My top non-fiction book recommendations (for life optimization, emotional intelligence, philosophy, purpose, relationships, and more)

Michael CalozBlog: Synthesizing & Simplifying Complexity, Self-ImprovementLeave a Comment

Continuous learning is one of the driving forces of my life.

I’m a huge reader, and I’ve devoted much of my time and energy to the study of personal growth from a variety of perspectives.

So, I’d like to offer you some of my top recommendations across several categories. 

(Transparency note: I’ve included my Amazon affiliate link for each one since I might as well get a tiny cut of Amazon’s profits if you buy, but I’m not affiliated with or compensated by any of these authors.)

Last updated on January 31, 2024

Life Optimization, Work, Productivity:

  • Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport (actionable advice for fighting your addiction to digital devices, reclaiming your agency, and focusing on what’s really important without constant distractions)
  • The 4-Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss (this book has been so influential since its publication in 2007 that many of its ideas might seem obvious now, but it had a big impact on me back then, and I imagine it will still be impactful for you too; it advocates for prioritizing freedom & flexible working arrangements, and regularly reevaluating your priorities and asking yourself if you can do something soon instead of waiting for retirement)
  • 80,000 Hours, by Benjamin Todd (solid introduction to the Effective Altruism movement—i.e., how to get the highest ROI for doing good in the world—and advice for how to think about choosing a career and living a life focused around having a positive impact)
  • Atomic Habits, by James Clear (the best book on designing effective habits, understanding why that’s hard, and learning how to deal with bad habits as well)
  • Essentialism, by Greg McKeown (how to eliminate tasks & activities that use up your energy but ultimately aren’t important, and how to make more conscious choices around prioritizing the things that matter most)
  • Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, by Kim Scott (for leaders and managers, how to create an environment where employees feel supported, engaged, and motivated, by building strong relationships and using specific, effective communications techniques)

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Healing:

(Transparency note: I’ve been impressed enough by both Brené Brown and Shirzad Chamine that I’ve gone through training programs that they offer, and I partner with Shirzad in my own Synthesis group coaching program.)

Philosophy, Spirituality, Reality:

  • Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris (a highly-rational neuroscientist/philosopher explores consciousness and spirituality)
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, by Shunryu Suzuki (simple, approachable introduction to Zen Buddhism, specifically focusing on the concept of approaching everything with open curiosity and humility)
  • Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright (deeper dive into Buddhism, with an excellent mix of explaining things from the perspective of what the Buddha taught, why it makes sense through rationality and logic, and how well it aligns with the latest knowledge from science and psychology)
  • The Egg, by Andy Weir (2-page fiction story about one way to see yourself and other people, written by the author of The Martian. The Egg was also made into a nice short animated video. Before you start reading/watching though, recognize that it will be possible to see this story as either trite or deeply profound. So, I encourage you to slow down as you read and try on the idea of taking it seriously)
  • The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, by Donald D. Hoffman (a cognitive psychologist explains how reality is likely not at all as we perceive it with our senses. Honestly, though, you can just watch his TED Talk and get 90% of what the book says)
  • A Coincidence of Opposites, by Alan Watts (this is a series of lectures, but the best part is captured in this 4-minute video. Alan Watts was a philosopher who played a significant role in popularizing Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism in the United States in the 1950’s and 60’s. This is another one that can be either trite or profound, so try on the idea of seeing it as deep wisdom offered by a person who I personally consider to be incredibly spiritually mature)
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (an overview of the entire history of humanity, including some fascinating insights about how the agricultural revolution probably wasn’t actually good for us, the roots of racism & sexism, and many other topics that apply to our psychology and sociology today)
  • Be Here Now, by Ram Dass (the spiritual journey of a Stanford PhD psychologist who did a lot of psychedelics, then studied meditation and spirituality in India for many years. This is a profound book, but quite woo-woo, so it probably won’t resonate unless you’re already a consistent meditator and have tried psychedelics)

Psychedelics, Altered States of Consciousness

  • How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan (the history and science of psychedelic drugs, as well as their potential therapeutic benefits for mental health)
  • Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal (exploring various methods for achieving altered states of consciousness—specifically through the lens of enhancing human performance—including flow states, sensory deprivation, ecstatic experiences, biohacking, etc.)
  • Reconsidering the Benefits of Psychedelics (excellent 10-minute video clip of Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Huberman explaining why he changed his mind about psychedelics and is now excited about them)
  • The Utility of Psychedelics (similarly, a 20-minute video clip of neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harriss explaining the value of psychedelics)
  • DanceSafe (not a book, but a website with excellent safety information for all major psychoactive substances)
  • My personal plea to you:
    • I’m a huge proponent of psychedelics, but only when used in a safe, highly intentional way.
    • I’m not writing this as a disclaimer to avoid legal trouble (honestly, I’m not terribly worried about that since so many prominent people are writing about psychedelics nowadays). I’m writing this warning because I care about you.
    • Psychedelics can be amazingly powerful in both positive and challenging ways. It’s possible to feel like you’re meeting god and one with the universe, or like you’re trapped in hell. (And I mean both of those things literally.)
    • Your experience will be heavily influenced by things like: the setting in which you take the substance, your mindset going in, how much support you have around you, the purity of the substance, luck, your family history with schizophrenia (and certain other disorders), the intentions you set for your journey, your level of proficiency with mindfulness practices, your degree of self-awareness, etc.
    • Bottom line: Please don’t take these substances lightly. Do your research, test your substances for purity, have a qualified trip-sitter, set a specific intention, and go in prepared. Also, I highly encourage you to develop a consistent meditation practice before trying psychedelics.

Existential Purpose, Values, Living with Meaning

  • The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz (indigenous Mexican wisdom framed in terms of four foundational agreements to live by to be truly free)
  • Living Untethered: Beyond the Human Predicament, by Michael A. Singer (how to live a life of inner peace and resilience that’s free of the constraints imposed by your mind; largely aligned with Buddhism, but Singer synthesizes other spiritual, scientific, and psychological systems as well)
  • The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff (Taoism explained through the lens of Winnie the Pooh; lighthearted, but full of wisdom if you take it seriously)
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin (5-page fictional parable for living an ethical life; I found this deeply moving to apply to many aspects of life, and as a counter-argument to the idea that “the ends justify the means”)
  • Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., by Brené Brown (how to be a more courageous and effective leader, including doing so through openness and authenticity; and, even if you’re not a manager at work, there’s a lot of value here, including defining your values to live by)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (memoir by a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps, focused on the path toward making meaning out of life; this book is harrowing, but also inspiring)

Relationships, Ethical Nonmonogamy (i.e., Polyamory)

  • The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, by Gary Chapman (while the “5 languages” might not have been arrived at through rigorous scientific study, I’ve still found them to be a valuable foundation for myself and my clients for illustrating how love can look quite different for different people, and how important it is to learn how to offer it in the form that resonates with your partner)
  • Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy, by Jessica Fern (this is the best book I’ve found explaining the attachment styles, e.g., anxious, avoidant, etc., which can be very useful in understanding why it can feel like you or your partner need more closeness/space/validation/reassurance etc. than the other; this book is also about polyamory, but if that’s not your thing, you can simply skip the second half)
  • Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, by Stan Tatkin (this is one of my favorite overall books on how to do a romantic relationship well, e.g., by approaching conflict as a team of the two of you against the problem instead of against each other)
  • Polywise: A Deeper Dive Into Navigating Open Relationships, by Jessica Fern (if you’re just getting started with ethical nonmonogamy / poly / open relationships, this book is my #1 recommendation, offering a nice mix of practical tips and guidance on the deep emotional self-work required to do poly successfully)
  • More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert (another good poly book—if you want to do polyamory properly in a way that’s less likely to get anyone hurt, this is a helpful resource; but, in the time since it was published in 2014, the polyamory world has further matured, and this book emphasizes non-hierarchical poly a bit too much in my opinion)
  • Fierce Intimacy, by Terry Real (Terry can be a bit intense, but this book offers some solid guidance on developing emotional intelligence, identifying & expressing feelings, and navigating conflict in healthy ways)
  • A note on ethical nonmonogamy:
    • I’ve included a few books related to ethical/consensual nonmonogamy (polyamory) because I’ve found that an increasing number of my coaching clients are interested in exploring that. 
    • If you’re not familiar with that world, I want to be very clear about the “ethical” part of ethical nonmonogamy: These books are not at all advocating cheating—in fact, it’s the complete opposite.
    • Some critical cornerstones of the ethical nonmonogamy movement are honesty, openness, and the consent of everyone involved. (Also note that polyamory is quite different from polygamy.)
    • Ethical nonmonogamy is about recognizing that relationships can look many different ways (e.g., multiple consenting partners who fill similar or different roles in someone’s life), but it’s absolutely essential that everyone is fully aware of what’s going on and consents to it.

Community-Building, Social Skills

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a nourishing day.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Do you have favorites in one of these categories that I’ve left out? Which of the books I mentioned have most impacted you?

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