Every course I took in college and grad school had a syllabus with a required and recommended reading list. Not only did the list help me anticipate the direction of the class, I knew hitting those books would help me earn a better grade. 

When I started Talk To Me Johnnie a decade ago, I included a required reading list based on my current situation. At that point in history, I was still crafting the foundations of Power Athlete, so I was reading about training and human performance, and of course, the River Cottage Meat book. Since then, a lot has changed. I got married, had kids, moved a number of times, started and ended CrossFit Football, and grew Power Athlete to its current state. As my world expanded, so did my need for a wider breadth of knowledge to keep driving the counter culture spike that Power Athlete hammers daily. 

Reading allows us to have an intimate conversation with the greatest minds to have ever walked this planet. My goal is to empower the Power Athlete eco-system (if you’re reading this, this is you) to become the best version of themselves. This requires diligent training, reading, study, and reflection. 

The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein

This was one of the first books I remember reading, and to be frank, it was a bummer. As a kid, I never understood why the writer was so melancholy. Through adult eyes however, I have a different perspective. Where I saw sadness as a kid, I now see a lesson. 

Shel Silverstein wanted to prepare kids for life’s inevitabilities – loss and sadness. 

These days, I see an overwhelming movement to protect children from disappointment and loss. The hard truth is, success is never guaranteed and everyone, regardless of privilege, will experience failure, loss and sadness. Ideally, they encounter hardships early in life, like before college. Kids are resilient. As they encounter failure and loss, they will develop tools to persevere and become confident, well-adjusted adults. Sadly, we are seeing a whole generation of kids who were sheltered from challenges and now as adults, crumble in the face of adversity. 

Shel Silverstein used his platform to prepare a whole generation for hardships, something which permeated his own life. In his 20s, he was drafted and served in Japan and Korea. Later in life, he had his first child. She lost her mother at 5 years old then ended up passing away at 11 from a cerebral aneurysm. He included hard lessons in his “children’s books” to prepare for life’s challenges. 

Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

This book’s power lies in its use of imagination and daydreams to help a child turn traumatic moments into vehicles for survival and growth. When an unruly boy, Max, is sent to his room without supper, he channels his rage into transforming his room into a forest. From there, he boards a boat to where the “Wild Things” are. He becomes their ruler and eventually, the wildest of the wild things. When he sends the Wild Things to their beds without supper, he’s suddenly alone. He returns to his room to find his food waiting for him and makes amends. 

I loved the illustrations and always dreamed having a Wild Things room. When I was in college, I walked into a store selling large Wild Things action figures. At the time, I couldn’t afford the whole collection so I only bought one of the Wild Things and Max in his cape blanket. Those figures stood on my desk for years. I still have them to this day. 

I have always believed man’s nature to be twofold: one being a beast (or at times, worse), and the other, god-like in intellect and ethics. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Milton, Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Aleister Crowley have always believed that man’s inherent nature is that of a beast. This storyline has played out in literature and life for generations. The sooner man embraces his nature, the faster he is able to master it and move on. When someone suppresses their true nature, they wander in a fog of denial. 

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

Revenge is an interesting business and this book is steeped in it. This story follows Edmond Dantès, a young sailor who is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.  In the subsequent 23 years, he rises from the ashes as the Count of Monte Cristo. It is a story of betrayal and deceit that taught me revenge is a dish best served cold. 

I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before, but what exactly does that mean?  In life, you will be wronged. It’s unavoidable. Regardless of how tight you keep your circle and how close you play your cards to the vest, there are people that do not have your best interest at heart, who upon first opportunity, will sink a sharp dagger in your back. You can react emotionally and go “postal” in that moment or you can be coolly patient and go “Count of Monte Cristo”, using time, cunning, and planning to exact your revenge. Hence the “revenge is a dish best served cold” means check your emotions at the door, take your time, and calculate- think cold as ice. 

How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie

Published in 1936 after someone from a local publishing house took his 14-week course on professional development, the book does exactly what it says – provides a step by step approach on how to win friends and influence people. Actions like conveying sincere interest, smiling, and remembering a person’s name, while not criticizing, condemning and complaining all goes a long way towards influencing positively. 

After finishing this book (at the behest of Tony Gonzalez), I realized I could have saved myself a lot of grief had I read this earlier. Growing up, my two brothers and I would win friends and influence people the old fashioned way: metal, verbal, and physical battle. For better or worse, this was all I knew, so even at school, I used the skills developed in the crucible of my childhood. Had I read Dale’s writings back then, I would have navigated situations very differently. I was forever trying to prove how smart and tough I was without putting a lot of stock in friendships outside of family. As a result, it took me years to make friends who were genuinely interested in friendship for friendship sake and not for what I could do for them. 

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

The movie, Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, portrays Marcus Aurelius as the wise king who is murdered by his son, Commodus, out of fear and jealousy. 

Naturally, he was so much more than Ridley Scott’s depiction. Adopted as a young boy by the Roman Emperor Hadrian for his skill and cunning in wrestling, boxing and hunting, he studied under Herodes Atticus and many others. Cesar of Rome from 161 AD to 180 AD, this emperor conquered the Germanian barbarians for the glory of Rome. He was a trained philosopher in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.  In fact, he led the most powerful empire in history using stoicism as a framework.

Over the years, Marcus Aurelius collected his private thoughts into this book of Meditations as a means of giving advice to himself regarding making good on the responsibilities and obligations of his position. Included are thoughts on virtue and how to be a wise leader immune to temptation. 

I find myself quoting Marcus Aurelius daily. If you listen to our podcast, Power Athlete Radio, you will hear me steal his thoughts every episode. I even have his quotes on an action board at the recommendation of Tara Swart. 

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Everyone knows what is right and wrong – regardless of rhetoric. We know what it means to be strong in character and body, how to not falter in the face of temptation. how to make the right decisions when you are the only one that will know its reasoning. Use your power to lift people up and not just employ tactics to take advantage of others. 

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”

Many times enemies strike from a place of fear. Hatred is based in fear and jealousy. An enemy wants to see you on their level. Conversely, nothing is as soul stealing than for that piece of shit to see you succeed after they fucked you over. Keep that in mind when employing your Count of Monte Cristo. 

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Heavily influenced by Plato’s “An unexamined life is not worth living”, Marcus Aurelius was the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher king articulated in Book V of the Republic. Being a mindless drone passing time from weekend to weekend, waiting to die is not a life worth living. We are meant for adventure, passion and discovery. Every man should strive to stand on the tallest of mountains and scream his name for the all the world’s gods to hear. 

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

The dichotomy of man is perplexing. He thinks of himself above all others, yet values the opinion of those that have no bearing on his inner self. The only opinion that matters is the one you hold of yourself. I recall times when I hurt myself trying to gain approval from people that did not deserve to stand on my ground, specifically the NFL press corp waddling into our locker room to criticize some of the best athletes on the planet. I especially got a kick out of times they would lose their breath in the middle of long questions, or when they had to hike their guts away from their notepads . 

“What we do now echoes in eternity.”

The mark of a man is not his accomplishments but the effect he has on others – the ripple effect. Are you able to cast a large enough stone to make ripples for an eternity? Marcus Aurelius was such a man. 

Gates of Fire – Steve Pressfield

This book tells the story of Thermopylae, one of the most famous of ancient battles. 300 Spartans along with a small force of Greeks, held off an attacking army of 2 million Persians for several days. The way the Spartans acted in the face of extinction was absurdly heroic. In the end, the last man died, refusing to surrender. Their self-sacrifice bought time for the Greek City States, culminating in the Persian defeats at Salamis and Plataea. Ancient and modern historians alike view the battle as stuff of legend. 

In 2006, the movie 300 hit the big screen. A girl I knew invited me to go see it with her and her girlfriends. Initially, I was perplexed as to why we’re seeing a Tuesday matinee, but that didn’t stop me from accepting.  See a movie with a crew of hot girls? Duh, yeah!. Who knows where it could have led? That said, the movie was so impactful,l I walked out right into another screening with my jaw wide open. Yes, you read that right – the girls left and I watched it again. Not only did the story call back to things I studied in college, the cinematography was incomparable. Aesthetically, the actors’ conditioning made me realize I needed to pick it up a notch. I read this book shortly after to better understand the Spartan mindset and their systematic approach to training and mastery. 

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

This story follows Marlow, a skeptical sailor, and his journey up the Congo River to meet Kurt, a man who has lost his mind in the African jungle. Marlow works as a riverboat captain with a Belgian company that trades in the Congo. As he travels, Marlow encounters the widespread Belgian brutality towards the natives of a land governed by King Leopold II of Belgium. Locals are forced into the Company’s service, where they suffer terribly from overwork and poor treatment. Written in 1899, it chronicles the atrocities the Congolese suffered and is one of the most difficult books I have ever read. After “powering” through the book and complaining about its density, I was informed the book was purposely written to be as difficult to navigate as the African jungle. Mission Accomplished. 

Eaters of the Dead – Michael Crichton

The book combines two stories from history into a wonderful tale. The first are first-hand accounts of a Muslim traveler, Ibn Fadlan, who travels to the north, meets up with a band of Vikings and is enlisted on a quest to rid King Rothgar’s land of the Wendol – hairy creatures that share characteristics with a man and bear. The second half of the story is based on Beowulf. 

This is the rare time the movie, the 13th Warrior, did this great book justice.

This story follows the classic hero’s tale with all 12 stages employed in all the world’s heroic epics. 

Stage 1 – Ordinary World
Stage 2 – Call To Adventure
Stage 3 – Refusal Of The Call
Stage 4 – Meeting The Mentor
Stage 5 – Crossing The Threshold
Stage 6 – Tests, Allies, Enemies
Stage 7 – Approach To The Inmost Cave
Stage 8 – Ordeal
Stage 9 – Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Stage 10 – The Road Back
Stage 11 – Resurrection
Stage 12 – Return With The Elixir

Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

In the early 80s, Stephen Hawking had an idea: put all his scientific discoveries into a layman’s book that could be sold at airports to curious travelers. He wanted to explain our progress towards understanding the universe, especially how humankind might be close to finding a unified theory of the cosmos. With over 10 million copies sold and 147 weeks as a New York Times Best Seller, I think he succeeded. 

His examination of black holes is what led me to put this book on my recommended reading list. The term black hole was coined in 1969 by John Wheeler, but the idea has been around for about 200 years. It was Hawking who noticed that black holes grow bigger as matter falls into them. His explanation of quantum mechanics and the law of thermodynamics was impactful in understanding the universe’s origins and infinite nature. 

Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Palahniuk’s Fight Club is a novel that questions our view of reality, madness, social dynamics, and a wandering generation. If you have listened to Power Athlete Radio, you know I call Fight Club Gen X’s Catcher in the Rye. The plot is simple: a depressed insomniac, the narrator, meets a strange soap salesman named Tyler Durden and soon finds himself living in an abandoned house after his perfect apartment is destroyed by fire. The two bored men form an underground club with strict rules and fight other men who are fed up with their mundane lives. Then they met Marla – the pseudo love interest in the story. 

Released in 1996, this book wasn’t on my radar. Funny part is, it should have been. I was a regular at The City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco where Chuck Palahniuk had done book signings and  lectures. It wasn’t until I saw the movie in 1999 did I find the book. There are a few plot changes but they share the same terminology, which is vital to the message. Fight Club follows the transition from consumer culture to anti-consumerism where your “stuff” no longer owns you. This is perfectly framed by Tyler: 

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

For me, the central theme is one of rebellion. Legions of lost Gen Xers believed they would be rock gods and millionaires. Then, they had the slow realization that their TV fed them heaps of bullshit – life is not MTV Cribs, but is instead dark and full of pitfalls that require careful navigation. 

“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

Catcher in the Rye is a favorite of high school teachers and sleeper assassins alike. The book details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, Holden searches for truth and rails against the “phoniness” of the adult world. The story has long been associated with teenage angst long before The Cure and EMO was a thing. 

When I read this book in 8th grade, I kept wondering why he was always crying. Re-reading Catcher in the Rye as a slightly more perceptive adult, I understood. Adolescence should be the happiest time in life but ironically, it is an extremely unhappy time for kids. I find this ironic because kids are free from the stressors of adulthood with their whole lives ahead of them.  Youth is wasted on the young. 

1984 – George Orwell

George Orwell presents his dystopian future complete with war and a totalitarian government led by Big Brother, who controls the truth and stomps out individual thought. When the protagonist, Winston Smith, becomes disillusioned with the Party and rebels, we see the true nature of the control. Written in 1949, it has some eerie similarities to today’s world. 

Look no further than Joe Rogan’s podcast with Edward Snowden. While promoting his book, “Permanent Record”, from an undisclosed location in Russia, he talks about his job at the NSA and the dismantling of freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, as well as how the government wiped their asses with the Constitution under the guise of “protection”. 

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

Published in 1957, On The Road introduced the world to “the Beat generation” and made Kerouac a hero. The main character, Dean Moriarty, is based on Keuouac’s real life friend, Neal Cassady, who Kerouac considered the prototypical “American Man.” Moriarty’s and Sal Paradise’s (Kerouac’s fictional alter ego) travels are laced with madcap adventures. In search of the ever-elusive “IT,” or “the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever,” they zig zag across America, culminating to a trip into Mexico. Their journey down south includes all-night talk sessions, parties with alcohol, sex, drugs, a Mexican orgy, and a deep dive into jazz. 

I feel a special kinship to Jack Kerouac. Kerouac used to live in Berkeley and hang out in North Beach, SF, performing readings at City Lights Bookstore. I lived off Telegraph Ave, and had a decent number of classes on the north side not far from where Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg Beat invoked the Beat Generation, creating Beatniks. Plus, I used to hang out at the City Lights Bookstore before working security at various North Beach clubs. 

Dune – Frank Herbert

Set in the future, a ruthless galactic emperor rules over warring noble houses. The noble duke Leto, head of House Atreides, is forced to move his family from their paradisiacal home planet of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis, known as Dune, whose climate is beyond hostile. Water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants go outside, they must wear still suits, which recycles  body moisture for drinking. Despite this, Arrakis is the universe’s sole source of “melange” or “spice”. Controlled by the Harkonnens, Arrakis is inhabited by the hardest people in the Universe, The Fremen, who boast fierce fighting abilities and adeptness at surviving these conditions. 

“God created Arrakis to train the faithful. One cannot go against the word of God.”

During the “CrossFit Football” era of Power Athlete, Dune references are too many to count, but here’s one: a young football player (me) is thrust into the role of Atreides, battling the evil Harkonnens (CrossFit HQ) and their evil leader (name redacted) hell bent on acquiring all the spice in the universe. 

The Source – Tara Swart

The Source discusses how our brains govern our ability to think, feel, and act. The book becomes a user’s guide for unlocking our minds to reach our fullest potential.

My big takeaway is using an action board as a means for self-realization. Based on how the brain works, what you see and visualize becomes your reality. Specifically, looking at an Action Board daily and visualizing what you see will leak into your sub-conscious and prime your brain to grasp opportunities that may have otherwise passed you by. 

We had Tara Swart on Power Athlete Radio.  Check it out here.

Lifespan: Why we Age & Why We Don’t Have To – David Sinclair

This book is dense and not an easy read, but if your dreams include crushing weights at 50, skiing off the top of Mammoth at 70, and traveling the world at 100, do the work and read this book. 

One thing is universal to all life – it ages. We are getting older by the seconds, minute, hour, day, week, month and year. Understanding how to be your best at every turn is the only way to combat it. I like to start the fight earlier than later; if I start worrying about aging when I’m old, there’s a good chance I have not done the things to ensure I am at peak levels of performance through life. 

Indistractable – Nir Eyal

We are bombarded by persuasive designs that exploit our psychological weaknesses and lead us into temptation, habituation, and distraction. Simultaneously, we are expected to avoid these distractions and use superhuman levels of self-regulation to complete our tasks. Nir Eyal does a great job of helping us understand how we are being influenced and distracted.  He also outlines the steps required to navigate this brave new world. 

If you want to learn more, Nir was on the Power Athlete Radio helping us become Indistractbale.  

Grit – Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth knows grit and while she acknowledges talent does exist, being tough is what makes the difference. Far too often, we focus on talent, which distracts us from what is important: effort. She also discusses the importance of cultivating other character strengths (like humility, social intelligence, kindness) for success in life.

I believe potential is a curse. In my NFL days, I saw guys overflowing with potential that would never convert into talent and success because they lacked the work ethic. Think about it like this: give a large piece of granite to an artisan and a random person. The artisan not only sees the potential, they also know the masterpiece only appears by having a vision and swinging the hammer, leveraging their experiences gained from years of trial and (lots of) error. The random person without skills or vision just sees a heavy block.

“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”

Check out her visit with Power Athlete Radio here.

Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker

Per Matthew Walker, sleep is a superpower. With diligence and consistency, proper sleep can lead to a stronger, faster, smarter you with the ability to slow down the effects of aging. You will learn the basics of sleep and how to maximize its benefits. Until Doc Parsley writes his book, I recommend this for those looking to learn more about sleep, especially new parents looking to understand what is happening during sleep deprivation and how being a good sleeper affects your kids.  

The Coddling of the American Mind – Greg Lukianoff & Jonathon Haidt

This book rocked my mind by clarifying the state of education and society as a whole. After I graduated, America’s colleges and universities began changing for the worst. A dark movement, undirected and driven largely by students, is scrubbing campuses of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or offend. The idea is, words can cause stress and the stress can be harmful, so ideas and words are powerful weapons. 

Growing up, I was taught, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Well not anymore. With the present way of thinking being fostered and supported on college campuses across the country, words are dangerous weapons that must be eliminated. 

This book is a powerful must for anyone that navigates education, or for parents raising children heading to college. 

What books that I’ve not mentioned before are on your list?  Post to comments. I’m genuinely curious.