Five Powerful, Useful Books I Read This Year (and Five I Plan to Read Next Year)

Over the course of the past year, I read somewhere in the realm of 60 books. I track what books I read and came up with 58, but for some reason I think I missed a couple this year, so we’ll call it an even 60.

My reading mixes fiction and nonfiction and spreads across all kinds of genres and topics, but personal finance and personal growth are always topics near and dear to my heart.

On that note, I thought I’d share with you the five books that really had a strong impact on me in terms of personal finance and self-improvement, along with a quick list of five books on my to-be-read list for next year that I have very high hopes for.

The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott

This book looks at personal finance from a philosophical perspective, digging into why people are frugal beyond merely maximizing dollars and cents. It digs into what I consider to be one of the big dilemmas of the modern world, where much of the “sage advice” for living points to frugality yet the average American isn’t particularly frugal at all.

Westacott handles this by digging into the roots of all of that “sage advice,” looking deeper into the ideas that various philosophers concerning different aspects of frugality. While I wouldn’t say that the book has a general conclusion, I couldn’t help but walk away with a sense that frugality, for many people, is something that helps to right something that feels out of balance in modern life.

This book brought me to some strong realizations about why I practice frugality, which go beyond financial reasons. I do it because modern life and consumption often pulls me away from the things that really make me feel whole as a person, and frugality is one of a number of tools that I use to push back against that, to keep the value of experiences and people ahead of things and desires.

I actually covered this book in an eight-part series during the summer, so you might want to read the eight entries in that series for more detail:

Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith

Triggers is a wonderful look at the difficult problem of changing our behavior. As we grow to adulthood and are outside of the watchful guidance of parents, we tend to gravitate toward certain behaviors that may feel “natural” but often don’t help us succeed in life or help us put our best foot forward with others. I can certainly say that there are many aspects of my behavior and character that could use some work, yet my natural instinct is to do things in a worse way than I should.

This book offers not only a lot of insight into why we do this, but it offers a really great recipe for fixing it, backed up by a large amount of psychological study. The core idea behind the book is that if a person wants to change their behavior, the key is to come at that change with intent and focus but not to set up hard goals for themselves in terms of success.

Rather, Goldsmith describes a system of daily review in which a person asks themselves sincerely whether they did their best today to tackle a particular behavioral change and score that change on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how well you feel that you actually acted on that change. Did you do your best today to be frugal, for example? By asking that question every day and scoring yourself on it, you gradually nudge yourself toward better behavior in that specific area.

I’ve been doing this quite a lot this year and I have to say that it works surprisingly well. I’m intending to continue this system and use it even more broadly in the coming year, as I described earlier this month when discussing my upcoming goals.

I wrote a lengthy discussion of Triggers earlier in the year, along with a second article discussing how I’m using the approach described in the book┬áto build up better behaviors in my life.

Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss

These two rather thick books deserve to be listed together because they both follow the same format. They’re both effectively made up of summaries of interviews with high achievers in a wide variety of fields, focusing on how exactly they’re able to perform well and how they maintain their sanity, their health, and some semblance of balance in their lives. The focus from beginning to end of both books is on small specific tactics and strategies that the various interviewed people use, what books inspired them, what tools they use, and so on.

These books weren’t life changers for me, but they did provide me with a ton of little strategies and tactics along with a great reading list of books that really match up well with where I am in life and where I want to go. I found myself taking some actionable note on almost every page of both books and my to-be-read list is longer than it’s ever been.

Another nice feature of these books is that they’re extremely “bedside table” readable. They’re broken down into tons of short chapters and you can just put one of the books on your bedside table (maybe along with a notebook and pen, because you’ll probably find something to jot down) and just read a few pages a night without having to sweat losing your place.

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio is the founder and CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world. This book summarizes the principles upon which he built that business, along with the principles that guide his life.

This is a pretty hefty 500-page book, but much of it boils down to spelling out the details of a handful of key principles that apply both in life and in work. Dalio presents both life and work as a series of cycles centered around audacious goals, which you usually fail at at first until you start to figure out the principles by which you can succeed at those goals, then you refine those principles and stick to them, and that eventually leads to success and the adoption of a new set of audacious goals, thus repeating the cycle.

One core point of this book is the value of radical honesty (which doesn’t mean being blunt in order to tear someone down, but rather creating situations where people are open to completely honest feedback that isn’t delivered in a way that’s meant to hurt) and radical transparency (meaning nothing is hidden unless there’s an absolutely dire reason to keep it hidden). Much of the book reiterates how to achieve that both in everyday life and in the workplace, and that leads to a lot of secondary principles that are well worth considering.

More than anything, I’ve come to realize that radical honesty with myself is vital. There are time for all of us where we don’t want to believe hard truths about ourselves and we try to cover them up in various ways. I need to be more radically honest with myself in a few aspects of my life and the principles in this book have been helpful in doing that.

Creating Great Choices by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin

I read this as part of a book club I was participating in this year. I didn’t expect to get much out of it as it seemed more business-y than the typical book that really clicks with me, but I actually enjoyed this one quite a lot and it kept popping up in my thoughts throughout the following months.

The focus of the book is on integrative thinking, which means that you try to find ways to combine the positive elements of some of the options available to you so that they wipe out some of each of their negatives and become an even better solution. This is in opposition to binary thinking, which is where you’re simply trying to decide which of the options is the best one as though the options are set in stone.

A great example of binary versus integrative thinking is the use of a “pro and con” list. When you’re engaged in binary thinking – that is, choosing between options – you might make a pro and con list simply to help you figure out which choice has the most benefits and the least drawbacks. Integrative thinking takes that a step further – you want to find options that you might be able to combine so that the combined “pros” take care of most of the combined “cons” and create an even better solution than any of the individual options. I’ve found myself doing this kind of thinking in my journal quite a bit over the last few months and it’s led me to some pretty good solutions, particularly as we’ve been finishing up some home renovations.

The challenge, of course, is doing this in a group environment where everyone has to be on board with trying to find an integrative solution rather than just binary thinking. For an individual, however, integrative thinking is a great way to piece through all kinds of life problems, and I find myself following the process described in this book more and more. It’s a really thoughtful book for both personal and professional decision making, especially when you’re making decisions solo.

On the ‘To-Read’ List for Next Year

As I look ahead into the next year, I see a large number of books on my “to be read” list and quite a few on reserve at the library. Here are five personal finance and self improvement books that really stick out at me that I intend to read in the coming year.

Playing with FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early): How Far Would You Go for Financial Freedom? by Scott Rieckens is one of those rare personal finance books that directly tackles the topic of living a lifestyle substantially below one’s means with the goal of finding financial independence and being able to walk away from the career rat race at a young age. This is honestly a topic that isn’t discussed all that often in book form, with only a few landmark titles like Your Money or Your Life and Early Retirement Extreme really tackling the issue. While I don’t know exactly what kind of tack the book will take on financial independence, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin focuses on one key idea, that you are responsible for most of what goes on in your life and you’re also responsible for the people on your professional team. Rather than “passing the buck” and trying to blame others for failings, success is only found when you take ownership of situations, even when they’re failures, and you take it as a personal mission to do all that you can to make sure that things don’t fail. This is something I do well in some aspects of my life and not so well in others, so I’m looking for some general guiding principles that I can apply in all areas of my life.

Atomic Habits by James Clear centers around the idea that the best strategy for changing your routines and habits is to focus on the small improvements. You’re not going to go from a complete train wreck to perfection all at once, or if you do for a short while, it’s not sustainable. Rather, a much better approach is to look for very small changes you can make in your life and ingrain them as new habits until they’re normal. This seems like a good companion to Triggers, which I mentioned earlier in this article and found very powerful, indeed.

The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth is a guide to practical living in the Stoic tradition, which centers around understanding what a person can control and what they can’t and reacting accordingly. This is similar in vein to the truly wonderful book How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci, which really introduced me to how powerful stoicism can be in modern life. I was looking for a book that could serve as both a readable guide to stoicism as well as a reference of sorts when I was finished with it, something I could easily return to in bites in the future, and that’s exactly what this appears to be.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport is a book about finding a focused life where you’re not inherently distracted by your cellphone or the other technologies around you. Think of situations at work where you click over to a website, or social situations where you instinctively pull out your phone and pull yourself out of the conversation. Digital tools should exist solely to help us live out our values, not infringe on those values. This book is about making that happen in a digitally distracted era.

These are just among the books at the top of my to-read list for the coming year. In a typical year, I read somewhere around 60 books, with roughly half nonfiction and roughly half of those touching on personal finance or self-improvement in some respect, which inform my own personal behaviors and the writing you read here on the site. I’m excited to read the above books, perhaps review a few of them on the site, and incorporate ideas from all of them throughout the coming year.

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