an expert in this sort of thing) confirmed it’s totally legit.
Here’s the punchline: our health is tuned into seasonal cycles in the same way we’re tuned into day/night. Chronic light exposure makes our bodies think it’s always summertime. In the summer your body (via hormones stimulated by light exposure) is primed to a) not sleep a lot, b) eat sugar c) get fat d) perform at a constant redline because it’s mate or die. The winter is the opposite: we’re primed to sleep a lot and not eat any sugar.
The problem with light toxicity is our bodies think we’re living in summer 24/7/365 – meaning we’re always redlining and prone to not sleep, crave sugar and to get fat to survive the winter. This is not good.
Unfortunately, light (specifically the blue light wavelengths which comes from everything – light bulbs, iPhones, TVs) is hard to escape, but even the smallest amount (pen light shining on the back of your leg in total darkness) can disrupt melatonin production.
If sleep is the most important thing for our health, we’re screwed unless we take this book very seriously.
Get it on Amazon: Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival – T.S. Wiley
#6 The 4-Hour Workweek (Again)
In one sentence: The bible of lifestyle design.
Summary: How to escape the rat race, define your alternate reality, simplify your life, and create an online business.
If you’ve been on the site before you’ve heard all about this. Check out the monster post I wrote after reading this for the 8th time.
Get it on Amazon: The 4-hour Workweek – Tim Ferris
#7 The Master and Commander Series
In one sentence: Patrick O-Brian’s 21-book series of the British Naval Captain Jack Aubrey.
Summary: Amazing, endlessly entertaining historical fiction centered on the adventures of an English sea captain and his ship’s doctor.
If you like historical fiction this is a fantastic series that carried me through nearly two years of travel. Just entertaining enough to keep you awake but thick enough to put down when it’s time to sleep. Some of the best bedtime fiction I’ve ever read.
Warning: you will have to work to get through some of this but the payoff is worth it.
Get it on Amazon: Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian
In one sentence: The book I’ve most commonly heard from traveler’s as the “best book I’ve ever read”.
Summary: The apparently true story of an Australian man who escapes prison and flees to Bombay. An epic novel about life and love.
Whether or not the author took some artistic liberties in documenting his true story, Shantaram is truly incredible, and I’d say it’s a must-read for travelers. Beautifully written, poignant, and inspiring, it’s also the first book that has made me even remotely interested in visiting India.
Get it on Amazon: Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
Bonuses: The books I wanted to write about from 2013 but never did.
#1 Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder
In one sentence: Eliminate or minimize the risk of catastrophic events, take as many ‘low-risk but unlimited-upside’ chances as you can.
Summary: Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously cashed in on the crash of 2008, which could be referred to as the never trust people who don’t have “skin the game” heuristic. One of the most interesting and intellectual writers I’ve come across in years.
Get it on Amazon: Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
#2 Thinking, Fast and Slow
In one sentence: Learn the most common cognitive biases so you can avoid them.
Summary: Years of study on how we understand the brain to work, summed up by one of the researchers. This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
A definitive game-changer of a book for me, which explains a modern understanding of how the brain works (two systems, one slow, one fast) and how this leads to common biases, i.e. mistakes in thinking. Knowing these simple cognitive biases can help you avoid big mistakes.
- The Peak-End Rule: Our brains don’t register duration, just the peak of an experience and how it ends. This means a horrible vacation will be remembered as great if the last day is fun. It also means we have two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. This begs the question: which one do we want to maximize for?
- Substitution: We often answer one question by answering a different one. For example: “Should I go on this trip?” Your answer is actually the answer to the question “How do I feel” not a systematic analysis of whether you actually should go on the trip.
- Loss-Aversion: Humans will spend 10x as much energy to keep what they have vs acquiring something new.
Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart but it’s worth it.
Get it on Amazon: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
#3 The Lean Startup
In one sentence: Evolutionary thinking and process applied to business.
Summary: How to create a business organism, a thing that learns and iterates as it goes, using hard data and customer feedback to make something that actually works.
Get it on Amazon: The Lean Startup – Eric Ries
#4 Work the System
In one sentence: The SOP book.
Summary: How to create codified systems for your work and life. One of the most important business (and general) books I’ve read.
Get it on Amazon: Work The System – Sam Carpenter
Where do I find ideas for great books?
There are a couple places where I’ve consistently found great reads:
- The TropicalMBA podcast – every great business book you need to read is mentioned here at some point.
- The Tim Ferris Book Club – I’m almost done with all of these and with the exception of what I’ve read they’d all make the 2015 best books list.
Also, if you haven’t started using clippings.io to save your Kindle notes, check it out!