I don’t think I’ve ever read as much as I did in 2009. On top of hundreds of blog posts I’ve finished somewhere around 40 books. This year has also shaped me a lot as a person. A year ago I was way more shy, overweight guy spending days at work and nights playing World of Warcraft. Now I’ve started to take much more control over my social life and ambitions, lost 10kg’s, and gotten very excited about how the human body and mind works.
This is my list of ten best, most influential books of 2009. Some of them have been published already earlier, so 2009 stands for the year I read them.
The Vegetarian Myth
by Lierre Keith
“The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to produce one pound of beef for human beings represents a colossal waste of resources in a world still teeming with people who suffer from profound hunger and malnutrition,” writes Jim Motavalli. Yes, it is a waste, but not for the reasons he thinks. As we have seen in abundance, growing that grain will require the felling of forests, the plowing of prairies, the draining of wetlands, and the destruction of topsoil. In most places on earth, it will never be sustainable, and where it just possibly might be, it will require rotation with animals on pasture. And it’s ridiculous to the point of insanity to take that world-destroying grain and feed it to a ruminant who could have happily subsisted on those now extinct forests, grasslands, and wetlands of our planet, while building topsoil and species diversity.
This book is arguably the most important one I read in 2009. No other book has carried such a profound message about how and why agriculture has driven species extinct and destroyed ecosystems. Most importantly, this book has taught me about the meaning of topsoil, and because agriculture is destroying topsoil instead of building it, agriculture in itself is not – and cannot be – sustainable.
The Vegetarian Myth also contains a great chapter that puts together information from many books on nutrition, and this book alone provides enough good information about how humans are meant to eat that I deliberately left out all the nutrition-specific books of this list in favor of The Vegetarian Myth. This book is also very beautifully written.
I wrote a longer summation of The Vegetarian Myth earlier this year, which can be read here: Food, justice and sustainability.
The 4-hour Workweek
by Timothy Ferriss
It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming. It is easier to raise $10,000,000 than it is $1,000,000. It is easier to pick up the one perfect 10 in the bar than the five 8s.
2009 has been huge for me in terms of personal growth and trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, and I have The 4-hour Workweek to thank for propelling me to this path. This book got me to question many of the things I took for granted in life – mainly that for most people life seems to be a drudgery of birth-study-work-retirement-death. That pattern can be broken, and this book gives you a lot of ideas on how to do it.
The 4-hour Workweek is also an easy, fast, and captivating read. Many of the concepts and advice in the book – and that you could actually have a 4-hour workweek in practice – need to be approached critically. This book is definitely not providing a sure-fire way to achieve success or another “how to get rich quick” sham, but it can give you a lot of motivation to rethink your own life, and for that reason alone I recommend reading it.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
by Robert Cialdini
What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too. And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency. This, according to Latané and Darley, is the state of pluralistic ignorance “in which each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, uninfluenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.”
Cialdini’s Influence is a must-read for anyone interested in marketing and sales, but it can also be an eye-opening experience for those who just want to know more about how their minds are being manipulated. I remember reading it with my jaw on the floor as I realized time and again how I had acted on different situations, and with the book in my hand I could see the actual triggers that had caused me to behave a certain way. It’s slightly unnerving to say the least when you realize that you’re not in that much control of your own decisions as you think.
Cialdini demonstrates how our minds are on autopilot most of the time, and how other people – namely marketers – can take advantage of that. Other forms of influence are also covered, such as how we react to authority figures (e.g. the notorious Milgram pain experiment), and how people in general are looking to be lead.
Mistakes were made (but not by me)
by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions – especially the wrong ones – is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.
Similarly to Influence, this book will be an unnerving read. It will explain why it is so difficult to change the way you believe about something, and how our thoughts manipulate the reality we see in order to make it fit in the frame we have created. Mistakes were made continues to explain how we justify our decisions in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, such as when we purchase something we don’t really need we tend to create all kinds of rationales to justify that action.
There are also very disturbing cases about corruption, and how practically everyone can be corrupted by pulling the right strings. Even more disturbing are the accounts of how police interrogators can make you believe you did something, even though you didn’t, and how our minds form false memories that seem very vivid and life-like.
by Neil Strauss
There are certain bad habits we’ve groomed our whole life – from personality flaws to fashion faux pas. And it has been the role of parents and friends, outside of some minor tweaking, to reinforce the belief that we’re okay just as we are. But it’s not enough to just be yourself. You have to be your best self. And that’s a tall order if you haven’t found your best self yet.
Just like The 4-hour Workweek, this book also propelled me towards a change in my life. Where The 4-hour Workweek got me to reconsider my life goals and how to achieve them, The Game got me to re-evaluate dating and relationships.
The book tells the true story of how the author Neil Strauss transformed from a shy, balding geek into Style, one of the world’s greatest pickup artists; a guy who could get any woman fall for him. It also gives a thorough overview of how the pickup community (group of guys who turned meeting women, attracting, and seducing them into a form of science – breaking down the whole social interaction into specific steps that need to be taken to get inside her panties) got started in the first place, and how it evolved and changed over years.
I read The Game first when I was flying from Beijing to Helsinki, and I remember finishing the whole book in just two days despite it being close to 500 pages long. It’s a roller coaster ride and impossible to put down after you start reading it. The Game is also the only book I’ve read twice this year, mainly because the first time I read it I was so sleep deprived and didn’t have a chance to process it properly, but also because it introduced me a whole new perspective on relationships, which I started to study and research more in-depth.
Reading The Game the second time I had quite a different take on it. The story is still as sexy, captivating, and thrilling as it was on the first time, but on the second reading it became more and more evident how dysfunctional and incomplete most of the people portrayed in the book are, and how their obsession over women causes them to neglect all the other aspects of their lives. It also seems, that most people who became professional pickup artists were trying to validate themselves through women without first figuring out who they themselves really are, and what do they want to achieve in life.
I really recommend The Game for everyone – men and women alike. It will change the way you see social interactions between the sexes.
The E-myth Revisited
by Michael E. Gerber
Now you understand the task ahead: to think of your business as though it were the prototype for 5,000 more just like it. To imagine that someone will walk through your door with the intention of buying your business – but only if it works. And only if it works without a lot of work and without you to work it. Imagine yourself taking the potential buyer through your business, explaining each component and how it works with every other component. How you’ve innovated systems solutions to people problems, how you’ve quantified the results of those innovations, and how you’ve orchestrated the innovations so that they produce the same results every single time.
This is definitely the best business book I’ve read the whole year. It’s very heavily focused on how to build systems and structures that support your business, drawing inspiration from how McDonald’s and other franchise models work. It explains why most small businesses fail, and how to avoid the common potholes on the way to create a successful company that is not dependent on the individuals working there.
by Robert M. Pirsig
The cells Dynamically invented animals to preserve and improve their situation. The animals Dynamically invented societies, and societies Dynamically invented intellectual knowledge for the same reasons. Therefore, to the question, “What is the purpose of all this intellectual knowledge?” the Metaphysics of Quality answers, “The fundamental purpose of knowledge is to Dynamically improve and preserve society.” Knowledge has grown away from this historic purpose and become an end in itself, and this growing away from original purposes towards greater Quality is a moral growth. But those original purposes are still there. And when things get lost and go adrift it is useful to remember that point of departure.
Since reading Lila my world view has not been the same. This book builds on the Metaphysics of Quality, which the author Robert M. Pirsig introduced in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve read both books this year, but Lila was by far easier to understand of the two, and it felt like only after reading Lila I was able to really grasp the concepts that Pirsig was talking about in Zen. However, I’d still recommend reading Zen before Lila, as it contains the background information that is necessary to get the most out of this book.
The Metaphysics of Quality is a philosophy, a theory about reality. It asks questions such as what is real, what is good and what is moral. Pirsig draws on evolutionary biology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, theology… and even quantum physics to make his case about why the Metaphysics of Quality is more fit for understanding our world than e.g. subject-object metaphysics.
Less Is More
by Broeck Vanden
So deeply rooted are past ideas that demanded a further increase in income that questioning this approach is still unfashionable except in certain very limited circles. It is difficult to accept that our income could be sufficient and that our feeling that we do not have enough comes from our failure to use the available resources well, rather than from our need for more.
– Robert Theobald, 1961
Less Is More contains quotations, thoughts, and maxims on the art of conscious living. The content ranges from western to eastern philosophy, from ancient philosophers to modern-day economists. It is an easy read that contains more food for thought than pretty much any other book I’ve read the whole year, and I heartily recommend it to everyone who is interested in finding true happiness and wants to control material possessions instead of being controlled by them.
Tricks of the Mind
by Derren Brown
Cold-reading is at the heart of the psychic’s apparent skill. It is the key to understanding how a psychic is seemingly able to know so much about you. If you have ever had a convincing experience with a psychic, or you know someone who has, this is the non-paranormal explanation of how it all can happen. It is fascinating, powerful and hugely manipulative. It can be used covertly in personal and business relationships as well as for pretending you can talk to the dead or read minds. Knowledge of cold-reading techniques can protect you from abusive scum who would happily exploit you in your most desperate hour to put you in touch with a child you have just lost.
I think Derren Brown is by far the best illusionist on the planet; mixing suggestibility, hypnosis, magic and showmanship to pull out some pretty amazing tricks. This book is a very good introduction to topics such as why and how magic works, how we memorize things, what exactly are hypnosis, suggestibility, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming etc.
What I liked most, though, is that the author takes a very rational and skeptical approach to all these things. He does not claim to possess special powers, but instead is very well rooted in critical thinking, of which there is a separate chapter in the book where he also talks about anti-science, pseudo-science, and how our minds work very badly and are easily mislead in certain kinds of situations.
The Seven-Day Weekend
by Ricardo Semler
…The majority of college people haven’t pinpointed their calling in life. Yet they’re presented with a list of choices: medicine or law, art or engineering? They’re asked to choose whether they want to spend the next 50 years examining toes or livers, divorcing couples or prosecuting criminals, photographing or painting, building bridges or calculating impellers for pumps.
Alas, by the time they finish college and come to work at places like Semco, GE or Amazon.com, they’ve been trained to ask why only when solicited, and then only in the strictest sense. They’ve lost the capacity to question everything from scratch, because they’ve learned the first and most important lesson in getting along in the system: ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ We wear suits and ties because that’s what we do.
The last book I finished reading in 2009 proved very interesting to someone who studies business. Ricardo Semler’s ideas about how – and based on which principles – corporations should operate resonated deeply within me. Personally, I hope that values and ideas such as democracy, letting every employee find their own talents and interests, pursue them, and spreading out the responsibility for the company’s success to everyone involved in it will become more common in organizations around the world as my generation gets older and starts taking over businesses.
I would be very interested to know what you have read this year. What books have had the biggest impact on you, and what would you recommend to others? I currently have somewhere around 30 books listed that I want to read in 2010, but there’s always room for a few more.