I cover a lot of books in Shortcuts to Awesome. And if I’ve written about a book, that means it contains something of value. But they don’t all have the same value. Some are more awesome than others. So, since I know how hard it can be to find truly game changing books, I’ve rated, ranked, and reviewed them to help you do so.
For these ratings, I’m applying the following scale out of five:
5 – Life-changing. Somehow it changed the way I perceive the world, or act within it.
4 – Didn’t change my life, but was entertaining enough that I had a tough time putting it down.
3 – A good read. Not exceptional, but I’m glad I read it.
2 – I struggled to make it through the whole thing and would’ve been better off reading something else.
1 – I couldn’t finish it.
Now on to the books!
(p.s. click the + sign before any title to expand and see my review and key learning from each book)
the Best of the Best
Here’s the ranking of the truly life altering, game changing books I’ve covered so far in Shortcuts to Awesome that I rate 5/5.
This is one of my favorite books of all time. I mean, Frankl explains the freaking meaning of life for goodness sake!
From his tales of survival in the concentration camps that make up the first half of the book, to the key lessons he learned throughout the rest of his life and career that he shares in the second half, everything hit home. It taught me to look at the big picture and find my own purpose more than any meditation, self-help book, or Oprah episode ever could.
A quote from Nietzche that Frankl quotes on multiple occasions in this book is, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” I suspect those words will stick with me forever. So will this book, because it showed me How to find my Why.
If you’re looking for the meaning of life, Viktor Frankl is your man. The meaning of his life was to help you find yours. Here’s what he has to say.
I already knew before reading this book that social media, meetings, and email were busy-making, productivity-taking distractions. I also knew I was most effective when I hunkered down to spend extended and uninterrupted time focusing on what really mattered. But when it came to putting this “knowledge” into practice I sucked.
Then I read Deep Work.
The book changed the way I look at and spend every day of my life. It did so by encapsulating this “knowledge” of mine into two words: deep work. “I need to do deep work” is a lot easier to keep top of mind than, “I need to avoid doing meaningless reactive crap that makes me feel accomplished in the short run but gets me nowhere in the long run and instead prioritize the hard, proactive work that’s tough now but will pay dividends in the long run.” That did it for me. By adding “deep work” into my vocabulary, this book turned what was just “knowledge” into a way of life.
“The ability to ________ is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it’s becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.” Can you fill in the blank?
I always read the negative reviews before choosing to read a book. When doing so for Mindset, I discovered all the critiques can be summed up as brusquely as the way they panned the book. Here’s what they all say: The book’s unnecessary because the concepts of growth/fixed mindset can be summed up in only a couple sentences.
Well, I read it anyways. Guess what I think of those bad reviews now?
They’re mostly right. The concept definitely is simple enough to be summed up in only a couple sentences.
But you know what other concepts are like that too? Here are a few examples: save money for a rainy day; exercise is good for your body and mind; be nice to other people and they’ll be nice to you. Why bother write or read a book on personal finance, exercise, or relationships then? Because applying these concepts is f#*#ing hard! To learn and be inspired to do so we need examples that resonate with us, best practices to help us learn and teach others, and explanations of some of the grey areas of the concepts. That’s what this book is for and why it is so absolutely valuable.
Could it be better written? Yeah. Did I gloss over chunks of it? You bet. You’ll probably think the same if you read it too, but if you’ll also probably come across a couple of points, examples, or stories that will enable you to better instil a growth mindset in your own life or the lives of others. That there is worth five stars.
Jus a simple one question quiz will allow you to discover whether or not you have the mindset of success, and know how to instil it in others. Are you ready to take it?
Chip and Dan Heath didn’t need to “Switch” anything in me to get me to read this book. As a huge fan of their other books I was eager to read this one.
It didn’t let me down.
Just like all their other books, Switch is beautifully structured, and is full of science-backed but applicable-in-real-life strategies that are explained with entertaining and memorable examples. For my own endeavours I refer back to my notes from this book at least once a month and use the strategies every week.
I just wish we could “Switch” all non-fiction authors to write as well as the Heath brothers do.
I used tactics from the book “Switch” to get my girlfriend to remember to change the toilet paper roll. What monumental change do you want to make?
I can’t recommend Never Split the Difference more highly. It isn’t just the best book I’ve ever read on negotiating, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this past year, period. Voss’ tips and tactics are super practical and the tales he shares from his life as a hostage negotiator made the book hard to put down.
And when I say “practical,” I mean you don’t have to be a hostage negotiator, or even just a business person, to benefit from this book. I’m neither. But after reading Never Split the Difference, I’ve regularly been finding opportunities to put Voss’ tactics to work. Who doesn’t, for example, have a significant other or family member they argue with from time to time? I certainly have these types of “negotiations” with my girlfriend just about daily. And thanks to this book I’ve managed to tip these negotiations a little bit more in my favor.
Plus, if anyone ever kidnaps my girlfriend I’ll be ready to negotiate her back. (If I want to.)
Like it or not, negotiating is part of life—and even sometimes life or death—so we’d all be wise to study Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss. So do it. It’s not negotiable.
I never knew “snake oil salesmen” were a real thing until I read this book. It turns out that not only did snake oil salesmen exist, but that they were essentially the fish-with-legs of the evolutionary process of advertising, which has led us to the likes of Facebook and Google today.
The way the Attention Merchants tells the history of this evolution absolutely captured my own attention. I was enthralled to read how advertising has shaped the world, seeped into every part of our lives, and created behemoths like Facebook and Google—for better and for worse. By the end of reading the book, my understanding, appreciation, and fear, of advertising’s power had completely changed.
Because, as the artist Richard Serra is quoted saying in the book,
“It is the consumer who is consumed…You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer. He consumes you.”
Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we’re all up for bids. The attention merchants set the price and none of the proceeds goes our way. We do, however, set the supply. How much are you willing to give them? This book helped me decide and might help you do the same.
As Tim Wu’s fascinating history of advertising, The Attention Merchants, explains, we’re no longer the consumer, we’re the consumed. We’re all up for bids. How much is your attention worth?
No book I’ve read—not The Talent Code, not Deep Work, nothing—has convinced me more decisively that nobody is born with special talents, but that talent is earned, than this one did. I now fervently believe that all that separates me from Mozart, Magnus Carlsen, Ben Franklin, or Picasso is training and dedication.
That doesn’t mean I want to become like those people, though.
For now I’m content to apply the science of Peak to develop more humble skills, like becoming a faster typer.
Whatever skill you wish to acquire, if you actually want it to make it happen, I recommend you read this book to plan your training. And to get inspired. Ericsson and Pool might just convince you, as they did me, that your true potential isn’t limited by your brain or your body, but by how you train.
Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s book Peak inspired me to train to become something I never thought possible… a fast typer. Will it work? And what undiscovered expertise or talent will it help you uncover? There’s only one way to find out…
More Game Changing Books
The following books didn’t get a 5/5 from me, but have important lessons all the same. If the subject interests you, don’t hesitate to give them a read.
I suspect this book had a different impact on me than most other people. That’s because first of all I’m young and extremely fit, not overweight and diabetic like most of case studies Fung outlines here. Second, well before reading this book I’d been intermittent fasting for a couple years and had done longer fasts as well.
Even so, I found the book to be revelatory.
But isn’t it kind of a waste of time to read the benefits of fasting if you’re already doing it? Not at all. First, it was the clearest resource I’ve ever come across to help me understand the biology behind why I enjoy fasting in the first place: how it makes me feel better and eliminates my desire to eat. It also explained other benefits, like autophagy, that I wasn’t aware of because I couldn’t feel them. Bonus! Finally, Fung’s simple explanations help me better explain why I do it to the many people who incredulously tease me about my “weird” eating habits.
This is a book I’ll refer back to many times in the future and recommend to any friends who are considering fasting. Hopefully it’ll play a role in changing fasting from being “weird” to normal.
A 1-legged man, a rocket scientist, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, a body-builder, a heart surgeon, a neurologist, and a 100-year-old walk into a bar… Then something amazing happens.
The term “Meditation” always rubbed me the wrong way for some reason. The same can be said for “Mindfulness.” Maybe that’s why I was never captivated by the concept.
That is, until I read this book and was introduced to a new term for it that struck a cord with me, “Going nowhere.”
That did it for me. Maybe it’s my love of traveling, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but for whatever reason it worked. The way Iyer explains meditation in this super short book finally got me to understand the value of taking a few minutes every day to “go nowhere.”
In “The Art of Stillness,” travel writer Pico Ayer shares the surprisingly cheap, accessible, but exclusive travel destination of the world’s happiest people. Pack your bags!
Expert Secrets is an obvious attempt to entice readers to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on Russell Brunson’s ClickFunnels products.
I’m glad I read it anyways.
Half the book is Brunson’s tactical advice on how to create the perfect webinar, which I have zero interest in.
I’m glad I read it anyways.
Everything Russell Brunson writes in Expert Secrets leads me to believe he’s the type of guy who won’t hesitate to embellish the truth to manipulate people into giving him their money.
I’m glad I read it anyways.
I’m glad I read Expert Secrets because, despite many blatant negatives, I discovered some powerful insights. For example, the concept of opportunity vs. improvement (see comic below, which I wrote about here). Concepts like this actually changed the way I market my product, which is something other more “respectable” marketing books didn’t do for me.
While I may not find Brunson’s approach to be the most tasteful, I can’t deny he’s had considerable success and there is quite a bit I can learn from him. To ignore him entirely for his flaws would be a mistake because this book contains a lot of valuable, dare I say, wisdom.
Are you struggling to sell your product despite it being better than your competitors’? Here’s your opportunity to make your dreams come true.
Charlamagne and I could hardly be more different. He’s a black guy who was raised in rural South Carolina by a street hustler dad and a Jehovah’s witness mom and never went to college. I’m a White guy who was raised in Vancouver, Canada by a dad who’s a surgeon and mom who’s an MBA, has no religious beliefs, and graduated from one of my country’s top universities. Given our differences and the title of the book, “Black Privilege,” I wondered whether it would resonate with me in any way. For some reason, I read it anyways.
I really enjoyed Black Privilege. I found it to be a motivating and entertaining autobiography unlike any other I’ve read before. Most biographies come from, or are written by, people more “like me.” This one is a lot more raw, fresh, honest, and amusing.
Are there any brand new and game changing ideas here? Not really. But Charlamagne’s stories and the way he shares his eight principles for success are unlike anything else I typically read. They really reinforced within me the fact that there are some principles for success that are true regardless of who you are and where you come from.
In his book, Black Privilege, Charlamagne tha God has good news and bad news for those of you looking to find your gift, or your calling, in life. Are you ready for it?
If you google this book you’ll find a lot of hype about it. You’ll read how it’s the greatest book on advertising ever, and how it’s so sought-after it sells for $1,000. Well I gave in to the hype, found the book (after considerable effort), and read it. Here’s my take:
It’s not worth $1,000. But it’s worth reading.
As any book that’s still relevant 50 years after being first published, Breakthrough Advertising has one major and important advantage over modern advertising books: It’s not full of short-lived trends. There are some tactics that were trendy back then, but a reader today can easily identify them because now they sound quaint, silly, or even offensive. The other techniques, the ones that still resonate that make up the bulk of this book, can then be presumed to be based on fundamental truths of human nature. Or at least, based on the Lindy effect, which says that anything that survives X amount of years can be expected to survive X more years in the future, these concepts will be applicable for the foreseeable future. Those are the lessons that are valuable and what make this book worth reading. Just not worth paying $1,000 for.
The first paragraph of Gene Schwartz’s “Breakthrough Advertising” may be the most important ever written on copywriting. The rest of the book ain’t bad either. Harness the power for yourself.
I mean this in the very best way possible: If Oren Klaff had written Pitch Anything 60 years ago, people reading today might consider it to be an all-time classic.
Yes it’s overly macho, self-aggrandizing, and somewhat “out of touch”. And yes, some editors could have helped structure the book better. But the same could be said about many classic books written 60 years ago years ago. We overlook these flaws in those classics, maybe even appreciating it as old-timey charm, and value them for the timeless concepts they provide. Why not look at Pitch Anything the same way?
It’s worth it.
Like an old-time classic non-fiction book, Klaff introduces concepts in Pitch Anything that, as soon as I read them, I said to myself, “Of course!” They intrinsically made perfect sense, but somehow I hadn’t though of the ideas or structured them as he had. But now that I have his structure and terminology, I’ll never pitch anything the same way again. That’s incredibly valuable to me.
It might be the same to you. Don’t worry about the flaws. Instead, pretend the book was written 60 years ago and pretend it’s a timeless classic. It’s worth it.
Even if you’re not a businessperson, many of your life’s most pivotal moments will be pitches. And to pitch anything you need to know how to catch a crocodile.
I love the way D’Souza teaches. He uses simple examples, structures his material in a logical and easy-to-follow manner, and keeps things short and to the point. His writing style reminds me a bit of Chip and Dan Heath, who are among my favorite authors.
The only thing that keeps me from giving this book a 5/5 is that nothing in this book is groundbreaking. It’s tried and true marketing wisdom. But that’s not a bad thing. That’s because, unlike most marketing books that needlessly razzle and dazzle, this one does an amazing job of getting to the point and giving a clear, concise structure—an audit—that I can refer back to again and again.
Do you wish your marketing was more effective? If so, you might be missing one of seven key items Sean D’Souza explains in his book, The Brain Audit. Start your self-audit.
Have I been brainwashed?
After reading this book I think I like Nike now!
Shoe Dog humanized a company that I, as someone born in the mid-80s, had only ever known as being a behemoth. Now when I see Nike products or ads, I appreciate where the business came from and feel a strange sort of connection to it. This is all testament to how well written and entertaining Shoe Dog is.
Shoe Dog is a good old-fashioned startup story complete with scrappy underdog entrepreneurs, double crosses, intrigue, zany characters, and business lessons. It also shares cocktail-party-worthy anecdotes on where the name Nike, the logo, and the word swoosh all came from. I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew how the story ended.
In a wise move, the book ends just as Nike starts to take off. This left me thinking of Nike still being an underdog, and, like I said, respecting the company and the founder more than I ever did before. To “brainwash” me as it did may have been Phil Knight’s last great marketing coup.
I happened to read Shoe Dog at the same time as another book called Masters of Doom that told the story of a completely different business, id Software. Stangely enough, the two stories had a lot of similarities—with each other and with Apple too.
If you’ve read Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, you’ll know that one of the six principles of influence is reciprocity. Well that’s what this book’s all about. Consider it to be a deep dive into how to put reciprocity into practice for your own benefit and the benefit of your business.
Sure the concept of strategic gift giving sounds simple, and you might think you don’t need to read a book about it. I sure thought so. So I was surprised to find myself liking this book as much as I did, and learning more than I expected. I’ll wager that if you read Giftology you’ll be inspired to reallocate some of your marketing and administrative spending to buying gifts, and likely be better off for it.
Strategic gift giving is an under-utilized strategy that can give you an edge up in life. Here’s how it’s done.
In one part of Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday shares advice he got from an unnamed successful author who said that the key to success in non-fiction is to be “very entertaining” or “extremely practical.” Holiday definitely chose plan B.
Perennial Seller is full of practical, timeless advice. It’s well written, flows smoothly, and is easy to digest. While there are no groundbreaking new strategies here, what’s new (to me at least) is its argument to shift to a longer term focus. Perennial Seller reinforced in me the importance of planning for the long haul instead of shooting for short term rewards. I found this to be compelling and much-needed advice, and is why I wholeheartedly recommend it to any creator.
The problem is the idea of being a “perennial seller” isn’t sexy, and the book doesn’t do it many favors. (The cover is sexy though!) Changing people’s horizons from short to long term to want to create a perennial seller instead of a viral hit is hard. As the Heath brothers outline in their book Switch, to make such a change you need to “direct the rider” (appeal to the rational brain) and “motivate the elephant” (inspire the heart). Perennial Seller does a great job of the former, but not the latter. It didn’t make me jump out of my seat to sit back down and create my own perennial seller.
Again, I found the book to be highly practical and well worth the read. And hopefully it embeds the term “perennial seller” within the popular vernacular to join (or replace) terms like “smash hit” and “viral sensation”. I doubt it will though, until it gets sexier.
Creators who aspire to reach the top and stay there don’t know what they’re in for. They’d be wise to use Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday’s as a guide. Are you up for it?
This book is for those who want to: Do something different. If you’re starting a business, running one already, or at a job where you have the autonomy to take initiative, this book will help you unlock new ways to approach the problems you’re facing.
Favorite quote: “Problems are just businesses waiting for the right entrepreneur to unlock their value”
Favorite “Aha!” moment: Before spending your own money or getting a loan to finance your disruptive idea, figure out how you could spend other people’s money (OPM) on it instead. Click here to read some examples from the book.
Would I recommend it to friends? Some, not all. It’s not a general interest book for people who have a hard time getting through books in general. But for those who insatiably devour everything in their path, I’d recommend it because it has new takes I haven’t seen elsewhere.
Overall rating: Four stars. It’s not an complete game-changer, but has enough new (ok, “disruptive”) concepts in it that I was happy to have read it.
If you need money to fund your business’ growth, don’t limit your choices to debt or equity. There’s another option: other people’s money (OPM). Here’s how to spend it.
For better and for worse, I found this to be a modern, more attention-grabbing take on the same lessons Viktor Frankl teaches in one of my favorite books ever, Man’s Search For Meaning.
What I mean is the concepts here aren’t anything “new,” just that Manson expresses them in a more 21st-century style. But since these concepts are so important, they are worth repeating—better yet in a modern context some of us might more easily understand and identify with. That makes the book worth reading.
So if you’re thinking of reading this book, I’d say start with Man’s Search for Meaning first. But if you find Frankl’s book not “modern” enough for you, this is an excellent alternative (or refresher).
Key Takeaway: Want a Rewarding Life? Stop Giving So Many Fucks
Mark Manson, blogger and best-selling author, has an eloquent message for you: If you want to live a rewarding life, stop giving so many fucks. Just fucking read it.
For those of you who are familiar with Seth Godin, especially those who are subscribed to his newsletter, Purple Cow is exactly what you’d expect.
For those less familiar with Godin, here’s a quick intro. Godin is like the Chipotle of marketing. He produces a prodigious number of short bites of (generally healthy) marketing wisdom that’s easy to swallow. Godin then assembles his bites that are loosely related and publishes them as books. Some of these bites of wisdom will resonate with you; others will seem cheesy or obvious. Because just one of those ideas might just be enough to change you and your business, and likely one of them will, the book’s worth checking out.
To bless your business with sustained, growing sales, you need to get sick. You need to develop a potent ideavirus. Start sneezing.
The Talent Code does a good job of explaining the how, what, and why of the thesis that, as Coyle writes, “Although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we each have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”
It’s well-structured intro into the topic, but here’s the thing: I’d recommend actually reading another book first: Peak, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I thought Peak did a better job of truly convincing me that even Mozart and Picasso weren’t born special, but made special and that we all have that potential within us. The Talent Code, on the other hand, is more comprehensive when it comes to how to ignite the passion in someone (or yourself) to develop a talent, how to teach it, and the biological process behind it (myelination). And while there is undoubtedly some overlap between the two books, I found them to be quite complimentary.
So yeah, start with Peak, and if that “piques” your interest, read the Talent Code next.
The Talent Code shares the fascinating science behind how talent is created. Anyone can do it, but it’s about as easy as bushwhacking through a jungle. Get bushwhacking!
I liked this book more than I like video games.
Granted, I’ve never been much of a fan of video games, so that’s not saying much. I am, however, a big fan of any well-told story about the rise and fall of any disruptive business. So even though I couldn’t appreciate the technical innovations described in the book, I got a lot out of learning about the strange cast of characters who created the business and the way they challenged existing business models.
If there exists such as thing as first-person video gamer addicts who also read books, they will love Masters of Doom. Since I only meet half of those criteria, I simply liked it. That’s still a lot better than what I can say about video games, though.
I happened to read Masters of Doom at the same time as another book called Shoe Dog that told the story of a completely different business, Nike. Stangely enough, the two stories had a lot of similarities—with each other and with Apple too.
This book is for those who want to: Overcome the fear of opening up and being their true selves, and who want teach their children to do the same. It’s a book for women in particular. Men can and should absolutely pay heed to what Brown teaches, but frankly, as a man, the flowery way she writes doesn’t resonate with me. I bet if we could analyze the ratings of this book by demographic like done on IMDB (for example), the average scores from women and men would be quite different.
Favorite quote: “When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable. If we dismiss all the criticism, we lose out on important feedback, but if we subject ourselves to the hatefulness, our spirits get crushed. It’s a tightrope, shame resilience is the balance bar, and the safety net below is the one or tow people in our lives who can help us reality-check the criticism and cynicism.”
“Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer,” which Brown quotes from Scott Stratten, is a close second.
Favorite “Aha!” moment: When your child walks into the room does your face light up, or are you looking to make sure they tied their shoes and put their shirt on the right way? These ritual little actions cultivate either a mindset of shame or of vulnerability. Though I don’t have children, I’m now mindful to brighten up whenever my girlfriend comes home from work, no matter how busy I am, how late she is, or how shitty either of us might be feeling. Every time you see someone again is a new first impression.
Would I recommend it to friends? Only a select few women who I can tell are being held back by the falsely-construed societal pressure they feel to not open up and be vulnerable.
Overall rating: 3 stars. I’m glad I read it, but it didn’t resonate with me with where I’m at in life (31 year old man).
Are you wondering what’s holding you back from the fulfillment and success you dream of? Maybe you just need to dare greatly and expose yourself! (Or at least start here.)
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