12 Books that Changed My Life

The holidays are approaching and you might have a little time to curl up with a book. In the fine tradition of Ten Books that Stand the Test of Time, 3 Books on Leadership, a Vision of Life as Play, and Acting on What Matters, and with encouragement from Shane Parrish#, I thought it would be fun to exchange book tips.

I tell you mine, you tell me your favorites.

Writing a book is hard work. Writing a book that teaches something different and that has the potential to rewire how we think and behave… those are keepers.

Some of the 12 books I carried with me from Italy, others I picked up along the way:

 1. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Hermann_Hesse_-_Siddhartha_(book_cover)I own two copies, one in German and one in English, a gift from a friend at a very intense time. The book celebrates a rite of passage and self-discovery. Every time I re-read it, something new emerges to make me think. One of the common themes in Hesse's writings is the division of the world into masculine and feminine.

Narcissus and Goldmund also by Herman Hesse brings this division to the fore through a fascinating journey. It narrates the story of two medieval men, one quietly content with his religion and monastic life — the masculine, dominated by intellect, reason, spirit, stability and discipline; the other in fervent search of more worldly salvation — the feminine, driven by emotion, love, fertility, birth, death, fluidity, nature, and the senses. I also own the German edition (it was my minor).

2. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The-Divine-Comedy-The-Inferno-the-Purgatorio-the-Paradiso-Paperback-P9780451208637At the University of Bologna I met several foreign students who came to Italy to learn the language so they could read this trilogy as Dante wrote it. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to read each of the books several times with famous researchers. It is by far the one book I would take with me anywhere. 

It was defined the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first masterpiece of world literature written in a modern European vernacular. Using the Florentine dialect, Dante gave birth to an early version of what we know as Italian today.

I often say he was the first blogger, he did not hesitate to share informed opinions of where everyone stood. On a more serious note, Dante constructs an allegory of a double journey: his experience in the supernatural world points to the journey of everyman through this life.

3. Resonate by Nancy Duarte

ResonateThis book has really changed how I think about presentations and prepare for a talk. What all great presenters and communicators have in common is their ability to get you started on a journey — one that will prompt you to do something differently. Nancy Duarte, has written a remarkable guide on how to present visual stories that transform and her book will teach you how to give a presentation and change the world.

I keep this book on a shelf in my home office and refer to it constantly. My review a couple of years back was by far the most read and shared. And for good reason. Give yourself a nice gift and buy this book.

4. Switch by Dan Heath and Chip Heath

SwitchI liked this book about how to change things when change is hard so much that I reviewed it twice. Here is take two.

In the book, Dan and Chip Heath unpack the complex set of systems that conspire to undermine lasting change efforts and make us aware of a few levers we can use to move the needle in our favor.

I found three surprises that made me reconsider how I approach my work: 1) What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem; 2) What looks like laziness is often exhaustion; 3) What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity

5. Dialogue: the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs

Dialogue book coverThis book helped me articulate better the value of conversation — the white space. The place where people turn together to deliberate, weigh out, suspend judgment (listening without resistance), explore the underlying causes, rules, and assumptions to get to deeper questions and framing problems. 

I have been using my learnings from Isaacs with clients teams to to uncover dynamics and information that leads to insights and leads to new opportunities.

My copy is super annotated, especially the chapter on listening. The book was published in 1999, yet it is timeless in its usefulness.

6. Story by Robert McKee

StoryFrom a master storyteller, a very comprehensive guide on how to write stories that work.

I use it as a reference probably as much as I use dictionaries.

McKee explains clearly and simply the principles, universal forms, archetypes, and the ideas on the reality of writing. A must read if you plan to do some screenwriting.

My major take aways from the book: 1) writing well is hard work; 2) the work is worth it. Learn the techniques and win over your creative block. Along the same lines, another excellent guide is Steven Pressfield The War of Art (here is my review).

7. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book is a classic. It debunks the idea that money can make us happy by pointing to what does — we find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of "flow." When you are involved in the completely engaging process of creating something new, you don't have enough attention left to worry about other stuff. This is what I call being in the moment.

8. Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

Finite and Infinite GamesA book about pattern recognition and choices. I loved the part about storytelling:

Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail. A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounding way of looking to an horizontal way of seeing.

9. Threads of Time by Peter Brook

I forgot how I came across this book. However I did, I am in debt to that occasion. This is a gem. Imagine spending a few hours with a respected and eclectic opera, stage, and film director and learning about his teachers, and his personal philosophy and journey.

10. Letters on Life by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke_Letters on LifeDefined as one of the twentieth century greatest poets, Rilke's body of work reflects a profound vision of how the human drive to create and understand can guide us in every facet of life.

The letters describe the occurrences of everyday life, the experiences of love and loss, as well as dealing with adversity and the nature of inspiration.

I love how Rilke manages to be a poet even in his prose. Since I read him in German, I can attest to the superb translation by Ulrich Baer. A more difficult reading is Duineser Elegien, which was part of my course work.

11. Getting to Yes by Fisher, Ury, Patton

In the same way we are all in sales, we are all constantly negotiating our position with others — in work assignments, issues with a landlord, when buying a new car, even who does the chores at home. From this book I learned to separate the issue from the person so I can be hard on the first, soft on the relationship.

12. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

I am deeply indebted to my education in the classics for discovering the value of philosophy and critical thinking, the origin of politics, and the virtue of ethics. The eBook version is more complete, if you have a reader. I will conclude this very long post with two quotes from Letters that provide a nice reminder of the value of original thinking:

“Be careful [with] this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable … To be everywhere is to be nowhere … [The same goes for] people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all.”

“Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources … These people who never attain independence follow the views of their predecessors … A man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking.”


Your turn.


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Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.