Three Books That Changed My Life


How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book – Thoreau, Walden

It usually begins with Ayn Rand. I was an aimless and unhappy college freshman at UC San Diego when I bought Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged at a local bookstore. I had come across her name in an article by the bodybuilder Mike Mentzer in a muscle magazine. Mentzer claimed to have based his bodybuilding philosophy of training to failure off of her epistemology. The truth is I thought her name was pronounced “Ann” and I thought she was a man.

At the time, I wasn’t much of a reader. I was a washed up former athlete with chronic leg injuries due to misguided and compulsive training. Without sports – and a lack of other interests – I was aimlessly making my way through my first year of college, completely adrift and suffering from paralyzing social anxiety due to a lack of self confidence.

After a bad high from a marijuana brownie that sent me to the campus emergency room, I picked Atlas off my shelf and started to read it. And like many before me I was quickly engrossed. Here was a book about how to live your life, about the search for answers to the question “How should I live?” In my previous experience, books never seemed to have anything to do with me, with my life. They were about ancient history or abstruse scientific facts. Though I went through the phase of true believer, I eventually outgrew much her philosophy of Objectivism. Nevertheless, Ayn Rand ignited a passion for philosophy, for the quest for knowledge, in me that has never dimmed. And for that I am forever grateful.

After reading Atlas, I became an economics and then a philosophy major. After graduating in 2000, I went to work for two years for a consulting firm in Los Angeles. While waiting for philosophy graduate school at UC Davis to start in Fall 2003, I picked up Walden one day as I headed out for a hike in the Malibu hills. I had mistakenly thought that Walden was a nature book but I was soon disabused of that notion once I found a nice spot along my hike to start reading.

Thoreau made me question and ultimately revise many of my beliefs about the good life that I had picked up from Ayn Rand. Rand is an apostle of capitalism and the free market. Her fictional heroes are brilliant entrepreneurs like Hank Reardon who invented a new metal superior to steel and thereby improved everybody’s quality of life. Despite her reputation being smeared beyond recognition, her worldview is quite similar to that of the contemporary Silicon Valley. Elon Musk is the perfect Ayn Rand hero.

Thoreau questioned if economics is all there is to life. He wondered when you stop piling up wealth and things and start really living. Because capitalism and wealth creation never end. The desire for more and more is insatiable. Thoreau made the contradictions of capitalism clear to me. If Rand made me an intellectual, Thoreau opened my eyes to the spiritual side of life.

Nevertheless I still retained an interest in economics and current events and in 2005 I became aware that the United States was in a housing bubble. I decided to put my philosophy studies on hold and start Top Gun. I wrapped up my Master’s degree and went to work full time on Top Gun at the beginning of 2006. By the middle of 2007, I had a million dollars under management and was short the homebuilders and investment banks that were holding so many bad mortgages. In 2008 the market tanked and I returned +15% while the S&P was down nearly 40%.

Fast forward more than a decade to 2021 when I got bad a case of COVID. The recovery was dragging on and on and I kept exacerbating things by doing more than I should – especially in my home gym. I was stuck, walking in quicksand of my own making. Almost a decade prior, I had picked up a book called The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein at the Los Altos Public Library from the bargain table for $2. At the time I spent an hour reading before discarding it because it had no resonance for me at the time.

For whatever reason I picked it up again as I was struggling to recover from COVID – and this time I was ready for it. Epstein is a psychiatrist who has spent his career trying to integrate Western psychology with Buddhism. Life is traumatic for all of us, Epstein argued, and our resistance to this only adds to the trauma. We think life should generally go smoothly and when it doesn’t we become frustrated, compounding our problems.

Epstein taught me to be present with my frustration and to learn to resist the compulsive impulses to keep doing the things that weren’t working. More generally, he made me aware of my kleshas – compulsive patterns of thought and emotion that impel us into repetitive and self defeating behavior. I realized that mindfulness was the bridge between knowledge and right action. That is, only via mindfulness could I short circuit akrasia – the Greek term for weakness of will – and implement more constructive action. Reading The Trauma of Everyday Life was the turning point in my recovery from COVID and the beginning of my explorations of mindfulness and Buddhism.

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