Turns out, many top earners are also top learners.

When asked about the key to his success, Warren Buffett told CNBC, "Read 500 pages like this every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it."

His friend Bill Gates recently shared, "I still think books are the best way to explore new topics that interest you." Jeff Bezos shapes his journey with books. SpaceX's Jim Cantrell told Esquire, "You know, whenever anybody asks Elon how he learned to build rockets, he says, 'I read books.' Well, it's true. He devoured those books."

Looking back through my Amazon Kindle this year (thanks, Jeff), I've read almost 90 books so far. I "suffer" from a lifelong reading addiction that's primarily fed on adventures with game changers. These books are the "who-done-its" of the real world. Some people prefer detective fiction. I love the surprising secrets of real-life overcomers.

As the year draws to a close, here are the top 10% of the living legends that inspired me this year.

Holiday reading for dreamers and doers

 1. Principles: Life & Work by Ray Dalio.

One of the 100 richest self-made people on the planet today, billionaire Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, says he owes much of his success to a critical open-mindedness he was forced into by his passion for success paired with his propensity to fail. This book is accessible, compelling--and surprisingly humble. Here's a taste:

"At some point in your life, you will crash in a big way. You might fail at your job or with your family, lose a loved one, suffer a serious accident or illness, or discover the life you imagined is out of reach forever, There are a whole host of ways that something will get you. At such times, you will be in pain and might think that you don't have the strength to go on. You almost always do, however; your ultimate success will depend on you realizing that fact, even though it might not seem that way at the moment."

2. Self Compassion In Psychotherapy by Tim Desmond.

As an entrepreneur or change-maker, being extraordinarily driven can also be crushing. As Dalio points out so well in Principles, all entrepreneurs experience failure. Self-Compassion is the best I've ever found--with a new workbook that came out this year--on creating a consistent practice of self-compassion. I don't mean excuses. I don't mean avoiding issues or coddling weakness. 

To go the distance, you have to understand why you fail, sans rose colored glasses, and then get up again, bloodied but less breakable. In a profoundly kind voice, Tim teaches a tough set of mental tools to do that. It's almost a perfect pairing with Principles. Where Principles teaches a rigorous systems framework for your business and ethical decision making, Self Compassion teaches a rigorous practice for your emotional wellbeing. 

Don't be put off by the fact that Self-Compassion is an industry-insider book written for practicing psychotherapists. You don't need a technical vocabulary to follow his science, logic or practice. This is one book that once I devoured it, has come back to me almost every day since.

3. The One Minute Workout by Martin Gibala.  

You might be tempted to file such a title under "too good to be true," but Dr. Gibala is all science. "Intensity trumps duration," he says. "In my lab, we've conducted head to head comparisons of classic training and short, hard intervals . . . traditional cardio is effective, but you can get the same results from interval training in far less time."

Love working out? Hate working out? It's the right book either way.

4. Reset: My Fight For Inclusion and Lasting Change by Ellen Pao.

This book had an intensely public birth after Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, one world's top venture capital firms. "Losing my suit hurt, but I didn't have regrets either. I could have received millions from Kleiner if I would just have signed a non-disparagement contract; I turned it down so I could finally share my story." 

Since the suit, "I've watched as each of us -- myself included -- has become more vocal, more open, and more courageous in advocating for change in tech," she writes. If you're tackling systemic change, this book tells an intensely personal story of what battling for change is like--mostly guts, little glory, and worth listening to. The "Pao effect" is one of the reasons a lot of tech insiders feel the recent wave of lawsuits has come forward, touching firms from Greylock to Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and beginning a much needed change in venture capital culture.

5. What Doesn't Kill Us by Scott Carney.

This is the perfect book to read in the winter time. When I read it last winter after it first came out, it started me on cold showers--a practice that gets seriously tougher as temperatures dive.

Scott is a participatory investigative journalist. In this book, he shares what's it like to use hyperventilating, extreme cold, and other practices on the edge of our biological comfort zones to achieve superhuman strength. Carney shares much of his discovery through his own personal experience rather than interviews and studies. It's a fun read that, if you're game, you can conduct some self-discovery on your own while you read. Somewhere about the first page he warns you not to do that. It's a blast.

6. Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark.

This review says it all:

Worth reading Life 3.0 by @Tegmark. AI will be the best or worst thing ever for humanity, so let's get it right.https://t.co/lT0uMH3ujZ

-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 29, 2017

Tegmark is about as down to earth as an MIT scientist can get. Life 3.0 is a total pleasure to read, cycling through professorial to playful to pensive as he considers the dangers of unregulated artificial intelligence. It's another book that comes back to me almost every single day as an investor, as I consider the future we're all inventing together.

7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

Let's move on to a lighter touch. Ready Player One is science fiction that pairs well with Life 3.0. With the Ready Player One Steven Spielberg movie coming out in 2018, now's definitely the time to read the novel, first published in 2011. 

It's a romp of pitch-perfect 80s references embedded in a quest with the existential angst of Ender's Game and the irreverent glee of Monty Python. The movie will be its own thing--and while I expect it'll be awesome, there's no doubt you'd rather read the book because the density of the experience is in the word play on world play.

8. Radium Girls by Kate Moore.

This bestseller, out summer of this year, reads well on two levels. It's a dive into history in the early 1900s, providing a formative look at how today's worker's rights and occupational health and safety law were anchored. It's also an interesting parallel for how we approach human safety in our time, when the threats include artificial intelligence and robotics. We are living again in a time when the science outstrips our legal and ethical frameworks. It's worth a second look, especially for entrepreneurs, in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past in the present. 

9.   Find a Way by Diana Nyad

Diana Nyad is more than world record holding swimmer. She's a world record holding hero in not knowing how to quit. On her fifth attempt, at 64 years old, she is the first person to ever complete the  110-mile swim through the dangerous shark- and jelly-fish terrorized waters between Cuba and Florida. She wrote a book about her serial failures and ultimate success--Find a Way. When Diana walked out of the surf on to the sand in 2013, she had three messages that could be words-to-live-by for any entrepreneur, artist or athlete intent on changing the world:
1.   Never, ever give up.
2.   You're never too old to chase your dreams.
3.   It looks like a solitary sport, but it's a Team.


Published on: Dec 12, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.