Oftentimes, when asked about how he learned about rocket science, Elon Musk would say “I read books”. Apparently, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, founder of That Boring Company, and co-founder of Neuralink and OpenAI is a voracious reader. I strongly believe that you can learn a lot from books and most “high-performers”, like Musk, seem to agree. Think about it, the valuable lessons you learn from a book took its author a lifetime to develop. By the time you read the book, everything is packed in a couple of hundred pages and carefully edited for you. Over the past year or so, I’ve read over 50 books. Since I took down notes, I wanted to share some of the most valuable lessons I learned from those books. Below, you’ll find 10 books with 10 valuable lessons I learned from them.
Show Your Work by Austin Kleon: If It’s Not on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist
Show Your Work, Steal Like an Artist, and Keep Going, are short books packed with advice about productivity and living life in general. In Show Your Work, the author discusses the advantages of being an amateur, loving the process rather than the finished product, and more. Choosing one piece of advice from the book is really difficult. If there’s one that resonated with me this past year though is “if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist”. That line from Show Your Work is what ultimately pushed me to start the blog you’re reading.
Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky: What Will Be the Highlight of My Day?
Do you often find yourself doing more, but you can’t find the time to do what you want? The book Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky revolves around the idea of a daily highlight, which the authors describe as “a single activity to prioritize and protect in your calendar.” That might be anything from a work presentation to making dinner for your family. In order to choose what that activity will be, the book invites you to answer the following question: “When you look back on your day, what activity or accomplishment, or moment do you want to savor?”
Then the book takes an interesting turning point where it discusses technology. More specifically, how you can use it to your advantage and how it can work against you in the form of infinity pools (sites and apps with infinite content). I found the lessons in Make Time useful because it motivates readers to focus their time and attention on what matters to them.
Atomic Habits by James Clear: Create Small Habits that Will Have Tremendous Impact On Your Life
James Clear defines an atomic habit as “a little habit that is part of a larger system” and as “the building blocks of remarkable results.” Instead of focusing on goals, Clear says, you should focus on the system instead. According to the author, the difference is that goals are about results and the system is the process that leads to those results. Clear then describes the series of steps you should take to create better habits. He calls these steps “the four laws of behavioral change”. These are: 1) make it obvious, 2) make it attractive, 3) make it easy and 4) make it satisfying. Each law has its own detailed chapter with several examples, so Atomic Habits is quite a fascinating read.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport: Stop Using Technology to Waste Time
Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of minimalism. The fact that you can apply its principles to every aspect of your life, including your digital world was eye-opening. There’s an appeal to the simple and straightforward message of “less is more”.
In the book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport encourages readers to focus their online time on carefully chosen activities that give them value. The book details a digital declutter, as well as taking a 30-day break from optional technologies. As part of this plan, you then reintroduce each technology asking yourself if it serves your values. Although I don’t agree with everything the book suggests, I believe that most of us should think about how we use technology. Maybe that means using it less or maybe that means bringing awareness to our digital worlds. Whatever the case, Digital Minimalism is a captivating read that will appeal to most people.
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers: Create a Business that Makes You Happy and Values Customers More than Anything
Derek Sivers, a musician, and entrepreneur, created a website called CD Baby to sell independent music on the internet. After 10 years, Sivers sold CD Baby for $22 million. In Anything You Want, he explains the process of making something he loved to then letting it go. At its core, his book is a series of life lessons the author wanted to share with others. These include anything from “it should never be about the money” to “there is no one path to success”. Entrepreneurs or anyone remotely interested in business should read Anything You Want. Also, the book’s less than 100 pages long and you can read it in a sitting if you want. I found some of the 40 lessons included to be invaluable.
Hell Yeah, or No: What’s Worth Doing by Derek Sivers: Hell Yeah or No
At its core, Hell Yeah, or No is a collection of thoughts. But more importantly, the book represents a practical principle you can apply to your life. Here’s how it works: unless you’re feeling “hell yeah” about something, your default answer should be “no”. In other words, say “no” more often. By applying this simple filter to your life, you can focus on what you’re truly passionate about. This is my biggest takeaway from the book. There are many valuable lessons, such as serving others, imitating while offering value, the importance of disconnecting in today’s world, and doing what scares you.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo: The Importance of Keeping a Clean and Organized Environment
I’m still getting over the fact that one of the best books I’ve read last year is about keeping your home organized. But there’s more to Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up than organizing physical space. Hiding behind practical tips about decluttering there’s a philosophy about the importance of values and what gives you joy. On the surface, you’re putting your house in order. As corny as it sounds though, you’re also putting your life in order too. Almost as important as organizing spaces and decluttering your life, this book also introduced me to minimalism. Other valuable lessons treating decluttering as a celebration and keeping what you truly love.
The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl: There’s No Replacement for Hard Work and Sacrifice
Written by musician Dave Grohl, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music is one of the funniest and most honest memoirs I’ve read. The project became a reality during the pandemic when Grohl was looking for a creative endeavor to pass the time. In his book, Grohl tells how he spent his formative years touring on a van around the country, but also how he built an altar where he swore to devote his life to rock and roll.
Before I read his book, Grohl always seemed warm, humble, intelligent, and hard-working, and those qualities definitely shine through his prose. There are so many captivating stories from his childhood, about being part of the grunge movement in the early 90s and about starting from scratch. If I had to choose my favorite, I wouldn’t know where to start. But this book isn’t always about having fun. It’s also about losing close friends and about dealing with that loss every day. If you’re into music at all, you might get more from this book. Nevertheless, I’d go as far as to recommend The Storyteller to anyone who knows how to read.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown: If It Isn’t a Clear Yes, Then It’s a Clear No
Most productivity books focus on doing more in less time. Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, on the other hand, motivates readers to get the right things done. According to the British author, we live in an age with endless distractions. Yet almost everything is worthless and we should take the time to find what’s truly valuable. But how can we tell what’s valuable and what’s not? “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no”, the author says. As McKeown puts it, “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: Deciding What Not to Do Is as Important as Deciding What to Do
This authorized, self-titled biography chronicles the life of Steve Jobs, a brilliant man who also happened to be deeply flawed. Author Walter Isaacson pulls no punches and tells Jobs’ life as it is. Jobs had an incredible vision for what he wanted to accomplish, but he often distorted reality to convince himself (and others) of things that simply weren’t true. The book includes tales about his childhood, dropping out of college, working for Atari, and going to India on a spiritual journey to then found Apple. More importantly, the book eloquently explains how Jobs invented keynotes as we now know them, how he created the only “lifestyle brand in the tech industry” and how Apple developed an image of innovative rebels that “thought different”.
Jobs transformed the world as we know it with innovations that are both influential and ubiquitous. In a way, Jobs was a person that learned all the valuable lessons I mentioned and implemented them consistently. With those ideas, he started a company in his garage. The same company is now the world’s most valuable brand. I could go on and on about this book. But if you take away anything from this short summary, remember Job’s words: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
In a way, this article took a year to write and required me to read more than 50 books. I believe it was well worth it though. Nevertheless, there are many valuable lessons I haven’t learned from books I haven’t read yet. So I encourage everyone to share their favorites in the comment section below.