I love to read both fiction and non-fiction (and do so in about equal amounts). While I think fiction is hugely important and beneficial, non-fiction books have had a bigger impact on how I view the world. (For the IFOD on the special benefits of reading fiction, click here.)
In 2020, I highlighted five books I found to be lifechanging — ones that have affected how I live my life day-to-day. You can find that IFOD here: Five Lifechanging Books.
In a different vein, below are the six books that have had the biggest impact on how I view the world. Each one delivered a “wow,” and contain concepts that are now mental models in my head that help me understand the world around me or other people better.
1. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. I first read A Brief History of Time as a teenager and I was completely blown away. I didn’t understand much of it but what struck me was the incredible elegance and strangeness of the Universe. Mind blown. I’ve read it two more times as an adult and each reading always leaves me with a sense of amazement and wanting to learn more.
2. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable , by Nassim Taleb. I first read the Black Swan in 2007 shortly after it came out (click here for a crazy story about me reading this book while the plane I was on had an engine that quit working). This book has had a gigantic effect on how I view the world. It’s concepts have made their way into over 15 IFODs and also are central to many of the themes in my upcoming book. “A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.”
3. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. This is the second time I’ve read this excellent book – the first time shortly after it was published ten years ago. Dr. Mlodinow is an astrophysicist at CalTech and has authored a few books. This book is a tour of the great thinkers of chance and randomness. A key point is that randomness is all around us and that we don’t appreciate how much of life is random because we humans are pattern-seeking machines. We also crave certainty, and randomness is unsettling. The book is interspersed with interesting stories and descriptions of research and studies. I learned a lot both times I read it.
4. The Success Equation: Untangling Skill From Luck in Business, Sports and investing, by Michael Mauboussin. The Success Equation is one of my favorite books – I read it previously when it was first released in 2012 and read it again a few years ago. It has had a huge effect on my thinking in so many areas. The book focuses on the concept of skill vs. luck. How can you tell when results are mostly due to skill (like chess) or due to luck (roulette). Many of the concepts discussed in the book have had a material effect on how we think about investments at my firm.
5. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. I first read this book when it came out in 2012. Given the divided state of our nation, I decided to read it again, in 2019 and I’m glad I did. The author is a leading moral psychologist and this book, addresses how and why rational, intelligent people can have such opposite views on the same issue. His main metaphor is of an elephant and rider. The elephant is our gut feelings and emotion. It is the elephant that decides what we believe. The rider is our rational thought, and the rider exists to serve the elephant. Thus, our rational thought is devoted to defending and rationalizing what we believe, not deciding what to believe. This book is fantastic and should probably be required reading for all Americans. Here’s the IFOD I did about some of the topics in the book: Why Does the “Other Side” Seem So Horrible?
6. Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies, by Geoffrey West. Sometimes you read a book that makes you think “wow” or “holy cow,” and you can sense the explosion of dopamine in your brain as you learn new and amazing things. Such books are few and far between, and Scale is one of those books for me. Geoffrey West is a particle physicist and formerly head of high-energy physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory and then served as president of the Santa Fe Institute. He has spent decades, along with other researchers, researching the laws of the scale of organisms, cities, and companies. It is an area that was scantly researched prior to Dr. West. Scale is a fascinating tour of the power laws relating to the laws of growth. Amazing.