The best books for understanding what's really important, from someone who doesn't have it all figured out

Why am I passionate about this?

When I entered my fifties, I was very surprised to discover that I didn’t have my life all figured out. This was especially surprising since the nature of a good human life has been my research topic for decades. What I have learned, from philosophy and from my collaborations with psychologists, is that it’s always going to be a process. We have to figure out what matters and how to get it, we have to navigate value conflicts, and we have to accept that the answers will change as our circumstances change. The books I’ve recommended aren’t guides to life, but I think they’re great for understanding the process. 


I wrote...

What Do You Want Out of Life? A Philosophical Guide to Figuring Out What Matters

By Valerie Tiberius,

Book cover of What Do You Want Out of Life? A Philosophical Guide to Figuring Out What Matters

What is my book about?

What do you want out of life? To make a lot of money―or work for justice? To run marathons―or sing in a choir? To have children―or travel the world? The things we care about in life―family, friendship, leisure activities, work, our moral ideals―often conflict, preventing us from doing what matters most to us. Even worse, we don’t always know what we really want, or how to define success. Blending personal stories, philosophy, and psychology, this insightful and entertaining book offers invaluable advice about living well by understanding your values and resolving the conflicts that frustrate their fulfillment.

Valerie Tiberius introduces you to a way of thinking about your goals that enables you to reflect on them effectively throughout your life.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

Valerie Tiberius Why did I love this book?

To achieve the things that matter to us, we have to know what they are.

We tend to think we know ourselves really well – certainly better than anyone else knows us. But in this book, psychologist Timothy Wilson presents fascinating evidence that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.

In particular, we tend to rationalize our choices after the fact in ways that don’t actually reflect our deeper, emotional state.

This book opened my mind to the idea that we need to “look under the hood” to figure out what matters to us most. 

By Timothy D. Wilson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Strangers to Ourselves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Know thyself," a precept as old as Socrates, is still good advice. But is introspection the best path to self-knowledge? What are we trying to discover, anyway? In an eye-opening tour of the unconscious, as contemporary psychological science has redefined it, Timothy D. Wilson introduces us to a hidden mental world of judgments, feelings, and motives that introspection may never show us.

This is not your psychoanalyst's unconscious. The adaptive unconscious that empirical psychology has revealed, and that Wilson describes, is much more than a repository of primitive drives and conflict-ridden memories. It is a set of pervasive, sophisticated mental…


Book cover of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Valerie Tiberius Why did I love this book?

My work focuses on fulfilling values and resolving conflicts among goals as the key to well-being. This can sound very individualistic, so it’s important to understand what a fundamentally social species we are.

In this book, the evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich explains how our social nature, especially our ability to learn from each other, has been essential to our success as a species.

There are other ways of learning about our social nature – the importance of relationships is everywhere in the literature on happiness, for instance – but this book gives a wonderful big-picture view of how interdependent we really are. 

It’s also just fun to read – or to listen to, which is how I encountered it (on Audible). 

By Joseph Henrich,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Secret of Our Success as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This book shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in…


Book cover of Happiness: A Very Short Introduction

Valerie Tiberius Why did I love this book?

Everyone values being happy – it’s something we all want and should want!

Haybron’s little book has so much wisdom packed into it about what happiness is and how best to get it. He draws on philosophy and psychology to argue that the feeling of happiness is actually made up of three different emotional states: attunement, engagement, and endorsement. 

He then explains the research about good strategies for getting into these positive emotional states.

My students have really enjoyed this book and it contains one of my favorite lines from a book of philosophy: “don’t be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness.”  

By Daniel M. Haybron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Happiness is an everyday term in our lives, and most of us strive to be happy. But defining happiness can be difficult.

In this Very Short Introduction, Dan Haybron considers the true nature of happiness. By examining what it is, assessing its importance in our lives, and how we can (and should) pursue it, he considers the current thinking on happiness, from psychology to philosophy.

Illustrating the diverse routes to happiness, Haybron reflects on contemporary ideas about the pursuit of a good life and considers the influence of social context on our satisfaction and well-being.

ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very…


Book cover of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

Valerie Tiberius Why did I love this book?

No matter how good a job we do at figuring out what matters, we’re going to confront conflicts between goals.

That’s just life for mortal creatures: there are more valuable goals out there than we can fit in a single life.

Burkeman’s funny and insightful book provides a lot of good strategies for coping with limited time.

My father recommended this book to me.

He thought that Burkeman’s book and my book make a good pair: mine is about how to figure out what matters and his is about coming to terms with how little time you have to get it.  

By Oliver Burkeman,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Four Thousand Weeks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

"Provocative and appealing . . . well worth your extremely limited time." ―Barbara Spindel, The Wall Street Journal

The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief. Assuming you live to be eighty, you have just over four thousand weeks.

Nobody needs telling there isn’t enough time. We’re obsessed with our lengthening to-do lists, our overfilled inboxes, work-life balance, and the ceaseless battle against distraction; and we’re deluged with advice on becoming more productive and efficient, and “life hacks” to optimize our days. But such techniques often end up making things worse. The sense of…


Book cover of Educated: A Memoir

Valerie Tiberius Why did I love this book?

I was deeply moved by this memoir of a young woman who overcomes incredible obstacles to pursue values (like a mainstream education) that no one in her family could understand.

To me, Westover’s story shows us the human capacity for developing sets of values that are better for us than the ones with which we were raised. 

Most people reading these book recommendations will not have had to fight for the value of going to school, but we do need to have courage to modify our goals in ways that other people might not like.

I think Westover is an inspiring example of someone who discovers what matters to her and finds a way to get it against all odds. 

By Tara Westover,

Why should I read it?

26 authors picked Educated as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE MULTI-MILLION COPY BESTSELLER

Selected as a book of the year by AMAZON, THE TIMES, SUNDAY TIMES, GUARDIAN, NEW YORK TIMES, ECONOMIST, NEW STATESMAN, VOGUE, IRISH TIMES, IRISH EXAMINER and RED MAGAZINE

'One of the best books I have ever read . . . unbelievably moving' Elizabeth Day
'An extraordinary story, beautifully told' Louise O'Neill
'A memoir to stand alongside the classics . . . compelling and joyous' Sunday Times

Tara Westover grew up preparing for the end of the world. She was never put in school, never taken to the doctor. She did not even have a birth certificate…


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We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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