What are the top 5 books that changed your lives and why?

Answer by Edmond Lau:

It's tough to choose five, but these five books have had the largest impact on my life thus far:

  1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen.  The value of this book is that it thoroughly describes a concrete implementation of how to manage to-dos and tasks lists.  While I don't practice everything prescribed, it was eye-opening to read about one possible way of doing things.

    A key takeaway from this book is to write down all your to-dos in a single, easily accessible list and to remove the burden of remembering tasks from your brain.  This has helped me significantly in keeping track of what I need to get done and freed my mental energies to focus on other things.  Subsequent readings in books like David Rock's Your Brain at Work, Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide [1], and Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein have only reinforced that our brains aren't well-designed for remembering large numbers of things and that trying to remember things only interferes with our other cognitive abilities.

  2. High Output Management, by Andrew S. Grove.  Ex-Intel CEO Grove distills some of the principles that he used while running and managing Intel; the advice is relevant to both managers as well as what he calls "know-how managers," people who have built up and share a lot of knowledge within an organization.  From this book, I learned to use the notion of leverage (the amount of output or impact produced per unit of time spent) as the primary metric for prioritizing both personal and professional tasks.  I write about this lesson in my answer to What's the single most valuable lesson you've learned in your professional life?
  3. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister.  While the 1999 book is a little dated, this is the first research-backed book that I've read discussing software project and team productivity, and it's what set me on a path to thinking hard about things like What makes a good engineering culture?  Peopleware discusses how imposing overtime work can destroy a team's ability to gel, how listening to music while programming can interfere with our abilities to think, how the act of estimating the time required for tasks can actually cause the actual tasks to take longer (though it might have other benefits), and many other gems.  I've seen many of the these things play out during my time at Google, Ooyala, and Quora, and it's amazed me how spot on the authors were.  The more recent Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others by Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman is similar in flavor, but relies much more on the authors' own experiences and anecdotes while working at Google and Subversion than on studies.
  4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.  I'm not actually a fan of Covey's writing style — much of it is a little too abstract and fluffy — but there a number of good ideas in the book.  From Covey's third habit of "putting first things first," I learned that people tend to neglect important but non-urgent activities and spend a lot of time dealing with tasks like emails, phone calls, etc. that may be urgent but ultimately unimportant.  This focus on what seems to be most immediately pressing inhibits our ability to learn and grow both personally and professionally.  A key takeaway from this habit is to explicitly budget time to invest in yourself, whether it's by learning new skills, maintaining relationships, reading, etc.  Since reading this book, I've explicitly scheduled time to prioritize the things that I consider important and high-leverage.
  5. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser.  It might be a little surprising that a book on nonfiction writing could be life-changing, but this delightful book showed me what good nonfiction should read like.  The excerpts and writing samples in the book were a joy to read, and Zinsser does a excellent job critiquing them and explaining why.  The book set a new bar for what I should expect from my own writing and the writing of others, and it's inspired me to write more, in a way that the better known Strunk and White did not.  Ever since reading Zinsser's book, I've been on a hunt for other good books on writing.


[1] I read this book before the whole plagiarism controversy in 2012.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon…

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