20 Books That Shaped My Early Twenties
While trying to decide which book I wanted to review first, I realized that it was unrealistic for me to reflect on books I’ve read in the past individually. I’m already overwhelmed these days with the amount of books I’ve saved in my Amazon Kindle shopping cart. 😬 📚 🛒
Instead, I sat down and wrote down all the titles I could come up with off the top of my head that I felt were memorable even until today. Books that truly taught me something and improved my life in some way. Books that gave me the tools to change an inner narrative or gave me clarity into a different way of thinking. Below are 20 books that shaped my early twenties.
Jump to the end to see the books organized by title and themes.
On taking ownership
The most dominant things on my mind after college was not wanting to be a financial burden on my two Korean immigrant parents and wanting to pursue a creative life. There are two books during this time that gave me the kick in the behind and start I needed:
The greatest gifts that The Defining Decade gave me were a sense of urgency and feeling the power of relatable stories. You’re asked to not run away from figuring things out. I actually felt “attacked” at certain parts, haha. But this is precisely why I loved this book. It pushes your buttons and asks you to start building your life with clarity and intention.
Favorite takeaway: “Feeling better doesn’t come from avoiding adulthood, it comes from investing in adulthood.”
Own Your Sh*t is more of a life coach-y book. I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, but it was helpful to me with its one recurring idea — own both the good and the bad in your life.
Favorite takeaway: “Change comes first from knowing yourself through honest—sometimes brutally honest—self-reflection.”
After being a student of creative nonfiction for five years, Dani Shapiro and Anne Lamott provided humorous insights into what it’s actually like to live the life of a professional writer.
Through Still Writing, I learned about why it’s valuable to design a practice and be disciplined while also being kind to yourself. The sentences are elegant yet give you an honest take on what it takes to make a living off of writing.
Favorite takeaway: “She is practicing because she knows there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art.”
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tackles the common struggles of writing. Perfectionism is the enemy and shitty first drafts are your friend. In this book, the act of writing is contextualized into daily life and gives you powerful truths to remember when getting stories on paper.
Favorite takeaway: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
On being memorable
Srinivas Rao is the host and founder of the popular podcast, the Unmistakable Creative. He’s also the author of several books. Most of Srini’s books revolve around the notion of creating work that’s unforgettable, unique, and unmistakably yours.
I’ve read The Art of Being Unmistakable and Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best. I preferred the latter. What I like most of Srini’s ideas is the encouragement towards first unlearning things that do not serve your chosen higher purpose. Being unmistakable means putting work out into the world with nuances that could have only been made by you and your quirks. It’s a scrappier take on the desire to be “original.”
“When you're the only person who could have created a work of art, the competition and standard metrics by which things are measured become irrelevant because nothing can replace you. The factors that distinguish you are so personal than nobody can replicate them.” — Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best
On understanding personality
I treat the MBTI personality world the way I treat horoscopes — as litmus tests. I’m simply interested in them because I’m curious about what parts I agree and disagree with on any given day. I pay attention to what I react positively to and read between the lines.
I found The Comprehensive INFP Survival Guide by Heidi Priebe to be hilariously thorough. I’ll let some of these real online reviews of the book do the talking:
“I'm almost always misunderstood by others, and this book let me realize who I truly am and I swear I don't think I've ever felt more understood. This book has helped me realize my greatest strengths, weaknesses and how I can overcome them.”
“I learned so many interesting new things. It was also totally amusing when I recognized myself in the writing, which happened quite often.”
“The book was exactly what I needed to identify my funk and figure out a plan of action on how to get out of it.”
“This book is a physical equivalent of receiving a hug for who you are. Even now, in my 20s, my family does not accept me for who I am and looks down on me for my hypersensitive and emotional nature.”
On getting over my fear of money
Growing up, money was often a source of tension in my family. I developed a chronic avoidance of all things finance and it did not serve me well after I moved to New York. This city forces me to confront myself and my financial decisions. I fundamentally didn’t have any trust in myself to be a smart financial decision maker. I needed to change my story about money.
I loved that Lynne Twist in The Soul of Money approaches money in a completely different and refreshing way than most books in the finance section. She encourages you to start with your mind and your attitude towards money, not the logistics. You’re encouraged to think about holistic prosperity over just wealth in numbers. You’re guided to see the value in coming from a place of “enough” instead of scarcity. You learn about of being a wise and kind steward of money over just plugging into charity causes once in awhile.
“Your relationship with money can be a place where you bring your strengths and skills, your highest aspirations, and your deepest and most profound qualities. Whether we are millionaires or ‘dollar heirs,’ we can actually be great with our money and be great in our relationship with it.”
What I discovered from reading over a dozen finance books was that most of them were just saying the same things in different ways. The strategic solutions for building a thriving financial life often are timeless and have been proven many times over to work. The problem? I found the language in most finance books to be unrelatable. That is, Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman’s tone just never got through to me.
For me, books written by millennials for millennials were what worked. It’s not because they’re necessarily trendy, it’s because I found them empowering while practical. There are thousands of articles that talk about the overall economic situation of my generation. I found it refreshing to be able to read about finance in the tone of someone who could empathize first rather than start off judging.
The book Broke Millennial is the one that was my tipping point book. It’s written in such a millennial tone that I actually cringed at many parts, haha. There are references to Tinder, “moolah,” crazy student loans, your squad of friends, and more. Erin Lowry encourages you to “stop scraping by and get your financial life together.” Thanks to her book, I’m on track so far to be debt-free in about 3 years.
No favorite takeaways as what I gained most from this book was very basic financial knowledge. Instead, here are some other financial resources I consume: Millennial Money, Afford Anything, The Hell Yeah Group, and Refinery29’s Money Diaries podcast.
On focus and deep work
Ah, yes. Cal Newport. I’ve read about four of his books and Deep Work is the only one I still think about in the back of my mind.
The title of the book is really what it’s all about — Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The author defines the practice of deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” In our modern distracting world, Cal outlines all the reasons and ways to incorporate the deep work mentality into your life.
“Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”
My one pushback on this book though is the word in the takeaway above: elite. While reading this book, I had a very strange experience. The more I read about Cal’s way of thinking, the more he reminded me of my own dad. You see, there’s one thing the author has in common with my dad — they’re both professors. Scholars. Men in the academic world with their own secluded offices and who are paid to essentially do deep thinking for a living. Individuals who are paid to take sabbaticals and get the summers off. In other words, they live a very engineered working life that nearly comes with the environment to be able to tune out the noise.
Now, this doesn’t mean his advice is not applicable and is totally pretentious. I agree with him on how much value deep thinking can bring to our lives. I just wish he’d included nuanced language to be inclusive of more workers.
On time and career management
The 99U series by Jocelyn Glei is made up of three books:
Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks Build an Incredible Career
Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business With Impact
These books were helpful to me because they provided glimpses into various ways of managing a creative life and career. I don’t consider them canon, but more like broad brushstrokes to get started.
“Like it or not, we are constantly forced to juggle tasks and battle unwanted distractions—to truly set ourselves apart, we must learn to be creative amidst chaos.”
“To build a career, the right question is not ‘What job am I passionate about doing?’ but instead ‘What way of working and living will nurture my passion?’”
“Start with these questions: How will the world be better off thanks to you having been on this earth? What are your unique gifts and superpowers? Who have you been when you’ve been at your best? Who must you fearlessly become? At the intersection of these four questions lies your personal purpose.”
On standing out
I don’t typically care much for the books that promise how to make you into another Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. What I did appreciate about Adam Grant’s book Originals is that he actually does his best to de-mystify what it looks like to reject conforming and move the needle.
“The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.”
Tip: I skipped the sections with stories and went straight for the paragraphs that got to the point. Most of this book felt a bit too embellished with supporting stories. Adam Grant is a psychologist and professor who specializes in organizational psychology. I like to just jump to the parts where his expertise shines.
On doing work that matters
Seth Godin is known as the godfather of modern day permission marketing. He is candid, philosophical, persistent, and prolific. Seth has published 18 worldwide bestsellers in 36 languages. I’ve read most of his books, used to subscribe to his blog, and listen to his podcast.
These are the books I found particularly insightful:
The thing to remember about Seth’s books are that they aren’t structured as “normal” books. In fact, they’re really just compilations of his daily blog posts organized under impactful themes. They’re not narrative driven, they’re idea-driven. He shares kernels of ideas, observations, and repeatable philosophies.
The philosophy I’ve gained:
Do work that matters and don’t wait for permission. The world has changed thanks to the Internet and the gatekeepers are gone. Change people. Sell with integrity and do not fall into the trap of getting addicted to the bottom line. Fear can be your friend and compass. Override your fears and serve your tribe. You just need 1,000 dedicated fans of your work to be sustainable. Break out of the industrial complex model of our past era and ship work that takes down the status quo. Show up every day and poke at the things that matter to you. Be indispensable. Raise your hand to do work that requires bravery and makes a dent.
You can see him in action at our 2018 CreativeMornings Summit doing a rare live Q&A with our global community at a campground in New York.
On New York City
I always like to tell my friends that it was my 150th day in New York that it started to feel like home. When I asked other New Yorkers for a book I should read about this city, Here is New York by E.B. White was the top recommendation.
Although it was published in 1949, Elwyn Brooks White’s beautiful sentences are still relevant today. He describes what it’s like to live in New York perfectly.
The most popular excerpt:
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something [...] Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. ”
My personal favorite:
“But the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin-the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled. . . .”
Last month, I celebrated my 27th birthday. (Ah, late twenties!) I was slightly disappointed by the books I narrowed down. Out of the authors listed in this post, only one of them was a person of color and more than half were women (which is great).
Good news though - the overall diversity of my author pool has already shifted this year. I’m committed to making sure the books I read include as many people of color (especially women of color) moving forward. I’m excited to write another post like this in the future with a more diverse list of authors and themes. Most of all, I’m looking forward to how they might change me.