What books have shaped, or even changed, your life?
Have you ever read exactly the right thing at the right time in your life, and it made all the difference? And then you tell everyone to read that book, because it just helped so much? Think of this post as me sharing with you books that have inspired me, gotten me through some tough situations, helped me to find focus, and more. In short, these are books that have helped me in my quest to create a life filled with wonder, and I think that they might help you, too.
From self-help to literary nonfiction
Ranging from self-help to literary nonfiction, these are the books from which I’ve gleaned actionable advice, comfort, provocation, and inspiration over the years. I’ve shared why I think they might help you, arranged by topic.
This doesn’t mean that I think all these books are perfect; indeed in some instances I’ve indicated that I’ve discarded certain sections. However, I’ve gotten enough out of each of these books to feel confident in their value. I hope that they help, and I would love to hear from you about which books have helped you build your life of wonder.
Books to Help Create a Life Filled with Wonder
Books aren’t a substitute for therapy or community
Before we begin, these books cannot substitute therapy, medication, or other serious issues. If you need help, and I think we all can benefit from it at various points in our lives, seek it. The recommendations below do not diagnose or treat mental illness, and, by nature of them being books, they are not written specifically for you and your unique life circumstances. Therapy helps.
Finding supportive communities also helps, and these books are not a substitute for finding your people. Hopefully these books can help inspire you to create a community or find one if you do not currently have one. Perhaps a book group?
Your life circumstances may be different
Our life circumstances are not the same, and to deny the fact that privilege plays a role here is to deny reality. These books generally assume agency to be able to change our circumstances, and this isn’t always the case. Your life could look very different from mine, and what has helped me may not help you.
Books to help you create a life filled with wonder
Here’s the list of books, arranged by topic. I’d love to hear what books have shaped your life—please let us know in the comments below!
The links to books are affiliate links from Bookshop.org. Bookshop.org is a certified B Corp supporting local bookstores through online sales. I receive a small commission for qualifying sales purchased from these links. Shopping through these links helps to support me in creating Wonder & Sundry. Thank you!
And with that, here’s the list!
If you’re feeling stuck and don’t know where to begin to change your life
It’s Wednesday afternoon, you’ve just had your third meeting of the day, you have too much to do, and you just don’t want to do any of it. This isn’t a passing feeling, it’s constant. The life you’re living just doesn’t fit who you sense you are deep down.
Never mind how to change it? Where do you even begin to figure out what, exactly, is wrong with the status quo?
Start with the “Good Time Journal” exercise from Designing Your Life
If you find yourself feeling unhappy about your life’s direction and you aren’t really sure why, the Good Time Journal exercise from Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans is for you.
This book is so powerful that even if you’re content with where your life is now you could get something out of it. Designing Your Life takes Design Theory, a process designers use to solve problems (and produce products) through prototyping, and applies it to our lives. Design Theory starts with asking questions and getting at what the heart of the issue is, aka the problem that good design can solve.
This is where the Good Time Journal can change your life. This exercise might feel a little silly, but done with care, it will illuminate what isn’t working for you and highlight what is. Keep going with the book to find out what to do about it. I found the reframing beliefs ideas particularly helpful.
This book came out of a popular life design course that the authors taught at Stanford University for years, and it is chock full of practical ways you can imagine a better life for yourself and how to make that vision a reality.
Uncover your purpose with Find Your Why
What’s your Why aka, your driving purpose in your life? Your Why is unique to you, and, if you know what it is use it to inform your decisions, you will live in accordance with your truth. If you aren’t living in accordance with your Why, you are fighting who you are.
Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, by Simon Sinek, David Mead, and Peter Docker takes Sinek’s popular Ted Talk and creates a system for helping us define our purpose.
A lot of books like this tend to focus mostly on business, and this book definitely has this feature. However, it also has a track for individuals to use personally, and this is what, I think, makes this useful. Mead and Docker strongly encourage readers to find a partner to help tease out our Whys, and so this isn’t an exercise done solo. However, even if you do not have a trusted partner to do this exercise with, I think that you can get something out of this book.
Change your habits, change your life with Atomic Habits
I avoided reading this book for years, because I thought the title was annoying. Dear Reader, I was wrong. James Clear’s engaging read gives practical, immediately actionable ways to put habits into place that can help us build wonderful lives. I’m really good at all-or-nothing thinking and believing that I have to have a perfect plan to start something, and this book makes it so much easier to make positive changes. Put this into practice, and just see what you can do.
If you’re looking for courage
Taking action requires courage, and sometimes we need to work up the courage before we can take action. These are two very different books, but they each help to build courage and confidence so that we can act on our dreams.
Embrace the wonder of a creative life with Big Magic
Consider Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert, your sign from the universe that it’s time to embrace your creative dreams. Creative courage doesn’t necessarily mean chuck your old life aside and become a starving artist—indeed, Gilbert argues against taking such action willy-nilly.
Instead, what this gentle and inspiring book does is to encourage us to embrace our creative magic in whatever direction this takes. Perhaps it’s skating again after decades away from the sport—you might not win any Olympic medals, but it could leave you deliciously happy.
Whatever your creative spark is, Gilbert can help you to find your courage to embrace it and tend to it so that you’re living your creative life with courage.
Give yourself a high five . . . literally with the High Five Habit
When’s the last time you looked in the mirror and gave yourself a high five? Me? I believe that I’d given myself a high five in the mirror exactly zero times before reading this book. The High 5 Habit: Take Control of Your Life with One Simple Habit, another one by Mel Robbins, takes what seems like a silly gesture (and, let’s face it, it is a bit silly) and uses it as the spark to get out of your own way and start acting on your dreams.
You’re training yourself to see yourself as someone worthy of a high five. Instead of focusing in the mirror (both literal and metaphorical) and seeing what’s wrong with you, a high-five with a big smile instills a little boost of confidence. And that confidence, Robbins says, can make all the difference.
If prioritizing doesn’t come easily to you
There’s this old song by the New Wave band the Waitresses (the band who sings that “Christmas Wrapping” song that you hear every holiday season) that has the line, “I guess I set impossible goals, and I don’t know when to quit.” I think of it and Hyperbole and a Half’s Clean All the Things (alas, the link is no longer secure, but I’m betting that you’re seeing it in your mind), when I try to do too much at once and then burn myself out.
I’m working this year on trying to do fewer things at once then do those things better. These books have helped me as I’m learning to do this.
Set a daily highlight with Make Time
I bought this book the day that someone suggested it to me nearly four years ago, and I’ve used it every day since then. The concept put forward by John Zeratsky and Jake Knapp Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day is very simple: you make a daily decision about what to focus on, and then you make a plan for when and how you are going to do it and how to ensure that you will have the energy you need to get it done.
The authors have all kinds of tactics you can try in these areas so that you can find ones that work for you. I now make a highlight for my week, month, and year as well, but the magic happens during the daily practice of prioritizing what matters to you.
Pare down with Essentialism
The leader of my creativity group recommended this book during our coaching session on annual planning. While I think that I may win the prize for trying to take on too much, this is a common problem, especially among creative people with wide and varied interests. We have to make choices, or nothing is going to get done.
This is where Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown comes in. This book has practical advice for how to identify what is essential to us and how to ensure that we maintain our focus and energy on those things.
Get the most important thing out of the way with Eat That Frog!
People in my Caveday (affiliate link) sessions shared often about “eating frogs,” and I had no idea what they were talking about. They didn’t seem to be talking about French cuisine, as these frogs did not sound like delicacies.
After the tenth time of people talking about eating frogs during a deep work session, I decided to find out just exactly what they meant by consuming amphibians. They meant this book: Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.
Some books could be articles, and I think this might be one of those books. However, buckling down and doing the most important thing right away is a point very well taken. Eating the proverbial frog gives us a sense of accomplishment and can build momentum. It’s worth trying. I will say that some of his advice about not “wasting time” talking to your colleagues by the coffee pot is a load of hooey. People are important, too. And, also, speaking as a former project manager: mapping out every single step of a project and planning it all out in advance is a recipe for failure. So, what I’m saying is that the frog consumption is worth trying, but perhaps leave the rest on the plate.
Set better boundaries with the very sweary Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
Marie Kondo may have scaled back on tidying, but Sara Knight’s advice from the Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do remains as solid as ever. Knight’s irreverent, swear-strewn book on setting boundaries and learning to say no will make you laugh, but she’s also completely serious.
We say yes to entirely too many things that we don’t care about and don’t want to do. While we often do this out of fear of displeasing someone, Knight argues that we aren’t being kind at all when we do this. She isn’t saying that we should tell everyone to f*ck off, far from it, but she is saying that we should save our time and energy for things and people that matter to us.
We only have so many f*cks to give, and we have to conserve them for the things that we actually do give f*cks about, as Knight would put it. Sweary point taken.
If you’re searching for wonder in your everyday
Covid certainly taught us that our lives can go from busy and full to very, very still in a moment, and, for a lot of us, that proved incredibly challenging. However, even without a pandemic, sometimes our worlds grow small for a time, and our usual outlets for finding wonder, like travel, disappear. It’s at these times when our ability to notice the world around us, because, if we’re paying attention, there’s almost always a small wonder to behold.
These books, one I read a very long time ago, and another published just this year, can help. Neither are how-tos, but rather meditations on getting very deeply involved in the world around us, searching for meaning and wonder.
Find meaning all around you with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I’ve posted about the impact Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had on my life at earlier time when my world grew small. At the time, the pandemic continued to rage, and I had found myself drawing on the lessons again. Dillard, in this Pulitzer Prize winning work from 1974, wrestles with questions of theology and philosophy as she wandered the woods and waterways surrounding her cabin at Tinker Creek. Over the course of four seasons, she asks big, big questions in her very small world.
Reading Pilgrim as a young woman, I took from it the need to pay close attention to the world around me, especially nature. It’s in that close attention that wonder lives. That skill sustained me when I was young, again during the pandemic, but I have used it throughout my life since. Little moments bring joy and insight, and those little moments make for a life filled with wonder.
Search for the magic in the world with Enchantment
Katherine May’s world had lost its magic during Covid, growing flat and dull as the things that sustained her were taken away. In the lovely Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, May meditates on our human need for wonder and magic in our real worlds. This book is about what she does to re-enchant her world. May’s actions need not be your own, but the quest, I think, is one for all of us.
If you’re wondering what happened to your attention span
I love my phone. I love having the ability to find out just about anything I want to find out at a moment’s notice. I love the dings and beeps from notifications.
I hate what that did to my attention span, and much of my effort in recent years has focused on how to regain my attention and wean myself from the dopamine rush of our age. Dear Reader, it’s not easy, as I’m sure you are aware.
Learn how we go here with Stolen Focus
In Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again, journalist Johann Hari dove deep into the design of the apps and programs that run on our devices and their hold on us. While our individualist culture places the problem for our inability to focus on the individual person, Hari’s investigation reveals this both isn’t true and that trying to change on our own doesn’t really work.
He suggests collective action, and, after reading this, I think you’ll agree. You may also want to throw the book across the room because you got so angry.
We can still do what we can to minimize the hold our devices have on us, but it made me feel better to understand that it wasn’t a moral failing on my part, because it is just so very hard.
Reclaim your time without becoming a Luddite with Digital Minimalism
Cal Newport doesn’t have a Facebook account. Or an Instagram account. But he’s not telling you that you can’t have one. Instead, what he argues in Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World is that we glean from technology that which is useful and leave the time-sucking dross behind. We get the benefits of our age and still have our attention spans, leaving us free to cultivate meaningful pursuits and relationships beyond “likes.”
Be forewarned: His initial prescription involves a one-month fast from apps and programs that are not essential to your life (and you might not like his definition of essential). I’m not sure if I’m up for that challenge, if I’m being honest, but I’ve removed a number of apps from my phone and am realizing that it’s not so bad. I might just try it.
Say “I would prefer not to” to social media with How to Do Nothing
If you’re a regular reader, you may remember my post on doing nothing for a few minutes each day as part of my morning rituals. I didn’t get the idea to do that from this book, but artist Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy will make you think.
This isn’t a how-to book on resisting the lure of social media, indeed, like Hari in Stolen Focus, Odell does not believe that it’s possible, but rather the reasons why we should at least try.
Try to save time from the productivity bros with Saving Time
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Jenny Odell’s follow up to How to Do Nothing, explores the hustle culture around time management and finds it deeply wanting for human and ecological flourishing. If I’ve included books on focusing and prioritizing, it’s not because I’m in favor of rigid time management, it’s because I’m trying to rid myself of the mental clutter of our frantic age so that I can focus on what matters to me.
Informed by her experiences living and teaching during the pandemic, Odell isn’t even sure that we could wrest time away from capitalistic clutches. However, Odell does not believe that the potential futility of the task is a reason not to raise the issue. This is a thought-provoking book on what time means and is a helpful counterpoint in our hustle culture age.
If you’re looking for hope in these troubled times
I don’t know about you, but the news can make me feel incredibly small and helpless, and while I think this doesn’t give us an excuse to turn away, it can feel hopeless. It is in these times, I believe, we need the courage to find our hope.
These two books have helped me kindle hope, even when things look grim.
Use your imagination to create a better world with From What Is to What If
We humans created the systems that keep us down, and we humans can get us out of this mess, if only we use our imagination, argues Rob Hopkins in From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want.
What if things turned out OK? What would that look like? What small act could we do right now to help create the world we want? These actions can build on each other, bringing us closer to a more sustainable world for ourselves and the planet.
This is a welcome counterpoint to cynical times, and I recommend it if you’re convinced that hope is lost.
Embrace hope as a radical act with Hope in the Dark
Our world can look so bleak, and often, it can feel like the only serious position to take on the state of things is one of hopelessness. Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities offers a powerful argument in favor of hope. Solnit is an incredible writer, and this book is an excellent introduction to her work.
This clear-eyed, radical book urges us to look for the hope, for hope is how we can find the courage to act. She grounds her work in careful reading and evidence for the transformative power of hope, and this is a must-read for you if you have lost yours.
What books have helped you?
I hope this list is helpful to you, and now it’s your turn. What books have helped you? Please let us know in the comments below.