5 Books to Understand Ourselves Better

Reading to understand

Every day in our work and lives we're faced with two conditions, being and becoming. Sometimes we see one as the consequence of the other, we appreciate that much of what we do in the course of being who we are contributes in small part to who we will be.

When we're able to inhabit the moment, we savor the joy of being — being a friend, being professional, being active in a complex reality that may have more than one dimension for us. As we're immersed in our being, we want to also acknowledge the necessity of becoming. A process that keeps us moving forward.

In Letters to a Young Poet Rainer Maria Rilke provides an example of the progression. Live the questions when young, and then we all come to a point in life when we begin to live our way into the answers:

“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

But we can learn and share from the experiences and wisdom of others as we go about our process of becoming. It's a time of much abundance, of ideas and options, and yet if we're not careful we end up filling our heads before we get to the nutritious parts.

We rely on filters, our own and those of sources we appreciate and may even trust, to navigate the world of possibility. The trade-offs we make to spend time and invest energy on one thing vs. another are not always obvious.

It's easy to think that we've arrived at our destination if we are doing work we enjoy, have good relationships, and a nice lifestyle, that we are set with being where we are. It would be a shame, because we'd miss participating actively in the person we may be called to become, our potential.

Access, opportunity, and mobility have created a some downsides. More exposure to all kinds of ideas, signal and noise, increased activity means less reflection, moving may mean far away from our communities of family and friends.

There's a world of knowledge we can learn to tap into to understand ourselves better, and by doing that, gleaning some sense of things we have in common with the others in our lives, wherever we may be… in the process of becoming.

Books are a great and portable way to focus our attention to specific questions. Here are five contributions to our mental library:


Lying by Sam Harris

Is about ethics and personal relationships and focuses on what we call 'white lies.' For example, to the question does this outfit make me look fat? “Most people think that the correct answer to this question is always No… But this is an edge case for a reason: It crystallizes what is tempting about white lies. Why not simply reassure someone with a tiny lie and send her out into the world more confident? Unless one commits to telling the truth in situations like this, however, one feels that edges creep inward, and exceptions to the principle of honesty begin to multiply. Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly:shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high.”

“When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives — about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world.”

However, we should read it critically and question whether what we see as truth today may be a lie in the future. Are we consistent between our being and our becoming?


The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg PhD

Tools based on mindfulness, neuroscience, and positive psychology by a clinical psychologist and neuroscience expert. We're all familiar with our responses to stress: avoidance, tunnel vision, negative thinking, self-criticism, fixed mindset, and fear. But when we need resilience and tolerance the most, we're the most emotional and unfocused.

Stress is something we all relate to. How could we interact with our being to support our becoming?


The Compassionate Achiever by Christopher L. Kukk

Compassion is a better version of passion, a more collaborative one. When we practice it we benefit by achieving more constructive relationships, improving intelligence, and increasing our resiliency. Practicing compassion isn’t about being a martyr or a paragon of virtue; it’s about rejecting rage and indifference and choosing instead to be a thoughtful, caring problem-solver. Kukk is the the founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation. He identifies the skills every compassionate achiever should master — listening, understanding, connecting, and acting — and outlines how to develop each, with clear explanations, easy-to-implement strategies, actionable exercises, and real-world examples. 

No person is an island, especially in an age where complexity and rapid change challenge our very well-being. Many actors support us in our process of becoming.


The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith

We all have goals and objectives, but how many of us have missions? Unsurprisingly, meaning comes from cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives. Emily Esfahani Smith synthesizes a kaleidoscopic array of sources — from psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, and the Buddha. She also visits a tight-knit fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay, stargazes in West Texas, attends a dinner where young people gather to share their experiences of profound loss, and more.

“It is particularly distressing to be unhappy in a country where so many others are happy.” How can we begin to build a culture that leaves space for introspection and awe, that cultivates a sense of community, and imbues our lives with meaning? The four pillars are belonging — this is a tough one, I can personally attest to it — purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. It's failure on the being side of belonging, purpose, story, and self-transcendence that drives to becoming a destructive force.


Surfing Uncertainty by Andy Clark

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark explores exciting new theories from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, and robotics. They reveal minds like ours to be prediction machines devices that have evolved to anticipate the incoming streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. These predictions then initiate actions that structure our worlds and alter the very things we need to engage and predict.

Clark touches upon other facets of the human condition, such as dreaming, imagination and the creative urge. This is a much more ambitious reading on the current state of the art and theory in cognitive science and robotics. It literally surfs the line between being and becoming.

As we go about our days engaged with being who we are, we're also mindful of our movement toward our becoming.