“What’s your favorite book?” seems like a good question. So innocent, so simple. In practice, it’s terrible. I interviewed more than 100 of the most successful entrepreneurs, athletes, actors, writers, and other experts for my book, Tribe of Mentors. These are people who have often read hundreds or thousands of books, so it’s a labor-intensive question for them, and they rightly worry about picking a “favorite,” which then gets quoted and put in articles, Wikipedia, etc.
To navigate around the problem of asking hundreds of the world’s top performers about their favorite books, I devised a slightly different question: What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? “Most gifted” is lower risk, an easier search query (easier to recall), and implies benefits for a broader spectrum of people, which the idiosyncratic “favorite” does not.
The answers I got opened my eyes to many new books I’d not heard of and reinforced how strongly I felt about some other titles. A few folks were even gracious enough to gift my books to their friends on a regular basis. But I was most interested in was the frequency with which some books were mentioned. Here are a few books (of many) that came up a lot:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued…Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.” — Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
When I asked Jimmy Fallon, Emmy Award–and Grammy Award–winning comedian, what book he gives out most often as a gift, he said:
“If I gave one to an adult, it would be Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I read it while spending ten days in the ICU of Bellevue hospital trying to re-attach my finger from a ring avulsion accident in my kitchen. It talks about the meaning of life, and I believe you come out a better person from reading it. The lines I took from it are: ‘There is no exact answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life.’ It’s like asking a chess master ‘what is the best move in the world?’ It all depends on what situation you are in.’ It also reinforced the belief, that which does not kill me makes me stronger. If you read it, you’ll get more from it.”
Actor and former NFL player Terry Crews said about Man’s Search for Meaning, “[It’s] absolutely essential to me in order to keep my perspectives correct in a changing world.” Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist who works with the best athletes on the planet, also revealed that he often gifts Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning because, “He outlines methods to discover deep meaning and purpose in life.”
The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
“Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary burst of evolutionary change, driven by good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. But it is selection among ideas, not among genes. The habitat in which these ideas reside consists of human brains.” ― Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
Naval Ravikant, the co-founder and CEO of AngelList, has refined his way of living in very unique ways, including his reading habits. So when he shared with me that he frequently gifts The Rational Optimist to people, I couldn’t wait to share it with my audience. In fact, Naval likes to pass out copies of anything by The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley. “Matt is a scientist, optimist, and forward thinker. Genome, The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, The Rational Optimist — they’re all great,” Naval told me.
While Naval is considered a top performer in Silicon Valley, John Arnold built his career on Wall Street as founder and CEO of Centaurus Energy, a multibillion-dollar energy commodity hedge fund. John retired in 2012 and is now a co-chair of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Here’s what he shared with me when I asked him what book he gives the most as a gift:
“Much of one’s attitude toward life depends on their level of optimism. An optimistic person will invest more in him- or herself, as the deferred reward is expected to be higher. A pessimistic person prefers the immediate returns at the expense of the long-term outcomes. However, the news cycle, driven by negative stories of the day, is the proverbial missing the forest for the trees. The reality, best captured in The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, is that the long-term trend in almost every measure is resolutely positive. Optimism is a reflexive trait, with a circular relationship between cause and effect. The more optimistic society is about the future, the better the future is. These books serve as a reminder of the great advances society has made.”
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
“An ideology can provide a satisfying narrative that explains chaotic events and collective misfortunes in a way that flatters the virtue and competence of believers, while being vague or conspiratorial enough to withstand skeptical scrutiny.” ― Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature
You probably noticed that John Arnold (above) mentioned this book as one of the two most gifted books he gives out — and he wasn’t the only top performer I talked to that had a habit of doing so.
Stewart Brand, the president of the Long Now Foundation, established to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years, described The Better Angels of Our Nature as one of the books he considers as a, “fundamental guidebooks for understanding and helping civilization”:
“[The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman] shows the consequences of believing romantic, tragic narratives of societies becoming degraded, while The Better Angels of Our Nature chronicles how humanity has in fact become less violent, less cruel, and more just with every passing millennium, century, and decade.”
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
“Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.” ― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
Ashton Kutcher may be best know as a prominent actor, but he’s also an investor and entrepreneur with investments in Airbnb, Square, Skype, Uber, Foursquare, Duolingo, and others. He is a co-founder and chairman of the board of A Plus, a digital media company devoted to spreading the message of positive journalism, where he leads strategic partnerships with brands and influencers. When I asked Ashton which book he gives most often as a gift, here’s what he told me:
“The brainy book I seem to be sharing or talking about the most lately is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The more that I study people and the way systems work, the more I realize that it’s all made up. It’s easy to spout philosophies, or quote books, well-known people, or doctrines as if they are somehow of more credence than others, but the deeper you dig, the more you realize we are all just standing on piles of collective fiction. This book does a great job of illustrating that point.”
When I spoke with Naval Ravikant, who pointed to The Rational Optimist as the book he gives the most, he also praised Sapiens, saying, “A history of the human species, with observations, frameworks, and mental models that will have you looking at history and your fellow humans differently.”
Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed how much Warren [Buffett] reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” ― Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack
Drew Houston, CEO and co-founder of Dropbox, which now has more than 500 million registered users and employs more than 1,500 people in 13 global offices, had brilliant insight into why think book is the one he gives out most often as a gift:
“I’ve always admired Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s clarity of thought and how they manage to explain complex topics in simple terms. Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger is one of my favorite examples.
As the CEO of a company, and in life in general, you find yourself making a dizzying variety of decisions in areas where you don’t have a lot of expertise, and your environment is constantly changing. How do you navigate this? How do you cultivate judgment and wisdom without waiting for a lifetime of experience?
Poor Charlie’s Almanack is a good start. It describes how to make good decisions in any situation with a relatively limited mental toolkit: the big, enduring ideas of the fundamental academic disciplines. Virtually everyone is exposed to these concepts by high school, but few people truly master them or apply them in everyday life. In my experience, it’s this kind of essential, first-principles thinking that enables the unusual level of insight and conviction that sets the great founders apart from the merely good ones.”
Daniel Ek, the co-founder and CEO of Spotify, which has more than 140 million monthly active users, also gifts this book more than any other, saying, “I’ve been enjoying Charlie Munger’s speeches online for years; this is the ultimate collection of the best of them. Watching Becoming Warren Buffett on a recent flight reminded me how much of a legend Charlie is.”
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The 5 Most Gifted Books by Some of the World’s Most Successful People was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Tim Ferriss