12 Books Every Young Australian Should Read

I thought I’d share with parents and young professionals some of the books that I wish I’d read sooner. Granted, this list may seem like a slight ‘stretch’ for a school-aged reader, as I didn’t conquer some of these books until my 20s. But I hope it achieves the right mix of self-development with a taste of the historical, economic and political issues that will continue to shape our country.

  1. A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey

Growing up in early 1900s Western Australia (WA), the late Albert Facey had an impeccably difficult life, with much more heartbreak and loss than triumph. His childhood was harrowing, experiencing some of the worst kinds of people. Without a formal education, he taught himself to read and worked a range of difficult jobs before becoming a skilled bushman on the WA frontier, even turning to professional boxing for a time.

When I read Facey’s book – now considered a classic – I’ll never forget how enchanted he was when he described hearing music for the first time. This certainly isn’t a treat young people have to work very hard for today!

In Gallipoli he saw death and tragedy, experiencing the loss of his two brothers. But, importantly, he reflects on his life like any classic Australian – without a trace of cynicism. With a page-turner of difficult but heart-warming encounters, Facey will enliven a sense of decency from any young reader.

  1. The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

Psychologist Meg Jay has a clear message for young people – don’t waste your 20s. Build skills, confront your challenges and don’t postpone growing up. This is because that work, relationships, personality, social networks and identity are all heavily shaped during this time. “As we age,” she writes, “we feel less like leaves and more like trees. We have roots that ground us and sturdy trunks that may sway, but don’t break, in the wind.” Plus, from William James to Dale Carnegie, there’s a boat load of wisdom within these pages that will help in generating sturdy roots for a long and prosperous life.

  1. The World At Their Feet by Claire Halliday

This book is getting slightly dated. I say this because the successful Australians profiled by Halliday aren’t so much in the public eye anymore (for example Killing Heidi’s Ella Hooper or Aussie photographer Ashley Gilbertson). But the generic lessons to their success stories are timeless. They show young Aussies not only what’s possible but how hard work, persistence, refining one’s talents and staying competitive are important to short and long-run success.

  1. Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Tiger Woods was a child prodigy, right? Not really, according to Colvin. This was a great book to show just how many of the world beaters we have come to know that, when properly studied, have put in decades of seriously hard work and ‘deliberate practice’.

Woods, for example, had first-class coaching from his father – a very good golfer himself – from three years of age. This meant that, when Woods was 17, he had been the recipient of a decade and a half of top-flight coaching.

Whenever I speak to groups about my book I always share Colvin’s lesson – hard work is the solvent to any success. From not just golfing legends but to fighter pilots, musicians, writers, surgeons and entertainers. For any young person, in any endeavour, learning to get acquainted with these concepts are essential.

  1. The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

I sense any young Australian should have some understanding of the greatest leader of the 20th century and, arguably, of all time – Winston Churchill. Rather than trudge through William Manchester’s trilogy, or the mountains of other thick books on Churchill, younger (more distracted) readers might enjoy Boris Johnson’s short and very well-written biography. It is a page-turner and no one I have met has bad things to say about this book.

  1. March of Patriots by Paul Kelly

Australia recently broke all records for having the longest run of uninterrupted economic growth. Kelly’s book explains how. It canvasses not only the economic and political battles from the early 1980s but bases it around Paul Keating and John Howard – two very different Australian prime ministers with a shared commitment to freer markets and deregulation.

Many young Australians simply haven’t grown up experiencing a recession. And there’s certainly no guarantee our growth will continue. But, with an understanding of the economic ideas that propelled our record growth, our best days can still lie ahead. Granted, Kelly’s is a large book. But it is well worth the read.

  1. Slaying the Dragon by Michael Johnson

With superstars like Usain Bolt, advice from a former sprinter like Michael Johnson – the long-time 200 metre and 400 metre world record holder – may have gone out of vogue. But anyone who reads Johnson’s autobiography will come away with two important takeaways that have nothing to do with athletics but everything to do with negotiating challenges and living an accomplished life.

First, talent means very little without hard work. And, even when you sharpen your talents with hard work, you’ll still need to work on creating opportunities. Indeed, success can be a tough but also strange battle.

Second, we can’t all be good at many things. Johnson was a multiple world champion and record holder. His work ethic was gruelling. But when he applied this to studying maths as part of his business degree, he’d barely pass. It shows we all have aptitudes for different things so, early in life, it’s important to work out what your aptitudes are and constantly refine them with hard work and creating opportunities.

  1. The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

This is an uncomfortable book I encountered in my later 20s. But I’m glad I read it as it’s about not getting too caught up with easy explanations for the success of good companies and organisations. Some of the attributes we apply to successful managers, for example, are easy to say when a company is doing well – they were a ‘visionary’ – but when things go wrong they are suddenly ‘arrogant’ and ‘complacent’. This can happen when very little may have actually changed. Rosenzweig spares us the easy explanations and, from Nokia to Intel, provides examples on the challenges of measuring company performance.

  1. Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson is a great historian and has produced a range of highly accessible works on history. This is among his best, especially in breaking down the attributes of Western civilisation into ‘apps’ – competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. Ultimately, this book showed me that to participate in these ‘apps’ one need not be a certain complexion, gender, religion or class – western civilisation is something we all participate with and find tradition in. Not interested in reading the full book? A decent TED Talk by Professor Ferguson is here.

  1. The Australian Miracle by Thomas Barlow

This book was a great illustration on how innovation – Australian innovation – is not all widgets and microchips. Many young people can get caught up with this idea that, unless we are cultivating a Silicon Valley-like approach to innovation, we can’t be taken seriously or stay competitive.

Leaving aside that we simply don’t have the same level of resources as other major economies (Ford Motor Company alone outspends the entire Australian Government R&D Budget), we have a strong but less well-known tradition of innovation. The stump-jump plough and the combine harvester, for example, were world-beating inventions that were borne out of necessity on the Aussie frontier. It’s a great lesson where we should give ourselves credit but ‘dream big’ in a way that’s consistent with a great legacy.

11.The Sowell Reader by Thomas Sowell

I can remember explaining this book to a friend at a party and, as soon as I mentioned the economic content, their eyes glazed over. But Professor Sowell is a prolific economist, known for distilling complex ideas down to comprehensible prose. He has, for me as a non-economist, been a reliable source of information, cutting through jargon on economics, racial differences, immigration, housing, social policy and inequality. You don’t have to be an economist to read this or any of his other books. It is a great collection of works from a truly unique scholar.

  1. Down And Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

No list is complete without Orwell but, in truth, his classics like Animal Farm and 1984 didn’t quite do it for me. The chief lesson I learnt from this book was how accessible Orwell was, especially in the realm of non-fiction. The real-world wretchedness of living at the margins in Paris and London is an illuminating read.  Many young readers will do well to get acquainted with the disciplines of poverty matched with such sharp and clear writing.

Thanks for reading!

Did I get the mix right? Let me know your thoughts! Or what books you’d put on your own list? And please be sure to check out my book Winners Don’t Cheat here. You can listen to the podcast on the book here, or even have a short browse through my short free PDF eBook here (no tricks or gimmicks or any need to sign up). Happy reading!

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Sean, I’ll throw in my two cents. Here’s 12 of my favourites, hopefully aimed at the school-leaver (I, too, read most of these in my 20s).

    For basic, straightforward financial advice, read Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor.

    For career advice, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life by Ken Robinson. Check out his entertaining TED Talks too.

    For general life advice, the best-sellers How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie) and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey) are good places to start. How Will You Measure Your Life? (Christensen), Winners Don’t Cheat (Jacobs) and Resilience (Greitens) are full of excellent practical advice. For something different, read On the Shortness of Life by Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher. I took comfort in the realisation that many problems we face today were no different than the ancient Romans, and Seneca’s advice is timeless and as relevant as ever.

    Stepping away from the self-development genre, the remaining books are a bit of a mix of everything. Freakonomics (Levitt & Dubner) was the first economics book I read outside of school class and it shows the power of incentives without dousing you in dry theory like economics textbooks often do.

    To highlight the harm your internet addiction causing you, read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Carr). Part history, part popular science, part cultural criticism, Carr highlights the upside and downside of hyperconnectivity. Especially relevant for millennials and beyond growing up in the internet age.

    Finally, two history books. How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (Johnson) is an accessible exploration of the history of technological inventions that have a cascading effect that lead to further progress. Also, The Lessons of History (Durant) is a short summary of civilisation and our underlying human nature that emerges from viewing history with a long-term perspective.

  2. Al, thanks heaps for sharing your list. There are a couple of gems on there but a few I haven’t that I’ll add to my list – Ken Robinson’s books and Lessons of History.

    I think Ken Robinson has the most viewed TED Talk ever? I haven’t watched it yet though ☹

    You’ve certainly covered some terrain – self-help, business, tech, history – which is always a good thing.

    Like you, I found Freakonomics a great read. There was a big inconsistency about the crime-drop and the abortion link that I found convincing but was debunked later. None the less it was a great read, and a good example on how to present economics to a wider audience.

    Did you like Scott Pape’s book? I have heard mixed reviews, mostly negative. It is doing tremendously well though.

    Again, thanks heaps Al. And I’m chuffed to see my name on there! I don’t think I should be but I’ll (very) graciously accept.

    SJ

  3. PS Al, I am only slowly getting into Seneca. Meditations by Aurelius was very close to making my list and, in fact, I should have put it on. But a friend recently put me onto Seneca. I read his “Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 18”, which was a nice reminder of avoiding indulgence and being comfortable with your worst possible scenario:

    “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”

    SJ

  4. Recommending books on financial advice is difficult because it depends on the reader’s financial literacy and their level of financial independence.

    I think The Barefoot Investor is the right level for a school leaver. I don’t remember learning anything about personal finance in school, although maybe that is changing nowadays? Anyway, if you think it’s O.K. to be paying 20% interest on your credit card each month, spend more than you earn, have multiple super accounts and don’t know the difference between interest and principal payments on your mortgage (over 10% of mortgage holders last year!), then you should start here.

    If you have consolidated your super, are spending less than you earn, aren’t crippled with debt and are looking to invest your savings, then maybe something like Jack Bogle’s The Little Book of Common Sense Investing is probably a better place to start.

    I loved Seneca! I’m yet to get around to them, but have Aurelius and Epictetus sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me.

  5. Just checked out your August post on the Meditations and I’ll throw in one more while on we’re on the topic. I recently read A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which is a modern interpretation of Stoicism by American philosophy professor William Irvine.

    He covers the history of how and when Stoicism arose, dispels some common misconceptions, and explains how to implement the ancient Stoic advice practically in your day-to-day life as your ‘philosophy of life’.

    Possibly a good introduction to (but not a substitute for!) reading the ancient texts.

  6. Thanks Al, I liked your point here:

    “if you think it’s O.K. to be paying 20% interest on your credit card each month, spend more than you earn, have multiple super accounts and don’t know the difference between interest and principal payments on your mortgage (over 10% of mortgage holders last year!), then you should start here.”

    And thanks for checking out my Meditations post. I will have a look at the William Irvine book (and recommend it to a friend who is deeply into this stuff).

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