Those who know me, know I read a fair bit. On an average month I read 2-5 books a month, typically one fiction and the rest are non-fiction.
This week I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite books on learning, which is one I think everyone should dip into (number 1 below). It then occurred to me “what other books do I think people should read?“. Hence, I thought I’d feature my current five book recommendations. Each of these dives into some aspect of learning in life. Picking even just one of these would – in my opinion – do everyone a world of good.
1. ‘Mastery’ by Robert Greene
Robert Greene is someone who is considered an ‘author’s author’. He is a voracious reader, and as he reads, he makes notes on the various topics he is digesting. He makes these notes on note cards, and categories these by subject into enormous notecard boxes. That way he is able to digest enormous topics bit by bit, then – when he is ready to publish – the material is already written and just needs to be knitted together.
In this book, he covers the goal of attaining ‘mastery’ of any given subject. The book itself is not just a commentary on great masters and the paths that led them to their own mastery – Da Vinci, Franklin, Darwin, etc – but it weaves those stories together with specific lessons drawn therefrom. The chapters then form an overarching trajectory that one needs to follow to get on the same path to mastery. Each chapter is engaging in it’s own right, but fits together neatly to give specific lessons that each of us (at any stage of skill development) can gain immensely from. It’s an absolute goldmine for those at any level of skill development. If you want to be a master at your craft, this is the book for you.
2. ‘Ego is the Enemy’ by Ryan Holiday
The only reason this book is listed as number two, is to provide a natural segue from talking about Robert Greene.
Ryan Holiday was one of the directors of American Apparel, and he acknowledges he was on a self-destructive streak of repeatedly making millions then losing millions during his early working years. Eventually he sat down to try and work out why he kept going the way he was going, and this book was one of the resulting works… which he produced under the advice and guidance of Robert Greene.
This book is about the danger and folly of ego. It covers great examples from history where people either exhibited great ego or great humility, and what that won or lost them. The ability to align our perception of ourselves with reality, to not take offense because someone says something that rubs against our self-perception, to not insist that something isn’t so even when the facts say otherwise – these are (as the book points out) clear examples of ego, and highlights the dangers that flow therefrom. If any of the above comments resonate with you, then this is a great book for you.
3. ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius
One of the key inspirational figures that Ryan Holiday references in Ego is the Enemy (and many of his other books) is Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius was one of the last Roman emperors, and he kept a personal journal of his thoughts and insights. This was not written for public consumption, but for his own reflection and philosophising on life. The book ‘Meditations’ is this journal. It is considered essential reading for the Stoic school of philosophy. These are short little notes to himself, rather than lengthy chapters. It is like a little pocket book of helpful reminders to see things as they are, to not take things to heart, and to do your best. I’ve actually highlighted and tabbed mine up, and I find these thoughts extremely helpful when in some tricky situations.
The book is pocket sized, so very helpful for stowing in a jacket pocket and just diving into whenever you need some help to level out your thinking. If this sounds like you, it’s a great book to pick up.
4. ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed
Syed was table tennis champion at a time when one little street in Reading had produced more table tennis champions than the rest of the country put together – he was the best of that group. He dissects the factors that went into that, and many of those had nothing to do with him – they were purely circumstantial good fortune. This is a massively interesting aspect to any arena where one wishes to rise to the top, but it is only one aspect of this excellent book.
The book as a whole goes through the key factors involved in rapid and effective learning, and also draws essential lessons from top sports-figures and other disciplines. It’s also a lighter read than ‘Mastery’ by Robert Greene. If you want to learn similar lessons, but you know you (presently) lack the attention span, then this is the book for you.
Speaking of attention span…
5. ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport
Cal Newport hates social media. He doesn’t primarily do so out of principle, he hates it because of how it damages us as individuals. Social media has been proven to permanently erode our ability to concentrate for extended periods.
And given that everything of value, every high level skill, takes increasingly long periods of dedicated work and focused attention by individuals, social media is an enemy to self-development. While the book is not about social media, it IS about the importance in being able to focus on a given task for extended periods to truly rise to the upper tiers of ability, and to deliver something of value – whether for one’s own pleasure, or for commercial reasons. This covers various examples and draws lessons from their lives on the importance of cultivating this intense focus, and also the pitfalls of not doing so.
If you want to get a snapshot of what Cal Newport is talking about, he has an excellent Ted talk right here. Either way, I would highly recommend picking up his book.
Please… pick a book above that interests you, get it and read it. You’ll learn so much, and they all tesselate together very neatly.