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Build your own classroom with these 23 books

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This post endeavours to help you learn more quickly– about any subject.

If you just want to see the list, see below, but before we start, try this thought experiment.

Let’s assume that you would be automatically successful at any project you took part in. You could make a startup into a billion-dollar company, become an Olympic athlete, or achieve enlightenment (assuming such a thing was possible). You aren’t guaranteed to be the best in the world at anything– just to do well.

Now, imagine that it wasn’t just you that could do this– some others would, too– and that you could succeed in each “category” only once. So you could only start one company, for example, or excel at one sport. You and all these other people would be a sort of Highlander-esque group that would go around, doing really great things. (Incidentally, I am writing this post in the Highlander Cafe in Singapore. Hello.) :)

I suspect a sort of competition would emerge, at a very high level, between people such as yourself, for top positions.

So here is the question. What order would you pick for your successes?

In other words, how would you choose what to be successful at first, and how would you prepare?

As it happens, I happen to have considered this for a very long time– and so have many other people– but not for the reasons you’d think.

One result of this thinking is the Hinduism’s ashramas, stages of life which every man must go through. Early stages prepare for later ones.

Another is education of the children of the very rich, where success is assumed, but needs to be optimized.

I personally considered this because I was trying to create the most awesome Dungeons and Dragons characters I could possibly make. Geeky I know– but true.

Wherever you get your reasons, thinking about life this way helps you ask certain questions, like “If physical capacities decrease– and mental abilities increase– with age, then what is the order I should do things in?”

Life is more complex than making D&D characters. People have different priorites and goals, so any system that is in place should be flexible enough to accomodate them. Also, the world itself changes, so your system should be adaptable to a changing technological and social environment.

I know this is maybe a bit convoluted. But here is my theory.

The most important things to have at the beginning of life are education, a wide network, and a bit of money. These three things facilitate all other endeavours– one provides understanding, another provides opportunity, and the third provides freedom to pursue that opportunity.

This implies that the first things life should be about is those 3 things. If you disagree, please say why in the comments, but I think they’re the fundamentals of any really successful life. But what comes next?

This is what I want to ask you.

What did you wish you knew earlier in life, and what do you think you need to know only later?

And finally, what books could teach you to obtain those things?

The result of this post could be nothing– or it could be a very comprehensive list of the best books to read on any subject (like a Personal MBA). So leave a comment with your suggestion, and I’ll add it below with a link to you.

Since I’ve read a lot, I’ll start.

The List

The best books I can think of to maximize income while minimizing work are Work the System and the 4-Hour Workweek.

For mental models of reality, I would say Poor Charlie’s Almanac and Seeking Wisdom as well as anything by Nassim Taleb (who is incidentally paleo and a student of Erwan le Corre like myself– expect to see some of that in his new book).

For meeting people, I am going to say something controversial and say Rules of the Game (there’s a story behind this), as well as Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone.

I could be wrong, but along the lines of “only book you’ll ever need” on marketing could be Purple Cow and the only career book might be Linchpin.

The only book on diet you ever need could be (maybe) Why We Get Fat.

The best book on relationships might be 5 Love Languages.

Joshua and Ricardo say the best book on people and relationships is How to Win Friends and Influence People.

A good lesson in humour is Breakfast of Champions, suggested by Jackson.

Ryan thinks the best book on influence is Influence (it is pretty great).

Mike and Ryan recommend The War of Art.

Monica suggests Amusing Ourselves to Death.

When I Say No, I Feel Guilty was recommended by Daan. I’ve read it, and it’s pretty great.

Patti and I both recommend Man’s Search For Meaning. This is one of my favourite books of all time, actually.

How to Think Strategically was recommended by Roland.

Please Understand Me was suggested by Jeremy.

Rick suggested Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars.

My friend Chris Guillebeau‘s book The Art of Non-Conformity was suggested by Peter.

Now, add yours below. I’ll update with your suggestion and a link to your blog.

* Filed by Julien at 11:17 am under book a week, strategy, systems


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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61 Responses to “Build your own classroom with these 23 books”

  1. Joshua Says:

    The best book on people and relationships I know is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

  2. TrafficColeman Says:

    Julien..been successful is about setting goals and making them come true..some people success starts when they just start an project..but some people success comes when they are able to say..”I made it”

    BTW Julien..Can you can contact me on my contact page..Its very important..I need your help.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  3. Jackson Wightman Says:

    There is no fiction in here. And, since biz books are starting to annoy me (due to so many of them sounding so damn similar) I will add one title:

    Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.

    It is a lesson in humour and life’s absurdities. It is one of those books that, by making you laugh, can you help overcome the worst of days.

  4. Kyle Reed Says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    I am still pruning and seeing what books I would add to my list.
    I have read some of the books you have listed and want to read some of the others (more specifically Never Eat Alone).

    One thing I did want to add to this or at least a comment is when I was younger (i am 24 now) and in school I wish someone would have told me that I could do great things, that just because I didn’t get text book learning that I could achieve great things. Instead I heard that I was not good enough because I got a C instead of an A.
    also would have loved to learn more about fear and the gripping effect it can take on your life.

    Thanks for sharing the list…I got some books to purchase now.

  5. Ricardo Bueno Says:

    I’m going to recommend Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends & Influence People” – the principles are applicable both online and off-.

  6. Ryan Stephens Says:

    The best book on influence for me has to be Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” – So applicable for a wide variety of careers.

    The best book on making ideas stick for me is The Heath Bros, “Made to Stick.”

  7. Ryan J Riehl Says:

    In the category of productivity, I haven’t found anything better than
    The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

  8. Monica Gill Says:

    I have to second Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” It is basically a summary of my bachelor’s degree.

    But, since Dale Carnegie has already been suggested, I will add Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death” for a healthy (and much-needed) perspective on technology and entertainment.

  9. Daan van den Bergh Says:

    Well, before you can even have it in you to become successful you should get rid of the obstacles in your head that prevent you to become successful. Plus, communication is key to build a wide network. So in the category of assertivity and self-improvement I would say (and I mentioned this book in my last comment) “When I say No, I feel guilty” by Manuel J. Smith.

  10. Sherman Rockwell Says:

    “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything” by Stephen M. R. Covey

    Amazing!

  11. Patti Murphy Says:

    In the category of survival, I recommend Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

    It sure gives us a little perspective. It’s a reminder that we can only control our own thoughts. But it’s a choice we always have even when we think have have none.

  12. Mike Monday Says:

    Another vote for Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War Of Art’ for anyone who does anything in any way creative. It changed my life and my work rate instantly. The best non-fiction book I’ve read.

  13. Roland Wijnen Says:

    I recommend ‘Learning to Think Strategically’ by Julia Sloan. It explains how people become good strategic thinkers, what qualities they have, and how you can improve your ability to think strategically. It turns out getting an MBA degree is not required. I also like this book because it balances creative and analytical thinking and shows the value of informal learning.

  14. Jeremy Day Says:

    Hi Julien,

    I actually did a similar thought experiment awhile ago where I asked myself the question, “What achievements am I most proud of?” It turns out I am most proud of my physical achievements such as running a marathon.

    Maybe its because my schooling was too easy for me. (Or I didnt make it hard enough on myself). Or getting jobs and eventually a career I love seemed easy for me. (Or again I didnt make it hard enough?)

    A future goal of mine is to write a number of books and I feel that I will be most proud of that.

    If I could pick anything Id want to succeed at a sport such as skiing or snowboarding. Then Id leverage my success into a related business. ;-) Is that cheating if I end up with two successes because of my first one? ;-)

    Although this may be related I feel that your friends and family should come first. Essentially this may define your wide network, but I imagine for most people these people in your life are more than just tools for your success.

    I am a big fan of the book Please Understand Me by David Keirsey. Understanding ourselves is the best way that we can help ourselves succeed, and to best define what success means to us. This book is a great place to begin.

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  15. Rick Says:

    I’ll add SILOS, POLITICS AND TURF WARS by Patrick Lencioni – not best book on the subject, but added allegory/parable makes a big difference for me on the understanding and re-teaching end of things.

  16. Edgar Ochoa Says:

    Awesome post Julien!

    I would also add “Psycho-Cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz. Great book on personal empowerment.

    It teaches you how to use your mind to achieve anything.

  17. Peter Paluska Says:

    Chris Guillebeau’s “The Art of Non-conformity” is an excellent overview of the building blocks and foundation you need to have in place, as well as plenty in the way of practical guidelines, to live an unconventional life that excites you. Check it!

  18. Eric Napier Says:

    +1 for “Poor Charlie’s Almanac”.

    I don’t know how I would categorize it (relationships? productivity?), but I’m a fan of Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

    For character development, I love “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius”.

    For investing, nothing beats the seminal “The Intelligent Investor” by Ben Graham.

    For general business, my favorite is “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.

  19. Florina Baciu Says:

    Richard Branson – Screw it, let’s do it! lessons not only for life, but in business. Because sometimes you have to stop over thinking things and just say screw it, let’s do it!

  20. Lucien Armstrong Says:

    The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, because it will help you string everything together. Contains nods to the narrative fallacy, systems and beliefs, models of reality.

    “The world isnt just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

  21. Daniel Johnson, Jr. Says:

    For several months now, one book has been tormenting me, as it has sat among my collection. I know I should read it, especially as I’ve found myself in career transition. Yesterday I picked that book up and read 123 pages, or, close to 1/2 the book. It has me energized and electrified!

    That book is “No More Mondays” by Dan Miller. The subtitle is “Fire Yourself — And Other Revolutionary Ways To Discover your True Calling At Work”.

  22. Chris Parsons Says:

    The classics:
    How to Win Friends & Influence People
    The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
    Think & Grow Rich
    Rich Dad, Poor Dad
    Tipping Point

    The best book to understanding pricing is the 1% Windfall by Rafi Mohammed.

    The best biography would have to be The Snowball – Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (warning: very long and arduous to read)

  23. Arthur Says:

    I like this post. Your posts have been doing stuff for me in an interesting way, I was reading your blog posts about Tattooing only a few weeks ago, and today I spontaneously dyed my hair. Fun stuff :)

    For me, these are the books that stand out (that transformed me).

    Trust Agents – Julien Smith & Chris Brogan
    Steve Pavlina – Personal Development for Smart People
    Idealution and Thoughtsperity – Jason Fonceca
    Nigel Barker – Beauty Equation
    Tao Te Ching – Unknown

  24. Milena Bierhoff Says:

    Here are my picks:
    “The Magic of Thinking Big” (David J. Schwartz) on the magic of doing just that; “Authentic Happiness” (Martin Seligman) on finding meaning at work; “Linchpin” on the bigger picture philosophy of work; “Escape from Cubicle Nation” (Pamela Slim) on changing the direction should one find no meaning at their current work; “Crush It” on the power of building on one’s passion; “All Marketers Are Liars” on the art of storytelling; “Tribes” on the need to build them for those unconvinced; “Six Pixels of Separation” (Mitch Joel) on how to build your brand and said tribes via social media; “Learned Optimism” (Martin Seligman) on the importance of positive framing, “A Whole New Mind” (Daniel Pink) on nurturing creativity; “The Power of Full Engagement” on getting more sleep and managing energy in general; “The Little Big Things” (Tom Peters) on everything you need to know to be outstanding; and “Never Eat Alone” on good old fashioned networking.

  25. William Wallis Says:

    some great books here.
    I would add The Secret of the Ages
    Robert Collier

  26. Dana DiTomaso Says:

    Yet another great post! I would suggest “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. It completely changed how I work – I have free time again, thanks to this book.

  27. Ken Jansen Kansas City Says:

    Hi Julien,

    I would add ‘The Goal’ by Eli Goldratt. Great novel on the theory of constrictive restraints. The story is about manufacturing, but applies to just about any undertaking.

    Thank you.

  28. Tim Bursch Says:

    I’d add Love is the Killer App by Tim Sanders. In my top 5. If you haven’t read it, talks about success through being generous with your knowledge, network, and compassion.

  29. Nicholas Young Says:

    “The Pirate’s Dilemma” by Matt Mason – a book teaching you how to spot areas outside the market (and the proverbial “box”) that need improvement, and where you can foster innovation.

  30. Step Morgan Says:

    Best book on writing: “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser

  31. Viktor Nagornyy Says:

    “The Now Habit” is a great book on overcoming procrastination. Really good, practical tips. I highly recommend it.

  32. Matt Sawh Says:

    Oral Historian Studs Terkel’s book

    Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

    A real sense of the ecstasy and trivia driving hundreds of careers

  33. Shira Abel Says:

    Outliers by Malcom Gladwell has changed how I raise my kids.

    Enders Game by Orson Scott Card reminds me that I might not always have critical information.

    Women Don’t Ask has taught me to ask.

  34. Karthick Says:

    I would recommend

    The Millionaire next door – Thomas J Stanley
    Think and Grow Rich – Napolean Hill
    Secrets to closing the sale – Zig Ziglar
    Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
    Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath
    You can negotiate anything – Herb Cohen

  35. Cristina Viseu Says:

    Living Deliberately: The Discovery and Development of Avatar, by Harry Palmer
    About how beliefs can be created and discreated. A unusual approach to life that inspires personal responsibility in a degree that I could never imagine before taking the courses that come after the reading. And responsibility comes with power for changes.

    The Situation Is Hopeless, but Not Serious: (the Pursuit of Unhappiness)
    Author: Paul Watzlawick
    You can laugh at your own behavior patterns, from an author tha has a fundamental role in understanding relationships.

    I think books have to bring us the simplicity of the insights. Like Einstein says: If you can’t explain it simply enough, you don’t understand it well enough…

    And your posts have this quality, too. Thanks for being like this.

  36. Sano Says:

    I highly recommend “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron. It teaches us something about the discipline of writing, of the creative spirit and the power of meditation. For me it clarified my goals in my life – something about viewing my bare thoughts written on the page, frozen while I could examine and contemplate them. The techniques that it teaches were powerful for me. Friends that I recommended the book to have had a similar experience.

  37. Cristina Viseu Says:

    See this other one. It is a book that you read and than you want to leave the chair and start doing something to get rid of your old trash. It is much more than the usual fengh shui bla-bla-bla.
    karen kingston: Clear your clutter with feng shui

  38. Bill Says:

    Julian,
    I’d include DRIVE by Dan Pink, and anything by Peter Mayle- there’s a guy living his dreams!

  39. Joel Says:

    Rework, From the guys at 37Signal.

    It’s very interesting approach to a modern way of doing business.

  40. Elizabeth Williams Says:

    Getting Things Done by David Allen is all you need to stop your ideas from leaking out your ears. If you follow even one piece of his advice, you will forget less, do more and the voices will stop.

  41. Daniel Vidakovich Says:

    I would add “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. It’s a great book on how this world really works and what it takes to be an expert and a leader.
    Great list! Thanks for sharing!

  42. Jamie Pullman Says:

    Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez

  43. Howard Stein Says:

    My addition to your list is Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock. Hock founded VISA and maintained a zen-like approach to business. Visa had no CEO, no shareholders, no ownership at all. It was formed to be a true distributed system. He was way ahead of his time in business thinking.

  44. lanieevans Says:

    A couple of book suggestions, then a ‘poke in the eye’ just for fun…

    The Greatest Salesman in the World, by Og Mandino: you simply have to read this one to understand its depth and clarity of insight.

    Acres of Diamonds, by Russell Conwell:you don’t have to go far in order to find everything you need to succeed.

    Now, for the ‘poke in the eye’: I guess the literary snobs pass this blog by everyday with their feedburners, because they would have highjacked the feed by now due to the low bar for the word, ‘Classic’ in the comment strand.

    HA!

  45. Mike Gusky Says:

    I just want to second “LINCHPIN” as the best and probabaly only career book needed. I also would throw out “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John C. Maxwell for anyone leading people.

  46. Gina Kearney Says:

    The best book for business: The E-Myth by Michael Gerber

  47. Gina Kearney Says:

    Best Book for Social Media/Creating Online Buzz: Buzzmarketing
    by Mark Hughes

  48. Diane Says:

    The best book on separation/divorce Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends by Bruce Fisher, Robert Alberti. A good relationship book with a good Myers Briggs type feel to it is Why Him? Why Her? by Helen Fisher. She’s an anthropologist and also has a fascinating TED talk about love and how there are four types and how each type can understand one another.

  49. Colleen Clifford Says:

    ONO: Options not Obligations by Mark Warnke. Mark provides excellent perspective on money and its place in our lives. We all (well, most of us anyway) have to work for money, but we should make what money we have work for us as well.

  50. Liza Sperling Says:

    West With The Night by Beryl Markham (http://j.mp/dS2h1U) read it and reread it.

    If you don’t take my word, read Ernest Hemingway’s two cents:
    “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”–Ernest Hemingway

  51. Kendrick Disch Says:

    +1 for “Rework” by 37signals. No more excuses, just get it done.

    “The Moment it Clicks” by Joe Mcnally. The throught process of making powerful images, but can be applied to all content creation.

  52. Amanda Pingel Says:

    The Road Less Travelled, by Scott Peck, in the Mental Models Of Reality category. The titular road is the decision to grow up, take charge of your life, and become someone remarkable. Peck says that anyone can do it, but it’s hard and scary and so hardly anyone does. Then he discusses what it takes to get past the hard and scary parts.

  53. @alanrae Says:

    Tao of Leadership Robert Heider
    Influence – Robert Cialdini – what it says on the tin
    Inside the Tornado – Geoffrey Moore – excellent analysis of how markets work
    The Fifth Discipline – Peter Senge. The older I get the more I’m convinced that building stable businesses is about creating a learning culture
    Strategy of the Dolphin – Dudley Lynch

    plus of course the usual Carnegie, Taleb, Godin etc

    And a basic text on finance I use bigger profits for the smaller firm.

    I also like the Rich Dad set of ideas.

  54. Barbara Zajac Says:

    I need to second to:
    Think & Grow Rich
    Rich Dad, Poor Dad

    mentioned in earlier comments, but what “woke me up and shook me by the shoulders” was
    The Secret – Rhonda Byrne.

    This book let me to all the others, some already on your list. Thanks for sharing, I will make a list, and a goal to read them :)

  55. Georgiana Says:

    I suggest a book club. We can all lend our favorite books to each other. This way we can help more people become awesome, save trees and make new friends. What is there to loose?

    I own The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle. If anybody is interested in exchanging books find me on twitter @georgiav4.

    Thank you for the great words. You are awesome.

  56. Jeff Goins Says:

    The War of Art is definitely on my list, as are all things Godin.

    One that I didn’t see which is a must-read for any team is Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

  57. Bryan M. Wilson Says:

    Julien,

    I have loved reading “The Daimond Cutter” multiple times by Geshe Michael Roach. Buddhist Monk shows how to apply ancient wisdom to be successful in business. Just like diamonds, every person has a hidden potential. Focus on transforming that potential in others and low and behold, that same potential manifests in you and what you are trying to accomplish. Makes me think of you and others when reading it.

    Bryan

  58. Leigh Says:

    Best book on the dark side of relationships:

    The Betrayal Bond by Carnes — looks crappy but is great.

    I mean it — everyone should understand what trauma bonding is.

  59. Leigh Says:

    Also, a great book for understanding social communication & rumors in marginalized communities:

    If you’ve ever thought “I can’t believe they believe that crap — “those people” are not rational, no smart etc.” — you need to get some empathy and get this book:

    “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Turner

    Summary:
    lack of access to information
    +
    genuine economic oppression and heavy/unusual marketing patterns
    +
    cultural co-optation
    =
    rumors that are plausible enough to insiders (and totally nuts to outsiders)

  60. Carlos Perez Ferrer Says:

    Hello Julien

    in the search understanding and meaning I have found the most inspiring book “The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination” by Patrick Harpur, if, as the author recommends, you don’t take it to much “literally”. Weird book but highly advisable as any one from the author Patrick Harpur.

    http://www.amazon.com/Philosophers-Secret-Fire-History-Imagination/dp/1566634857/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1324460546&sr=8-2

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