I hated books as a kid. Hated reading with a passion.
I remember my mom forcing me to read 30-page children’s versions of Shakespeare’s works before I was allowed to play computer games.
That was my Vietnam.
Fast forward to today, and reading is second nature for me; my go-to unwinding activity when I'm bored.
I spend more on books each year than I spend on games AND clothes COMBINED. And that’s ALL games, mind you.
How did this happen?
That mindset switch, that awakening, that ‘unplugging’ (hello fellow Matrix fans!), came during my military cadet school days.
Cadet school is a great crucible - it brings together the crème de la crème, people with the best mix of caliber and character (to varying degrees of success, as I didn’t have either at that time).
It felt like a small fish in a big pond kind of situation - and I realized how much I was lacking compared to my peers.
True, I had scored well in the standard school system up to that point, so you could consider me ‘smart’, but I was only ‘exam smart’ - good at spotting questions, taking shortcuts, memorizing answers from past year papers. Yay SparkNotes!
But real-world knowledge? Actually solving problems other than calculating how many watermelons Ali had? Terribly bad.
Not to mention a long list of character flaws, the notable ones being tactlessness and poor emotional management. Many of the others still a work in progress till today.
Needless to say, I felt like an imposter in cadet school - having nothing to my name but a façade of qualifications.
I wanted to close that gap.
I needed to.
Books seemed like a good place to start.
This is not a list of my favorite books. If you want that list, go to my Goodreads🙂Instead, this is a story of the books that left the most significant impact on my life. It’s mostly a factor of context: the life events at the time, the version of myself at the time, and my beliefs about the world at the time.
I usually read ‘self-help’ or ‘general knowledge’ books. Hot take: I dislike the label ‘self-help’. Its inaccurate, and dangerous. Self-help gets a bad rep because the people who read them typically end up with an inflated ego. They think themselves superior to those who didn’t ‘help themselves’, and attempt to convert others to the same religion of ‘self-help’.
I’d know, because that was me. Still is, from time to time, but hopefully getting better. It gets obnoxious. And you end up having to unlearn a lot more than you learn from such books. I’ve come to the paradoxical conclusion that the best books are ones that subtract things from your life, rather than adding. The problem isn’t to increase the noise, it is to focus on the signals.
The problem with ‘self help’ is the ‘self’ - if it were genuine, ‘self help’ is precisely the opposite of what its name suggests: acknowledging that your ‘self’ is not where you want it to be, and you need help from everyone else. That’s why we seek out wisdom from others - people who have gone through similar struggles - knowing we are not alone in walking our current path, and trying to avoid the same pitfalls.
The only ‘’self” part of “self-help” is the part where your ‘’self” acknowledges you need help. I used to call myself ‘self-made’. It feels so good to do so. If you want to go by Jocko Willink’s ‘Extreme Ownership’ philosophy: owning all your mistakes and all your successes too, then sure. But it comes at the cost of a hugely inflated ego. And that’s a price I’m not willing to pay.
You are not self made. You are made by all these other things: the people who have come into your life, the chance encounters, the random decisions. So these books, to me, simply increase the exposure you have to new ideas, ancient wisdom and people’s experiences. And in the process, help me focus on the important stuff.
Ok rant over. Let’s move on.
“The genuine love for reading itself, when cultivated, is a superpower.” - Naval Ravikant
Tuesdays with Morrie
This was my dad’s recommendation for a good book to start me off. And the copy of Tuesdays with Morrie I have is actually a second-hand one from him. Its pages yellowed and spotted, its edges creased and scratched.
To me, all this just adds to the poetic role this book played in my life.
The book documents the author, Mitch’s, sessions with his elderly and sick teacher, Morrie, who taught him when he was younger. Through those Tuesday sessions, Morrie imparts his most important lessons on the meaning of life.
This story resonated with me at a time when my dad had just got his cancer diagnosis, so I saw myself as Mitch, going through the last sessions he would have with his mentor-figure, holding on to whatever precious moments he had left with him.
It was a wake-up call for me, to stop chasing ‘advertised values’ and think deeply about what is truly important. If you don’t show up for work, the organization will replace you in a heartbeat. If you don’t show up for family, you may never get the chance again.
It was the first time that I internalized the lesson that kindness is strength, that the person you hurt the most when you get angry is yourself.
Its one thing to have religion or school shove similar doctrines down your throat, its another to seek out the lessons yourself. To be in a place where you realize that what you have right now is flawed, is lacking, has room for improvements, for transformation. That’s when the real learning begins.
And my favorite quote from the book:
“Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?”
Its a lesson that I’ve re-learnt and re-learnt plenty of times after, in books like The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and The Power of Now.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad
My mom’s recommendation for a good book to start me off. Pretty cliché, I know. But its a bestseller for a good reason.
At the time I was reading this, money was a genuine concern for me, and my family. Would we have enough to support my dad’s treatment, plus pay for all 5 children’s education? I couldn’t afford to be a passive observer/recipient with regards to money: I needed to earn. And learn.
This booked changed how I saw money. Not the earth-shattering perspective shift on money that I covered in this blog entry, but at a more ‘basic’ level of assets and liabilities, what it means to be ‘rich’ and financially free.
Looking back after walking a decent distance on the FIRE journey, I have much to thank this book for.
Till today, I still attribute this book as the foundational piece on which all other newer views are built on. Books like The Psychology of Money, or Naval Ravikant’s writings on wealth - partly why they resonate with me is because my baseline idea of money had already been shifted back then. Heck, even the financial concepts in Rats to Riches were inspired from this book!
I read both this and Tuesdays with Morrie during cadet school. Together, they ignited a spark on 3 fronts:
thinking philosophically - what is truly important in our short time on the planet? What is society saying about an ideal life that actually is just BRules?
thinking about wealth - how do I eliminate money as a source of stress, as a crutch, and instead have it as a source of energy, of freedom?
thinking about books - if both these books could wake me up and knock me out of my previous worldview, then who knows what gems other books could hold?
You can think of them as 3 engines, a meaning/philosophy engine, a wealth/success engine, and a knowledge/character engine.
This is the book that sealed the deal for my spiritual/religious beliefs.
Before reading this, I was struggling to reconcile my Catholic faith with what I was seeing in the church and the negative experiences I had then. Loads of friends had left the church too. Coming to Manchester was a breath of fresh air for my faith. The Holy Name Church was such a welcoming place - absent all the politics and red-tape that plagued Singaporean churches. I saw the capacity for two communities, both learning the same doctrines, to turn out completely different. Volunteering with homeless runs and refugee night shelters also opened my eyes to an important truth:
Being religious does not guarantee good character.
Its fully possible to be a religious person and be a shitty human being. Also fully possible to be non-religious and a good person.
And so the only reason I was holding on to those beliefs was because I saw them as gospel truth. Literally.
What Sapiens did was shatter the ‘truth’ of my faith. The concepts, the stories, the myths of religions are a by-product of our human ability to imagine things outside the material world, and coordinate with other humans on those things. Language, Money, Nations, Corporations. They are all mental constructs. They serve a good purpose, and their impact on the world is way larger than we can ever imagine any other species to have. Our want to believe in things is a feature, not a bug.
That chapter on religion (iirc Chapter 12) was mind-blowing. It cleared the fog. I could put some distance between myself and my beliefs - see how they have shaped my life up till that point, for better or worse, be grateful for the lessons I’ve learnt from them, and then let them go.
There isn’t an eternal life after death, and that’s okay. It simply means you should live your best possible life while you have it.
There isn’t someone to punish you for sinning, or someone to open the gates of heaven if you do good. And that makes it all the better. You shouldn’t be doing these things because of some external influence anyway. You should do good and avoid bad for their own sake. Helping someone out should be an authentic thing, not something you do to gain victory points from an omnipotent scorekeeper.
There are good teachings in the church dogma, teachings that help me become a better - a more compassionate, more wise person. There are also plenty of weird or bad ones.
The best part is, so many other religions, philosophers, or spiritual gurus have their own wisdom on such things. And now I am free to learn from them too, where before I had dismissed them as heresy. “The Devil’s work.”
It was only after reading Sapiens that my mind became receptive to spiritual teachings from other sources, and helped me question assumptions about the world that even today I am still uncovering and overcoming.
The way to learn business is not through textbooks. If anything, that's the worst way. Save for actually running a business, the best substitute way to learn, in my opinion, is through stories. Get deep into the thought processes, emotions and struggles that other entrepreneurs went through, and see how they made the choices that led them to where they are now.
It also shows the role of luck in life. We like stories where the hero vanquishes the beast. But when we examine closer, we realize that there is so much randomness, so much coincidence in the story that the hero honestly can't take much credit for themselves.
This affected me in two ways: first, that these guys who succeeded weren’t any more talented or smart than I am; they got lucky. The best way to succeed, therefore, is to prepare myself so that when the opportunity arises, I am poised to seize it.
Second is the recognition that my own successes are attributed mostly to external factors: family upbringing, early environments, chance encounters, random decisions. Its the knowledge that I am not ‘self-made’ and that is a good thing. It keeps me humble, grateful, and on my toes, knowing that someone else just as smart, just as compassionate, but not as lucky, would be in an entirely different place. And I could have been, or could end up, in that place too.
Following Phil’s story as he built Nike was such an incredible experience for me. He had just finished university, having gone through a pretty standard, mainstream life. And he was resigned to his fate of being an accountant, like his parents. But before beginning that life, he decided to do one trip around the world, to find some answers on the meaning of life. That trip, coupled with the seed of a thought for a business idea, came together to spark one of the biggest brands in the world.
Even how he built the company was so ‘normal’ - it was a side hustle while he worked his full-time job as an accountant. He simply worked on the problem at hand, and figured out the path, one step at a time. Until eventually, it became the Nike we know of today. There wasn’t any grandiose, audacious vision of the future.
It was so different from the other entrepreneur biographies I had read before this: Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson or Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, where their stories felt so ‘out of this world’, so unique in their upbringing, in the way their minds work and their personalities are. When I read those books, they of course inspired me, but at the same time also ‘confirmed’ why they succeeded when most other people didn’t. They were different, period. Whereas I am just a normal guy. So it makes sense that I would never achieve that kind of success in my life. It is only reserved for the ‘different’ ones.
I loved the story because Phil was just like any other guy. He was just like me! Even the way he wrote the book - I resonated so much with his inner thoughts and approaches to the world. The struggles he had, not only about business, but about relationships, about spirituality, too. And it has been so inspiring to know that someone like me could climb to such heights of success. It gave me that assurance that if I put in the work, it could happen to me too.
Skin in the Game
I was initially reluctant to read this book, because I had found The Black Swan, another book by Nassim Taleb, really dry. So my expectations for Skin in the Game were already kinda low.
This book is SO different. It is a philosophy book, rather than a statistics book, which The Black Swan is. And boy has that philosophy drastically shaped my own worldview. I’ll let the quotes speak for themselves:
“If you don't take risks for your opinion, you are nothing.”
“Entrepreneurs are heroes in our society. They fail for the rest of us.”
“You may not know in your mind where you are going, but you know it by doing.”
“The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by people who are better at explaining than understanding.”
“There is no evolution without skin in the game.”
Two other concepts I liked:
Via negativa: the principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.
The Lindy effect: old ideas are better because they have stood the test of time. Grandmother advice works much more often than some influencer guru in the present. The longer an idea has lasted, the longer it will last.
The book hit home the idea that a life of meaning is a life of risk. As crazy as that sounds, it resonated a lot with me. The best things that I have, the experiences where I learnt the most from, they have all came because I risked something - there was something to lose.
Of course, I don’t think we are meant to chase suffering all the time, but instead its through the suffering that the peace we attain after tastes sweeter. It's become such an integral North Star for me that it's even one of my 5 qualities I look for in a partner.
The message struck me at a time when I was thinking of where I wanted to go in my career - what I wanted to do with my life, what I would build for the world. Do I want an easy life, trying to game the system to take as much as I can without giving back? Or would I grit my teeth, put something valuable on the line, and take the difficult path?
This entry’s title is “Books that Built Me.” And I strongly believe they have. They built the person I am today. And though I have since ‘outgrown’ some of their perspectives, I still remain grateful to their authors for sharing their wisdom.
All 5 books helped me subtract more from my life than add. Tuesdays with Morrie with subtracting 'advertised values' to focus on the essential. Rich Dad, Poor Dad eliminating my Rat Race money beliefs to see money in a new way. Sapiens subtracting my religious dogmatic beliefs and igniting my new spiritual journey. Shoe Dog subtracting my mental barriers to becoming a great entrepreneur. And Skin in the Game for introducing the idea that subtraction is how we grow in knowledge in the first place.
If you’ve gotten this far, thank you 🙂 I’d love to know what books have built you!! Always on the lookout for insightful books to ‘disrupt’ myself, books that force me to unlearn and learn, so gimme a shout!
I’ll leave you with this:
“No friendship without trust, Opinion without consequence, Love without sacrifice, Facts without rigor, Mathematics without proof, Degrees without erudition, Virtue without risk, Wealth without exposure, And nothing without skin in the game.” - Nassim N. Taleb