10 books that changed my life

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Have you ever read a book that had an all-out-of-proportion impact on you? Today’s post gives you 10 books that changed my life.

The New York Times last week ran an article under the headline “the book that changed my life.” The paper had asked its readers to pick a book that had influenced the way they thought, acted or looked at the world and they received some 1,300 responses from which they published 43 titles. This fascinating glimpse into the reading lives of others gave me the idea to do the same thing myself.

Here, then, are 10 non-fiction books that have changed my life. Most (although not all) have something to do with writing and I have deliberately skipped over many of the classics with which most of you will already be familiar (eg: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King).

1-The Inner Game of Tennis

books that changed my life

By W. Timothy Gallwey. Subtitled The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, this book was first published in 1974 and I read it in that year (and again in 2016) even though I was not a tennis player and had no desire to ever become one. The book taught me that when you’re playing tennis (or indeed, doing anything else) you’re better off focusing on the ball (or what it is you want to achieve) rather than critiquing your serve or the way you hold your racquet. Using this same principle helped me develop my own coaching technique of advising clients to become copy cats. In other words, start copying the writing of those whose words you admire.


2-The Power of Habit

books that changed my life

By Charles Duhigg. I read an excerpt from The Power of Habit in my local newspaper in 2012, shortly  after the book was published. I’m a bit of a cheapskate so I don’t generally buy hardcover books — I’m prepared to wait the year until they come out in paperback. But not this time! I found the excerpt so compellingly written that I rushed and bought my own copy of the book right away. I now keep it in a shelf at my immediate right hand so I can grab it to read examples to my clients. Duhigg’s book is a science-based one, filled with verifiable evidence — and pages of footnotes — but it reads like a story book with fascinating characters, plot and tension. What I learned about habits not only changed my life, but it gave me one of the best books I’ve read in the last 20 years.

3-The Now Habit

books that changed my life

By Neil Fiore. Speaking of habits, this book is one I always recommend to my many academic clients who are struggling to write theses, dissertations or papers for peer-reviewed journals. Fiore is a psychologist who wrote his own dissertation on academics who procrastinate about writing (!) His contrarian idea? An unschedule. He believes that the majority of academics allow themselves too much time to write which not only makes them ineffective but also causes them to dread the task. You don’t have to be an academic to get value from this book. If you procrastinate in any area of your life, read The Now Habit to learn some practical if counterintuitive tips about how to become more effective.

4-The Checklist Manifesto

books that changed my life


By Atul Gawande. I’ve been a fan of this medical doctor (a surgeon) ever since I started reading his writing in the New Yorker many years ago. He is both smart and uncharacteristically modest and he believes that checklists can help us all do many things better. Airline pilots use them, as do engineers and — after investigating how checklists work — Gawande even helped design a surgical one for the World Health Organization. Could checklists help your writing? I bet they could. I operate my own writing business using dozens of checklists every week. (Gawande’s writing is superb across-the-board. Another life-changing book of his that I truly admire is Being Mortal which sensitively and thoughtfully explores the limitations and failures of medicine in the context of end of life.)

5-One small step can change your life 

books that changed my life

By Robert Maurer. This book even promises to change your life in the title. And guess what? It will. Maurer advocates using simple small steps (for example, walking for one minute or doing one pushup) as a way to build new habits and increase your own self-confidence. As a medical doctor, he brings plenty of scientific evidence to his arguments and shows how small rewards lead to big returns. The book is only 228 pages (Reader’s Digest size) and you can probably read it in 90 minutes. Worth every second it takes.


6-If you can talk you can write

books that changed my life

By Joel Saltzman. I first encountered this book as an audio title — narrated by the author, a former comedian — and found it both hilarious and very smart. I subsequently bought a print copy and devoured that version as well. Saltzman argues that writing is just like “talking” (only in print) and that almost no one gets “talker’s block”. My favourite expression of his is “blah, blah, blah, GOLD…” which he uses to make the point that we need to write down a lot of boring/useless words (the blahs) until we get any good ones (the gold.) His book helped me develop my own principle of the crappy first draft, which in turn led me to my recent book, Your Happy First Draft.


7-10% Happier 

books that changed my life

By Dan Harris. The amusing subtitle of this book says it all: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True story. An anchor at the ABC TV show Nightline Dan Harris had found himself dabbling in cocaine, which led to an on-air panic attack. Highly motivated to ensure such a trauma never occurred again, Harris kicked his drug habit and learned how to treat his anxiety with…wait for it..meditation! I believe that meditation is a useful practice for most writers and I’ve written about it in a writing context here. Harris’s book is a great read if you’re the least bit skeptical about meditation. If you’ve already been convinced, however, you might check out one of Sylvia Boorstein’s books – either Happiness is an Inside Job or Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake.

8-Anything You Want

books that changed my life

By Derek Sivers. I like Sivers’ creative no-nonsense attitude to building a business. His book, which is subtitled 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, promotes starting small and caring for your customers more than yourself. Sivers started his own business, CD Baby, in 1998 — to help his musical friends distribute their recordings — and he sold it just eight years later for $22 million. Then, typically, he gave away most of that money to a foundation called The Independent Musician’s Charitable Trust, which will fund music education after he dies. If you’re a self-employed writer, Sivers’ book will give you some great, out-of-the-box ideas for succeeding with your own business.


9-Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength

books that changed my life

By Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Baumeister, who is a ground-breaking social psychologist currently based at the University of Queensland, was smart enough to team up with the science writer from the New York Times. Together, they produced this bestselling and highly readable book on willpower. Drawing on cutting-edge research, the book describes how to focus strength, resist temptation, and be more realistic when setting goals. I tend to favour building habits over using willpower but the act of building the habit may require some willpower to get you started. This book will tell you how.

10-Sound of a Wild Snail Eating 

books that changed my life

By Tova Bailey. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to declare my favourite genre, I’d probably pick memoir. Today, I’m not going to list any of the fine and intensely popular memoirs (like Educated by Tara Westover) with which you are likely already familiar. Instead, I want to highlight a short and profoundly beautiful book about illness and the wonder of the natural world. When Tova Bailey became bedridden by a neurological disorder, she was given by a friend the “gift” of a wild snail. She then spent her entire illness observing it and caring for it. Superbly written. It’s a writing lesson just to read this remarkable work.


Reading, can in fact, change our lives — if we let it. Be sure to allow it to work its magic on you.


My video podcast last week described how to manage writing a book at the same time as a newsletter. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


What’s a book that’s changed YOUR life? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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