Some of the most important lessons we’ll learn in our lives will come from books. Some of them will be “quake books” that totally changed how we thought about everything. Some come from totally inconsequential books that possess some random fact or lesson that stays with us.
I learned a lot from the books I read in 2015. More from some than others of course, but I came away with at least one important thing from every good book I picked up this year. For the second year in a row, I’m going to try to make a public accounting for some easy and clear lessons I learned.
Along those lines, here are some insights that helped me over the last 12 months and hopefully will help you over the next 12.
From Anthony de Mello I learned about attachment—to people, to things, to notions we have in our head. It’s this attachment that causes our unhappiness. As he puts it, “The first truth: You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both.”
From Fahrenheit 451 I learned that I missed the point when I read it in high school. It’s not about government censorship, it’s about what happens when people get together and try to eliminate anything offensive or provocative from their culture. In other words, I learned the real reason we need to stop protecting people’s feelings.
From Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra I learned that it’s not about how fast you go, it’s about who slows down the least—who quits last.
I learned so many great lines from The Little Prince. Like: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” and “One is responsible forever for what they’ve tamed.”
There is a lot to learn from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms but I think the best is his insight on the supposed ‘wisdom’ of old men. “That is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.”
I learned a lot about the art of hustling and promotion from When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man by Jerry Weintraub. I liked the story of Elvis’s manager printing up “I Hate Elvis” merchandise because he wanted to profit from everyone, not just the fans.
From reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me and the orgiastic response I learned that when a book says what people want to hear, they’re willing to basically be totally uncritical and malleable. I mean, look at Chris Hayes’ quote about it: “Read @tanehisicoates book because the writing itself is in many ways more important and essential than the *argument* it’s making.” I learned that I never want to be that kind of reader.
I learned about ambition and it what it does to a person when that ambition is stymied in The Hunters by James Salter. What does happen? It makes us reckless and cruel and stupid.
I’d never read any Goethe before this year but from The Sorrows of Young Werther I was reminded of just how intoxicating love can be and how irrational it can make us—especially when we’re young.
“There are no classes in life for beginners: right away you are always asked to deal with what is most difficult” from Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet.
From Cyril Connolly‘s Enemies of Promise I learned a great line: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”
From another epic biography by Ron Chernow I learned what a great man Alexander Hamilton was and how different (or non-existent) America might be without him.
From Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote I learned about the concept of “musturbation”: The faulty and damaging belief that things must be the way we want them, or must be the way we expected.
I learned a lot about meditation from Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. The most important of which was the focus on “the breath.” It’s what pulls you into the present moment—fully and completely.
In the two dueling biographies Rebel Yell (about Stonewall Jackson) and The Young Napoleon (McClellan) I learned just how crazy these two men were. Jackson was a strategic genius but a religious nut. McClellan was book smart but a delusional egotist. Jackson was the better general (for a time), but ultimately both were outdone by superior (and more balanced) opponents.
I learned what a prodigious talent Orson Welles was—not just in film but on the stage and on radio and as a writer. It’s almost unbelievable. And yet, like so many of us who burn hot while they’re young, his story is another reminder of the many enemies of promise.
From The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, I learned just how potent creative obsession can be. It creates opportunities and destroys just as many.
In Education of a Coach I saw how Bill Belichick, the now four-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the New England Patriots, made his way up the ranks of the NFL by loving and mastering how to do the one thing that coaches hated at the time: analyzing film. Doing so he helped make his superiors look good and in the process gave himself an understanding of the game that today cannot be matched.
I got a lot out of Goethe’s collection of maxims too. Namely: “Behavior is a mirror in which everyone shows his image.” “Tell me whom you consort with and I will tell you who you are.” “Absolute activity, of whatever kind, ultimately leads to bankruptcy.”
I learned a great little quip from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Work is what horses die of. Everybody should know that.”
“Life is long, if you know how to use it” from Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life which I have been re-reading in 2015.
As I read Candide by Voltaire in a backroom as I waited to get married this year, I learned the line “Il faut cultiver nos jardins.” That is: We must tend to our own gardens.
I’d heard this already but from Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself I really saw how victory is not only not about focusing on results, it’s usually the opposite. It’s about focusing on process and excellence. If you handle that, the score handles itself.
From Theognis’s Elegies “To save yourself much pain: the bigger your plans the smaller the group of friends should share in them.”
From Jon Ronson I learned that the impulse to shame and humiliate people online is an ancient one—and that the more we can resist it, the better we will be as a society.
I learned that almost every famous CEO you’ve heard of usually fails to measure on the ONE metric that matters: creation of long term value per share.
From Carey McWilliams’s biography of Ambrose Bierce, I learned that Bierce lived in a town not far from where I grew up, where we would go almost every weekend. Nobody told me this???
I learned you can learn as much from fiction as you can from non-fiction. Maybe more.
There was a bunch of great stuff in Gilgamesh but the biggest thing I learned? That even 5,000 years ago, people knew about meteorites and where they came from.
In reading a full biography of Jackie Robinson I learned just how much self-control and restraint it took to do what he did—and that this wasn’t something that just came naturally or easily to him. He worked at it. He managed himself.
From Walter Isaacson’s bio of Ben Franklin I learned just how awful his “apprenticeship” with his brother actually way (his older brother would regularly beat him). Part of Franklin’s motivation for his famous pseudonymous letters was to get around his tyrannical brother. Anyway the real master—who we should all apprentice under—is Franklin himself. There is so much to learn from his expertise in creativity, diplomacy, strategy, science, and humor.
From Jackie Huba’s book on Lady Gaga, I learned a ton about customer loyalty and career management.
From Liz Wurtzel’s Creatocracy I learned some answers to some interesting questions: Why does America lead as a creative culture? What forces make that possible? What laws make that possible? It turns out that the constitution with its unique protections for copyright are the fuel of our creative system—contrary to what certain internet activists might try to convince you of.
I didn’t know much about John Wooden, but this year I learned a lot. For starters, he didn’t see himself as a passionate person and in fact, looked down on passion. Related to that, he was a relatively quiet coach during games. Why? Because the work—and the coaching—is done before and during practice. Not during the game.
From Harold Geneen’s Managing: “People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.”
From all the people who emailed me about it, I was again reminded how pointless speed reading is.
I learned that there was very little to admire about Howard Hughes in reading Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness and Howard Hughes: The Untold Story. The guy was a genius sure but also a deranged madman who squandered so much and hurt so many (including himself). I learned how common these traits are—how comorbid they are with brilliance.
I learned just what a forgiving and strong person Eleanor Roosevelt was from Blanche Wiesen Cook biography (and from Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History). It was her ability to make friends, to focus on those friends’ strengths and to push everyone to be better that made her such a powerful and positive woman.
From Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, I learned the importance of saying no, of focusing only on the few things that matter and not being busy.
Some of these books here made me better at my job. Some made me (I think) a better person. Some just taught me about history or science or the world around me. The point is: there is so much evidence about what a good investment books are. The more you put in, the more you get out.
Multi scire volunt sed vere discere nolunt (many want to know but in fact they refuse to learn).
So read a book man!
If you want some more recommendations, sign up for the reading recommendation email. Or check out some book lists that have been published on Thought Catalog below.