Books to a Young Man – 10 Titles to Kickstart a Good Life

This was written to my 15 year old friend and relative Audun for his confirmation ritual. My gift to him were the books mentioned in this post – the best books to kick-start a good life. This is what I wish someone had given me when I was 15 years old.


Dear Audun,

Today, you become a grown man.
100 years ago, you’d be sent out to sea with the fishermen starting tomorrow morning. In our time, you’re being thrown on board a more metaphoric boat, the life of an independent adult.

But don’t be fooled – this life boat is just as shaky as those old fishing vessels, so get a firm stance and hold on tightly to the steering wheel.

Today is a future-focused day. Many of us, your party guests, will ask you what you want to do with your life. As if you are supposed to have a good answer to that, aged 15. Please keep in mind that most of the 40, 50 and 60 year olds in this room are probably struggling to answer that question for themselves.

Following the social construct of courtesy, you may provide a vague answer about a career path you find mildly interesting. We, the recipients, will then scrutinise your answers. We’ll jump to arbitrary conclusions in our minds, implicitly judging your answers based on our own ideas of what a good life means. 

Later today, as we consume excessive amounts of cake and wine, we might even express our judgments, dressed up as sound advice.

“Just follow your passion!”,

“How about becoming a lawyer?”,

“Your should get a PhD to survive in this economy..”.

I love giving advice. We all do. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it makes us feel like wise folks who have this life thing figured out. Do whatever you want with the advice we throw out, but remember this – deep down, we’re all pretty darn clueless.

Despite my love for paradoxes, this is not advice about not taking advice. My advice to you is about figuring things out for yourself. I advise you to ask questions and receive answers, but ultimately, to think and decide for yourself.

But thinking for ourselves is bloody difficult. Everyone around us seemingly want to think for us. Parents, societal norms, friends and frenemies all share one thing in common: they try to pull you in directions you haven’t chosen for yourself.

Be wary about these gravitational pulls that are all around you, and try to see them for what they are. Only then it possible to actively choose to follow or disregard them.

How To Think For Yourself

“Thinking for yourself” is vague at best, and a totally useless aphorism at worst. How the hell do you do that?

I suggest you read.
Pages of paper strung together contain incredible amounts of wisdom. Ever since humans figured out how to write, people have written down their best insights, each generation building on the accumulated lessons learned by those before them.

Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him. –John Locke

The best part about reading? There’s an infinite amount of amazing books out there.
The worst part about reading? There’s an infinite amount of amazing books out there.

Where do you start?

I have made a curation of 10 books to answer that question.
These 10 have been enlightening for me personally. They cover a vast range of important aspects of life. Think of them as a starting kit for a good life – read these to get a basic understanding of a handful of critically important life aspects. Then get back to thinking, deciding and acting for yourself.

The Good Life Starting Kit

everything that remains review1) Everything That Remains, by The Minimalists

This book is part of the reason why I’ve gotten rid of 80% of my things over the last five years, leading to a less cluttered, more focused and much happier life. It has changed my life and my entire foundation of values for the better. Quite a statement, but it is absolutely true. I cannot possibly recommend this book and its underlying philosophy highly enough.

Excessive consumption is literally killing both us and our planet. We all know this, yet most of us seem to end up on the hedonistic treadmill – more, more, more.

That big boat, the designer sofas, the beautiful house in suburbia with more bedrooms than inhabitants all promise the same thing. Buy this, get those, acquire that, and thou shalt be happy!

Theorethically we all know that this is false. Yet, we give a shot at happiness with those fine Tesla cars and shiny watches over and over again. But the inconvenient truth is this: the fancy watch won’t give you more time.

The Minimalists realised this after skyrocketing up the corporate ladder in their 20’s, eventually managing hundreds of retail stores and making six-figure salaries. Despite that, they didn’t feel wealthy, nor content. There was always someone making more, having more, seemingly being more.

They were trapped in the rat race. Eventually they realised something important. Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

After selling and donating 95% of their stuff, The Minimalists Joshua and Ryan started sharing their stories with the world. Five years, a few books and a documentary movie later, they’re leading a movement we desperately need.

Their message has to spread, and we have to take action. Our lives literally depend on it. I don’t know how many Earths we’ll need in order to keep up with the Joneses, but I do know this – we’ve only got this one. Act accordingly.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Less is more,
  2. Stuff ≠ happiness,
  3. Clear out the physical, mental and digital clutter to make room for what’s truly important.

Further reading on similar topics:

the 4-hour workweek book review2) The Four-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss

This is the book that has most fundamentally changed my thinking and general outlook on the world of work and play. I still vividly remember laying on the grass outside the castle at Atlantic College, having my assumptions and beliefs flipped on their heads one after the other as I flipped through the pages of this book.

Tim Ferriss came out of nowhere and popularised concepts such as lifestyle design, location independent entrepreneurship, mini retirements, geo-arbitrage and outsourcing life, to mention a few. If this sounds Greek to you, pick up this book and fasten your seatbelt – you’re in for a ride.

Despite the title, this is not a book about working four hours per week. It is about exploring the possibilities of working the way you want, where, when and as much as you want. It is about thinking unconventionally, and, above all else, it is about strategically questioning and breaking the norms and rules around you to get exponentially better results.

Call it a productivity encyclopedia, an eccentric guide to rule breaking or an unconventionalist manifesto – in any case, read and re-read it. It will change the way you think about your life, your work and the purpose of both.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. How to think in unconventional ways,
  2. Live life by design, not by default,
  3. Question long-held assumptions to exponentially improve your results.

Further reading on similar topics:

fail win scott adams3) How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by Scott Adams

This book is about how to live and structure your life to optimise for happiness, productivity and success, however you define that.

The book is a breath of fresh air in the typical self-help bookshelf, because it doesn’t advocate the classic success advice that everyone else does. In fact, it focuses primarily on failure, and why cultivating consistent failures might be the most effective way to get to success.

“Goals are for losers – winners use systems” –Scott Adams.

Scott Adams’ book made me embrace systems thinking as a way to structure my life for continuous improvement and progress. Adams argues that working towards binary goals is a bad way to live life, because you will technically be a loser 99% of the time, and feel bad about it. You eventually get a big win as you achieve a goal, but before you know it, a bigger goal comes along. Systems, on the other hand, are ways to ensure continuous improvement in a right direction, rather than towards ticking off one specific goal as completed.

Scott is the man behind Dilbert, the wildly successful comic strip that takes a funny look at corporate office life. In the book, he explains how he managed to make a successful comic strip without being very good at drawing, writing nor humour, and how we can achieve similar things. It’s all about unique skill combinations, he claims.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Use systems (consistent habits and routines) rather than goals (one-off, binary events) to live life better,
  2. Cultivating new skills and combining them makes you exponentially more valuable in professional settings,
  3. Try, fail, repeat until success finds you – squeeze out lessons from failures, then swiftly move on to the next blunder.

choose yourself book review4) Choose Yourself, by James Altucher

The times they are’a changin’, especially in professional settings.
As technology develops at ever increasing speed and globalisation makes job markets more competitive, the traditional playbook for career success is soon a thing of the past.

College isn’t the golden ticket to a good, safe, well-paying job that it used to be when our parents grew up. “Safe jobs” aren’t safe anymore – mechanical technologies are taking over blue-collar jobs, artificial intelligence disrupts what was once a safe haven of white collars jobs. Is becoming a lawyer, banker or accountant as a safe choice? Not anymore, AI is already taking over these domains at an accelerating rate.

The middle class (at least in the US) is diminishing, as the economic landscape polarises more and more. The rich get richer, the poor gets poorer.

This may sound gloomy, but think twice. On the flip side, never in the history of the world has there been greater opportunities to get started on solving problems and creating value for other people. If you’re creative and willing to pursue untraditional opportunities, you’re entering Klondyke all over again.

See, the tools and resources to start a company, publish a book, share your art or whatever you want to do have never been cheaper nor more abundantly available.

  • 10 years ago, taking an online payment required investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in developing a payments system. Today, it’s 2% of your revenue with PayPal or Stripe.
  • 20 years ago, if you wanted to publish a book, your fate was in the hands of a few publishers who had to choose you from a pool of thousands of aspiring authors. Today, you self-publish with Amazon from your breakfast table.
  • 30 years ago, if you wanted to become a musician, you had to be chosen by a bunch of people – agents, producers, record labels, you name it. Today, you upload it to SoundCloud and get exposure to the entire world instantaneously.

We live in an incredible time – nobody needs to choose you or give you permission anymore, you must simply be brave enough to choose yourself.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Safe is the new risky. Risky is the new safe.
  2. The American Dream is on life support.
  3. The middle men are gone – nobody else needs to choose you nor give you permission anymore.

Further reading on similar topics:

rich dad poor dad book review5) Rich Dad, Poor Dad – What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not, by Robert Kiyosaki

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life”. –Henry David Thoreau

The more vulgar you find the title of this book, the more you need to read it.

Real talk: money matters. After you’ve read Everything That Remains, you know that money isn’t everything, but it certainly is quite something. It won’t buy you happiness, but it will shield you from economic misery.

In many social circles, talking about money is taboo. That sentiment is destructive. Shielding people from a sound financial education is not an act of nobility, it is plain dumb.

Believe whatever you want about capitalism, “the system” and all the rest of it – the pragmatic thing to do is to accept the rules of the game, then play your cards accordingly.

By lacking a basic understanding of economics, you’ll be at the mercy of money throughout your life. Learn to play the game, or the game will be played on you.

Robert Kiyosaki to the rescue. Robert grew up with two father figures, a rich and a middle class one. He quickly realised that his rich dad had very different beliefs about money than his poor dad. In this book, he explains those differences in detail.

Simply put, it is a great introduction to pragmatic personal finance – I highly recommend it.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Assets are investments that makes money flow into your pocket, liabilities are purchases that draw money out of your pocket,
  2. The rich buy assets, the poor buy liabilities, the middle class buys liabilities they think are assets (most notably, their own house),
  3. Financial freedom is available to anyone with the right knowledge, psychology and a long enough time horizon for compound interest to take off exponentially (so start investing early!).

Further reading on similar topics:

how to win friends and influence people book review6) How To Win Friends And Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

Money matters, but relationships matter infinitely more. It’s pretty much what life is all about, really. But how do we create new relationships, and nurture existing ones effectively?

Ask Dale. Since 1936, this book has provided millions of people with a foundational knowledge of how strong relationships are made. It is practical, poignant, and easy to read, which makes it an absolute no-brainer.

Whether you’re looking for a new friend, girlfriend (or boyfriend, if that’s what floats your boat) or a business relationship, there is wisdom in these pages to help you do exactly that.

Some people may claim that learning “social tricks” is manipulative. My response? It’s not manipulative to know how to be a good person – but with great power comes great responsibility. Be kind, always.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it,
  2. Never criticise – criticism is corrosive.
  3. Always express your sincere appreciation for others.

Further reading on similar topics:

The subtle art of not giving a fuck review7) The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck, by Mark Manson

This book in one sentence? Timeless advice on ruthless prioritisation, hidden behind a provocative, yet telling, book title.

The essence of Manson’s book is this: life is short, and most things don’t matter. Separating the vital few from the trivial many is a difficult, yet necessary practise if one wants to get the important stuff done. “Most people major in minor things” is a classic idiom in life advice literature, and I think it is spot on.

The politically correct title of this book could have been “The Subtle Art of Identifying Your Core Priorities and Acting Accordingly”. Luckily, Mark Manson doesn’t give a fuck about being politically correct, so we get served this punchy book instead.

Read, apply, repeat, because this is a life long practise.

In my life, I have given a fuck about many things. I have also not given a fuck about many things. And like the road not taken, it was the fucks not given that made all the difference.
Look, this is how it works. You’re going to die one day. I know that’s kind of obvious, but I just wanted to remind you in case you’d forgotten. You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked. –Mark Manson

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Be aware of what you give a fuck about,
  2. Focus your efforts – choose wisely where fucks are worth giving,
  3. Live life on your own terms, not according to other people’s playbook.

Further reading on similar topics:

80000 hours book review8) 80,000 Hours; Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good

We’ve got one shot at life, and work fills a huge portion of the very brief time we’ve been blessed with. This book is about making the most of those hours you’ll spend working.

The average career lasts for about 80,000 working hours. Choosing a career then, is one of life’s most important decisions. The authors of this book suggests that we maximise our positive impact on the world when choosing a career path, and the book shows us exactly how we can do that.

We don’t all have to build huts in Africa and take save the world-ish selfies with cute black kids to make an impact. But by keeping in mind which paths may lead us to contribute to the world in a positive way, we can make informed choices about how to spend our working life. That’s worth a quick read and some serious contemplation.

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. We have 80,000 hours of working time before life’s over. Make those hours about something bigger than yourself.
  2. There are many ways of making an impact on the world, so choose whatever works best for you and your aspirations.
  3. The most flashy ways of altruism are seldom the most effective, and vice versa. The filthy rich (yet philanthropic) bastard makes a bigger positive impact than the “voluntourist” with a selfie stick and a big heart.

Further reading on similar topics:

unlimited power book review9) Unlimited Power; The New Science of Personal Achievement, by Tony Robbins

The Classic with a capital C in personal development and growth. I won’t give anything away here, because this book will find you when it’s time. Pick it up when you want to take life to the next level. That’s all.

Further reading on similar topics:

mans search for meaning review10) Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

All these books cover fine and dandy topics. Sure, money, relationships, personal growth and all the rest of it is important stuff. But at the end of the day, what is the point of it all? The meaning behind everything? And do we really need to search for the answers to these questions?

Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust concentration camps, and subsequently wrote this book about why he thinks he survived when others passed away. And why he survived, he claims, is because he had an overarching reason to survive. He had, unbelievably as it may seem, found a meaning in his horrific situation. He had his why, his reasons to persevere through the horror, and that made all the difference.

Be warned: this book is strong, heavy, and at times horrendously dark. Yet it is extremely important. Its content is as meaningful as text gets. It will make you think more, appreciate more and search for more meaning in your life. And that right there, is a powerful triade. Read it.

This book transcends “top 3 takeaways” lists, and I can’t imagine many books that qualify as “similar”, so I skip those lists entirely. Instead, let me round off with two quotes from the book.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In Summary: Read, Think, Act

Books are powerful things. They allow you to live through other people’s entire lives in a few short hours. You can absorb their hard earned lessons in minutes, instead of going through years of the same agony as they did.

We should all stand on the shoulders of giants and those who came before us. That being said, I also want to make the case for exposing yourself to a variety of viewpoints, ideas and opinions when making reading choices. Read the same as everybody else, and you’ll end up thinking like everybody else.

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

–Haruki Murakami

Finally, remember that reading is great, thinking for yourself is better, but ACTING and making things happen is ultimately the best way forwards.

There comes a time when you have to choose between turning the page and closing the book.

–Josh Jameson

I wish you all the very very best, dear Audun, and I look forwards to following your path in the years to come. You know where to find me – please do reach out if I can be of any help or assistance whatsoever.

-Jacob

One Comment on ““Books to a Young Man – 10 Titles to Kickstart a Good Life”

  1. Pingback: Infovore Reading: How to Read 100+ Books Each Year | Jacob Mørch

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