Published on

October 30, 2019

5 books that changed me

Books were so important to me growing up. This is a record of the five books which made the biggest impact on me.

I love to read. When I was a kid Mum and Dad encouraged me to read each night and before long the habit stuck. I used to read and re-read my favourites, and slowly ventured into Dad's collection as I hit my teenage years. During university I lost the habit (law school will knock the curiosity out of anyone!) but I rediscovered the joy of reading once I joined the workforce.

For me, reading is about exploration. In fiction I get to explore different characters and periods, and I feel I've developed my sense of empathy by reading from so many varying perspectives. In non-fiction I get to explore different ideas. Opinions should never be static, and by exposing myself to more ideas I find I am constantly evolving how I think about the world.

I decided to write this article to share some books that have changed me. These are not necessarily my favourite books, but they've been formative in my development as a professional and as a person.

Travels by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton is an amazing man. He was a Harvard trained doctor before dropping out of medicine to become a world famous writer and film director. This is his autobiography where he covers his career, his travels across the world and his experimentation with psychic phenomena.

I love this book because Mr Crichton is the most incisive author I've ever read. He writes with breath-taking clarity and uncomfortable honesty about his journey to self-realisation. It made me so excited with the possibilities of life, to read about a man who has tried so much. It was also the book which encouraged me to meditate, which is now a daily habit I can't do without. Above all, the prose is rich with his incredible appetite for life.

The Man from St Petersburg by Ken Follet

This was the first adult fiction (no, not that kind) book I ever read, and the story has stayed with me a long time. It's a historical novel, set in pre-revolution Russia, about the fatalistic romance between an aristocrat and an anarchist.

I was about thirteen when I read the book, and before that I had been reading teen fiction which is always brightly and simply written. This book has a melancholy tone to it, the characters are struggling in their circumstances and there is no happy ending. It taught me that darkness is not wrong - there is no light without shade - and gave me my first hint of the complexities of adult relationships.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit can be found in any airport bookstore. It is partially a self-help book, partially a business book, and partially in the pop non-fiction category so dominated by Malcolm Gladwell. The thesis of the book is that the number one determinant of success is grit. Grit requires both passion, an overriding love of a pursuit, and perseverance, the ability to grind out in the face of adversity and monotony.

It made such an impact on me because I finally internalized a concept I had been grappling with for a long time. I've always had a lot of hobbies but never the staying power to keep at them for years. For instance I absolutely love to sing, but a minor derailment when I was twenty stopped me going to regular lessons and stunted my progress. This book helped me to face up to my tendency to chase novelty and since reading it I've started practicing singing each day and taking a longer term view of progress.

The book also has a wonderful chapter on purpose. The anecdotes (and the broader evidence behind them) show that truly successful individuals develop purpose gradually as they move through their careers - there is no one who starts at day one with a fully formed mission in mind, it takes constant experimentation and a willingness to try and fail.

Change by Design by Tim Brown

This is the design thinkers' manifesto. Design thinking is a framework for problem solving that originated from Stanford University's d-school. Originally intended for physical design, it works equally well for software product design or general business problem solving. Tim Brown is the CEO of Ideo, the world's leading design thinking firm which has helped numerous Fortune 500 companies in their quest to innovate, and in this book he lays out his method.

This book ignited a desire to solve big, complex business problems. I read it when I was working as a Product Manager at HSBC New Zealand, and I was struggling with the sensation of being a small cog in a very big machine. The book helped me find and work on the biggest, thorniest problems that were available in New Zealand, and then inspired me to transfer to the Corporate and Institutional Digital team in the global headquarters of HSBC. It is invigorating and thoroughly practical, and I think large organisations can learn an enormous amount from the tenants of design thinking.

The Mystery of Banking by Murray Rothbard

The Mystery of Banking is a textbook. It sets out from first principles how the modern banking system evolved and how it works today. There is a radical undertone to the text because Mr Rothbard describes fractional-reserve banking (i.e. what all banks do today) as inflationary fraud. The first time the argument was raised I was taken aback, but as the book wears on his critique gathers serious weight.

I love this book for two reasons. Firstly it helped me understand the nature of banking and of money in much more detail. I think that to be a senior banker, one who makes big decisions regarding the composition of balance sheets, one has to be alive to the theory behind the banking system. Secondly it made me truly passionate about banking. There is a mostly invisible system underpinning the exchange of payments and the provision of credit in an economy, these things which are so vital for the operation of market economies. I know that banks have a bad reputation, and in many cases deservedly so, but the actual mechanics of banking are some of the greatest innovations of this millennium.

So I've made an honest attempt at recording the five books that changed me, and most importantly why and how they did so. I would really love if you now did the same. Let's celebrate the incredible power that writing has to change minds and expand thinking. Don't be put off by the verbosity of my article, join the conversation!


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© Copyright Oliver Mitchell 2019