We asked some of our favorite entrepreneurs, creators, and thinkers to share the books that influenced their own educations. Want to shape your own learning experience in and out of the classroom? Here are the books you should read before going to college.
Influence by Robert Cialdini
Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.
“Influence gives insight into how to best interact with and engage those around you. Whether you’re looking to be a sales person or to just land your first job, Influence offers practical advice.”
– Dale Stephens, Founder and CEO of UnCollege.
Profoundly Disconnected by Mike Rowe
“So, this isn’t really a book. It’s more like a collection of essays and stories in a fancy hardbound package. It’s also clever, hysterical, and something every young person should read before heading off to what might be an overrated and insanely expensive collegiate experience. Mike Rowe, creator and host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, hilariously (and quite astutely) describes our country’s problem with skilled labor. From the book: ‘How else can we explain millions of jobs that no one seems to want, at a time when so many are out of work? Or a trillion dollars in student loans, when just 12% of all jobs require a four-year degree? Or the systematic removal of vocational education from high schools around the country, at a time when most viable opportunities require those very skills? In short, how did we manage to get our head this far up our own butt, and is there any hope of ever pulling it out?’”
“Even if your heart (or your parent’s heart) is set on college, this book will help you (re)define work and give you a new appreciation for skilled labor. Perhaps more importantly, it might inspire a new career path.”
– Claire Kittle-Dixon, Director of Talent Market.
Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz
The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
“Deresiewicz wants young adults to build self-knowledge and self-directedness, find meaningful work, forget about the pursuit of easy money, and truly squeeze the nectar from the college experience. If more college students (and parents, and professors, and administrators) took his advice, the American system of higher education would be much more functional than it is today.”
“Deresiewicz argues for attending college—specifically, colleges with lots of small-group seminars and face-time with professors—but he also speaks highly of doing a gap year (whether formal or informal), taking time off during college, and taking time off after college (i.e. maximizing the period of maximum freedom directly after graduating to continue building self-knowledge). This book contains the best motivational speech I’ve ever encountered for taking a nontraditional, self-directed life path, and it tears apart the ‘tiger mom’ philosophy and the MOOC craze in very satisfying ways.”
– Blake Boles, Director of Unschool Adventures.
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
“This book is probably the single most important book on the topic of the state: its origins, structure, purposes. It is not long. It had vast influence, and was debated throughout the 1920s. It had a massive influence on American libertarianism and communitarianism, but that’s not why we should read it. We should read it because it pulls back the curtain on the structure and nature of a thing that is all around us, has caused no end to human suffering, and yet, in class after class and book after book, is routinely disguised or denied.”
“The state, we are encouraged to believe, is an extension of us, a reflection of the social contract, an expression and institutionalization of our values, an instantiation of our desire for order, a vehicle for giving expression for the ideals of the community. Oppenheimer has none of it. He clearly sees that the state is the only institution in society that is legally permitted to wield aggressive force against person and property. The means it uses to realize its ends – whatever they are – differ from those of every other institution in society. These are its mark and its distinction. Where does the state come from? Oppenheimer makes the case that it is necessarily external to society but gains its power through some form of conquest.”
“Why is this a fascinating book to read? It gives you a brilliant lens through which to understand the whole of economics, history, sociology, and political science. Knowing and understanding Oppenheimer provides a magnificent check on a thousand far-flung theories of how to structure the world. This is why the book is so powerful and why it has been rewritten a dozen times in the course of a century. Return to it often and you’ll find ever more truths that you might have overlooked .”
– Jeffrey Tucker, CLO of Liberty.me.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.
“My first impulse when asked to recommend a book is to pick a favorite biography or a good treatise in economics or history. But because this request is focused on young people about to make an important education decision, I quickly realized something deeper and more life-changing is called for. Hence my choice of How to Win Friends and Influence People, which first appeared in 1936 and was updated in 1981 in a revised edition. No self-improvement book of the last century comes close to providing the value and insight of this Carnegie classic. Knowledge is important but its potential is crippled if it’s not paired with solid character, emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate.”
“When I first read How to Win Friends as a high school student in the 1960s, I was stunned by the simple but profound advice that graced every page. The effect of everything I read, said or did thereafter was magnified by adapting Carnegie’s tips to the occasion. I run into people every day whose actions or inactions retard their influence and prompt me to think, ‘If only they had read Dale Carnegie.’ So before you go to college, take the time to read the book that will set you on the path to happiness and influence. Nearly 20 million buyers can’t be wrong.”
– Lawrence W. Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Notes on Democracy by H.L. Mencken
“Against the prevailing wisdom in politics, I highly recommend H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, which, with more aplomb and charm than any other book I know, shatters the tenets of the naive faith in democracy as the perfect system of governance.
“Mencken has a keen eye for detecting a lack of integrity–first in politicians, for they will preach harmful policies to gullible men provided that their stances will win elections. No issue is too absurd, no principle untouched, if the votes will come around. Mencken sees this lack of integrity also in voters themselves. Facing a myriad of government scandals, voters become inured to public vice, simply shrug, murmur something about how ‘they all do it,’ and then continue to vote for their man. Of course, if any voter were to be asked to hire the same venal buffoon, he wouldn’t even give the consideration a second of his time.”
“Mencken’s book is a strong corrective against democractic fundamentalism, one certainly no professor will ever recommend.”
– Michael Gibson, Vice President of the Thiel Foundation.
How to Win at the Sport of Business by Mark Cuban
The best salespeople are the ones who put themselves in their customer’s shoes and provide a solution that makes the customer happy.
“The book that truly changed the way I think about my career, and how I approach it, was How to Win at the Sport of Business by Mark Cuban. I work in the entertainment industry as a television host and voice over actor. My ‘business’ is ME. I’ve spent much of my ‘career’ sitting around and waiting/hoping for auditions and work. Meanwhile, I had a ton of time for watching TV, going to movies, relaxing, hanging out. That approach landed me some marginal success, but never anything substantial.”
“Then I read Cuban’s book, and it lit a giant fire under my ass to take my career into my own hands and spend basically every spare moment I had focusing on how to take my career to the next level. And like magic, it worked.”
“One of his points that still sticks with me to this day (and I’m paraphrasing here) is ‘you have no control over your customers, clients, industry, competitors, but what you do have control over is your effort. Don’t let the stuff you can’t control frustrate you. Focus on what you can control – how much effort you’re putting into what you’re doing.’ Again, that was paraphrased, but you get the gist of it. I will continue to take the lessons from Cuban’s book with me as my career grows and flourishes.”
– Angie Greenup, Host of “Love, Food, and Money.”
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?
“Peter Thiel’s Zero to One is the best book I’ve read in the last year, and one I think every ambitious young person should read before making decisions that lock in a particular career path. When I picked up this slim volume I intended to skim a little to get the flavor. Four hours later I had finished it, complete with dog-ears and underlines.”
“I don’t like most popular business books, but Zero to One is not your typical bullet-point BS list of management techniques and self-help. It’s full of counter-intuitive insights, a wide range of social and economic theory, and Thiel’s own experiences as a founder and investor.”
“Perhaps most important for a would-be college student is the section about education, which criticizes the relentless and dangerous drive toward competitive achievement and external validation. Thiel shows how to break free and how to be truly different and committed to a unique vision. Some of the content may not apply unless and until you’re starting a business, but if you think of yourself as your own business, it will challenge you to ask questions about your unique vision, and what you can have a monopoly over that no one else can replicate.”
– Isaac Morehouse, Founder and CEO of Praxis.
Dale Stephens shared another book that influenced his path in education. Check out Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution:
“Arendt is one of the few philosophers I like because she actually applies her philosophy to real world problems. She’s an example of someone who was never afraid to be herself, and On Revolution gives insight into how you can be that brave as well.”
We also recommend that you read Blake Boles’s own Better than College and Dale Stephens’s Hacking Your Education before you make the decision to spend four years and six figures in the classroom!
Learn more about our great contributors and their work at the links below: