10 Inspiring Books That Changed My Life in Unexpected Ways

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Best Inspiring Books to Read

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The first books I remember reading were Grimms’ Fairy Tales. They came in a set of two or three books⁠—I can’t remember exactly⁠—stacked and bound together with a white ribbon. They were the nicest books I’d seen up till then—with thick, textured hardcovers that were this deep, tantalizing green, and shiny, smooth pages that glided through my fingers like silk.

I used to call them “the green books”.

The green books showed me glimpses of magic with their spellbinding stories, and instilled a sense of curiosity in me that lives on to this day. The green books were the first books that shaped who I am today⁠—it’s no exaggeration to say that they’ve changed my life.

But they weren’t the only books that had a lasting impact on me. Over the years, I came across many books that left me in awe, taught me something profound, or inspired me to change for the better.

Although it was a difficult task, I chose 10 of my favourite books of all time to share with you today. I picked them not because they’re the best written or the most prize-worthy, but because they’ve changed my life in ways I didn’t expect. And I know they will change your life too.

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10 Inspiring Books That Will Change the Way You See Life

 

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1. “Deep” by James Nestor

 

At first glance, “Deep” isn’t the kind of book you’d think anyone would call “life-changing”. If you simply “judge the book by its cover”, you’d think this book is an intro guide to “freediving”—an obscure and extreme sport that involves plunging into the ocean for as far down as you can, with only a single breath of air.

That’s right, no oxygen tank in case you need a second gulp of air, just whatever you got in your lungs—which, by the way, apparently would shrink to the size of an orange under the immense pressure of the ocean.

Not scary at all right?

So when I picked up this book from the local library, I didn’t expect much from it other than learning a few interesting facts about a sport I had never heard of—and frankly—couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind doing. Little did I know this book would become one of the most pivotal books in my life.

Combining powerful storytelling with fascinating research, James Nestor took me down a path exploring the enigmatic world of freediving. But the book—as I discovered—is not just about freediving. It’s about the ocean and the connection we humans once had with it but lost, and how we can regain that connection again. It’s about pushing ourselves beyond the limit of our comfort zone, so that we can knock off the “im” from “impossible”.

2 years ago, my lung specialist told me the critical lung function I lost from my rare lung condition is irreversible. For a while, his words lived in my mind like a parasite and tortured me day and night. But after reading “Deep”, I don’t worry about what my lung specialist said anymore.

Once upon a time, people said we couldn’t dive into the ocean with a single breath of air. The pressure alone would kill us. And yet, freedivers are going deeper and deeper every year. Nothing’s impossible.

If you want to feel inspired while learning more about the ocean and the daring sport of freediving, read “Deep”.

Now I leave you with a mesmerizing short film from one of the best freedivers in the world, Guillaume Nery. Spoiler alert: at the 08:21 mark you’ll see something worth holding your breath for. And my warning to you: don’t you dare try this yourself at the beach!

 

 

2. “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert

 

I first stumbled on Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” over a decade ago.

When I first read the reviews on the back of the book where it promised to “shatter my most deeply held convictions about how the mind works”, I was skeptical. I’d seen too many books in the pop psychology industry that promised to deliver enlightenment on the human mind but ended up being no more useful than Psychology 101. But not “Stumbling on Happiness”. This book turned out to be a real gem.

I’ve re-read the book at least 3 times since then, and each time it still makes me laugh and teaches me something precious about the inner workings of our mind when it comes to happiness.

And if you’re thinking this is another one of those “be your authentic self and you’ll be happy” kind of fluffy self-help books, you’d be surprised.

Daniel Gilbert is a leading psychologist on the subject of happiness from Harvard University (need I say more?). His book offers real insight backed by science, without the stuffiness you’d expect from an Ivy League professor. He shows, with examples after examples of sound research and a sprinkle of humour at all the right places, how our minds miscalculate our future happiness and what we can do about it.

This book has completely changed the way I approach planning for the future, setting expectations, and imagining the outcome. It was one of the books that sparked my personal development journey as a young adult coming to grips with some of life’s hardest hurdles. It opened my eyes to the possibility of happiness and gave me the necessary tools to find it.

If you’re tired of chasing happiness, read this book. If you think you already know what makes you happy, read this book. Or if you’ve never thought about what it means to be happy, read this book. You just might finally stumble on true happiness.

For a snippet of what you can expect from “Stumbling on Happiness”, here’s an excellent presentation by professor Gilbert on the science of happiness:

 

 

3. “Cure” by Jo Marchant

 

You ever had this happen to you?

You’re all excited about this home remedy that you swear by, you tell your friends and co-workers about it, hoping it’ll help with their cold, headache, upset stomach, or whatever it is they’re suffering from. And they give you a skeptical look as if you’d just told them you saw a unicorn.

“It’s probably just a placebo you know.” They tell you, half-joking so it would lessen the sting of what they’re about to say: “It’s not real science.”

Ouch.

I feel for ya. But did you know there’s actually an abundance of research that shows the positive impact “placebo effect” has on our health? The mind is one of the most natural and powerful healing tools we have, and that is the premise of award-winning science writer Jo Marchant’s book “Cure”.

Before I read this book, like many people, I had this notion that there was a line in the sand between placebos and conventional medicine.

Conventional medicine was real science prescribed by real doctors. Placebos, on the other hand, were tricks and illusions dished out by quacks. Although I had started using natural remedies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and had tremendous personal success with them, there was always a voice at the back of my mind saying “what you’re feeling isn’t real”.

But this book showed me a different way of looking at medicine—whether it’s labeled “placebo” or “real medicine”, if you feel better after using a remedy, it works.

I’m almost 10 years cancer-free and although I live with a rare lung condition that impacts my breathing, I feel good. And I have this book to thank for my good health. “Cure” gave me the confidence to embrace holistic healing practices and further empowered me to take recovery into my own hands. The belief you have the ability to heal is a cure in itself.

For a taste of what you’ll get from this incredible book, read Jo Marchant’s interview with The Guardian here.

 

4. “438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea” by Jonathan Franklin

 

“438 Days” is a survival story at its finest. It tells the story of José Salvador Alvarenga, a fisherman who survived 14 months at sea.

Alvarenga shocked the world when he appeared on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean on January 30th, 2014, in a state that resembled Tom Hank’s character from “Cast Away”. He had—in an amazing feat of survival—drifted 7000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a small fishing boat. How was he able to survive all this time? That’s what you’ll find out in this book!

I’m no stranger to awe-inspiring stories of survival. Shackleton and the Endurance expedition. Aron Ralston and his gory escape from that damned boulder. Apollo 13. But none moved me as much as Alvarenga’s story.

He survived more than just hunger, thirst, and one violent storm after another. There were more terrifying foes on this journey: loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. Alvarenga fought them all and came home victorious.

His story not only showed me the essence of resilience and the power of the human spirit, it also reminded me of 3 important truths about life:

  • There’s no use whining about your plight.
  • You can decide how you go through the journey, even when you have no control of the steering wheels.
  • The most important things in life are the people you care about. They’re the light that will guide you home when you’re lost.

It’s also worth noting that the author Jonathan Franklin is a master storyteller. He weaves Alvarenga’s memories of the journey into a raw and yet beautiful story that will pull you into the page and make you ride the waves alongside Alvarenga.

So go ahead and immerse yourself in Alvarenga’s journey in “438 Days”. It has forever changed the way I look at my own journey, and it’ll change the way you look at yours too.

 

5. “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom

 

“Tuesdays with Morrie” is a book about living life, even though the main story is about a man dying.

Mitch Albom, the author of the book, is in need of a jolt to wake him up from a mid-life crisis.

He reconnects with Morrie, a kind and beloved sociology professor who once made an impact on him during his university days. But the kicker is, Morrie is dying from ALS, a frightening disease that freezes your soul in an immobile shell. So Mitch decides to spend every Tuesday with Morrie in the last few months of his life, learning precious life lessons from his wise professor.

I almost didn’t read the book because I thought it would be too glum. For me, the idea of living with the knowledge that you’re going to die, and soon, is terrifying. When you have the word “cancer” in your medical records like I do, the subject of this book is way too close for comfort.

But after hearing rave reviews from my boss, I decided to give this book a try. And I’m so glad I did. To my surprise, the book turned out to be an uplifting story of life, bond, love, and forgiveness.

The book is not only a heartwarming memoir of the author’s time with his dear professor Morrie, it’s also a collection of valuable life lessons for anyone at any age.

The book reminded me that it’s okay to cry, to admit you need help, and to laugh at yourself. And to some extent, the book lessened my fear of death. I’m not saying I won’t be a wreck if my doctor hands me a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (something I used to fear all the time), but after reading this book, I believe I have the courage to accept it with peace and grace like Morrie had.

So if you’re feeling stuck, and need some answers for some of life’s biggest questions such as your place in the world, regret, and aging, read “Tuesdays with Morrie”. It’ll change your perspective and renew your appreciation for life.

 

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6. “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman

 

Without the book “Learned Optimism”, I wouldn’t be where I am today. In fact, the philosophy behind this entire blog, even its name “The Budding Optimist”, is based on the central idea found in this book—that we can learn to see the glass as half full, just as we can learn to play a piano, ride a bike, or bake a pie.

Intrigued? It’s not just wishful thinking—it’s science.

The author of this book is Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement. He led many groundbreaking research related to conditioning and helplessness, and based on his research, he developed a system of techniques to help people turn their pessimistic outlook into a positive one.

Hint: it involves making small, but key, changes to how you see problems and failures.

I know what you must be thinking: easier said than done, right? I thought the same thing when I first started reading the book.

How is it possible to learn optimism?

But as I found out, you can. And this book will show you how to do it with practical, easy-to-understand strategies that anyone—no matter how stubborn of a pessimist you are—can do.

By showing me how to turn negative self-talk into more productive thought patterns, the book helped me escape from my helpless mode and propelled me towards optimism. If it wasn’t for this book, I’d still be whining about my life and calling myself a victim of circumstances. But now, I choose to be a budding optimist.

So are you an optimist or a pessimist? Find out by taking this test. And don’t worry, I got “very pessimistic” on my first try. But the good thing is you can do something about it. Learn how you can change your outlook (and your life) with “Learned Optimism”.

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7. “The Brain That Changes Itself” By Norman Doidge

 

I once believed the human brain, once developed, was unchangeable.

Unlike many other organs in the body, the brain was fragile, complex, and next to impossible to heal. If you were unlucky enough to incur brain damage, you would never be the same again. At least that was what I thought from seeing my childhood friend’s mom who was struck down by a sudden stroke at an age too young for strokes.

It left her paralyzed. She never made a complete recovery.

But as I grew older, I learned that the brain is more malleable than we think. The brain is, in fact, capable of change, even heal from devastating trauma.

There’s a scientific term for it: “neuroplasticity”. And that’s the basis of the next book my list: “The Brain That Changes Itself”.

The book, written by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, sheds light on this immerging field of science with illuminating knowledge from scientists at the frontier of its research. The book also contains fascinating accounts of people from all walks of life whose lives were transformed by our brain’s remarkable potential to alter and heal itself.

This is one heck of an addicting book. Page after page, Dr. Doidge delivers research findings and personal stories that will make your jaw drop while teaching you something new and exciting about the brain.

Spoiler alert: there’s a story of a woman who only had half a brain at birth, but was able to get it to function as a whole. If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will!!

This book did a complete 180-degree flip on my views of the human brain. But more than that, it gave me tremendous hope to learn that humans have so much potential to adapt and heal.

If you want to gain insight into the human brain and learn how you too, can benefit from neuroplasticity, you won’t want to miss “The Brain That Changes Itself”!

 

8. “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan

 

I never imagined one book could change my entire attitude towards food, but that was what happened when I read “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan.

Before reading “In Defense of Food”, I never gave much thought as to where the food on my dinner plate came from or how it got there.

I never bothered to read the ingredients on the back of packages or made a distinction between “processed foods” and “natural foods”.

Food was whatever tasted good, came cheap, and convenient enough for me to make on a frazzled weeknight.

But this book changed all that. It forced me to examine my mindless eating habits and ask thoughtful questions about the food I ate. What was I really eating? What processes went into the making of these foods before they got to my plate? And most importantly, what effects do these foods have on me?

However, the downside to being curious about what we eat is that our heads start to spin with more questions. The world is full of noise about what food we should eat and how and when we should eat it. Keto. Intermittent fasting. Veganism. It’s tough enough to cook meals with our lives being so busy, let alone having to make sense of all the noise and decide what foods are actually good for us!

The good thing is, the author of the book, Michael Pollan, offers a simple, 7-word philosophy on food that quiets the noise. His approach to food makes it possible for anyone to adopt a healthy diet without a ton of rules and checklists.

His words became an important guiding principle on how I think about food, and how I select and prepare them. It’s been 10 years since I first read this book and no matter what the latest diet fads are out there, I continue to I follow his sage advice.

So if you want to have a deeper understanding of food and its impact on your health, plus get practical wisdom on how to eat healthy for life, read “In Defense of Food”.

 

9. “The Kite Runner” By Khaled Hosseini

 

Do you remember what books you had to read for high school English class? For me, it was the likes of “1984”, “The Chrysalids”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, and “To Kill a Mockingbird”. But out of all the book assignments, “The Kite Runner” was my favourite.

Why? Because it showed me a world that was real and immediate, almost within reach. And yet it was one I couldn’t fathom.

The book is about Amir and his journey of friendship, betrayal, and redemption against a backdrop of political unrest and cultural tension in Afghanistan.

I never thought the story would stay with me for this long, but it still echoes in my mind from time to time, even 15 years after I first read it.

The book not only made a deep imprint on me as to what kind of evil exists, both out there and within us, but it also reminded me there’s light in the darkness.

It’s a book I would revisit from time to time. I go back to it whenever I need a reminder that we should weigh the costs of our actions carefully if we don’t want to feel the pangs of regret and guilt. But at the same time, there’s no use beating ourselves up over what already happened.

Our past doesn’t define who we are. It’s what we’re willing to do moving forward that matters.

“The Kite Runner” is a must-read for anyone looking for an inspiring tale of friendship, redemption, love and sacrifice. If you haven’t read it already, make it a priority on your reading list!

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10. “The Alchemist” By Paulo Coelho

 

During a third-year leadership class in university, I was asked what my motto was in life.

I said, without hesitation, the following:

Dream big. The whole universe will conspire together to help you achieve it.

The instructor smiled and asked: “Do you know where that idea came from?” It took me a while to recall the origin of my motto. It was from “The Alchemist”.

On the surface, “The Alchemist” is a story about a shepherd boy’s quest to find his treasure and realize his “personal legend”, but underneath that simple narrative lies a profound message: follow your heart and pursue your dreams, and everything else will fall into place.

Sounds a little cheesy? To be honest, when I first read “The Alchemist” as a young teenager, I didn’t like the book. Partly because I was still cynical about life then, and partly because I couldn’t appreciate the beauty in its simplicity. So you can imagine my surprise when I caught myself reciting a line almost straight out of the “The Alchemist”.

I had almost completely forgotten about the book. And yet, without me realizing it, the book and its ideas had permeated through my thinking and shaped how I viewed life, love, and spirituality.

That’s the best kind of book, don’t you think? One with a message that reverberates in your mind long after you had forgotten about the book itself. One with the power to change your thinking in the subtlest of ways, and yet make a big difference in your life. Without the book, I wouldn’t have the courage to write these words you’re reading now.

I’m sure you’ve heard of “The Alchemist” many times before, perhaps you’ve already read it. If you’ve read it already, I encourage you to go back to it periodically in your life, even if you didn’t love it the first or second time.

To me, “The Alchemist” is not just a book, but an experience. And each of us experiences the book in our own way at different times in our lives. You might just experience something that surprises you and makes you see the book, and your life, in a whole new light.

And if you haven’t read the book already, what are you waiting for?

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Before You Go

That’s it for the 10 inspiring books that changed my life in unexpected ways. Which of these books have you read already, or like to read? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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