“Claiming your 20s is one of the simplest, yet most transformative things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world,” says clinical psychologist and author of The Defining Decade Meg Jay.
As Jay explains in a TED Talk, your 20s aren’t a developmental downtime, they are a developmental sweet spot. During this decade, every decision you make can change the course of your life. You have the chance to find yourself and reinvent yourself as your brain concludes its last major growth spurt.
Your 20s are a time of self-discovery and exploring your goals and ambitions. It’s a decade that defines and paves the way for your future, so it’s important to have mentors and positive influences that help you along the way. Books are some of the best ways to get timeless advice. They also help guide you in exploring who you are and want to be. The best books to read in your 20s offer life advice, while also portraying failure and resilience.
This article includes a list of the best books to read as you navigate this defining decade in your life.
25 Books That Everyone Should Read in Their 20s
- The Defining Decade
- Fate and Furies
- “The Metamorphosis”
- For One More Day
- The Four Agreements
- How Will You Measure Your Life
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
- Start With Why
- Dare to Lead
- Creativity, Inc.
- Radical Candor
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
- The Happiness Advantage
- In Defense of Food
- Think Like A Monk
- Big Magic
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- The Last Lecture
- Blue Nights
- The Great Gatsby
- The Old Man and the Sea
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Nineteen Eighty-Four
Personal Growth and Relationships
1. The Defining Decade, Meg Jay
“Our 20s are the defining decade of adulthood. 80% of life’s most defining moments take place by about age 35.”
Perhaps the most well-known book written specifically for readers in their 20s, The Defining Decade discusses this transformative decade, based on decades of research by author Meg Jay. The book highlights the importance of balance in your 20s, engaging in activities that allow for self-discovery, and finding purpose in your work and personal life. It also includes useful tips for having conversations with partners, choosing friends, and more.
Why you should read it: Using research including 20-somethings specifically, this book will help you learn how to make the most of this transformative decade.
2. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
“Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.”
Fate and Furies is a portrait of a marriage, told from both perspectives over a 24-year period. The novel is a powerful portrayal of complicated relationships that change over time. It was a National Book Awards finalist in 2015 and the judges’ citation states, “Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it. Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.”
Why you should read it: It’s a beautifully written story about the complexity of relationships, marriage, and how they evolve over time.
3. “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.”
A 1915 novella written in German by Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” is considered a masterpiece and if you haven’t read it already, it’s worth the time. Opening with the main character turning into a gigantic insect, “The Metamorphosis” is bizarre and strangely comical, but it highlights natural human emotions such as guilt and inadequacy. It’s considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century and has many interpretations, giving it a life of its own throughout the decades.
Why you should read it: Human isolation and feelings of inadequacy are portrayed with a startling, unique plotline.
4. For One More Day, Mitch Albom
“Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so, then you know you can go your whole life collecting days, and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back.”
For One More Day is a story of guilt, self-loathing, forgiveness, and a parent’s love. The main character, Chick Benetto, reflects on his childhood and the many times he disrespected his mother, the person who was always there for him, for his absent father. Benetto seeks forgiveness from himself, his mother who has passed, and his daughter who is ashamed of him. Imagining one more day with his mother gives him the strength to make changes in his life and seek the forgiveness he needs to move on.
Why you should read it: It’s an emotional story about a flawed character who searches for redemption, highlighting the power of forgiveness.
5. The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
“Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.”
The Four Agreements is a self-help book that offers an ancient code of conduct that’s reached over 12 million readers from around the world. The insights offered by author Don Miguel Ruiz come from the ancient Toltec people and are meant to help people transform their lives and find true happiness. The book is based on “agreements” that people accept and share with others. The agreements are designed to offer freedom instead of self-limiting perspectives that create “needless suffering.”
Why you should read it: The book has become well-known since its publication in 1997 and offers easy-to-understand recommendations for defining personal freedoms and ideologies.
6. How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon
“If you defer investing your time and energy until you see that you need to, chances are it will already be too late.”
Clayton Christensen is New York Times bestselling author and leading thinker on innovation. His previous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma focused on business, while How Will You Measure Your Life was written to inspire anyone, including those in their 20s, students, and mid-career professionals. The book uses well-researched academic theories to help adults find meaning and happiness. Christensen also warns leaders about common traps that lead to unhappiness.
Why you should read it: Clayton Christensen puts forth meaningful questions about your personal and professional choices that allow you to think deeper about what brings you happiness and a sense of purpose.
Leadership and Career Advice
7. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell
“I believe the bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others. That is achieved by serving others and adding value to their lives.”
Considered one of the best leadership books of all time, Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership discusses the commonalities of great leaders and offers practical advice for entrepreneurs, executives, and managers. It’s one of the best books to read in your 20s if you’re interested in enhancing your leadership qualities.
Why you should read it: John Maxwell is a trusted voice that helps readers to become stronger, more effective leaders in any industry.
8. Start With Why, Simon Sinek
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”
To learn about leading with purpose, Start With Why is a must-read. It explains the importance of putting purpose at the center of your business so that you stay focused on what matters most. Even if you aren’t a business owner, this book will help you to think about your professional mission and how you’ll get there.
Why you should read it: Defining your professional purpose and mission is a difficult task, especially in your 20s when you’re just getting started in your career. This book helps you to navigate that complex task.
9. Dare to Lead, Brené Brown
“I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”
Dare to Lead emphasizes the importance of vulnerability in leadership, arguing that it’s a courageous way to lead, whether it’s leading a business, circle of friends, community group, or any other initiative that you are involved with. If you’re interested in creating a supportive workplace or environment, this is an excellent book about connection, empathy, and authenticity.
Why you should read it: Brené Brown takes a unique approach to leadership—doing it in a vulnerable, courageous, and impactful way.
10. Creativity, Inc., Edwin Catmull and Amy Wallace
“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”
Written by the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, Creativity, Inc. is about creativity and originality in business. It’s a book about how to build a creative culture and become more comfortable with expressionism. If you’re interested in defying convention and nurturing your dreams, this is a must-read.
Why you should read it: This book will inspire creatives to nurture their work and refine their unique perspectives.
11. Radical Candor, Kim Scott
“Make sure that you are seeing each person on your team with fresh eyes every day. People evolve, and so your relationships must evolve with them. Care personally; don’t put people in boxes and leave them there.”
Radical Candor is considered a cultural touchstone because of its impact on readers around the world. The book teaches you how to “care personally and challenge directly.” Scott says in a YouTube video explaining the concept that people in their early 20s, who are just starting their careers, are expected to leave their identities out of the workplace, but they are better off building real, human relationships at work. At the same time, they shouldn’t be afraid to challenge things when they can be better, which can be done in a caring way.
Why you should read it: Kim Scott offers useful advice about building meaningful relationships in the workplace and using that trust to improve the business.
12. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”
If you tend to feel busy and overworked, but not necessarily productive, Essentialism will be a useful read. The book discusses a system for discerning what tasks are absolutely essential and what can be eliminated from your schedule or mental burden. Applying this selective criterion to your life will help you to reclaim your time and energy, allowing you to focus on the things that really matter.
Why you should read it: It’s common to feel overworked and bogged down by your mental load. McKeown teaches you how to eliminate everything that isn’t meaningful.
Mental and Physical Health
13. The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor
“When our brains constantly scan for and focus on the positive, we profit from three of the most important tools available to us: happiness, gratitude, and optimism.”
This research-based book by Shawn Achor explains how positive brains have a biological advantage over neutral or negative brains. Achor shows how happier people are more productive, motivated, creative, and energized. He uses research in psychology and neuroscience to prove his case that happiness fuels success.
Why you should read it: We don’t often think about the value of positivity and how being happy can impact your success.
14. In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
“The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.”
Michael Pollan discusses the relationship between “nutritionism” and the Western diet in his 2008 book In Defense of Food. He argues that American eating habits have become overly complicated and offers a simple way of thinking about food choices: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan discusses the modern food industry and how it has become made up of “edible foodlike substances” instead of products of nature.
Why you should read it: Getting a better understanding of today’s unhealthy food industry will make you think twice about your daily dietary choices.
15. Think Like a Monk, Jay Shetty
“When we accept the temporary nature of everything in our lives, we can feel gratitude for the good fortune of getting to borrow them for a time.”
Jay Shetty is a former monk turned social media influencer and host of the popular podcast On Purpose, which focuses on mental health. His book Think Like A Monk provides practical everyday steps for living a less anxious, more meaningful life. Shetty helps readers to clear the roadblocks to their potential, such as overcoming negative thoughts, accessing your inner calm, and finding your purpose.
Why you should read it: This mental health book will teach you how to reduce stress in your life, overcome bad habits, and take steps to find your purpose.
16. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.”
This is an empowering book that helps readers overcome their fears and embrace curiosity. If you are an untapped creative who is struggling to find your voice or vision, this book will help you to tackle your passions and ideas, while working through your anxieties about success.
Why you should read it: It’s common for fears to get in the way of creativity, and this book helps you to embrace that struggle.
Memoirs and Biographies
17. Educated, Tara Westover
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Educated shows the importance of education and teaches resilience. Westover was 17 the first time she stepped foot into a classroom. Until then, her life was spent in the mountains of Idaho with her survivalist parents. Her story teaches audiences that no matter your circumstances in life, you can make it out and carve your own path. Today, Westover has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is a best-selling author.
Why you should read it: This coming-of-age story highlights the power of education and learning how to think for yourself.
18. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
This memoir by Viktor Frankl teaches lessons of spiritual survival during and after experiences in Nazi death camps. It explains that all humans will face suffering, but can choose how to cope with it and find meaning in it. Frankl argues that humankind is not driven by pleasure, but by purpose—finding meaning in life, even in the most difficult times.
Why you should read it: The experiences of Viktor Frankl show you how it’s possible to overcome suffering and fear to find renewed purpose.
19. The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow
“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”
The Last Lecture offers meaningful insights about the meaning of life and how your perspective shifts when facing death. For Randy Pausch, being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer made him consider his legacy. A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, Pausch was asked to give his last lecture at the end of the academic year. Instead of discussing death, he focused on overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and making the most of every moment.
Why you should read it: This is an inspirational lecture on perseverance in the face of death.
20. Blue Nights, Joan Didion
“We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as ‘ordinary blessings.’”
In Blue Nights, Joan Didion helps people understand loss and the grieving process. Didion discusses the loss of her daughter, who died at just 39, and her own feelings about parenthood and aging. This book makes you think deeply about getting older and enjoying the days of your youth. The memoir was called “a beautiful condolence note to humanity about some of the painful realities of the human condition” by Washington Post critic Hellar McAlpin. A Year of Magical Thinking, the book written by Didion before Blue Nights, is another moving read that touches on similar themes.
Why you should read it: Both A Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are moving stories about loss, grief, and moving forward.
21. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”
The Great Gatsby is a timeless story that explores human flaws, hopeless love, and societal constructs. Although it was written in 1925, its themes and conflicts resonate today. If you read this classic as a teenager, consider giving it another go around, as the tragedy (and Fitzgerald’s exemplary writing) becomes even more impactful with age and experience.
Why you should read it: The hopeless and flawed Jay Gatsby is a character that any adult can learn from.
22. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
“It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.”
The Old Man and the Sea is one of the best books to read in your 20s, if you haven’t already, because it tells a story of struggle, defeat, and pride. The main character, Santiago, is in conflict with himself and the marlin he’s attempting to catch. Santiago is motivated by pride, but he also learns to admire the marlin and his determination. This novella was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and it’s one of Hemingway’s most famous works.
Why you should read it: Ernest Hemingway’s unique writing style is done perfectly in The Old Man and the Sea, with the use of short, concise sentences to tell layered, complex stories.
23. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
Although it’s often read by high school students, The Catcher in the Rye was originally intended for adults because of its mature themes of angst, alienation, identity, and phoniness. The main character, Holden Caulfield, has become an American icon for teenage rebellion, but the lessons learned from this novel are deeper than his rebellious thinking. It’s a coming-of-age story about searching for hope in a world he feels neglected by.
Why you should read it: The Catcher in the Rye is an American classic that portrays a character who feels lost, isolated, and in search of purpose.
24. Beloved, Toni Morrison
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
Beloved is a novel about a formerly enslaved family in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and is considered one of the best works of American fiction. It explores the psychological effects of slavery, the portrayal of manhood, and family relationships.
Why you should read it: Beloved is a powerful novel about American history and how it has shaped families for generations.
25. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a cautionary tale set in a future dystopian society. Written in 1949, the novel highlights issues of totalitarianism, propaganda, government surveillance, and loss of identity. Its themes of nationalism and equality are prevalent in modern society. Although this novel is often read by teenagers, readers in their 20s can further understand how Orwell’s warnings can be seen in today’s society.
Why you should read it: George Orwell warns leaders of a future society that leaves citizens with no identity other than their collective nationalism.