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What are the two most valuable commodities in the world?

  • Caviar and saffron?
  • Gold and diamonds?
  • Platinum and plutonium?

Our minds and our time. They don’t feel like commodities but we trade them all the time — for love, for money, for life. What will we want more of at the end? Not diamonds, money, power, or status. Just time. How do you maximize the life in your time? A beautiful mind explodes the area under the curve.

graph showing dream life from maximizing mind over time

This list is for my kids. It’s a work-in-progress, never finished (until I’m dead or too broke to pay for web hosting) list of the best books I’ve found for sharpening my mind and using my time wisely.

Why books? Writers pour their hearts and souls into treasure troves filled with their life’s wisdom. Would you buy a brain for a few hours and a few dollars? Problems are rarely new. Most people don’t read and I don’t know why. I’ve heard the reasons but when you can pop open a book on your phone as easy as any other app, decide what’s worth your time. Expect shinier entertainment, distraction, and even web-reading to tug your thumbs away to make unconscious choices. Search for a reasonable reason not to read books and you will succeed. Many successful people don’t read much. But play the odds. Most of the best read books.

Be curious. Supercharge your brain by standing on the shoulders of giants. Read often. Read the best. Read what you like. Just read.

And don’t feel bad when you don’t read. Play a game. Squat a mountain. Call a friend. Even waste away an hour, a day, or a week now and again. But set a time limit. On everything but reading.

Matt’s Top Books

These selections are highly influenced by what I’ve read most recently. They will change over time. They will grow. On any given year I might read I half-dozen to a dozen books that excite me. I’ll want to add all of them to this list. I won’t. But it will be big. You won’t find all these books as epicly life-changing as me. Read what works for you. Discard the rest. Make your own list for your kids, your family, your friends, your colleagues. Choose your choice.

  1. Stoicism any book
    • Stoicism is all the rage right now. No surprise the virus infected me. But even fads are useful if they make your life better. My brain is better from reading a dozen books on Stoicism. Here are a few top picks.
    • The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. This one got me started like a gateway drug. Read any of Holiday’s books. Read his book recommendations. Read his Daily Dad and Daily Stoic newsletters if they’re still around, even if you’re a mom. A lot of what I’ve learned comes from Holiday sources. If I did anything good as a parent, there’s a ten percent chance it came from something I read via him. That’s a great source.
    • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – The most powerful man ever doubted himself. Every day. You are not alone. This book might bore you. Come back to it. It didn’t work for me until my thirties. I read a page a day and that helped. No one is that special – not your parents, not your boss, the president, or even you. You are special to me, not everyone. And you can get a lot done in life.
    • A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine – Focus on what you control and let go of the rest. This is easier to read before Meditations or any other philosophy classics. Start easy whenever possible.
    • Or any book on stoicism.
  2. This is Water by David Foster Wallace – The world does not revolve around you. At worst you’ll save on therapy and at best you’ll revel in the mundane. Listen to the audio too.
  3. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – Master training yourself. As of 2020 people are really into this so maybe someone will write a better book. If so, read that. Like Atomic Habits. Another good one. Just learn the basics of habit formation, rewards, and how to program your own brain to do what you want. Rinse and repeat for a better life living at the controls of your human operating system, rather than instinctual, automatic, unconscious, mindless, repetitive stagnancy.
  4. Mastery by Robert Greene – Find something to master and never stop practicing. The honorable mentions have more like this. Talent is Overrated is another.
  5. Essentialism by Greg McKeown – Learn to make trade-offs. People don’t like trade-offs. That’s fine but timebox complaints. Life is tradeoffs.
  6. Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink – Take responsibility and people will follow. You are responsible for everything in your life. No one believes that. Those who do live a better life. Even if you don’t want to lead people, you’re the only person to lead yourself. This book will help you want to follow yourself. Plus, it’s hard to do much without leading people occasionally.
  7. Start with Why by Simon Sinek – Communicate purpose and people will listen. Why? Because — sometimes that’s all it takes.
  8. Waking Up by Sam Harris – The thinker in your head is not all of you. Separate the voice, the noise, and the signal to lift your head above the unconscious fog. You need to want to be mindful and self-aware and be open-minded for this to work. If that’s not you right now, skip it.
  9. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. You can read all the great things about this man and this book from others. Two things I remember from Frankl. First, this quote. “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.” I wrote a whole speech (Create the Space) on this quote which was, in part the reason for your birth. Watch it to learn a bit of your origin story. I was an excellent listener before the Frankl quote and then it made me better. Pause. Pause. Pause. Second, on the meaning of life. What is the meaning of life? To answer that question for yourself. Read the book. You might find more gems. I can’t remember if thse concepts come from it directly, but here they are.
  10. Creativity – If you go the creative route, try these. Biased opinion here but any route worth taking is creative. Even if it’s not listed as a “creative” pursuit, that doesn’t mean it isn’t.
    • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Invest large chunks of time creating, even though it’s painful. If you’re not a writer, read this and replace writing with whatever you create. Remember no one is “creative”. Some practice more than others.
    • Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I was raised Catholic. Stealing is wrong. This book taught me it’s the way most of the greats learned to be great. Copy the masters. Borrow. Steal. Whatever. Put the time in copying others then make your own creations.
    • The Creative Habit by Twyla Twarp. This didn’t just teach me about creativity. When training for anything, identify the hardest first step. Then automate it. Twarp would put her running shoes close by her bed so when she woke up, she just needed to lace them up. Once she laced them up, that guaranteed she’d run. Instead of thinking about how hard the run would be and deciding whether or not she wanted to do it, she just had to tie her shoes to tip the lead domino that would cascade a series of better actions to start her day. Only her action was actually ballet shoes, hailing a cab, and ballet practice. I remember it as running because it’s more broadly applicable to me, you, and the 99.99% of us non-ballet dances. See creativity. Then again, 85% of people don’t run.
    • And many more. See below.
  11. Mental Models
    • Poor Charlie’s Almanack
    • Seeking Wisdom
    • Farnam Street mental models and books
    • Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results by Shane Parrish. Read this. Twice. The chapters on human behavior are practical. Depending on which genes you have, you’ll need this. To be blind to your own self is not a good way to live. Read to discover more about yourself. These are the best books. This one is a gem.

Comments on Version 1 – January 2020

Develop your mind, your most powerful tool, so you spend your time more wisely. Then you can learn and do anything more effectively. Mind-sharpening dominates this unranked list. Learn to live well in the moment — easy as a kid, much harder as an adult until you learn to act like a kid again. Recognize manmade contrivances. When you know what’s real and important, can sit without distraction with relative ease, and live true to yourself (likely rejecting my criteria), you’ve passed the test. No answer key. You’ll know it when you know it.

I expect this list to change. I will read more books. What I find most valuable will evolve. Check back in a year or two.

For most humans, these aren’t worth reading until your twenties. If you read one and don’t like it, wait five years until you read the next. Don’t waste them all with a mind that’s not ready. If you die before liking any of them, I’m sorry. I tried.

– man who failed to like or finish many great books


The books above may not be your cup of tea. Or maybe you want more. I frequently check the sites below for their book recommendations. Alas, I rarely find a new recommendation I haven’t read and want to read. So if you have a great book or book source, send it my way.

Honorable Mentions

Don’t read this. People become overwhelmed when there’s too much choice. What’s the perfect book to read next? Doesn’t matter. Just read what interests you. I’m putting this here so you know what interests me and I’ll weed out anything I found useless. These may not all stand the test of time. Many will.

The text blob of books below is purposefully hard to read. If you make it past the top ten, maybe scan this. If you find a duplicate I owe you one dollar. If you find a miscategorization, a debate costs you one dollar and my mistake pays two. Read the books on decision-making to help assess if the risk is worth the reward.

Creativity – The War of Art, The Creative Habit, Bird by Bird, The Writer’s Journey, On Writing (Stephen King), On Writing Well, Steal Like an Artist, The Design of Everyday Things, Where Good Ideas Come From, Six Thinking Hats, Mindsest – Extreme Ownership, Waking Up, The Art of Possibility, Mindset, The Art of Learning, Grit, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Bold, Abundance, Principles, Deep Work, The Magic of Thinking Big, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Too Soon Old Too Late Smart, Surely You’re Joking My Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Performance – The Power of Habit, Drive, Mastery, Talent is Overrated, Outliers, The Talent Code, When, Peak, Linchpin, The Little Book of Talent, Flow,  Brain Rules, Influence, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Power of Full Engagement, Smartcuts, Decision-Making – Thinking in Bets, Thinking in Rules, Antifragile, Fooled by Randomness, Predictably Irrational, Thinking Fast and Slow, Blink, Life Planning – How Will You Measure Your Life, True North, books on prioritization and happiness, Fiction – The Alchemist, Siddhartha, Atlas Shrugged, Shantaram, The Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Biographies – Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, Teddy Roosevelt, The Last Lion, Happiness – Solve for Happy, Stumbling on Happiness, books on performance and creativity, Human Nature – The 48 Laws of Power, On Human Nature, Brave New World, Tribe by Sebastian Hunger, The Culture Code, The Laws of Human Nature, Marketing/Communication – Start with Why, 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing , Made to Stick , This is Marketing, Permission Marketing, Purple Cow, Tribes by Godin, Perennial Seller, Contagious: Why Things Catch On , The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Tribes, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Business – The Personal MBA, The Essential Drucker, The Goal, The Lean Startup, The Art of War, Zero to One, The E-Myth Revisited, The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s Solution, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, First Break All the Rules, Business Model Generation: A Handbook, Value Proposition Design, Prioritization – Essentialism, The One Thing, The Four Hour Workweek, Getting Things Done, Mentals Models – Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Seeking Wisdom, The Great Mental Models Volume One or Farnam Street website, Superthinking, Money – The Intelligent Investor, The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers from Warren Buffet, History – Sapiens, The Lessons of History, my friend Scorz, Health – Food Rules, The Circadian Code, Why We Sleep, The Blue Zones Solution, nothing classified as epidemiology except ‘smoking is bad’, Philosophy – Meditations, A Guide to the Good Life, This is Water, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Obstacle is the Way, Seneca – On the Shortness of Life or Letters from a Stoic, Epictetus – The Art of Living, The Manual for Living, Discourses, Free Will, Story of Philosophy, Science – A Brief History of Time, Complications, The Emperor of All Maladies, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Last Updated – January 2020

Business Books

I had someone ask for a list of books if you were getting more into business, financial analysis, entrepreneurial pursuits. For me graduate business classes helped tremendously with learning financial analysis, marketing, segmentation, process, operations, executive decision-making, starting a new venture, and statistical analysis. I’m sure there are quicker and better ways to do it including reading and practicing these skills on your own and best of all – real-world experience.

I also like reading and analyzing shareholder letters from the company I’m working for, prospective companies recruiting me, and Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos. I believe someone made each of Bezos and Buffett’s letters into books but you can find them free online if you search well enough.


You’ll hear often about the latest books. Marketing dollars guarantee that. Old books lack an ad budget. You hear about them because they stand the test of time. When in doubt, start with an old book.

– the crazy old man who keeps making me practice squats and math
books when you're young = small stick figure looking up at big book of many words
books when you're wise = big stick figure looking up at small book with title "The shoulders upon which giants stand"
books when life's just right = big stick figure reclining reading a book