I’VE RECEIVED SEVERAL QUESTIONS over the past few months about why I read so much, recommendations for books, and how to motivate yourself to read more often. After bouncing around several ideas, I thought it would be useful to approach the topic with some background on me, first.
[If you’re only interested in book recommendations, feel free to skip to the second half.]
Here is a totally complete summary of my life: 1
Grade School –>
High School –>
SAT/ACT/AP/IB Exams –>
College Auditions/Applications –>
UNC Music School for 2 years –>
Auditions for Undergraduate Transfer –>
Lynn Conservatory for 2 years –>
Grad School Auditions –>
Success was a much more nebulous concept for me than it is now. I oriented myself around short term goals. Be the first 3rd grader to get all of his multiplication tables perfect. Win 1st chair in the Texas All-State Band. Win the Concerto Competition. Get the cute South African girl to go out with me. 2
Essentially, if I made a good enough grade, got into the right school, or won first prize in the right competition, I considered myself “successful”. And “success” indeed came over the years: I’ve won quite a few competitions and performed in a lot of fantastic venues. But there was a gnawing emptiness to my success. Even when I did well, I felt zombiefied–constantly compelled to “do a good job”, but not understanding why it was important, necessary, or if I wanted to do a good job at all.
However, with copious amounts of therapy and life-coaching 3, I was able to dissect and actually understand why I felt zombiefied.
MONKEY DID, BUT HE DIDN’T SEE
Growing up, I viewed the world through one of three filters:
- What I liked (clarinet, video games)
- What I was good at (clarinet, school)
- What I was insecure about (socializing, talking to girls, the gym)
For example, in 8th grade, I would go to school, get some A’s on my exams, play the clarinet, get really nervous around a girl named Kaitlyn, 4 be really mad at myself for talking too much to her/not talking to her, go home and drown my insecurities in video games. Basically, my life revolved around me filling the expectations of others (good grades in school), doing clueless shit that reinforced my insecurities, and self-medicating by finding ways to escape my insecurities. This pattern continued arguably through most of my college career as well. It made me unsure of my place in the world. I didn’t have any sense of purpose, and I wondered often if any of my achievements meant anything at all.
It’s not even that I wanted to be some grand intellectual powerhouse; 5 I just wanted to at least somewhat understand who I was, why I was who I was, and how the hell I could possibly fit on this planet. Throughout my entire adolescence, I didn’t. I was lost.
It’s said that it’s impossible for chimps to use tools to make a complex model, even given decades’ worth of time. 6 Chimps can’t even conceptualize that anything can be built at all: put a chimp in a city and he will assume that the skyscrapers are just big rocks or that iPhones are… small rocks, as if everything that exists ever is merely an extension of nature. Chimps simply can’t comprehend the universe outside of their set rituals: sleeping, foraging for food, avoiding predators, and reproducing.
When it came to life beyond my systems–namely, school and auditions–I was the chimp. I felt helpless to forces beyond my control because of the vast breadth of reality that I didn’t understand. I could hardly hold conversations with anyone beyond soundbyte politics from clever Facebook statuses and repurposed witticisms from Whose Line is it Anyway? I had a lot of style points, but no substance.
In other words, you know that person that’s a savant at their instrument or whatever they do, but are incredibly stiff and difficult to be around because they’re so hopelessly underdeveloped in the other facets of their life? As if that person’s life revolved solely around their achievements and their insecurities (unsuccessfully hidden from the rest of the world) revolved solely around the achievements they didn’t have yet?
10 Books In 10 Days
Fast forward to this past summer. Despite quite a few more “system successes” and a tremendous amount of growth since high school, I was still feeling those same feelings of listlessness. After work, I accept an offer from a buddy to accompany him to a Barnes and Noble, and notice Jon Stewart’s biography. The Daily Show had 15 or so episodes left until it would end as “with Trevor Noah”, and Jon Stewart was an influential figure for most of my life, so Lisa Rogan’s book was not only topical but incredibly relevant to me. I took the book and sat down to give it a good browse; my watch read 5:30 PM at this point. At around 7:00 PM, my buddy says he’s going home, and I say that I’m going to stay and read a little bit more.
At 9:04 that evening, I placed the book back where I found it, having read it cover to cover in three and a half hours. Awesome!
I used my spare time in a couple ways prior to this day:
- Eating or drinking coffee
- Looking up places to eat or drink coffee
- Practicing my clarinet
- YouTube videos
- Video Games
With the last two, and sometimes with the first three, there was always a feeling of emptiness after I finished. I never really felt that “man, I’m so glad I did that” feeling… but a mild disgust.
But after I learned all about the life of President Elect 8 Jon Stewart, I walked out with a new, almost alien feeling: a feeling of depth and satisfaction. I felt good about how I used my time! Weird. Crazy. So I, inspired by an earlier read of Mark Manson’s life journey 9, announced on Facebook that I was going to read 10 non-fiction books in 10 days, despite working a part-time job. Because I was pretty broke at the time, much of this challenge involved me walking into Barnes and Noble, picking a book, reading it cover to cover in the cafe until close, and then setting the book back and leaving. 10 days later, I set Triggers down, having read 5 self-help books, 1 biography, 2 memoirs, 1 psychology book and 1 historical work. Holy shit, I felt good.
I never looked back.
Though I don’t have the schedule that affords me the ability to walk into Barnes and Noble and sit for hours now that Juilliard is back in session, I still kept reading in my life. I now read at least 20 hours a week. I’m trying to move the needle to 30. It’s almost impossible to stop at this point–consumption of knowledge is a powerful drug.
The Importance of Reading Non-Fiction
Most of the criticism of reading–we need to do things, not read about them. Tai Lopez and his Lamborghini warns about lapsing into only being an insight junky. Surely, real-world experience taught me much more than reading books. But the impact of books comes from the combination of experience infused with the world perspectives and specializations of these authors. Armed with not just new knowledge, but new ways of interpreting existing knowledge, you can contextualize real life in ways you never have before. For instance:
- My current read, The Power of Habit, helped me understand why spontaneously doing the nightmarish 10 60-day Insanity® program on a whim was so easy, but resisting the allure of McDonalds is (still) so difficult.
- A read I just finished, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, made the financial crisis actually make sense, and gave me 4 ideas to practice my clarinet more effectively. 11
- Reading Finding Flow made the process easy to motivate myself, and helped me realize how Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos don’t need an ounce of “willpower” to create billions.
There is crazy, crazy upside to reading. For instance, the more high quality information you are armed with, the less you can be influenced by lesser quality information. When you’ve read the perspective of how Amazon acquires and exploits your shopping preferences, you’re much less likely to be swayed by its marketing tactics and buy that cool furniture that you can’t really afford. In other words, the more you understand how the world operates, the more you’re able to find your place in it. Additionally, reading focuses and hones your attention, the most valuable commodity of the 21st century. And of course, with a book in your hand in the park or on the subway, you’ll look as attractive as the girl at the top of this post.
More importantly, reading has its own benefits of–among others–stress reduction, memory improvement, and improved analytical thinking skills. Once you start reading enough, you see patterns emerge in daily life. Much like these guys found a recurring chord progression in pop songs:
I realized an extraordinary amount of life has its own recurring chord progressions. The principles of successful dating 12 (authenticity, listening) align tremendously with successful business negotiation. A Jewish girl’s borderline-absurd optimism 13 despite hiding in an annex for years is an eerie embodiment of principles 14 extolled by a renowned CEO coach 15.
I can’t stress this enough: reading is not meant to be sufficient on its own. You do not work miracles, cure all your failures, and lose 20 pounds by reading a book. But to reach your personal ceiling 16, you can’t go through life with only your own perspectives and experiences either. And why limit yourself to gaining from the experiences of your friends and teachers? It’s not an either/or situation. Get some insights from the lives of billionaires, transcendent artists, young female activists, and successful comedians, too. If you don’t have their phone numbers on tap, their books are a great way to do that. Sure, some of them are self-important, but they’re probably the same way if you talk to them, no?
If nothing else, after going through the trials of life by experience alone and feeling like you’re doing nothing but ramming your head against the wall, it can feel good to experience Elon Musk doing the same and eventually coming out of the fire as the most famous living entrepreneur of the 21st century not named Donald Trump. 17
Incidentally, Elon Musk read voraciously as a child, even from the Encyclopedia Brittanica. So did Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Steve Jobs, and tons of people who have unlocked the secret of channeling their passions in a way that contextually fits with the world around them… and making ridiculous amounts of money doing it.
I figure they’re doing something right.
MY READING LIST: WHAT I’VE READ
Here are most of the books I have read since July. I’ve placed them in categories: Biography, Self-Help, etc. with little blurbs about why I find the genres valuable. I’ve also provided links so that you can view and purchase the book on Amazon if it resonates with you. 18 if you wish. What I want to accomplish with this list and post is one thing: giving people that have thought: “Yeah, I really do need to start reading… eventually” the lowest possible barrier to entry to start doing so. Since I started making books a central part of my life, I felt cleaner (from less Netflix, Facebook, etc), and more life-savvy. Maybe you will too.
I hope this list can serve you in some way.
BIOGRAPHIES AND AUTOBIOGRAPHIES
Useful because: You’re reminded that great people fail too. Seeing how they rebounded from catastrophic failure can be better self-help than self-help.
- Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart – Lisa Rogak
- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – Ashlee Vance
- The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon – Brad Stone
- Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success – Phil Jackson
PHILOSOPHY AND/OR “HOW THE WORLD ACTUALLY WORKS”
Useful because: Philosophy is most known for esoteric quotes that sound pretty cool but may or may not apply to your own life in a tangential way. But there is no substitute for being mindf… having your worldview turned upside down. You know that feeling with twist-ending movies like SAW, Fight Club 19 or Memento where you just leave with that what just happened feeling? Antifragile gave me that feeling once or twice a chapter.
- Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
PSYCHOLOGY AND NEUROSCIENCE
Useful because: Our brain is literally what governs our every action. It makes sense to actually, you know, know stuff about it. Also, as an aside, if you only order one book off of this long list, it should be Stumbling on Happiness. Incredible, incredible book.
- Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert
Useful because: Okay, so here’s my take on self-help books. Like any book, blog post, video, or speaker, information in one book IS NOT GOSPEL. I don’t care who it is. After actually reading Eckhart Tolle, it’s a powerful book, but if you walk around saying it’s the only book anyone needs to read, I will hit you in the face with Finding Flow. Or Jeff Bezos’s biography, or any Steven Pinker book. It’ll probably be a hardcover. But each book usually has fantastic principles that can tweak how you deal with difficult situations, and each book and author will have his or her own unique conveyance of those principles, some of which may speak to you more than others. If you’ve never read a self-help book, don’t dismiss the genre because some of its practitioners are cult-ish. Usually, people in cults are such because something has affected them so powerfully that they can’t think of anything they would do more than advocate for said thing. Take a peek.
- The Power of Now – A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment – Eckhart Tolle
- As You Are: Ignite Your Charisma, Reclaim Your Confidence, Unleash Your Masculinity – Nick Sparks
- The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Spiritual Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation – Thich Nhat Hanh
- Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life – Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi
- Outliers: The Story of Success – Malcolm Gladwell
- The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering The Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire – David Deida
- Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be – Marshall Goldsmith
Useful because: Memoirs are, of course, snapshots of life. We unfortunately do not live forever, and with only 70-90 or so years to live on this planet, there’s zero chance that we can explore every inch, particularly with the same depth that you know your hometown or where you went to school. Memoirs, though often embellished, provide a window into a person who has lived a life you may never be able to. That’s pretty cool.
Useful because: I admittedly do not read as much fiction as non-fiction. But as non-fiction helps one figure out and piece together the world, fiction helps one piece together human creativity and imagination.
- Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Useful because: In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the Lindy effect: that knowledge of an informational nature, unlike physical items, tends to last longer the longer it is in circulation. While the paper that Shakespeare wrote his plays on may be gone, the plays themselves have survived because of their sky high value. Information that is less valuable will thus disappear quickly. Documents that have persisted over the course of history are thus of immense value, as they contain greatness and wisdom that has transcended fads, marketing, and generational change in taste. Taleb, author of multiple best-sellers, himself advocates to read as little from the past 50 years as possible, and as much from prior to that period as possible.
- The Art of War – Sun Tzu
The beauty of reading is that you do not have to keep reading a book that doesn’t interest you in that moment. Much like, as a musician, you
can should choose to practice something that interests you more if you get bored or tired, you should stop reading a book if it’s bad, or move to something else if you’re bored in the moment. Hence, I often find myself finishing as many as three books within a day of each other. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to read. Some of these books have about 50-75 pages left before I finish them, others I haven’t started, others I’ve read already from a while back and would like to re-read. Pick one up and see what you think.
BIOGRAPHIES AND AUTOBIOGRAPHIES
- Mozart, A Life – Paul Johnson
- Steve Jobs – Walter Issacson
- Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven – John Eliot Gardner
PSYCHOLOGY AND NEUROSCIENCE
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain
- This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession – Daniel J. Levitin
- The Portable Nietzche
- The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload – Daniel J. Levitin
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School – John Medina
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Doohig
- The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – Steven Pinker
- NLP, The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming – Tom Hoodyar, Tom Dotz, and Susan Sanders
- Models: Attract Women Through Honesty – Mark Manson
- The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance – Steven Kotler
- 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute – Richard Wiseman
- The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. – Daniel Coyle
PHILOSOPHY AND/OR “HOW THE WORLD ACTUALLY WORKS”
- The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker
- The Attention Economy, Understanding The New Currency of Business – Thomas H. Davenport
- Concise History of Western Music, Fifth Edition – Barbara Russano Hanning 21
SCIENCE (new category!)
Useful because: As folks like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson remind us (as well as the rise of science-ish movies like Gravity and Interstellar), science is really, really cool. Even if you weren’t a chemistry scholar 22, understanding the big concepts at large like evolution, the singularity, and quantum physics helps you be a functional member of first-world society. Honestly, the floor of reading these is that you’ll be much, much more conversational. True story: I once got a phone number from a girl after holding a functional conversation with her about artificial intelligence!
- The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology – Ray Kurzweil
- The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications – David Deutsch
Thanks for reading. Come back to www.johnhong.me for new content next Monday, every Monday. No fluff, no clickbait, just value.
Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone.
- Hopefully the sarcasm is obvious. ↩
- I accomplished all but one of these things. ↩
- Thanks, Christina. ↩
- Her name wasn’t Kaitlyn. Even now, this is embarrassing enough for me to not use her real name. ↩
- Mostly. ↩
- If you’re that curious about the reference, use textfind and search for “chimp” in the link. ↩
- That picture was, apparently, my Facebook profile picture for four months. Also, if you’re wondering, I’m 15 in this photo. ↩
- Too bad. Bernie 2016! ↩
- In his book Models, he details how he read 50 non-fiction books in 50 days and the changes he underwent. ↩
- For the woefully out-of-shape like myself. ↩
- One example: Taleb illustrates that the most successful are the ones that subject themselves to significant but manageable stressors constantly. He backs this up with both anecdotal evidence and rigorous scientific literature. So now I make practice as difficult for myself as possible; I run up and down the stairs beforehand, etc. I retain much more effectively now. ↩
- An aside: I’m dating my current girlfriend now based in large part on our shared interest in the book Quiet. ↩
- Anne Frank. ↩
- “Did you do your best to be happy? ↩
- Marshall Goldsmith. ↩
- I define “personal ceiling” as point where your abilities and impact on the world is maximized based on your personal circumstances. ↩
- Donald, by the way, is a walking master class on exploiting the attention economy. ↩
- Disclosure: I’m an Amazon Affiliate, so I get a tiny kickback from your purchase. But if that is the sole factor stopping you from enriching yourself through reading, by all means, Google or bookstore your book instead! ↩
- An excellent novel, of course. ↩
- Recommended by a friend. ↩
- This is a Music History textbook. I don’t want to read a Music History textbook. This is a joke. I can’t believe you would even consider that I was serious. On the other hand, the fact that you’re reading this footnote means you’re actually curious about books, which is great! We’ll call this a draw for now. ↩
- Definitely one of those classes in high school where I managed to get good grades despite a lack of basic understanding of the material. ↩
- A current read, actually! ↩