Every year, I try to narrow down the hundred plus books I have recommended and read down to just a handful of the best. The kind of books where if they were the only books I’d read that year, I’d have still have felt like I made a big leap in my education.

I know that people are busy, and we don’t always have time to read as much as we like. Nothing wrong with that (though if you want to read more—don’t look for shortcuts—make more time!). What matters is that when you do read, you pick the right books.

My reading list email is now nearly 90,000 people, and I can tell pretty quickly when a recommendation has landed well. I promise you—you can’t go wrong with any of these. (Also as an accidental confirmation of what I wrote in Perennial Seller, the newest book in this list is 5 years old and the oldest is 79 years old.)


Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story of D-Day Vol I & Vol II by Anthony Cave Brown and The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader by Fred I. Greenstein
I have recommended a lot of books on strategy over the years but these two books are two of the best. And I’d never even heard of them before this year. Bodyguard of Lies is in a sense about D-Day but it’s more fully the history of almost every special, covert operation of the Second World War (in fact, Vol I focuses so much on prehistory that it ends with D-Day starting). The premise here is that the Americans believed that the war could be won by overwhelming force. The British—Churchill especially—knew better. They knew how bad their position really was, how far behind they were. Thus the Churchill quote: “In war the truth is so precious it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.” The result was a strategic campaign of misinformation, deception, and intelligence designed to disorient and confuse the Germans and Japanese. The Allies had broken Enigma, they could read the German’s communications, but how could they act on it without giving their access away? How could the Allies hope to land in Europe without being met with overwhelming resistance? Well, they needed to keep as many German troops as possible occupied in different theaters, they needed to spread their defenses out as far as possible, they needed to make the obvious intended landing spot too obvious so that they would assume an attack would come elsewhere. And don’t even get me started about the covert agents they had working inside Germany and the conspirators working against Hitler from the inside. Anthony Brown doesn’t just tell you all this happened, he shows you how it happened, explained why it happens and makes you understand how expertly done it all was. The book is a masterclass in the art of strategy. (No wonder it was one of John Boyd’s favorites).

The Hidden-Hand which I read around the same time is equally a masterclass in leadership. It will give you not just a new appreciation of Eisenhower, but teach you how real leaders get things done: it’s not through talking, it’s not through looking tough, it’s through organization, delegation and through behind the scenes influence. I had no idea how Machiavellian Eisenhower was—and while that might seem like an insult, it isn’t. The perception of Eisenhower was that he was a sweet old guy who didn’t keep up on the day-to-day goings of politics but this was all a brilliant act. He wanted to be seen as above politics, when in reality, he knew exactly how to make hard decisions and steer the country in the direction it needed to go. For instance, people think Eisenhower didn’t do enough to take down Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower is the one who took McCarthy down—he just didn’t think the president should be seen doing such a thing (His rule was: Never engage in personalities). Eisenhower was what a leader was supposed to be—both an an impressive and inspiring figurehead as well as an effective executive. Our leaders today could take a lesson from that.

I’ve already raved about both these books to a number of politicians, CEOs, and writers I know. I am also using them as a source in my next book, Conspiracy. Please read them.

Montaigne & Magellan by Stefan Zweig
There are two kinds of biographies: Long ones which tell you every fact about the person’s life and short ones which capture the person’s essence and the lessons of their life. These two biographies by Stefan Zweig are brilliant, urgent and important examples of the latter. They are what I would call moral biographies—that is, books that teach you how to live through the story of another person. If you’ve been struggling with the onslaught of negative news and political turmoil, start with Montaigne. Why? It’s the biography of man who retreated from the chaos of 16th century France to study himself, written by a man fleeing the chaos of 20th century Europe. When I say it’s timely, I mean that it’s hard to be a thinking person and not see alarming warning signs about today’s world while reading this book. Yet it also gives us a solution: Turn inward. Master yourself. Montaigne is one of humanity’s greatest treasures—a wise and insightful thinker who never takes himself too seriously. This book helped me get through 2017, no question.

Now if you’re looking for some inspiration and excitement, Magellan is the book for you. What makes a man an explorer? What made Magellan so he could find a passage he had no reason to be certain he could find? And how thankless a job! This man fights multiple wars for his country, is wounded in battle, does more than duty and then, when he has an idea for an exploration of his own, is insolently rejected by his King. So he switches countries and finds backing for that same exploration, convinced he possesses a secret that will allow him passage to the Indies. He is completely wrong. He suffers mutiny, starvation, complete demoralization. He has been misinformed and yet, he finds a passage anyway, not just to the Indies but to an entire new world—becoming the first to circumnavigate the world…and yet he dies before he can enjoy the fame he so justly deserved.  Where does this determination come from? Where does this sense for leading and solving unsolvable situations come from? How did he do it? There are some books where you feel like everything the writer did led up to this masterpiece they were born to create: that might be what this book is. It’s just perfect in every sense. Cannot recommend highly enough.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler & Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey
In chaotic times, novels are a way to find peace and keep that flicker of vulnerability alive and nurtured. My favorite fiction book this year was recommended to me by the wonderful Vanessa Van Edwards (Captivate). I’ve always loved strange books about animals (list here) and nothing could be stranger than a novel about a 1970’s family who raised a chimp like it was a human. The story is funny, heartbreaking—like literally will make you cry heartbreaking, especially if you have children—and beautifully written. The same goes for Bright Shiny Morning which I loved just as much. Like stayed up until very late at night loved it. New Orleans is my first favorite city to read about, Los Angeles is the second (here’s a whole list of books to read about LA). Frey’s characters are tragic, complicated, hopeful, ambitious, naive, gorgeous, selfish, wonderful. They are, in their composite form, Los Angeles embodied. The book is also cleverly arranged—broken up in a sort of meta play on the novel. Ask the Dust is still my favorite LA novel (probably my favorite novel of all time) but Frey does the genre a great service. But what about all the controversy surrounding him? I never cared about it, but this book makes it all irrelevant. I wish I had read it when it came out in 2008, so please don’t make my mistake by waiting.

Want more?
Ok, I couldn’t stop there. This year I loved Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War and A Stillness at Appomattox. If you want to understand the Civil War and you want to see one of the greatest non-fiction writing ever, read Catton. The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen who is not only one of my favorite authors, he is a personal hero. After I read this book (in two days), I ended up writing up a piece about all the ways he has influenced me over the years. I’ve never really been a science fiction fan but The City and The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke was beautiful and moving. I also loved Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It by Charlamagne Tha God, and I wish more celebrity memoirs bothered to do what he did with this book: You know, actually teach people stuff in the form of concrete lessons instead of just talking about their lives. I read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey because I have a son, but it’s worth reading for anyone, parent or not. Written by a middle school teacher and education expert, the book is an exploration of how one raises self-sufficient children who are responsible for themselves. I read this book not long after reading Senator Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult and found it to be a great companion. We forget that homework doesn’t matter, grades don’t matter—only what the process they represent matters. Children are not a reflection of their parents, they depend on their parents to raise them into adults who can be reflections of who they uniquely are.


And of course, I’ve also got lists of my favorite books from 20162015201420132012 and 2011.

Want signed copies of my books for Christmas gifts? BookPeople.com has them here. I also hope you’ll add journaling and notecard-taking to your 2018 reading routine. I also did a new and updated edition of Trust Me, I’m Lying you might like (with analysis of the 2016 election, Russian media manipulation and everything else that’s happened since the release five years ago). And if you want to see the coin I carry in my pocket everyday, here it is.

Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter. And lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” —Jack London

Each morning, usually after a long walk on my farm, I go upstairs to my office and pull out three small notebooks. In the first one—a small blue gold leafed notebook—I write one sentence about the day that just passed. In the next, a black moleskine, I journal two quick pages about yesterday’s workout (how far I ran or swam), what work I did, any notable occurrences, and some lines about what I am grateful for, what I want to get better at, and where I am succeeding. And then finally, I pick up The Daily Stoic Journal to prepare for the day ahead by meditating on a short prompt: Where am I standing in my own way? What’s the smallest step I can take toward a big thing today? What blessings can I count right now? Why do I care so much about impressing people? What is the harder choice I’m avoiding? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties show my character?

The whole ritual takes maybe 15 minutes and then it’s done. By the time I am finished, I am centered, I am calm and most importantly, I am primed to do the actual creative work by which I make my living.

Nor am I the only one who swears by this quiet, sober exercise—professional writer or otherwise. Some of history’s most respected men and women journaled in one form or another: Oscar Wilde. Susan Sontag. John Quincy Adams. Anne Frank. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Virginia Woolf. Henry David Thoreau. Joan Didion and of course, Marcus Aurelius too. (A full list would be impossible).

I came to journaling myself from two very different paths. First, the Stoics were such ardent journalers that it is possible to say that journaling is Stoicism. (More on this down below). Second, I remember visiting the filmmaker Casey Neistat’s studio and seeing shelves and shelves of notebooks on one wall. They dated back to the very beginning of his career. I felt an instant pang of regret—why hadn’t I been doing this?—and then reminded myself that although the best time to start journaling would have been years ago, the second best time would be right then. So I did.

And while it is cool now to have a record of my thoughts over the years, the real benefits have been far more immediate.

As the Tim Ferriss has explained about the value of doing morning pages:

“I don’t journal to “be productive.” I don’t do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me. Morning pages are, as author Julia Cameron puts it, “spiritual windshield wipers.” It’s the most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found. To quote her further…: ‘Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.’”

And the writer and producer Brian Koppelman (Billions, Rounders) has talked about his morning journaling practice which he does after a 20-minute meditation session. By writing three longhand pages, he is getting himself going creatively, “priming the pump, …getting the creative juices flowing in a very free way.”

While there are plenty of people who will anecdotally swear to the benefits of journaling, the research is just as compelling. According to one study, journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. Similarly, a University of Arizona study showed that people were able to better recover from divorce and move forward if they journaled on the experience. Keeping a journal is also a common recommendation you hear from psychologists as well. As one said, “Writing something down stops things from ­going around and around in our heads. This puts things in perspective, it stops you from obsessing and can help us make sense of our jumble of thoughts and feelings.”

But let’s go back to the Stoics, since that’s an essential part of my personal ritual and the main reason I picked up the habit. It seems that there were two camps in Stoic philosophy when it comes to journaling, or at least two approaches. Marcus Aurelius seems to have done his journaling in the morning, despite his noted struggles with arising early. From what we can gather, he would jot down notes about what he was likely to face in the day ahead. Literally walking himself through what the day would bring and what he would need to bring to the day. He talked about how frustrating people might be and how to forgive them, he talked about the temptations he would experience and how to resist them, he humbled himself by remembering how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and journaled on not letting the immense power he could wield that day corrupt him. If he hadn’t done this, who knows what kind of emperor he would have been (at the very least, we’d have been deprived of his brilliant Meditations). So that’s one approach.

The other approach is found in Seneca, the more prolific writer, who seemed to do most of his journaling and reflection in the evening. As he wrote, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” He would ask himself whether his actions had been just, what he could have done better, what habits he could curb, how he might improve himself. Reviewing the day is what helped Seneca prepare for the one that would begin the following morning.

It strikes me that the best approach would be to combine these two methods—to prepare for the day ahead and to reflect at the end of the day on how the preparation turned out. This is how Epictetus appears to have done his journaling. A former slave who lived a life not nearly as cushy or powerful as Seneca or Marcus, he says, “Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand—write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.” Anyway, that’s what I tried to do in creating The Daily Stoic Journal (there’s one prompt per day and spots to muse on it in the morning and the evening).

Back to why journaling works. While I don’t re-read my own writing, I do notice when I am writing the same things over and over. If I find myself remarking that I am tired for the third day in a row, that’s a sign that I’m not taking care of myself. If I notice that my workouts are the same distances and times over and over again, that’s an indication that I might be plateauing. Benjamin Franklin used his journal this way. At age 20, he wrote down 13 virtues (such as justice, sincerity, moderation, tranquility, humility) that he wanted to practice and tracked his progress on a chart. If the week’s virtue was Temperance, that’s what he would focus on specifically and measure his progress about (leaving he said, “the other virtues to their ordinary chance.”) Of course, he was never perfect—never became perfectly virtuous—but that’s the point. It’s a process, one that he said made him “a better and a happier man than [he] otherwise should have been if [he] had not attempted it.”

For me, a journal is also an opportunity to “verbalize” thoughts that I would never otherwise say. For instance, when I write about things I am grateful, I often try to challenge myself by picking particularly unpleasant things, like a person I am no longer friends with (What am I grateful that they taught me?) or a big setback (Why am I actually lucky that this happened?). It’s important to have this safe space for experiment and discussion. As Susan Sontag has said, “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

I get it. This might all seem like a bit much. I was intimidated by journaling too. And people, I find, tend to intimidate themselves about it: What’s the best way to do it? What’s the best journal? What time? How much?

Man, forget all that. There’s no right way to do it. Just do it.

You can use The Daily Stoic Journal or The 5 Minute Journal or The Bullet Journal or Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist Journal. Or the One Line A Day Journal. Or a blank notebook or an Evernote file or an email on your iPhone. Or use a combination of these things.

It doesn’t matter. Just start. Refine and improve as you go. You’ll get into a rhythm and find what works best for you. But only if you actually start.

If you’ve started and stopped, same thing. Start again. Getting out of the rhythm happens. The French painter Eugène Delacroix—who called Stoicism his consoling religion—wrote about his efforts to re-start his off and on again habit:

“I am taking up my Journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long.”

Yes. That is what journaling is about. Spiritual windshield wipers. A framework for the day ahead. A coping mechanism for troubles in your personal life. A revving up of your creative juices. A way of calming nervous energy.

Find what works for you. Once a day. Twice a day. Three times a day.

Whatever. Just know that it will be the best time—the most important thing—you spend all day.

The Daily Stoic Journal is in stores now (B&N)(UK)(Indiebound)(Signed copies from Book People). I hope you check it out.

In 1931, Winston Churchill found himself more or less exiled from political life. In the previous years he had found himself vehemently fighting members of his own party over a number of issues and when a new government was formed, Churchill was not invited. He was viewed as out of date and out of touch by his fellow politicians and so began a period now known as his “wilderness years.”

An ordinary politician would have been powerless when voted out of office or driven to the fringes by political enemies. Not Churchill. Because he held onto something even more valuable than office—he had a platform.

Most people are unaware that Churchill made his living as a writer, publishing some ten million words in his lifetime in hundreds of publications and published works. In fact, it was his enormous worldwide readership that Churchill cultivated through books, newspaper columns, and radio appearances that allowed him to survive the periods in which he did not have the ability to directly shape policy. Instead, he was able to reach directly to the people about the rising threat of world war, not just in Britain but worldwide, including in America. During his infamous time in the so-called political wilderness between 1931 and 1939, Churchill published 11 volumes and more than 400 articles, and delivered more than 350 speeches. His enormous platform—based on his editorial contacts, his extraordinary gift with words, and his relentless energy—allowed him not only to be relevant but also to guide policy and opinion across the globe until he was eventually brought back in to save Britain and eventually and in many ways, the world.

For any kind of leader, creator or entrepreneur, this kind of platform is essential. Because it is the ultimate insurance policy and the most durable form of influence and power.

Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, writes that, “In the old days, you could stand on a small hill or a wooden stage to be heard. That was your platform.” In the literal sense, that’s a platform. This was the tool and the approach you used so that you and your message could reach people. Today, people think of a “platform” a bit differently. Many see it as how many social media followers you have, or the ratings of a television show. I would argue that this definition is almost equally simplistic.

In my definition, a platform is the combination of the tools, relationships, access, and audience that you have to bear on spreading your ideas—not just once, but over the course of a career. So a platform is your social media and the stage you stand on, but it also includes your friends, your body of work, the community your work exists in, the media outlets and influencers who appreciate what you do, your e-mail list, the trust you’ve built, your sources of income, and countless other assets. A platform is what you cultivate and grow not just through your work, but for creative work, whatever it may be.

The question, then, is: How do we build an audience of this kind? How do we develop something that supports us perennially throughout our career?

In 2008, I came to the realization that while I would one day like to publish a book, unless things changed, I would have no way of actually telling readers about my book. I decided I would build an e-mail list. But what about? I wasn’t important or interesting enough for people to just sign up based on my name alone. So I came up with an idea: What if I gave monthly book recommendations? (The thinking being that one day I might recommended one of my own books to this list.) Once a month for four years I sent this list out, and as a result it grew from ninety original sign-ups to the five thousand people to whom I announced my first book. By the time my next book came out two years later, the list was at more than thirty thousand, and today it’s at more than eighty thousand.

With the release of my latest book, Perennial Seller, I didn’t need to do as much marketing or beg to be on every podcast. The vast majority of people I wanted to reach with the book were already signed up for my list, they were already in contact with me. I just had to reach out and say: Hey, I need your support! (and in the future, if I were to ever be dropped by my publisher or driven to some sort of authorial wilderness, I would always have this support to fall back on).

This is the reason that if I could give a prospective creative only one piece of advice about platform, it would be this: Build a list. Specifically, an e-mail list. Why? Imagine that, for reasons entirely outside of your control, there was a media and industry blackout of your work. Imagine that, due to some controversy or sudden change in public tastes, you were suddenly persona non grataImagine if no publisher, no crowdfunding platform, no retailer, no distributors, and no investors would touch what you’ve made.

Think about a band like Iron Maiden—radio hasn’t played their kind of music since the mid 80’s. MTV hasn’t played their kind of videos in almost as long. But in that time they’ve put out a dozen albums which have sold millions of copies. How? Because their relationship was directly with their audience. They had a platform. They have an enormous email list.

There is a theory about the entertainment business put forward by Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine. He calls it 1,000 True Fans: “A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author—in other words, anyone producing works of art—needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.”

With one thousand true fans—people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce”—you’re more or less guaranteed a livable income provided that you continue to produce consistently great work. It’s a small empire and one that must be kept up, but an empire nonetheless. Iron Maiden has more than 1,000 fans, just as Churchill did, and it’s what allowed them to reach so many people.

After his successful launch of his book Choose Yourself, my client James Altucher completely embraced self-publishing and all it entailed. He built a podcast that he distributes directly through his e-mail list. He then created an exclusive, high-ticket newsletter that gives financial advice through e-mail. He created a members-only book club. He wrote several more books, selling many of them directly through his website and thus amassing not only hundreds of thousands of e-mail addresses, but physical mailing lists and payment information for his fans as well. It’s now a huge platform that, by his estimation, grosses more than $20 million a year in revenue.

As creators, to do our work without a platform is to be at the mercy of other people’s permission. As business people, to not have a platform means we are dependent on having a certain job, or backing. Someone else must fund us, someone else must give us the green light, someone else must choose to let us make our work. To a creative person, that is death. It’s not a career, it’s a dependency. Having an audience that we own? That we’re bound together with like hand and fist? That is life. Yet as I’ve said before: This does not just happen. It must be built.

So don’t wait. Build your platform now. Build it before your first project, before your first great perennial seller comes out, so that you have a better chance of actually turning it into one. Build it now so that you might create multiple works like that. Build it so you can have a career—so you can be more than just a guy or gal with a book or movie or app. Because you’re more than that. You’re an entrepreneur, an author, a filmmaker, a journalist. You’re a mogul.

This won’t just happen. You have to make it happen.