Elon Musk’s is a classic sci-fi trilogy. Jeff Bezos’s is an understated novel by a British Nobel laureate. Ask whatever smart and successful person you want and they’ll all be able to tell you about the one book that utterly changed their thinking or the direction of their lives — the singular title that shaped who they are today.
But while male billionaires’ reading choices get plenty of press coverage, we hear relatively less about the books that have been most inspirational for super successful, but slightly less high-profile women — the kinds of books that are most likely to provide similar wisdom and mental nourishment for the next generation of leaders coming up behind them.
The TED Ideas blog recently aimed to fill that void, soliciting 23 of the organization’s female speakers to share the one book that made them who they are today. These speakers ranged from human rights activists to bankers and their responses were equally diverse. Here are seven of the picks with the broadest appeal (though check out the complete list for other offbeat ideas spanning Japanese philosophy to poetry).
1. Nobel-prize winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn
Before Blackburn was a Nobel-winning biologist, she was a girl who was unsure about her future career path. Madame Curie: A Biography by the subject’s daughter, Eve Curie, motivated her to choose science. “I was inspired by how she felt that scientific research was a deeply worthwhile, even noble, calling and that she also had a family (two daughters) and was a devoted parent as well as an iconic researcher,” recalls Blackburn.
2. Human rights activist Yvette Alberdingk Thijm
Activist Alberdingk Thijm does groundbreaking work helping activists use smartphone cameras to defend human rights, but her most profound influence is incredibly down-to-earth: classic children’s book character Pippi Longstocking
“Pippi was extraordinarily strong… independent… loyal, principled…. and anti-authority… . Last but not least, she was economically self-sufficient — she had a treasure trove of gold coins hidden in a tree trunk and taught me early on to be fiscally independent,” Alberdingk Thijm explains.
3. Fashion designer turned founder Mindy Scheier
“This book had an immense impact on me as I was developing the Runway of Dreams Foundation,” says Scheier of Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. “My middle son, Oliver, was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, which makes it hard for him to find fashionable and functional clothing. Through my experiences with him, I realized that millions of people around the globe were also struggling to access stylish clothing,” she continues. “Mainstream adaptive clothing was a wide-open ‘blue ocean’ of opportunity, and the book gave me the tools and framework I needed to take action.”
4. Georgetown University psychologist Abigail Marsh
Marsh studies what motivates us to act altruistically. Her interest in the topic was planted by a book entitled Mothers and Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Marsh calls it, “an eye-opening exploration into how children are raised around the world and how child-rearing can inform the understanding of human nature more broadly,” noting that the author’s most essential point is that “one of the things which makes humans special as a species is that we don’t limit care to our own children. We can expand our circles of care and compassion outward to encompass nearly anyone.”
5. Space physicist Miho Janvier
Research on sun storms might seem a long way from New York’s 1970’s punk scene, but Janvier insists that Just Kids, the memoir of rocker Patti Smith in which she recounts her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, deeply influenced her work. “What resonated with me was the way it depicts the insatiable drive that the two artists had to express and refine their art and creations. I was struck by their commitment to and faith in their inner artistic voice, a message that inspired me to be more creatively courageous, both in my scientific work and in my personal life,” she says.
6. Banker Michelle Knox
Knox credits Bridge Across My Sorrows, a memoir by Christina Noble with Robert Coram, as being a big source of her personal and professional resilience. “I read this memoir when I was in my 20s, and to this day it remains one of the most powerful human survival stories I have read,” she raves. “[Noble’s] ability to survive and succeed has always stayed with me. I realized that self-determination and courage are innate qualities that no one can take from you and should never be underestimated. The book isn’t easy to read; I cried a lot but I could not put it down. If you like to read about strong, real women, this book is a must.”
7. UN election expert Philippa Neave
Neave’s unexpected pick is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. Before you dismiss it as likely spiritual mumbo jumbo, hear Neave out on the concrete impact the book has had on her life:
“While I am not an assiduous meditator, some of the advice and techniques explained in the Life section have stayed with me after just one reading. I learned how to calm the mind, even in situations that would otherwise cause a panic attack. But I found the section on dying even more powerful and useful. In Western societies we fear death and don’t talk about it much. Here, we learn how to prepare for our own end and how to help others transition… Unreligious and truly transformational, this book continues to inspire and provide endless wisdom on the great mysteries and challenges of our human existence.”
What’s the one book that influenced you the most?