A list of life-altering books


Reading in Budapest… Good days! (Photo by my friend Camilia.)

I am a nerd. A big one. (As big as they come.)

What that means is that I read a lot.

When I am anxious, I read. When I am sad, I read. When I am confused, I read. When I feel like there is no hope left in this world, I read.

It is one of the core beliefs in my life that a book can save lives.

And it probably has saved my life, in more ways than I can imagine.

Here are some of the books I have read over the last few years that have shaped my thinking, altered my path, brightened my days, and made my life better.

I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that they might play the same role in your life.


Working well

4 Hour Work Week – Timothy Ferriss

I have always had different ideas about “work” and what it really means.

This book confirms my thesis.

I read this book on the plane and got whipped into such a frenzy I wanted to get off the plane immediately so I could start changing my life already, simply because Ferriss is such a motivating writer.

Not only that, he also really lives what he writes.

If you are hoping to get out of the rat race and build a life doing your own thing, this is one of the books you must read.

Think of it as essential reading for the “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live a Great Life 101” course that never existed back when we were in school (how we needed such a course!).


The One Thing – Gary Keller

One of the best books I have ever read on productivity. More than that, it goes right to the heart of how to live a good life. As an aspiring minimalist, I’m enamored with Keller’s almost zen-like, minimalist philosophy of the ONE Thing.

“What is the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Stop doing what’s unnecessary and focus on doing what’s necessary, and you will be able to achieve 80% of your desired results with just 20% of your effort – that’s the central premise of this book.

In other words, FOCUS on the things that matter.

This is something I’m trying to out into practice in my life right now.


Anything You Want – Derek Sivers

I read this short book in one sitting in the library (yes I couldn’t even make it out the doors of the library without devouring it).

This book houses Sivers’ thoughts on what it takes to build a successful business in a human, uncorporate way.

One of his key ideas is that you should build a business that people are begging you to start.

Just this idea itself is enough food for thought for a long time.

It made me ask myself: What can I offer this world that people are already asking me to do for them? (It turns out that photography is one of them. So it seems like I am on the right path.)


Money

The Simple Path to Wealth – J L Collins

Money has become one of my pet topics.

From being disdainful of money to realizing its utter importance, I have come a long way. Books have been a huge part of my financial re-education (apart from the Internet).

There are a lot of books about money – and I have read quite a few – but very few are as heartfelt and easy to read (and understand) as this.

Collins’ advice is as old as time.

Read it, digest it, live it, and instead of being money’s slave – which most of us have become – you will learn to make money work for you.


Emotional well-being

At Last A Life – Paul David

If you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and you have tried everything and nothing has worked, please give this book a read.

I suffered from serious anxiety and frequent panic attacks some years ago. I made no real progress in recovering from it no matter what I did.

Until I read Paul David’s writing.

He also suffered from anxiety for 10 years until he stumbled into his own recovery.

I don’t want to paraphrase him – I’m worried that I won’t be able to express his ideas well – so go and read this book. You can also visit his website, which has plenty of information as well.

This is one of those moments when I can actually say, “this book saved my life”.


Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

Matt Haig was so deeply depressed he almost killed himself.

But he didn’t.

He went on to live and write this book, that has in turn helped so many other people who almost, but didn’t, kill themselves.

This book always reminds me of the power and beauty of words to help change people’s lives.

And this book also is an ode to hope.

I loved it so much I gifted it to a friend who I thought needed it.

I hope you love it too.



Life lessons

Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne

I really, really, really love this book and have a huge soft spot for it.

I first read it when I was maybe 12. It was nuts – I spent the whole night feverishly flipping the pages, lost in the story. Then I reread it many years later when I was maybe 25. I thought the story would lose its magic. But it didn’t.

This book imparts a sense of adventure and an appetite for life that is so vivid, it makes you want to hop on a train or a ship as well and see the world for yourself.

I also think this book is about passion and doing and dreaming.

I won’t go on and on – go and read and experience this book yourself.


Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor E. Frankl

A book that cannot be written about lightly.

A book that must be treated with respect, since it was a book that was written with great respect.

An honorable book.

About life. About suffering. About joy. About joy in the midst of life’s suffering.

I will come back to this book again and again throughout my life, hoping to learn and relearn its lessons.


Enjoy Every Sandwich – Lee Lipsenthal

Lee Lipsenthal loved life, even when he was dying.

Somehow, with a cancer diagnosis, and while facing down the throat of mortality, he was able to find light and joy and happiness and peace and humor.

He is my role model, and I hope to be like him when it comes to my turn to face death.

Also, this book has such a beautiful cover – one of my favorites.

I gave away my copy but I will buy one again for my library. It deserves a place on my shelf (and a re-read every few years).



Mindfulness & meditation

The Long Road Turns to Joy – Thich Naht Hanh

Thich Naht Hanh is a Vietnamese monk whose writing has deeply influenced me.

His voice is a balm and a calming presence in a noisy, sometimes scary world.

Any book of his is worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed this book because I also enjoy walking.

It is a most wonderful experience walking with his words in mind.

Try it.


10% Happier – Dan Harris

Meditation is hard.

Knowing how to even start meditating is even harder.

This book by Dan Harris (who suffered a meltdown on national TV and who later found great peace through meditation) demystifies meditation and successfully explains – or at least this book finally made me successfully understand – what meditation is and how I can start to meditate effectively.

Even if you hate airy fairy things like meditation, but want to have a quieter, more peaceful mind, give this book a read. You might be pleasantly surprised.


Writing

On Writing Well – William Zinsser

If you want to become a better writer, read this book.

It has never been particularly fun to read about writing, but Zinsser is such a good writer he makes a book about writing interesting, even unputdownable (how I love this word).

I have made it my personal mission to read all of Zinsser’s books. That’s how much I love him.


In closing…

I don’t know what I would do if books didn’t exist in this world.

In my darkest moments, books have been there, pouring light through the cracks.

Books have been a kind of true north for me.

They have been a friend, a teacher, a guide.

I sincerely hope that you too can discover the joy of being a life-long reader.

And the prime joy being… the discovery of an answer written in a book, to a question that is hidden in your heart.

Happy reading, my friends!

Be really good at one thing


Ivan Orkin in culinary school. I love this photo.

I love watching Chef’s Table on Netflix.

I love seeing how just one thing – cooking – can become the source of so much joy, frustration, achievement, failure. In other words, an entire universe.

For many (if not all) of these chefs, cooking is something upon which they build their entire lives.

In the recent episode I watched, ramen chef Ivan Orkin had a difficult childhood. As a kid, no one expected much of him. He drifted until, one day, he became obsessed with… ramen. This obsession was pivotal because it led to him unlocking the discipline and focus that were previously missing in his life. He later opened his own ramen shop in Japan and gained success as being “one of the best ramen makers on the planet”.

Just this one thing – cooking ramen well – has transformed Orkin’s life.

So, this week’s food for thought: Instead of wanting to do or be many things, why not work at becoming really good – single-mindedly good – at one thing?

Why not be an expert at writing about food (and only food)? Why not be so good at teaching cycling that you are at the top of people’s mind whenever anyone wants to learn to ride a bike?

Once you can be known for being good at one thing, this one thing can then become a platform, a stepping board, to other things.

What’s your one thing?

Just walk

Walking is the simplest thing on earth. We never give a single conscious thought to it when we are doing it, but what if we did?

Last week I stumbled into reading a book about walking meditation by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, and I loved it.

“Walking meditation is meditation while walking… When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease… All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.” – The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thich Naht Hanh

After reading the book, I too decided to go for a walk, and not just any walk, but a mindful walk, like Thich Naht Hanh had described. I wanted to experience for myself what he meant by, “When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease.”

The first thing I decided to do was to leave my phone at home. Usually I would jog with my phone so I can record my speed/distance with my running app, but with walking, I figured that there were no goals. I didn’t have a timing to hit or a distance to complete. All I needed to do was to walk. So I set off with nothing but my keys in my pocket.

I started my walk around 7.30pm. The day was turning to night very quickly, and I was surrounded by a nice blue hue. It was also a breezy night. Perfect.

When you are doing walking meditation, all you are supposed to do is to focus on walking. When thoughts inevitably arrive, your job is not to push them away but to acknowledge them without judging or identifying with them, and then to refocus your attention back on the walk. You do that over and over again (since thoughts will arise over and again over).

Now that is the practice of mindful walking – not just walking, but being fully aware that you are walking. It is the act of being fully present, which we are so terrible at in our normal lives (since we are always wanting to be doing something else, or wanting to be somewhere else).

On this first walk of mine, it was hard not to keep the thoughts coming. But I acknowledged them and tried not to attach my emotions to them. (It was not always successful, of course.) And since this was supposed to be a mindful walk, I put effort into noticing the sidewalk I was walking on, the grass field by the side of the road, the buildings in the distance.

I tried to be fully in the now.

As I walked I could feel my mind clearing. It was almost a physical sensation.

The best part was, ideas started coming to me . And here and there, solutions to some problems that I was ruminating on earlier in the day also arrived, half or fully-formed. It was almost like walking mindfully allowed the wiser, calmer part of my mind to come up to the surface.

Happiness flooded my veins. (Sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true.)

When I got home and checked the time, what I thought was a 30-minute walk (since I didn’t bring both my phone and my watch) turned out to have taken more than an hour. Time just flew.

When I thought back on the walking session, I realized time flew because I was deeply in the moment. Yes, there were countless thoughts in my head that came and went, but my focus was on just… walking.

It was a therapeutic experience (and one of my more successful experiences at “meditating”).

This set me to thinking: why don’t we do this more often?

Walking is free, and everyone – except for those with mobility issues – can walk.

Same for mindfulness. Mindfulness is absolutely free, anyone can do it, and it’s potentially life-changing. So why don’t more people do it?


What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is one of those things that seems to make sense but actually makes no sense to most people.

I have actually been interested in mindfulness and meditation for years (think of mindfulness as an idea, and meditation as a method to bring that idea to life), but it was only in recent months that I began to have a more concrete concept of what mindfulness really means. (I also had zero idea how to meditate until recently, when things started to click.)

Mindfulness is simply like what Jon Kabat-Zinn is quoted as saying above. Its central tenet is simply to pay conscious attention to the present moment, without judging the moment. Almost like you are watching a movie of your life as a third party.

How can something like that be useful? Skeptics ask (that includes some of you right now).

But advocates of mindfulness – and nowadays even science (and nowadays me) – propose that mindfulness has the ability to make people happier, less anxious, feel more alive.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (who has helped countless people – even those who are seriously ill or in their last dying days – find strength and happiness through the practice of mindfulness), “Mindfulness is now more relevant than ever as an effective and dependable counterbalance to strengthen our health and well-being, and perhaps our very sanity.”

If that is all true, then we absolutely need mindfulness in our lives, but how do we actually do it?

It also doesn’t help that mindfulness, a word thrown around so carelessly these days, conjures up images of hippies with headbands meditating in the forest while doing yoga at the same time.

But after all these years of reading and thinking about it, and in recent months trying to actually practice it, I have first-hand experience of mindfulness as being nothing less than a positive life-changing force.


How to be here

Yes, yes, hyperbole doesn’t help. Especially coming from me the Mindfulness Novice That No One Has Ever Heard Of.

So try it for yourself.

A. Read some books about it. I highly recommend Dan Harris’ “10% Happier“. He was a skeptic but after having a panic attack that was caught on national TV, he went on a long, windy journey and discovered mindfulness/meditation, and now he is 10% (or more, I believe) happier, calmer, wiser.

You can also read books about meditation by Thich Naht Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein, etc. There have been countless books written about the subject. Don’t be afraid to read more than one book about it, even books that are not so popular or critically acclaimed. Every book is useful in its own way and allows you to slowly understand in your head, book by book, what this whole mindfulness/meditation thing is all about. (And trust me, it takes time to sink in. But when it does… awesomeness ensues.)

B. Watch videos about it. You can start from this, this or this.

C. Go to a meditation class at your local yoga school. There are also meditation centers like Vipassana Singapore that holds free meditation retreats / classes.

D. Try Headspace.

E. Try meditating yourself. The following is an excerpt from Dan Harris’ “10% Happier”, as part of the instructions he included at the back of the book for people who want to try basic mindfulness meditation.

“1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position – unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.

2. Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.

3. This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought – which you will, thousands of times – gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
– Dan Harris


Try

Happiness is vital to our well-being. Actually no, happiness is not just vital. It is everything (not the superficial kind of happiness but the profound kind of happiness that is all mixed in with gratitude and joy and ease and being-here-ness).

I believe mindfulness is a great path towards happiness.

All we need to do is try (and meditation allows us to try our way towards happiness). It’s not an easy practice – in fact it might be the hardest thing you have ever tried to do – but when you put in the work, results will follow.

Have fun trying, my friends, and may you learn to be happier, less anxious, and more truly alive.

“What should I do with my life?”

I remember being 20 and completely not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. Ahead of me lay many paths: Which one would I take? Which one should I take?

Then I quit university, stumbled into opening a cafe, tried and failed at a whole bunch of things in between (publishing a magazine, starting an online publication, hosting a radio show, launching a travel bag, etc) and then ended up, six years later, unexpectedly becoming a professional photographer.

Never at any point did I stop thinking about what I would and should do with my life.

Even until today.

A few months ago I had a bit of a crisis. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether photography is THE thing I should do with my life. Yes, I love photography and I love being a photographer, but sometimes it does feel like there is something… missing. It’s almost like there should be something more, but yet there isn’t.

Photography is a great medium through which to make a difference in this world. That’s why many photographers work on documentary projects about issues they care about. But so far I haven’t been able to do the same. It’s not that there aren’t issues I care about, but which issue do I care about enough to base a documentary project on? Things just haven’t worked out in this aspect.

And as a commercial/advertising photographer, my work can be quite exciting, working often with big brands and sometimes celebrities. But at the end of the day, my commercial work is about helping my clients to make money. It’s not a bad thing – it can feel satisfying especially if it’s for a company I admire – but eventually, I have to be honest about the fact that doing this doesn’t give me a huge sense of purpose.

And so that’s how I fell into my little… existential rut.


Stumbling into purpose

When I started writing this blog three months ago, however, something changed.

I care very much about good photography, but on a daily basis I realize I care and think much more about issues intersecting creativity and business; I obsess about whether there is a path someone can take that allows him to go from zero to creative success; I think a lot about what it takes to live a rich, fulfilling life doing what one loves, on one’s own terms; I also think a lot about happiness and how to live a good life as both a creative and a human being; etc.

These are issues I care deeply about, even more deeply than how, for example, I can develop better photography techniques. Which is why when I started writing about these topics on this blog, I unexpectedly found a sense of purpose and meaning that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

Let me tell you, it’s a pretty awesome and magical feeling.


The beauty of purpose

Then you realize: purpose is on a whole different plane.

When you find something that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, you wake up excited everyday wanting to jump out of bed and get started immediately (which is how I feel about writing here).

I think this comes from the fact that, with writing to share and help, it feels like suddenly I am no longer looking inwards but outwards at the world, and so now doing feels much more like giving.

When I receive emails and messages from people who read this blog who tell me about how some of my articles have influenced them or changed their life for the better or helped them to change their mindset or gave them affirmation to continue fighting for their dreams, I become even more convinced that giving is infinitely better than taking. (In many aspects of my life, I often feel like I am not good enough at giving. So in a sense, with this blog, I get to give in the way I know how.)

Suddenly it became clear to me why it was perfect that I’d quit school multiple times (a story I will surely write about someday), battled depression and anxiety, started a failed cafe, and become a photographer.

If my life hadn’t unfolded the way it did, I wouldn’t have been able to write the articles I write today. I would have no experiences and no stories of failure to share. I wouldn’t be able to write about the path that took me here, and the painful lessons I have learned along the way that I can now share as a gift with the rest of the world.


The beauty of knowing where to go

No, I’m not about to hang up my camera and transform into a full-time writer, but if I was utterly lost as a 20-year-old, now, some ten years later, I can safely say that I am much more certain about which path I should be on in life.

Now I know for sure that I should keep working at my photography. I’m (pretty) good at it, it puts bread on my table, I am still excited about getting better at it, and I do genuinely love the feeling of holding a camera in my hands and making good photographs.

But I also know now what gives me a sense of purpose and meaning beyond taking good photographs, and that is to give freely.

Specifically, to give freely by writing for this blog and teaching you, my readers, everything I know about how to live an awesome life on your own terms doing work you love.

I think of this as my mission.

(Not that I will not embark on other journeys in future, but for now, this feels like a good path to be on.)


How to find your purpose in life

“What should I do with my life?” is a question that is open-ended and has as many answers as there are people in the world.

But here’s a few things I learned:

(1) Having a Big Vague Goal in the long term is important. Having a Big Vague Goal is to have a vision of the kind of life you want to live. Maybe, ultimately, what you want is freedom to chart your own path, wake up whenever you want, not having to answer to a boss. Now all you need is to do whatever you can to pursue this Big Vague Goal. But try not to…

(2) Set a concrete 5-year or 10-year plan. I honestly think plans are a myth, especially long-term ones. We have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. We also don’t know if one year later – or even just six months later – our feelings about something might change. As Bruce Lee said, be like water. Allow yourself the space and flexibility to change your plans as circumstances arise.

(3) 6-month to 1-year plans are cool though. It allows you to break your dream or your Big Vague Goal down into concrete, doable tasks; knowing exactly what to do also allows you to move forward instead of becoming paralyzed by inertia (due to the despair you feel at how seemingly far away your dream is).

(4) Set goals and put all your mortal resources into achieving them. Say you want to become a successful freelance designer. Your interest is in UI/UX, but you have no portfolio. Why not set the goal of getting at least 3 clients in the next 6 months, so you can start building your portfolio? I don’t know how you are going to do it, but you are going to find those three clients. Remember, whether you are starting a business or trying to become a successful freelancer, it’s fundamentally about getting clients – people who are willing to give you money in exchange for something valuable you can offer them. Can you find just THREE people in six months who fit that bill? If you can’t, perhaps you should consider moving on to doing other things. (Or you’re not trying hard enough.)

(5) Passion + skill + the value you can give others. Keep this holy trinity in your mind. All the time.

(6) What if you don’t even know what to pursue? Maybe you are passionate about five different things and you want to pursue all of them. I am a huge fan of the “try and fail and try and fail” theory. Feel free to pursue each of them. Enjoy failing. That’s how you test if one of them fits the passion + skill + value holy trinity I mentioned in the earlier point.

(7) Don’t have the illusion that you can only be happy making a living doing what you love MOST in the world. A lot of the world’s happiest people have hobbies that they are passionate about outside of their work. It’s possible to be the happiest lark in the world if your third biggest passion allows you to build a successful and profitable freelance career, giving you lots of freedom to do what you are most passionate about on your own time. That is sweet, sweet balance.

(8) Whatever it is, your journey to figuring out the question “What should I do with my life?” is surely not going to be straightforward. Don’t give up. If you ever give up, you do yourself and you do life a disservice. I believe successful/happy people are successful/happy because they have this Big Vague Goal in their head and they don’t give up until they get there. Of course, by the time they arrive, their Big Vague Goal has often evolved and now looks very different from what they had first envisioned. That’s because it’s been refined by their life experiences, like a raw diamond now polished to reveal its stunning beauty. What doesn’t work has been filtered out, leaving behind what works.

(9) Have faith. Faith/belief is also known, more commonly, as positive thinking (doesn’t sound quite as mystical, does it?). I have always believed that I can do whatever I set my mind to doing. I also have always believed that anything is possible and achievable. This positive mindset actually warps reality because it modifies my actions (never forget that, with our free will, we are actually Superheroes in disguise who can create and move things and change reality, as if reality were… play dough). If I don’t believe that I can achieve the goal of eating five bowls of ramen in a row, I won’t even try. But if I believe wholeheartedly that I can do it, I will try. And that’s how I will realize I have the potential to be a professional competitive eater. Who said our minds can’t alter reality? (But if I try and fail, that’s okay too. Then I move on to my next dream of becoming a professional pole dancer.)

(10) Finally, like my yoga teacher said, there is no goal. Our life journey is the goal itself. Understand this and you will arrive at a whole different plane and realize just how awesome sauce life already is.