Recommended Reading List:
52+ Best Books on What School Should Have Taught Us About the Art and Science of Success, Fulfillment, and Achievement
Many people have asked me for a list of recommended readings. So here you go.
If you’d like to read a book a week, you’re in luck because I’ve listed over 52 books here. I’ve also organised the list into 12 categories for those who only have time to read a book a month. Each month, you can pick a book from each category.
I don’t recommend that you read more than two books per category in a row because some of these books can get quite heavy or dense. Mix them up to get more variety. Read one from one category, then another from another category, then another from another category, and so on.
I’ve also found it helpful to read a biography, autobiography, or fiction along with any of the books in this reading list. So if you haven’t worked your way through a Great Books list yet, you can do so alongside working through the 12 categories here.
TRIGGER ALERT: These books are meant to challenge you, so come to them with an open mind. Also, some are a lot easier to get through than others. If any become too heavy for you, it’s fine to lay it aside and come back to it later.
The asterisked books are what I consider “the best in category,” so if you can only read one in each category, start with the asterisked ones.
Of course, these 52+ books are just the tip of the iceberg.
As I update this list, I’ll note the date last updated (instead of making a new page every time).
LAST UPDATED: 4 April 2020
I. The Mind-Body Connection
* 1. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
If you haven’t read this book yet, then start here before reading any other books on this list. It gives a great overview of the differences between psychiatry and psychotherapy and the various major types of treatment, as well as the science on the underlying issues. It’s also well-written.
2. Richard Schwartz and Robert Falconer, Many Minds, One Self: Evidence for a Radical Shift in Paradigm
3. Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
4. Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life
II. and III. Shame, Trauma, and Therapy
This set of concepts is so important that I’ve split it up into two categories but really they’re one big category. If you enjoy reading philosophy or literature, then you can dive right in. Otherwise, start with the van der Kolk book above.
* 5. Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
I put this Miller book first partly because it is very short, direct, and features plenty of stories. I read it in one day.
However, I know too many guys whose eyes apparently went over the words on the pages but cannot recall anything they read. The words and phrases are so simple that I cannot believe that it’s because the language or concepts are too difficult. The cause of their cognitive blindness is likely their unconscious repressed traumas protecting them from feeling the painful emotions that would arise if they fully confronted what’s covered in this simple little book. If that’s you, then make sure you start with the van der Kolk book instead.
6. Jane Middleton-Moz, Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise
This short Middleton-Moz book is a good alternative to Miller if you find Miller too opaque. Lots of entertaining allegories.
* 7. John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame That Binds You
This classic Bradshaw work is still the most comprehensive treatment I’ve found on shame. Shame is at the root of all Nice Guy issues, neediness, and neuroses, and is the by-product of trauma. Note that this book has some Christian undertones, which are easy to ignore if you like.
8. Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
I recommend basically anything by Brene Brown. This is my overall favorite and integrates nicely with the rest of this reading list, informing and extending understanding of the concepts.
* 9. Manuel J. Smith, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty
Hands down the best book on Assertiveness. Unlike all the “how to” crap on assertiveness out there, Smith correctly traces assertiveness issues to their psychotherapeutic bases.
* 10. Richard C. Schwartz and Martha Sweezy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Second Edition
Besides Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy is the only type of psychotherapy listed by the NREPP as an evidence-based practice. The NREPP is the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices, a national repository that is maintained by the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Interventions listed in NREPP, now including IFS, have been subject to independent, rigorous scrutiny and are deemed to show significant impact on individual outcomes relating to mental health. Get this second edition, which is substantially updated and improved.
* 11. Susan Forward with Craig Buck, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life
Everyone should read this book, not only to unblend de-enmesh from parental figures, but also to make sure they don’t unwittingly make the same mistakes with their own children. There is no such thing as the perfect parent, so no matter what, we can all learn from this book. It’s especially recommended if you were raised in an Asian cultural family or setting.
12. Francine Shapiro, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy
Revolutionary and slightly controversial therapeutic method. It’s like NLP on steroids.
IV. The Founding Fathers of Psychology
Once you understand (or start to grapple with) Jung and Freud, a LOT of psychology will make much more sense. It took me a while to get to these, but now they are some of my favorite reading. I have not yet finished their gigantic corpus of work. Jung and Freud are brilliant writers (or at least their writing is brilliantly translated). So far, I’d recommend you start with:
* 13. Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
14. Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
15. Carl Jung, The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious
V. The Psychoanalytics
This category should be tackled immediately before or after Jung and Freud. Start with Horney. Her writings are stimulating, challenging, and insightful. This is just the beginning of this category. Once you’ve finished these, dive into the rest of their body of work. Their peers were also prolific.
* 17. Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization
* 18. Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis
19. Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy
VI. Purpose, Death, and the Meaning of Life
Becker’s work doesn’t fit easily into any other category, so I’ve made a separate category just for him. But then, it seemed lonely, so I’ve added two very recent books that I think everyone can benefit from reading and which also touch on some of the questions Becker tackled.
* 21. Ernest Becker, Denial of Death
22. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil
23. Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
This is a captivatingly written book by a good friend of mine. It ended up the #1 best-seller of all non-fiction books on Amazon in 2017. My favorite chapter of his book is the last one, which directly tackles Becker on death.
The foundation of all successful relationships is the psychological development and personal maturity of the two individuals, so relationship work should always go hand in hand with personal growth. Thus, start on the above categories first.
However, the relationship is probably the best arena to gauge one’s psychological growth and to challenge oneself to develop emotionally, so you should never avoid relationships. Many single people think they’re fine and don’t need to “work on themselves” anymore… until they fall in love and get into a relationship again and discover all kinds of things they’d been avoiding are now triggering them psychologically in ways they hadn’t prepared to deal with. In that sense, love relationships will always be the most triggering but also the most rewarding vehicle for growth.
* 25. Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples
This Hendrix book and the collection of resources Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have created are so essential that I’ve created a video mini-series on some of their main points. This is a must-read for every adult.
* 26. Richard Schwartz, You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For.
This is the best second book to study when it comes to relationship psychology. The background is IFS Therapy, as Schwartz is the founder of IFS Therapy, so you might want to start with his introductory book on IFS Therapy, though it’s not required to understand this one. This book has the clearest exposition of how getting right with yourself is the key to success in your relationship.
* 27. Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work
This is the best third book to study in relationships psychology. Terry Real is a renowned psychotherapist, and this book is a great summary of his overall method. He’s also an excellent writer. In men’s issues, I also recommend his earlier book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression.
* 28. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
You might’ve heard about Gottman and his Institute from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, in which he wrote, “Gottman has proven something remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent.” This book is Gottman’s best-selling classic and a good introduction to his main concepts. In addition to Gottman, some other well-known authors in the couples counselling world are Sue Johnson (found of EFT therapy) and Esther Perel,
VIII. Happiness Studies
Also known as the field of “positive psychology.” It’s not some self-help mumbo jumbo but instead professors of psychology from Harvard, Stanford, Penn, and other top institutions shifting their attention from studying disorders and neuroses (“negative” stuff) to happiness and flourishing instead (“positive” stuff).
* 29. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
Haidt is a lucid writer and thinker, and I recommend all his books. I love his elephant and rider analogy and use it myself frequently.
30. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure
Caveat: This Haidt and Lukianoff book is now out and going by their Atlantic article, the video interviews, and podcasts they’ve done talking about it, it’s going to be a must-read.
31. Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
This Ben-Shahar book is a very accessible introduction to the field and is drawn from his lectures at Harvard, which at the time had the highest enrolment of all classes at Harvard.
32. Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
33. Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
This is a mini-category, but the concept is so crucial that it deserves it’s own category. Of course you should look at the book that started it all by the founder of the concept, Csikszentmihalyi (pronouned “chick sent me high”). But it’s kind of a slog to get through, so skimming it is fine.
34. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
35. Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity
I’ve had the pleasure of presenting conference papers on the same panel with Slingerland multiple times. He’s one of those rare professors who doesn’t just stand up and read his paper but actually looks you in the eyes and delivers his talk like a human being. He also has an edX course that I recommend. If you’re new to Asian philosophy, this book is a great entre into this fascinating field.
36. Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance
X. Social Psychology & Behavioral Economics
* 37. Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
I first read this classic text in social psychology over 12 years ago. It opened my eyes to the pervasive power of the unconscious, which changed my life. If you’ve studied social psych or marketing in a good university, you’ve probably already used this as a textbook.
* 38. Robert Cialdini, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
This is Cialdini’s most recent tome and is the long awaited sequel to Influence. It is just as good and even more important, imho.
* 39. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
Kahneman and Tversky won the Nobel Prize in Economics for the body of work summarized in this volume. They pioneered the field of behavioral economics, which directly challenged the prevailing economics model of the “rational actor” and “rational choice,” and finally forced economics to take seriously the role of the unconscious in decision making.
40. Dan Ariely, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves
41. Dan Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic
42. Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
43. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
44. Richard Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics
XI. Social Intelligence
This category is the most “practical” in the sense that they’re filled with “how to’s.” I’ve listed here the classic Carnegie book, which is a quick read and the only one I think everyone must read. Ringer is a must-read if you’re in business. Daniel Goleman popularised the terms EQ and “social intelligence,” so both books are worth a skim.
* 45. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People
46. Leil Lowndes, How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships
47. Robert Ringer, Looking Out for #1: How to Get from Where You Are Now to Where You Want to Be in Life
Don’t be thrown off by the title. Ringer’s books are excellent preparation to not get fvcked over in business or in life in general.
48. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
49. Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Although it may be the one I get asked about the most, I’ve placed this category last because when you’ve started on all the other categories already, this one gets a whole lot easier. I’ve read a lot of books in this area but have found most of them deeply flawed.
* 50. David Deida, Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire
This classic is a must-read for all men. Over the years, I’ve found Deida’s Tantric background makes him over-emphasise the man’s responsibility to please the woman, so keep that in mind.
51. Robert A. Glover, No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex, and Life
52. Roy F. Baumeister, Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men
This is the best academic treatment of masculinity I’ve found. It’s a little too polemical and even defensive at points.
53. Christina Hoff Sommers, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men
54. Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine
An inspiring and insightful examination of these powerful Jungian archetypes, written from a Chicago Divinity School religious studies perspective.
55. Daniel Bergner, What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
Some of the research reported in this book is now outdated, but it’s still a great introduction to the field of sexology and what it tells us about female sexual desire. Should be required sex ed reading.
56. Albert J. Bernstein, Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry
If you’ve been burned in dating, start with this book. There are dozens of books on Amazon on how to recover from a toxic relationship with a Cluster B disordered person (narcissistic, histrionic, psychopathic, or borderline personality disorders), but this is an easy to understand introduction.
“Great Books and General Knowledge”
This reading list focuses on what schools don’t usually assign us to read, so I’ve added this appendix to supplement. I am still a big believer in the value of classical education, learning from timeless classics from our history. One of the best ways to learn is via mistakes. But you don’t have to make the mistakes yourself to learn the lesson from them. Why reinvent the wheel? Be humble and wise. Build on the collective wisdom of our ancestors.
If you’ve never worked your way through a “Great Books” core curriculum, I highly recommend you do so. Columbia University is renowned for its emphasis on the Great Books. They still have the required Great Books courses for all undergraduates, and the reading list for Literature and the Humanities Great Books is updated here:
If you’ve already made your way through the Western core, I recommend you prepare yourself for the new era of Asian domination (if not militarily or economically, then definitely in terms of sheer population) by acquainting yourself with the Asian classics. Again, Columbia University leads the way in this as they have an Asian Great Books option for their undergraduate requirements. Columbia University Press has produced a beautifully printed and edited set of anthologies of key works in the various Asian traditions. I’ve used these as a student and as a professor:
William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition. Volume 1
William Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 2
William Theodore de Bary and Carol Gluck, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume 1
William Theodore de Bary and Carol Gluck, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume 2
There are also anthologies for the sources of Korean and Indian traditions, as well as for the East Asian tradition as a whole.
Two other categories that I think every educated person should read widely in is the general science of achievement and evolutionary psychology. The more specific you can be about your interests, the easier it will be to find specialist “must read” work in your fields. For most fields, I recommend the following:
“The Science of Achievement”
Basically anything by Tim Ferriss will expand your mind and give you fresh new perspectives. His most recent books, Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors, as well as his excellent podcast, are good examples of this.
Adam Robinson, What Smart Students Know: Maximum Grades, Optimum Learning, Minimum Time
This book changed my life and took me from a B- college student to a solid A GPA all the way through my undergraduate (winning the Janes medal for the highest graduating GPA in my major), three Masters degrees, and the Ph.D. I credit much of my academic success to the mindset shifts I discovered in this book by Robinson.
Joshua Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work
Gary Vaynerchuk’s body of work on how anyone can make a living doing what they enjoy… is essential reading and changed my life, giving me the inspiration and courage to quit my day job as a professor and strike forth on my own. Haven’t looked back since! Start from the most recent book, Crushing It! and work your way backwards.
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (if you’re into entrepreneurship or marketing, you should get all of Seth Godin’s books)
This is basic knowledge for anyone who seeks to understand why human beings and the world are the way they are.
David Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
And see you in the Reading Challenge!