The Books That Made Me – Part 1

Hope you had a great start to 2018, and hope you have been able to maintain your new year resolution thus far. 🙂

A new year is not just about looking forward to what may transpire over the next 360+ days, of where you may go, but also to take stock of where you have come from. Like, for me, when it comes to reading books, a new year is not just a time to prepare a rough list of the books I wish to finish during the coming months, but also to look back at the books I have read in the past and would like to re-read.

2017 was one such year when most of the books I read were the ones I had read multiple times over the years. I don’t see 2018 turning out to be any different.

One of the few filters I use to choose the books I read is Taleb’s Lindy Effect. This, in simple words, means that a non-perishable thing (like technology, or books) that has survived the most, will survive the most. So, a book that has survived 50 or 100 or 500 years, and is still widely read because it contains timeless wisdom, will survive another 50 or 100 or 500 years because, well, it’s wisdom is timeless.

In this three-part series of posts, I aim to profile such books that have stood the test of time (almost, as some will be just 10+ years old) and have inspired me the most over years. In the first part today, I am profiling books on life and living that have inspired me the most. The second part will include my favourite books on thinking, learning and decision making, and the third part will be dedicated to investing books.

The Books That Made Me - Part 1 - Safal Niveshak

Let me start right away with the books that have inspired me the most in the way I live my life and conduct my daily affairs. This is not an exhaustive list but is made up of the books on life and living I go back to time and again, and return wiser.

The Bhagavad Gita (~ 200 BC)
A have partly read a few translations of Bhagavad Gita, but one I found most readable, understandable and relatable was the one translated by Eknath Easwaran. His commentaries on the Gita’s teachings make it clear why this sacred text is a manual for living a spiritual life.

Although the battlefield is a perfect backdrop, for Easwaran the Gita’s subject is the “war within,” the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage. As Easwaran explains, Arjuna’s dilemma is acutely modern, and the Gita’s message remains as relevant for us now as it was for ancient India.

The passage I liked most in Easwaran’s translation could be found in the introduction of the book, that brought about a paradigm shift in the way I perceived Gita before I had read this –

Scholars can debate the point forever, but when the Gita is practiced, I think, it becomes clear that the struggle the Gita is concerned with is the struggle for self-mastery. It was Vyasa’s genius to take the whole great Mahabharata epic and see it as metaphor for the perennial war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in every human heart.

Arjuna and Krishna are then no longer merely characters in a literary masterpiece. Arjuna becomes Everyman, asking the Lord himself, Sri Krishna, the perennial questions about life and death – not as a philosopher, but as the quintessential man of action.

Thus read, the Gita is not an external dialogue but an internal one: between the ordinary human personality, full of questions about the meaning of life, and our deepest Self, which is divine.

Easwaran then adds –

There is, in fact, no other way to read the Gita and grasp it as spiritual instruction. If I could offer only one key to understanding this divine dialogue, it would be to remember that it takes place in the depths of consciousness and that Krishna is not some external being, human or superhuman, but the spark of divinity that lies at the core of the human personality.

Autobiography of A Yogi (1946)
I picked up Autobiography of A Yogi after I read a post on Steve Jobs’ reading list, which mentioned that this was the only book Jobs had downloaded on his iPad, and had first read as a teenager, then re-read in India and had read once a year ever since.

If I were to describe this book in one sentence, it would read – “This book explains the subtle but definite laws behind both the ordinary events of our everyday life and the extraordinary events we commonly term as ‘miracles’.”

One specific excerpt from the book that I liked relates to the life of Mirabai, a medieval Rajputani princess who abandoned her court life to seek the company of sadhus –

One great-sannyasi refused to receive her because she was a woman; her reply brought him humbly to her feet.

“Tell the master,” she had said, “that I did not know there was any Male in the universe save God; are we all not females before Him?” (A scriptural conception of the Lord as the only Positive Creative Principle, His creation being naught but a passive ‘maya’.)

Mirabai composed many ecstatic songs which are still treasured in India; I translate one of them here:

“If by bathing daily God could be realized
Sooner would I be a whale in the deep;
If by eating roots and fruits He could be known
Gladly would I choose the form of a goat;
If the counting of rosaries uncovered Him
I would say my prayers on mammoth beads;
If bowing before stone images unveiled Him
A flinty mountain I would humbly worship;
If by drinking milk the Lord could be imbibed
Many calves and children would know Him;
If abandoning one’s wife would summon God
Would not thousands be eunuchs?
Mirabai knows that to find the Divine One
The only indispensable is Love.”

Even in the book’s final chapter, Paramahansa Yogananda writes –

God is Love; His plan for creation can be rooted only in love. Does not that simple thought, rather than erudite reasonings, offer solace to the human heart?

The core message that Mirabai and Paramhansa Yogananda share through their simple words is that all we need to do to find God in our lives is to find love.

Nothing but love will get you to closer to the Almighty. Not temple visits, or idol worship, or following those self-proclaimed gurus with massive followings…a clean heart with love for others will see you through God’s path.

This is such a simple, but powerful idea.

Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most life-changing books I have ever read. The book is a chronicle by Viktor Frankl of his experiences as a German Nazi concentration camp inmate during World War II. In this book, Frankl describes his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

The central theme of Frankl’s book is ‘survival.’ Although he witnessed and experienced horror, the book focuses less on the details of his own experience and more on how his time under Nazi rule showed him the human ability to survive and endure against all odds.

As Frankl wrote, he saw the lowest parts of humanity while in the camps. He saw fellow prisoners promoted to be in-camp guards turning on their fellow prisoners. He watched as they beat their lifeless, malnourished campmates. He watched sadistic guards treating them as if they were lower than animals. But he also saw individuals rising up like saints above it all.

The part that impacted me the most from the book was this –

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.

Who Moved My Cheese (1998)
I read this little book multiple times before quitting my job to start work on Safal Niveshak in 2011. It is about, well, coping up positively with change. Who Moved My Cheese illustrates the simple fact that change will happen, whether we choose to accept it or not. The defining factor is how we deal with it; whether we allow ourselves to change or insist on staying the same.

The story involves four characters who live in a maze: the mice Scurry and Sniff, and two little people named Hem and Haw. They find a huge source of cheese in the maze. Hem and Haw move their houses to be near it and the cheese becomes the centre of their lives. But they do not notice that it is getting smaller, and are devastated when they arrive at the site one morning and find the cheese is gone. Having built their lives around the big cheese, they feel they are the victims of fraud. Yet this only makes things worse, as their clinging on ensures that they go hungry.

The mice Scurry and Sniff, on the other hand, quickly accept the loss of the cheese and go off into the maze in search of other sources. For them, the solution is simple: the situation has changed, so they must change.

The fable captures that moment and experiences we are all familiar with i.e., sudden, unexpected change. The author’s message comes out loud and clear and that is that instead of seeing change as the end of something, we must learn to see it as a beginning. Like, to make himself accept reality, Haw writes this on the wall of the maze –

If you do not change, you can become extinct.

Another of my favourite quotes from the book is –

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And finally, here’s an advice from Haw that has helped me immensely at various stages of my life –

Sometimes, Hem, things change and they are never the same again. This looks like one of those times. That’s life! Life moves on. And so should we.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another of my best-read fables. It is about a seagull who is trying to learn about life and flight, and is also a discourse about self-perfection.

Jonathan, the seagull, dreams of flying better than a seagull has ever flown, instead of spending his days looking for scraps of food. As the author, Richard Bach, writes –

Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly…This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds.

I have been deeply inspired by the story of Jonathan, in my own pursuits of flying free and higher instead of spending my days running after scraps (money included). I suggest this book to you if you feel you have reached a ceiling or barrier in your personal life, or if you wish to make some needed changes in your life, or if you are wanting to follow your gut instinct but are too afraid, or if you feel that there is something more to life than what you are being told.

Fly free, fly high is the core message of this book. I’ve not looked down after I read it.

Meditations (~ 180 AD)
This book (Gregory Hays’s translation) stays with me all the time, apart from the Bhagavad Gita.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the author of this book, wrote it as notes or ‘spiritual exercises’ for himself and never intended them to be published. The book was however first printed in 1559, almost fourteen centuries after the emperor’s death in 180 AD.

With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Reading Meditations was one of the hardest, but most rewarding experiences in my own personal growth. The book has done so much to stir up my prior beliefs and has helped a lot to broaden my mind and encourage me to be all that I can be.

After you read a few passages of the book that you start to realize that there is no reason to feel unhappy, unfulfilled, or unappreciated. In fact, if many of us read Marcus’ thoughts, take them to heart, and practice them, the world will be a better place. This is the least we can do.

For me, Meditations has never brought me to easy answers, just more questions, and self-introspection about how I am living my life during my waking moments. Marcus advises that there is a larger meaning to events and lives that escapes us. This knowledge itself is a comfort. As he writes –

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

And here’s another one of my favourite thoughts from the book –

Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life (2004)
Every path to success has been littered with doubt, fear, and uncertainty, as well as persistence, calculated risks and repeated action. The difference between someone who fails and someone who succeeds is the courage to act, repeatedly. The only way you get the courage to act “repeatedly” is when you break the act into small steps.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life book was recommended to me by Prof. Sanjay Bakshi in 2012, and it truly has helped me change my life, one small step at a time. It’s a small book but talks about the big idea of “Kaizen”, which is Japanese for “taking small steps to continual improvement.”

Think of the last time you set out to bring about a major change in your life – like starting a new project or business, learning how to invest on your own, starting an exercise regime, or learning to break a bad habit. What did you feel? Exhaustion? Excitement? Fear?

Most people, when faced with change, will feel at least some element of fear. And very often that fear can get in the way of making the change. The idea of Kaizen is to make such small changes in your life that your brain doesn’t even know you’re changing, and therefore, doesn’t get in the way.

Maurer writes about the power of asking small questions, thinking small thoughts, taking small actions, solving small problems, giving small rewards, and recognizing small moments. And these small things ultimately help you bring about big changes in your life over time.

Maurer quotes John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in the history of American college basketball, thus –

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.

Mahatma Gandhi said –

Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.

It all starts with one belief, one thought, one word, one action, one habit, one value…and that makes one destiny.

Happy living and successful investing follow the same route.

Just take one small step at a time.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948)
I first read Dale Carnegie How to Stop Worrying and Start Living around 2011, during the first few worrisome months of starting Safal Niveshak and going on my own. It inspired me immensely then. But this book turned out to be a life saver in 2016 when I was going through a personal (‘all in the mind’ types) turmoil of my own making (I wrote about it here).

“Live in day-tight compartments” is one of the first, and amongst the most important, advises from the book. We often worry because we carry the burden of both the past and the future with us today. That makes the present look much more difficult than it really is. Carnegie advises us to focus just on today. I just love this advice. At times, when I catch myself carrying the burden of the past and worry about the future, I remind myself of this part from the book that brings me back to appreciating the present, the today.

Carnegie writes in his book –

You and I are standing this very second at the meeting place of two eternities: the vast past that has endured forever, and the future that is plunging on to the last syllable of recorded time. We can’t possibly live on either of those eternities – no, not even for one split second. But, by trying to do so, we can wreck both our bodies and our minds. So let’s be content to live the only time we can possibly live: from now until bedtime.

“Anyone can carry his burden, however hard, until nightfall,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. “Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day. Anyone can live sweetly, patiently, lovingly, purely, till the sun goes down. And this is all that life really means.”

The big idea here is to stay grounded in the present moment – where you actually have some influence – instead of fretting and losing sleep over things that have already happened or haven’t happened yet, and that you have no real control over at the moment.

“Shut the iron doors on the past and the future,” Carnegie advises. “Live in day-tight compartments.”

As a Man Thinketh (1903)
The title of this book is influenced by a verse in the Bible from the Book of Proverbs – “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

As a Man Thinketh talks about the power of the mind. It explains how our thoughts affect who we are and the circumstances we live in. It depicts that we are solely responsible for our own circumstances. Our life, and all it is made up of, like love, wealth, success, our experiences and opportunities are governed by the thoughts we nurture.

The author James Allen writes that we can control these circumstances by our thoughts and the character it brings forth. He calls this the “seeds” we plant in our minds, which will sprout the circumstances we live in.

The book opens with the statement –

Mind is the Master power that moulds and makes,
And Man is Mind, and evermore he takes
The tool of Thought, and, shaping what he wills,
Brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills: —
He thinks in secret, and it comes to pass:
Environment is but his looking-glass.

And closes with a chapter on Serenity –

Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. It is the result of long and patient effort in self-control. Its presence is an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of the laws and operations of thought.

A man becomes calm in the measure that he understands himself as a thought-evolved being, for such knowledge necessitates the understanding of others as the result of thought, and as he develops a right understanding, and sees more and more clearly the internal relations of things by the action of cause and effect, he ceases to fuss and fume and worry and grieve, and remains poised, steadfast, serene.

The Alchemist (1988)
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was the first real book I read cover to cover when I started reading seriously in 2001. The story is of a Spanish shepherd boy, Santiago, keeps getting the same dream that there is treasure lying underneath the Egyptian pyramids. After meeting an old king who offers him some advice and some magic stones, Santiago embarks on his journey to cross the Mediterranean and the Sahara to find his treasure and accomplish his Personal Legend (which is a concept equivalent to our purpose in life). Amidst tricksters and tribal wars, he finds his one true love, learns the language of his heart, and of course, fights to reach the treasure he dreamt of.

A passage explains the thought of “personal legend” –

“I’m the King of Salem,” the old man said.

“Why would a king be talking with a shepherd?” the boy asked, awed and embarrassed.

“For several reasons. But let’s say that the most important is that you have succeeded in discovering your Personal Legend.”

The boy didn’t know what a person’s “Personal Legend” was.

“It’s what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.”

Another passage that almost sums up the story in the book reads thus –

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”

Throughout the story and the search for the alchemist, I felt like this was more a metaphor for life in general. If we follow our own “personal legends” we can perform the same magic – turn our ordinary lives into gold, as long as we believe in the journey and don’t give up on what we believe is our destiny. If you’re looking for inspiration, Santiago’s story brings it in droves.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
One story from World War II that I found as tragic as it was magnificent was that of Anne Frank. Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany but moved to the Netherlands for safety in 1934, five years after she was born. The Frank family hid in their basement with four other Jews when Germany took control of the Netherlands.

Anne then began to write, at age thirteen, in a diary of her life, feelings and the outside world. She wrote in the diary every day for two years until their hiding place was found and she was forced into a concentration camp where she died with her sister due to a sickness. She was just fifteen when she died.

Although Anne wasn’t only a tragic girl in this war, her diary that is available to read as The Diary of a Young Girl displays the strength of her character. The diary portrays her as a brave and hopeful girl, character traits that are hard to manage in the kind of hardship that she was a part of.

One of her diary entries reads –

Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness.

Strong character is what Anne displayed through here little life. And strong character is what makes people great in their lives.

To be continued…

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