What one book could give me a new, useful superpower?
September 12, 2012 7:54 AM   Subscribe

What one book could pretty much give me a new, useful superpower if I follow it and put the methods inside into practice? In my life, I've come across a small handful of books that have really allowed me to learn to do some things that were previously unthinkable to me, and which I'm able to use all the time in my life. I'm most interested in a book that has actually worked to change your life, rather than one that seems like it would be good if you one day got around to following it. Thanks.
posted by surenoproblem to Education (77 answers total) 692 users marked this as a favorite
> I've come across a small handful of books that have really allowed me to learn to do some things that were previously unthinkable to me

I don't have any suggestions for you, but I would appreciate hearing your examples!
posted by aganders3 at 8:01 AM on September 12, 2012 [31 favorites]

How To Cook Everything.
posted by Mizu at 8:14 AM on September 12, 2012 [16 favorites]

Ishmael changed how I view the world, which led to me treating it (and everyone) differently. However, it didn't give me a specific skill other than "how to feel like one with everyone and everything around me and treat the world and everything in it with the respect it deserves".

So...seconding _How To Cook Everything_.
posted by bender b rodriguez at 8:20 AM on September 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

Starting Strength, assuming you're not already in super shape. This recommendation is equally valid for males and females.
posted by Vorteks at 8:24 AM on September 12, 2012 [13 favorites]

I'm not a big "self-help" reader, but Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is a knockout in terms of giving you the concrete tools to say uncomfortable things that need to be said - both at work and at home.

I find myself falling back on the tools all the time to give performance feedback at work - even to a peer - as well as to talk about tough stuff with my spouse.
posted by paddingtonb at 8:26 AM on September 12, 2012 [12 favorites]

Drawing on the right Side of the Brain is exactly what you ask for. If you do what the book says, you will be able to draw.
posted by cmoj at 8:29 AM on September 12, 2012 [20 favorites]

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense
posted by bq at 8:30 AM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

No idea if this is relevant to you, but its my real answer. If you read and follow this book (Fit for Real People) you will become able to instantly identify how and why women's ready-to-wear doesn't fit, and reject or alter it accordingly. You will also vastly improve the fit of the clothes you make, but for me that was actually a secondary benefit.
posted by crabintheocean at 8:35 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's admittedly a minor super power, but learning how to tie good knots was a lot of fun and has come in very handy. I learned most of mine with Morrow's Book of Knots.
posted by machinecraig at 8:35 AM on September 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy teaches you how to use cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques on yourself.
posted by callmejay at 8:43 AM on September 12, 2012 [13 favorites]

It's maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now flipped the lightswitch in my understanding of how to calm my mind and be conscious of my thoughts. I've read about meditation, Buddhism, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc. but this one book really changed me in a way the others didn't. I still have to work at it, but having a calm mind feels like a superpower.
posted by Durin's Bane at 8:45 AM on September 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

He Said, She Said by Deborah Tannen is a layperson's guide to gender communications.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath discuss how to make a change in the behavior of a group when you have no power.

The Social Animal by Dave Brooks creates a fictional story out of tons of psych research. Chapter 8 is about self-control.

The Four Hour Body, while perhaps a little gimmicky, drove home the power of tracking change to build change.
posted by jander03 at 8:55 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The Tao of Pooh". And yes I am serious. Also the follow up the "Te of Piglet". This book was my introduction to a whole different way of thinking about things, I am sure there are books on the subject that would be considered more grown up or whatever but these explain complicated ideas rather well in my opinion and they helped me learn a few small super powers on the way.
posted by wwax at 9:18 AM on September 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

A lot of these books take a while to have the desired effect. This book, on the other hand, is written to make you remember the names and salient characteristics of all the Kings and Queens of England, the presidents of the United States, and the British prime ministers, after one quickish read. I've got about halfway through it, and it pretty much works; I was able to have a conversation about mediaeval England that sounded a lot more intelligent than it would otherwise have done as a result. It also implicitly teaches you specific memorisation techniques which you can then apply to other areas. I think this is what you are after.

Alternatively, this and this. Effects less immediate, arguably more profound. :)
posted by Acheman at 9:28 AM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee.

I don't think it's necessarily the perfect step by step writing guide, but this book really spelled out for me the fact that stories are composed of building-block like elements that can be broken down in ways that take a lot of the mystery out of writing.

Before reading this, I was sort of like, "someday I am going to write something longer than a blog post, I hope..."

After reading this, I had a roadmap to the structure of my first screenplay.

I'm a screenwriter, but I think his ideas translate equally well to most long fiction writing forms. It's all about acts and scenes and beats, which exist across all human narrative.
posted by Sara C. at 9:44 AM on September 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

Nobody's said Getting Things Done yet? Worked for me - I remain very organized years later.
posted by momus_window at 9:50 AM on September 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

There's Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate fell into my lap at just the right time in my life. It's simply laid out, but it contains deep concepts and practices that remain with me years after i read it. In short, it gave me the "superpower" of having compassion for myself.
posted by fignewton at 9:58 AM on September 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds Or Less

What it says on the tin, basically. The author gives you a blueprint for establishing instant rapport in any situation, whether personal or professional. For someone like myself that's a superpower for sure.
posted by carolinecrane at 10:06 AM on September 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Seconding mum_window on Getting Things Done. I don't follow it as gospel -- maybe I've implemented about a quarter of the techniques it advocates -- but I think it's effected a significant, positive, and permanent change in the way I deal with things.

Also seconding aganders3's request that you tell us what your picks would be!

I'd also suggest How to be a (bad) birdwatcher. A short, partly autobiographical book which tells you how to integrate an appreciation of birds into your everyday life, rather than taking up "birding" or "twitching" as a hobby per se. It's also an excellent, entertaining, and occasionally touching read.
posted by pont at 10:46 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Sorry momus_window, I don't know how I managed that typo.)
posted by pont at 10:47 AM on September 12, 2012

"Straight and Crooked Thinking" by Robert Thouless. Some helpful person has placed a full PDF version of this out-of-print book on the web in a place that's easy to find. See through BS arguments quickly. Learn not just why people are full of it, but how to respond.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:05 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding How to Cook Everything (I like the veggie version) and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I would add First (and Second) Steps in Statistics - work through this book and not only will you be able to use basic stats and understand how experts use statistics at work and on the news, you will also recognize dubious stats and and good and bad presentations of statistical data. Plus, the book is very readable and really really funny.
posted by Wylla at 11:17 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Mindfulness in Plain English: those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:40 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

How to Find Lost Objects: cheesy, but effective.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:42 AM on September 12, 2012

Don't Shoot the Dog: positive reinforcement training for dogs and everyone else.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:43 AM on September 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

Your Memory: How it Works and How to Improve It: best book on mnemonics. Written by an academic, so far less wild claims and other bunk.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:44 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speed Mathematics Simplified: teaches a modified mental abacus system for quick arithmetic, as well as other less general (but fast!) techniques such as aliquots.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:46 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Square Foot Gardening: gardening made very productive and basically idiot-proof.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:49 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

ANSI Common Lisp: the closest computer languages get to magic.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:51 AM on September 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Never Eat Alone: for business and personal networking
posted by leotrotsky at 11:53 AM on September 12, 2012

E-Myth: for successfully starting and running a business.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:54 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Charisma Myth: how to create, cultivate, and employ personal charisma. This is probably one of the coolest and most useful books I own
posted by leotrotsky at 11:59 AM on September 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

Getting to Yes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:27 PM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Art of Happiness was a book that while, it is not an instant how to manual, it gave me some sense of insight as to where the Dalai Lama comes from as a person.

It is written with the assistance of a narrator/ghost writer. Howard Cutler M.D., is a psychiatrist who follows the Dalai Lama around and asks him questions on what it is to be enlightened. I would argue that Happiness is a superpower, and that this book gives you some insight into the roots of it. So you can grow your own.
posted by tehrob at 12:42 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

It is a collection of short essays about how to be a better writer, but it is a superpower book because Goldberg does three things so well: she gives you permission as a writer, and as a person, to think all of the strange things that you think; she gives you permission to learn writing by practicing it rather than by simply being born brilliant; and she makes you want to sit down and start writing again the moment you put the book down. In fact, I've never actually read everything in the book, despite owning it for over 15 years and re-reading it multiple times, because every time I pick it up again, I hit a chapter that makes me think, 'Oh, I should really start working on x,y, or z writing project again' and so I put down the book and go write for a while. I haven't found many other books on writing that make me do that.
posted by colfax at 1:01 PM on September 12, 2012 [12 favorites]

posted by .kobayashi. at 1:44 PM on September 12, 2012

Becoming the Iceman: Pushing Past Perceived Limits

Despite being very hastily edited, and the co-author's obvious life-noob status, it's a pretty cool insight into the methods of the guy who can not only run marathons above the polar circle and in the desert, but also control his immune system.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 1:58 PM on September 12, 2012

Take a look at both The Talent Code and Talent Is Overrated for an introduction to Deliberate Practice -- what it is, why it works and why it can change your approach to superpower acquisition.

I found them nothing less than transformative.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:20 PM on September 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
posted by twentyfoursummers at 2:43 PM on September 12, 2012

Keys to Drawing. A great book for the first chapter alone - getting rid of that "this line looks wrong this line looks wrong" voice in your head long enough to draw well.

Seconding How to Cook Everything.
posted by sidi hamet at 6:01 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't believe no one's mentioned Your Money or Your Life! This is the one book I've read that has truly influenced my behavior - not just financially but thinking about purpose of life, work, etc. and living responsibly.
posted by wannabecounselor at 6:25 PM on September 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

I found The Big Leap had a surprising impact on me, despite the fact that I found the author to be sometimes hard to take.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:29 PM on September 12, 2012

Aw man, how has no one mentioned Moonwalking with Einstein?

In a nutshell: learn the techniques that people use to memorize... well, nearly anything.
posted by Blandanomics at 7:15 PM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Aw man, how has no one mentioned Moonwalking with Einstein?

In a nutshell: learn the techniques that people use to memorize... well, nearly anything.

I loved that book, but its more of a parlor trick kind of memory than anything else I found useful. I read it when it first came out, and its incredible, I still remember the "mind temple" he makes you create, in perfect detail. The problem is I can't remember what any of it means. Something about garlic.... I think... blagh.

How to Cook Everything is my vote!
posted by cacofonie at 7:45 PM on September 12, 2012

Linear Representations of Finite Groups, by Jean-Pierre Serre. I cannot guarantee this is a superpower most people need.
posted by escabeche at 8:43 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Gifts of Imperfection and the follow up Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The superpower is shame resilience.
posted by Okapi at 5:34 AM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.

The rise and fall of your favorite movie star of the most reviled CEO--in fact, of all our destinies--reflects as much as planning and innate abilities. Even the legendary Roger Maris, who beat Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, was in all likelihood not great but just lucky. And it might be shocking to realize that you are twice as likely to be killed in a car accident on your way to buying a lottery ticket than you are to win the lottery.

How could it have happened that a wine was given five out of five stars, the highest rating, in one journal and in another it was called the worst wine of the decade? Mlodinow vividly demonstrates how wine ratings, school grades, political polls, and many other things in daily life are less reliable than we believe. By showing us the true nature of change and revealing the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the world around us, Mlodinow gives fresh insight into what is really meaningful and how we can make decisions based on a deeper truth. From the classroom to the courtroom, from financial markets to supermarkets, from the doctor's office to the Oval Office, Mlodinow's insights will intrigue, awe, and inspire.

Offering readers not only a tour of randomness, chance, and probability but also a new way of looking at the world, this original, unexpected journey reminds us that much in our lives is about as predictable as the steps of a stumbling man fresh from a night at the bar.
posted by Acey at 5:39 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

OMG Lynda Barry's What It Is, which I bought on an AskMe recommendation. The single most inspiring and practical book on resuscitating comatose creativity I've ever read.
posted by stuck on an island at 6:00 AM on September 13, 2012 [13 favorites]

Ditto for me on the following:

How to Cook Everything (and it's veggie companion) - I use the app rather than the book. It certainly feels like a superpower or magic to be able to pull a halfway decent meal together from whatever random food I have in the house. I eat healthier, waste less food, buy less takeaway.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - I did about half the exercises in the book and saw a big improvement; I stopped when I felt like I'd reached a 'good enough' level, but one of the best artists I know did the whole thing and still uses the exercises for basic practice.

Getting Things Done - everyone praises my organisational and memory skills, when I'm not naturally like that at all. I started and finished more projects in the 9 months after starting it than in the 3 years previously. I use a modified version now (8 yrs on), as my working life is quite different from the author's; but the principles are sound and they work.

Your Money or Your Life - this one is probably the big game changer though. I'm not sure if the advice about bonds is still accurate, but the underlying principles are sound and doing the exercises they suggest will open your eyes to how you place value on your own time. It changed my entire attitude to money; it helped me determine my long-term goals in life and work out a plan for acheiving them.
posted by harriet vane at 6:27 AM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Inner Game of Tennis is wonderful, and not just for tennis players.
posted by swift at 8:31 AM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Immediate Fiction" changed the way I write and look at writing. So simple, and so effective.

"The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook" ended pain I had that no doctor/chiropractor could. You want a super power? Having the ability to fix/help/heal friends and family is amazing.

"How to Have Style" made me appreciate the importance of looking good, and gave me ideas (and permission) to do it.
posted by sazanka at 12:41 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Learning Good Consent - The focus is on sexual consent, but it was for me an excellent introduction to the idea of consent in general.
posted by aniola at 5:10 PM on September 13, 2012

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness - it's a good explanation of how to do something my Dad always used to tell me - if you want to persuade someone to do something for you, make it easy for them. Similarly, if you want to nudge yourself into changing your behavior, make it easy for yourself.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk - This is beyond useful for learning how to communicate effectively with anyone, not just kids.

Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior - Because courtesy absolutely counts as a superpower.

If knot-tying counts as a superpower to you, you can't go wrong with The Ashley Book of Knots.

I also second Getting to Yes.
posted by 168 at 7:01 PM on September 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Seconding Feeling Good (although Feeling Good Handbook or When Panic Attacks are probably better purchases than the original Feeling Good, just because they're more updated and thorough).

Feeling Good might be the most recommended book on AskMetafilter, and for good reason. The author is one of the people who developed cognitive behavior therapy and his book is a no-nonsense (and clinically proven) guide to employing proven CBT techniques without a trip to the therapist. It's essentially a mental health instruction manual.

Actual effect in my life: Many years ago I became very depressed. The kind where I would get home from work and basically just lay in my bed until it was time to go to sleep. I stumbled across this book, started reading it, and was drastically better after only a few days. I've never had that level of depression since, and on the rare occasions I get close it's always for very short period of time. This book changed the way I think about and deal with the shitty parts of life, and I feel it's one of the big reasons that I am a pretty happy and mentally healthy guy the vast majority of the time.

Also, lest you think from my story that it's designed only for severe depression, that is not true. Mild feelings of perpetual shittiness, mild anxiety, really bad anxiety, procrastination, anger, social anxiety. It's all covered.
posted by Defenestrator at 9:32 AM on September 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Dale Carnegie how to make friends and influence people, looks like 50s cheese but it's for real! This will give you the superpowers of

a) not criticising
b) appreciating the other
c) smiling
d) generally kicking ass socially (hint: it's not about you)
posted by Tom-B at 3:32 AM on September 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Regarding the recommendation "Remember, Remember" by Ed Cooke, are there any forums or sites or collections where people have written other "memory walks" for other lists? I know there's the Moonwalking book but I'm talking about other types of trivia in addition to what is in Cooke's book. Thanks, and don't mean to thread hijack - if anything, it helps add to that memory superpower.
posted by rastapasta at 4:36 PM on September 17, 2012

Knife Skills Illustrated - it doesn't really have to be this book, or even a book at all, but learning how to chop an onion properly has definitely changed my life, and it was this book that taught me.
posted by queensb at 8:07 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:48 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just discovered this thread via MetaTalk; there are some great suggestions here and I would add Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. Norman does an excellent job explaining how much of what is dismissed as human error is really failure at the design level and reading it has really changed how I look at the useability of tools I use both at work and in my, personal life.
posted by TedW at 9:47 AM on December 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Many thanks to seguatakai for pointing out this thread, which I missed.

Eat to Live has sure been life changing for me. And, likely, life-extending.
posted by bearwife at 10:59 AM on December 26, 2012

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely taught me how to recognise broken patterns in my own and other people's thinking, and how to route around them or take advantage of them. After reading two chapters I changed the prices of a range of ebooks I was selling, and my monthly revenue immediately increased by 50%.
posted by Hogshead at 1:58 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I found Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert fairly life changing, and definitely gave me a superpower in terms of actually being prepared for moments when I need to imagine future scenarios to make a choice.
[...] this is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.
(incidentally - we are pretty much rubbish at doing this as humans).
posted by Augenblick at 1:14 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Book of Luke, available online, practically open source, takes less than an hour to read, fundamental to western thought, plus, you know, this Jesus person whom approximately two billion of us imperfectly follow.
posted by willF at 3:57 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Exploring the world of lucid dreaming

This book will literally give you a super power to control your dreams.
posted by zavulon at 7:10 PM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.

One of the most upbeat existential books there is. It still deals with devastating topics. That's part of it.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:59 PM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'll also mention Getting Things Done, although I find the author an incredible Tool with a capital T. Like any group of ideas, pick out what you like, toss the rest.

It's amazing what you can learn from people you do not like.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:01 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would heartily recommend any of several good books on knot-tying. Most people don't know more than two or three knots, learning even a half-dozen more will have you tying down loads on trucks, cars, and bikes, guying tents and clotheslines, and more.
posted by blacksmithtb at 10:25 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Beginner's Mind, Zen Mind: I've read this one a few times, but have yet to really put it into practice in a consistent way. But when I have, I've felt like...I don't need superpowers, which is like a superpower in and of itself, right?

Remembering the Kanji or Remembering the Hanzi: this is kind of not really a superpower to billions of people (understanding the meaning of Chinese characters as they apply to Chinese or Japanese), but as a Westerner, learning the meanings of Chinese characters has changed how I experience the world in a really dramatic way. It's quite awesome, and won't take you that long at all: give it a shot!
posted by dubitable at 6:14 AM on December 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Meditation. 8 Minute Meditation. I have found it through MetaFilter.
posted by Think [Instrumental] at 10:43 AM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Francois and Hetrzberg, Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day Just about as good as bread gets, with less than half the work.
Kafka, Microwave Gourmet Perfect risotto—and almost as effortless as heating up soup!
Weinstein and Thomas, Mastering Knife Skills Changed my life.

Antidotes to blindness, bias, and delusion
Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
Watts, Everything Is Obvious Once You Know the Answer
Silver, The Signal and the Noise
Taleb: Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile
Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation
posted by markcmyers at 1:06 PM on December 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Awaken The Giant Within by Tony Robbins

So Inspirational. I Promise it will motivate you, and give you some great tools to make
some empowering life changes. It did for me.
posted by Therapist in NYC at 5:09 PM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, my first thought was Writing Down the Bones but Colfax beat me to it - so I guess I'll have to go with:

How To Hide Anything

Kind of self explanatory.
posted by hoodrich at 1:17 AM on January 1, 2013

I think leotrotsky has it - the closest thing I have to a superpower is being able to program. It's genuinely like wizardry sometimes - arcane incantations, difficult-to-obtain components, occasionally dramatic effects, and a fair bit of tedium that's completely opaque to people who aren't practitioners.

I'm not even a good programmer, but because I work in a setting where hardly anyone else programs, it regularly awes people - and occasionally, saves us several actual days of work.

Python the Hard Way is a pretty good places to start, if you'll count free online text as a book...
posted by McBearclaw at 8:42 PM on January 2, 2013

Making Space - Creating a Home Meditation Practice. Will give you the superpower not of learning to meditate, but of actually practicing meditation in your life. So good! Also short and simply written.
posted by t0astie at 6:46 PM on August 25, 2013

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