We have more books to read today than ever, but lesser & lesser time to read one. The question of which book should one read can be answered in about a billion ways. And this unending choice, says Barry Schwartz, “has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied”. So, how should one decide what to read?
Haruki Murakami, the much respected 70-year old Japanese author, answers this question quite well in a dialogue between the main characters of the fiction novel Norwegian Wood:
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
As programmers, you will have plenty of suggestions and recommendations on which programming or tech book you must read. I am not a programmer and I have five non-tech book suggestions for everyone in their twenties. All five books in the list will nudge you to think for yourself about some really fundamental life questions.
To make your choice easier to pick any of these books or not, I've linked to their summaries in the list. Read those before you buy.
This is a self-help book for people who can't stand self-help books. How can I have a meaningful career? How can I be happy in my relationships? This book tries to answer such age old questions by using traditional management theories. Yes, the premise sounds strange but not when the insights are coming from Clayton Christensen, the author who is a Harvard Business School professor most famous for coining the phrase 'disruptive technology'. He does a fantastic job communicating how running companies or running your life aren't very different.
My favorite quote from the book:
“In your life, there are going to be constant demands for your time and attention. How are you going to decide which of those demands gets resources? The trap many people fall into is to allocate their time to whoever screams loudest, and their talent to whatever offers them the fastest reward. That’s a dangerous way to build a strategy.”
This is more of a manifesto than a book. his is the shortest one to read on this list but a little difficult to read because it's old. The author believes that there is real value in pursuing useless activities like fundamental science research, spirituality, and philosophy. Throughout history we've given most credit to people whose work led to practical applications. But in reality, the greatest discoveries in science were made by people who were driven by the desire to satisfy their curiosity and not by the desire to be useful.
The author, Abraham Flexner, was an educator who believed that institutions of learning must be devoted to cultivating curiosity instead of only focusing on immediate applicability. This 80 year old manifesto is highly relevant in a world where people are leaning towards practical trade schools a traditional university. It's worth knowing what you might be missing out by not pursuing useless knowledge.
“I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn to some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more I am pleading for the abolition of the word "use", and for freeing of the human spirit.”
In the late 1700's, five friends used to meet for lively dinners on full-moon nights in Birmingham. They were philosophers, amateur scientists, tinkerers, and scholars. One of them called these meetings "a little philosophical laughing." Surprisingly, many of their ideas to change the world really did change the world.
All of them turned out to be instrumental in kick starting the industrial revolution through their ideas, financing, or industries. The book focuses on the stories of these five friends including Joseph Priestley (discovered Oxygen), Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), James Watt (invented the steam engine), and two others.
The group didn’t have economic status, education, or religion in common. A line from the book says:
‘We were united by a common love of science, which we thought sufficient to bring together persons of all distinctions, Christians, Jews, Mohametans, and Heathens, Monarchists and Republicans.’ wrote Joseph Priestley. Like a living unit, the group stretched to encompass the awkward and odd: only rarely was there an absolute impasse.
This book is a solid testament to the idea that we are a collective product of people we hang out with and that great work needs support of other people. Don't expect to get through the book quickly. . Read it to get a really good view into the industrial age and some of its most famous personalities.
This book is the most well-known one on this list, often bought but rarely completed. We all like to believe that we are in control in life, we are logical in our decisions and we are rational in our choices. Dan Ariely, one of the world’s most renowned behavioral economists, uses results of simple experiments to show that people don't behave rationally. All of us are at the mercy of our instincts and impulses which leads us to follow predictable patterns of mistakes. His experiments are also fascinating because the results are often just very strange and unpredictable.
The book tries to answer,
“But suppose we are nothing more than the sum of our first, naive, random behaviors. What then?”
The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing by Michael J. Mauboussin published in 2012. 320 pages.
This is a book that uses statistics to understand the role of skill and luck in professional careers. We know that luck plays a role in our lives, but is there a way to quantify it? How do we know if we are playing a game of luck or skill? The author explains that as everyone in a field becomes equally skilled by following the best practices, luck begins to play a bigger role. Don’t be fooled by the title, there is no success equation shared by the author.. It's a book with lots of numbers and stats that help in explaining how we can understand luck and skill in life.
The book is full of insightful tidbits such as,
“There's a quick and easy way to test whether an activity involves skill: ask whether you can lose on purpose.”
I would love to know in comments if you liked any recommendation from this list and what are your non-tech book recommendations to others.