15 Books Worth Reading if You Want to Make Significant Changes in your Life

My reading hasn’t always been this focused, but I’ve found that almost everything I’ve read in the past few years could be classified into three categories: memoir, self-help, or social sciences/cultural commentary. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there are some commonalities those genres. Chalk it up to the the #therapythirties if you’d like, but I suppose at my core I’ve been interested in a few very basic questions. How does this world work? Is it possible to change? What is the good life?

It’s no stretch to say that the work (and the reading) has been fueled by its share of discontent, by the frustration and disappointment of feeling like life isn’t turning out the way I want it to. The good news is that the journey — both in and outside of the reading — has been incredibly rich and that there have been signs of progress along the way. I feel more hopeful now than I ever have before. For anyone who’s interested, here are 15 books — which I’ve grouped into six different topical categories — that I’ve found helpful along the way:

Trauma

  • The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk) – This book, like many listed here, was kind of breakthrough. Why is it so difficult to change? Why is it so difficult to let go of what you know is self-destructive behavior in order to find something better? Van Der Kolk offers one critical answer. The destructive patterns are likely the familiar patterns of our brain, and our body has also held onto the pain and tension of our traumas. So cognitive recognition isn’t enough. Accepting this reality and knowing how much effort a deep change will require is a great start for anyone who really wants to change. But thankfully the author doesn’t stop there. We also get several concrete strategies for healing our brains and our bodies. I’d list them here, but if you’re interested, you should probably just go ahead and read the book :).
  • Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (Alice Miller) – In this book, and in the rest of her career, this late psychologist did something quite extraordinary and counter-cultural: she dared to question the power dynamic of the parental-child relationship. She dared to take the side of the child. She suggested that so many of us become numb to our realities and feelings as a way to please or appease cruel and controlling parents. We try to meet their needs, rather than the other way around. The result is, more often than not, not only empty and lost childhoods, but often more of the same in adulthood. Miller argues for the necessity of identifying the true source of one’s angst and depression before a person can truly grieve and move on to a fuller existence.

Spirituality/Grief

  • Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crises (Lauren Winner) – Winner wrote this book after her divorce. Having also written a book that makes its case for chastity, obviously this particular event brought up some important theological (and emotional!) problems and questions for the author. What I like about the book, and what ultimately makes it a memoir, is that Winner doesn’t spend its pages bashing the ex-husband; instead we’re let into her own breakdown. Instead of trying to tie it neatly up into a bow, we’re simply invited to hang in the tension. I would recommend reading this book on a porch with a glass of wine. And I don’t even like wine.
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed) – Strayed’s catalyst crises was the death of her mother. That loss led to a season of promiscuity that ruined Strayed’s first marriage. It was at that point that she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. Along the way she faced several critters, other hikers, thirst, minimal funds, bad boots, chafed skin, bad weather, and most of all, her own demons. I’ve never done anything as drastic as Strayed, but it has been my experience that the outdoors, which is to say nature, has a way of forcing us to face parts of ourselves that everyday life distracts us from.
  • A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis) – I’ve read plenty of Lewis, and I guess what I usually think about in regards to his work is his use of reason, of argument, of logic. That isn’t to say that his intellect was completely disconnected from his heart, but this particular book is so different from standard Lewis. Parts of it read like a journal entry. Lewis doesn’t hide his pain, his anger, or his confusion. No, those things are precisely the point, and it is in the midst of that emotional lostness that his most important questions get posed and explored with integrity. Without trusting that Lewis really has grieved, we simply cannot trust his defenses for God.
  • To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future (Dan Allender) – This book made enough of an impact on me that I drove several hours to St. Louis for a conference that dealt with the same material. Naming is Allender’s way in. The idea is that God created and then named us, and that He also gave us the ability to name things and each other. This can go woefully wrong, of course, as we often name each other falsely and cruelly in ways that last years beyond our intentions. Allender suggest that we need to face God with our false names and stories, that we can haggle with Him, and ask for a truer story and name. The result might just be life, but there’ll be a lot of pain along the way.
  • How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God (or Anyone Else for that Matter) (Ian Punnett) – Studies have shown that prayer and meditation are good for the brain and body. That said, I experienced my own religious upbringing as kind of sterile. God seemed, at best, easily offended, and at worst, a controlling, cruel dictator. To to have someone, namely Punnett, give me permission to get honest with God, to call Him out, to tell Him when I’m pissed at Him, and to realize my prayers don’t result in my getting struck by lightning, and that actually I feel much better afterwards, and my integrity is still in tact. It’s difficult to describe how freeing that has been. Oh, and if there’s a God who made this world, you, and me, He’s probably big enough to handle it. I even suspect He may respect us more when we face Him in this way.

Relationships

  • Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy (Don Miller) – I’ve been a long-time reader and fan of Miller’s. I’ve especially enjoyed his humor, his provocation, and his rawness. In all of those senses, I’d probably say that this was his least polished book. I do sort of mourn his move from truer memoir to a more prescriptive self-help kind of writing. That isn’t to say this book of his wasn’t important; after all, I put it on this list. This book is largely about the process that led Miller toward marrying his wife. Apparently, that process involved an intentional break from the dating scene, a willingness to get honest about some of his old patterns, and letting a few others into the process of choosing. Bob Goff seems to have played an especially important role, but Miller also spoke well of a a therapeutic experience he had at Onsite.
  • Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend) – This book gets mentioned often in therapeutic circles and for good reason. I think I can honestly say that before reading Cloud and Townsend, and participating in a workshop that further explored the concepts, I barely knew I had a yes and a no. What I had instead was a string of endless yeses and a bunch of resentment. Now I know that I’m allowed to have preferences, and that I can’t say (or live) a real yes until I’m capable of saying a no. And that my no’s come out of deeper yeses.
  • Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance (Dr. Tian Dayton) – If you’re anything like me, you may begin a journey of growth and healing with the hopes of letting go of a few habits or behaviors. But what will be left in their place? For me, it was a bunch of negative and toxic attitudes, thought patterns, and a fear of my own bodily and emotional responses to the things that happen all around me. That’s where the real work happens: can you become sober in mind and spirit? I’m still working on it :).

Habits

  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business and Life (Charles Duhigg) – I’m reading this book right now, and it’s blowing me away. Duhigg argues that habits are made up of a repetitive cycle of 1) cue, 2) routine, and 3) reward. As such, we can’t necessarily eliminate a habit, but we can replace it. Pay attention to the cue, practice the new habit, be reinforced by the reward. The good news is that this means we really can change, and Duhigg shows us positive examples that range from an overweight divorcee who became a marathon runner to Tony Dungy’s football players to the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and the CEO of a major company. The book also discusses the concept of a “keystone habit,” which is to say that often when we change one central habit, it spills into other parts of our lives. So if we become healthier in one area of our lives, other parts often follow.
  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Brene Brown) – For starters, it would probably be worth your time to watch Brown’s Ted Talks. But in this book, she shows (again) how vulnerability is the key to living more wholeheartedly in all parts of our lives. Of course, there’s a reason we would rather run from or numb or hide our vulnerability. Facing those parts of ourselves is terrifying and few things are more painful than exposing our figurative or literal nakedness and then getting rejected by the person you offered it to. Hence, the need to “dare greatly” and to trust in that process until it becomes — wait for it! — a habit.
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Greg McKeown) – Early on in this book, the author shows us two drawings. The first is of a circle with a bunch of little arrows pointing outward. This is, he explains, how we live when we’re giving a little bit to a lot of things. Then right next to the first drawing is a second circle. This one only has one arrow, which is much longer, and points in one direction. This is what happens when we begin to let go of all the commitments and time waster’s that prevent us from the life we want. So for example, I’ve recently let go of texting, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Not necessarily because those things are “bad,” but they did occupy some of my time and energy, and they didn’t necessarily fit with what McKeown called my “essential intent.” Reading this book forced me to do some reflection about what exactly those intents are for me during this season of life.

Professional

  • Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do Work That Matters (Jon Acuf) – This was a good book to help me think about the various phases of a career arc. Who knew: you don’t build anything worthwhile in a day! The five stages, according to Acuf, are learning, editing, mastering, harvesting, and guiding. But in addition to these stages, the author also gives us tools for facing some of the fear that prevents us from taking the risks that might lead us toward more meaningful work.

Money

  • The Complete Guide to Money (Dave Ramsey) – Ahhh, yes: I am currently going through Financial Peace University. This is the first month of my life trying to live on budget! Thankfully, for all my schooling, I have somehow avoided taking out a crippling amount of debt. It has helped that I’ve tended to be somewhat frugal in my spending and aggressive in my paying off debt when I actually had income. Still, the truth is there’s so much I haven’t known about how money works, and I’ve always been a small disaster away from absolute ruin. Not to mention, impulsive and compulsive habits in other areas have led to impulsivity and compulsivity with money. So now I’m trying to get smarter and to change my behavior. Ramsey helps by showing us some of the problems (how much we accept debt as a long-term reality, how much we let marketers and salesmen play us, etc.) while also pointing us toward very concrete steps to include our financial lives. After the insurance chapter, for example, it became clear that there were several adjustments I needed to make in terms of the insurance I do and don’t purchase.

What about you? If there’s an influential book in your life that isn’t on my list, add it as a comment!

  • Maggie Patton

    The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley offers some good financial advice! He wrote it back in ’96, so some of the numbers and statistics might be a bit off, but the author offers some good tips, and the book itself is fascinating.