Ryan Holiday, writes about a question, he purports will change your reading life.

And this was somehow surprising to me, because as a bookworm, I have been slipping this question (or a variant of it) into casual conversations with folks all my life.
If I need my reading queue to be always full, I need to always be closing :)

And since it has helped me so much, it’s only fair, I share it with you :)

Here’s Ryan,

Every time I would meet a successful or important person I admired, I would ask them:

What’s a book that changed your life?

And then I would read that book.


Which books should I read? Should I read books about physics or books about history or books about self-improvement? And even if I knew the genre I preferred, which authors should I read and why? Should I read new books or old books? The books getting rave reviews or the classics or the ones on the featured table in the front of the store?

I didn’t know.

If a book changed someone’s life — whatever the topic or style — it was probably worth the investment. If it changed them, I thought, it might at least help me.

This style of reading, might appear chaotic.
But in my experience, it has brought me the best books with the best lessons, at just the right time.

When I was neck deep in debt, I learnt about money, because I asked people who were good with theirs, on how they did it and what they read.
I learnt about computers, because my vocational teacher at the time (I was learning to fix televisions) thought it apt to shove copies of Tim Ramteke’s Networks, Malvino’s Digital Electronics and Jon Stoke’s Inside the Machine into my greedy little hands. (really expensive books which were way beyond my means.
I went in there to learn to fix televisions and came out learning to fix computer hardware.
I went to my grandpa to learn religion and he taught me the value of being open to good, universal values across all faiths, by giving me copies of both the Bible and the Upanishads. (It’s another matter that I haven’t learnt a thing from either set of books :P but I’ve learnt that kindness, being good, doing good, is universal)
I looked online to see how people dealt with unbearable stress and grief, and I learnt about the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
I wanted to have an intentional outlook to life, and I found Shane and his mental models, and through him I found Munger and Taleb.

Each of those moments and authors and books, I listed above, changed my life in fundamental ways, moulding me into what I am today.

It did not matter if the book was contemporary or ancient. (actually, the older the better)

And that brings me to another part of the post I love. To make the ancients and the dead greats your teachers and confidants!

Here’s old man Munger himself,

I think you learn economics better if you make Adam Smith your friend. That sounds funny, making friends among the eminent dead, but if you go through life making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas, I think it will work better in life and work better in education. It’s way better than just being given the basic concepts.

And here’s Ryan,

We should seek out the literature that has shaped the people we admire and respect — we can cut down even on the discovery costs of looking for those books. They’ve given us a shortcut to the treasure map.
Everybody seems to want a mentor. Meanwhile, they’re passing up the opportunity to learn directly from the people who taught the people you aspire to be like. When someone like John McCain spends his whole life raving about For Whom The Bell Tolls, why would you not check it out? Clearly, it got him through some shit. Peter Thiel credits Rene Girard and Things Hidden Since The Foundation Of The World with shaping his worldview. Clearly, it’s made him some money—you’re not going to pick that up? Angela Merkel—Forbes’ number 1 most powerful women twelve of the last thirteen years—lists Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as her favorite reads. Add them to the list!

And of course, the ancients had already figured this out :)

Seneca writes,

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them. […]
We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

So, go on then.
Ask folks what books changed their lives.
And then go read them and be transformed!

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