Things to do before 30: read these 33 books

An eclectic selection that focuses on topics like understanding your identity, shaping your worldview, and laying the foundation for a fulfilling career

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Your 20s are a time for figuring out who you are and what you want from life.

While the only way to learn is to survive the inevitable cycle of successes and failures, it is always useful to have some guidance along the way.

To help you out, we've selected some of our favorite books that likely never made your high-school or college reading lists.

It's an eclectic selection that focuses on topics like understanding your identity, shaping your worldview, and laying the foundation for a fulfilling career.

Here's what we think you should read before you turn 30.

'Meditations' by Marcus Aurelius

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As you become an adult, you realize that there will never be a time in your life where everything is just as you hoped it would be.

"Meditations" is a collection of personal writings on maintaining mental toughness from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180 and became remembered as one of the great "philosopher kings."

As Gregory Hays notes in the introduction to his translation, Aurelius wrote his musings on resilience and leadership in a "dark and stressful period" in the last decade of his life.

The emperor's version of Stoic philosophy has remained relevant for 1,800 years because it offers timeless advice for gaining control of one's emotions and progressing past all obstacles in one's path.

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

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'The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays' by Albert Camus

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We all have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and we start to question that reason after entering the real world.

As "The Stranger" author Albert Camus sees it, all people find themselves in an irrational world struggling to find meaning for their lives where there is none.

His main message, however, is that just as the legend of Sisyphus tells of a god who was eternally punished by having to push a rock up a hill, only to have it fall down each time he reached the peak, we should embrace the drive for meaning and lead happy, fulfilling lives with a clear-eyed view of the world.

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”

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'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Regardless of your personal philosophy, there will be times when the world pushes against you and you wonder why it's worth trying to better yourself and help others.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel is not only a gripping story, but it's an argument against the nihilism that was popular among Russian intellectual circles in his time.

"Crime and Punishment" is the tale of a 23-year-old man named Raskolnikov who, acting on a nagging urge, murders two old women and then struggles with processing the act.

Dostoyevsky argues that rationalism taken to its extreme ignores the powerful bonds that connect humanity and give us responsibility over each other.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.” 

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'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

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American novelist William Faulkner, as well as Time magazine, called this Leo Tolstoy novel "the best ever written."

As the main plotline of a doomed affair between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky unfolds, Tolstoy explores the strife present in nearly every aspect of human existence, like love, family, social class, and happiness.

We recommend the excellent English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” 

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'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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As many a psychologist would tell you, being a mentally healthy person requires integrating your childhood into your adulthood.

There is probably no greater expression of childhood wonder and sorrow than "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Drawing on the author's experiences as an aviator in Africa, the book follows a young prince as he visits increasingly surreal planets.

"Of all the books written in French over the past century, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 'Le Petit Prince' is surely the best loved in the most tongues," writes New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik.

“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.” 

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'The Power of Myth' by Joseph Campbell

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An American student of the psychologist Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell spent his life revealing the connections between the world's faith and folk traditions. He developed the idea of the "monomyth," which states that all myths have the same basic structure, from Moses and Odysseus to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.

"The Power of Myth" is a wide-ranging conversation between Campbell and broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. Conducted at the end of a decades-long career, the interview format serves as an introduction to Campbell's eye-opening perspective — that, purposefully or not, we are living out myths in our lives.

“We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.” 

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'The Bhagavad Gita' — author unknown

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Whatever you determine your calling to be, you'll find there are times when it's scary to answer it.

This ancient Hindu text tells the story of the prince Arjuna riding to battle and being overcome with doubt, since his enemies include friends and members of his family. He turns to his guide, the supreme deity Krishna, for help. Krishna explains why it is his duty to rush into battle and emerge victorious.

Though the tale is focused around warfare, Mahatma Gandhi said that it was the "Bhagavad Gita" that most inspired him in his peaceful quest for a free India.

The full depth of the text has been interpreted in countless ways over the past two millennia, but in simple terms, it serves as an inspiration to find one's purpose in life and fearlessly push forward.

“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection.” 

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'Siddhartha' by Hermann Hesse

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Published in its original German in 1922, Herman Hesse's "Siddartha" wouldn't find an English translation until 1951.

Set in the ancient India of the historical Buddha, the book tells the spiritual coming-of-age story of a man named Siddartha.

Written in spare and elegant sentences, the novella provides a model for the journey into adulthood.

“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.” 

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'The Essential Rumi' by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

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Alive in 13th-century Persia, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote poetry that reveals the most profound of human emotions: awe, grief, longing.

With a new translation from American poet Coleman Barks, "The Essential Rumi" is a vital introduction to the philosopher-saint.

“Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” 

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'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion

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Living inevitably means dying.

And when people die — or lose jobs, go through breakups, or move to different cities — we need to grieve.

But there are few instructions on how to grieve.

In "The Year of Magical Thinking," journalist Joan Didion unpacks the story of the death of her husband, author John Dunne. But to take it as simply therapy on the page would be reductive: The book is also a portrait of a remarkable marriage.

"I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”

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'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy

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Published in 1997, "The God of Small Things" became one of the most-read books by an Indian author and turned Roy into a literary celebrity.

Partway through, Roy defines a great story in an aside:

... the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again.

That is their mystery and their magic.

It's a description the book fits — a novel that reflects the complex interactions between adults, children, and children who become adults.

“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” 

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'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel

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Another part of growing into yourself is finding the meaning in the various emotional episodes that define our childhoods.

In "Fun Home," graphic novelist Alison Bechdel investigates the complex relationship she had growing up with her father — his closeted homosexuality, her coming out as gay, and their isolation in rural Pennsylvania.

Bechdel received the MacArthur Genius grant last year, partially due to this landmark work.

“It was a vicious cycle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew.” 

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'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith

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Growing up also means coming to terms with the aspects of our identity that we were born with.

English author Zadie Smith's debut novel is about overlapping family histories in London in 1975. Smith's narrative is a meditation on coming to grips with being an immigrant or the child of immigrants, and how religion, race, and sexuality factor into one's personal and public identity.

“Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” 

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'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' by Junot Díaz

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As you come to understand who you are, you will need to determine how this fits or doesn't fit within the culture that raised you.

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" won Junot Díaz the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Through his colorful combination of English, Spanish, and slang, Díaz tells the story of Oscar Wao, the "cursed," geeky son of Dominican immigrants growing up in New Jersey.

The characters' struggles deal with what it means to inherit culture that doesn't necessarily fit your worldview, as well as finding ways to process all of the baggage that comes with familial and cultural history.

“If you didn't grow up like I did then you don't know, and if you don't know it's probably better you don't judge.” 

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'The Beggar Maid' by Alice Munro

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It can be difficult adjusting the way you see your parents and upbringing from the perspective of an independent adult.

Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, published the short-story collection "The Beggar Maid" in 1978. It's a collection of vignettes that follows the growth of the protagonist Rose from childhood to adulthood.

What is perhaps most memorable about Rose's story is the way she comes to terms with her unpolished, lower-class upbringing as a sophisticated young woman.

“Love removes the world for you, and just as surely when it's going well as when it's going badly.” 

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'The World According to Garp' by John Irving

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Psychology research indicates that reading literary fiction improves your ability to sympathize with other people's points of view, since a novel is mental simulation of another person's life.

Therein lies part of the value of "The World According to Garp," John Irving's masterwork of New England social realism.

You spend an entire life with the narrator and his family, and learn something about yours in the process.

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'The Complete Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi

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"Persepolis" is an immersive and beautifully illustrated graphic-novel memoir about growing up as a girl in Iran during and after the revolution of 1978-79.

As an émigré living in Paris and writing her story in the late 1990s, Satrapi is able to analyze her first 25 years of life from an outsider's perspective.

Her story is intimately personal and within a specific historical and cultural context, but its chronicle of a child becoming an adult is universally relatable.

“I had learned that you should always shout louder than your aggressor.” 

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'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship — commonly referred to as a "genius grant" — for being arguably the most important and influential writer on race in America today.

His 2015 essay/memoir "Between the World and Me" is written in the form of a letter to his son. It explores how his childhood in Baltimore, his time at Howard University, and his early years as a journalist formed his worldview and simultaneously turns that worldview onto some of the most heated contemporary issues surrounding race's relationship to identity and equality in the US.

It's powerful enough that US President Barack Obama made a point of reading it this summer.

“The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” 

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'First They Killed My Father' by Loung Ung

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In this powerful memoir, Loung Ung recounts her experience in Cambodia of having her family destroyed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The way she has dealt with it serves as an extreme example of how to deal with whatever random event shakes us to the core.

Ung narrates the horrors of being forced to train as a child soldier and witnessing the worst of what mankind is capable of.

The book's true power comes through Ung's expression of how love can allow someone to survive even the greatest tragedies and find the strength to contribute to society after emerging on the other side.

“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. ” 

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'The Truth' by Neil Strauss

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Whether you're in a long-term relationship or have been turned off from them completely, it's worth checking out this book.

In "The Truth," you follow Strauss' first-person journey through sex-addiction therapy and "love communes" in his quest for determining if he can commit to a monogamous relationship with the love of his life.

Hilarious, poignant, and at times absurd, it's a transformational read.

“Lying is about controlling someone else’s reality, hoping that what they don’t know won’t hurt you.” 

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'Iron John' by Robert Bly

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"Iron John" is less a book about men than it is a historic, mythic, and poetic inquiry into the nature of mature masculinity — the kind that nurtures, protects, and explores.

Basically, if you think that being "like a guy" means to be cut off from emotion, aloof in relationships, and unable to express your interior world to the people around you, read this book.

It's a treasure trove of wisdom regardless of your gender or existing views, and also serves as a gorgeous introduction to the insights of Jungian psychology.

"Most American men today do not have enough awakened or living warriors inside to defend their soul houses. And most people, men or women, do not know what genuine outward or inward warriors would look like, or feel like.” 

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'The Tipping Point' by Malcolm Gladwell

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Twenty-somethings today have grown up with social media, but they're tapping into a timeless form of communication.

Malcolm Gladwell is a master of using data and reporting to illustrate an explanation of a certain aspect of society's mechanics.

His debut work, "The Tipping Point," came out 15 years ago, but its insights into how and why people distribute ideas and information until they become an "epidemic" is just as relevant and interesting today, especially since the idea of going viral has long been part of the zeitgeist.

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” 

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'The Black Swan' by Nassim Taleb

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People love the illusion of certainty provided by predictions.

In "The Black Swan," investor-philosopher Taleb diagnoses the way people misguidedly lean on predictions as a way of moving through the world, and reveals how the most structured of systems are the most vulnerable to collapse — like the financial system in 2007.

It's rare to find a book that can literally change the way you think about the world and your knowledge about it. This is one such book.

“Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.” 

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'The Miracle of Mindfulness' by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Cognitive-science research confirms that the ancient practice of mindfulness mediation has many benefits,from stress reduction to increased cognitive flexibility to a boost in working memory.

The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness" is probably the best introduction to the practice.

Originally a set of letters written to a friend, the book can be read in a single afternoon.

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” 

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'So Good They Can't Ignore You' by Cal Newport

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Some of the most common advice you'll hear when you're starting out is that if you pursue your passion, the money will follow.

But there's a big caveat to that, argues Cal Newport, an author and a professor. For most people, he says that mastery of a certain skill can lead to finding your passion, since the mastery of this skill can open new doors and allow you to progress in your career.

He's not suggesting you give up on your dreams, but ensure that you pair them with a dose of reality and make yourself valuable in the marketplace.

“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.” 

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'The Intelligent Investor' by Benjamin Graham

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Billionaire investor Bill Ackman is just one of countless Wall Street power players who cite "The Intelligent Investor" as a book that was life-changing.

First published by Warren Buffett's mentor Benjamin Graham in 1949, it's an in-depth introduction to value investing.

Even if the industry you work in is far removed from finance, Graham's advice will help you make the most of your money in the long term.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

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'Give and Take' by Adam Grant

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Something in our culture tells us that we need to be barbaric and backstabbing in order to grow professionally.

But in "Give and Take," Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant shows how that grumpy outlook is quite wrong. The research indicates that people who create the most value for others are the ones who end up at the top of their fields.

And Grant shows you how.

“Highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity.” 

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'The Power Broker' by Robert Caro

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Not understanding how powerful people work makes you vulnerable to their will.

This is why "The Power Broker," Robert Caro's immense biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, is so essential.

In it, Caro, the master journalist, chronicles the way Moses remade New York in his own vision — without being elected.

If you want to see Machiavellian principles in action, read this.

“Hospitality has always been a potent political weapon. Moses used it like a master. Coupled with his overpowering personality, a buffet often did as much for a proposal as a bribe.” 

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'Flow' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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After growing up hearing so much about the pursuit of happiness, one of the weird aspects of adulthood is the discovery that so little empirical research has gone into uncovering its mechanics.

Thus the necessity of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" is the distillation of decades of research into how happiness actually works.

For Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is a product of a life lived at its frontiers, where one is constantly expanding and exploring the sense of self.

“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.” 

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'Zero to One' by Peter Thiel

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Twenty-somethings today live in a world where startups turn young entrepreneurs into billionaires and tech founders have replaced Wall Street hotshots as what Tom Wolfe called "masters of the universe."

Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel's book pulls back the curtain on this world. It's an enjoyable and concise guide to how game-changing businesses are built and managed.

“Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.” 

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'Crossing the Unknown Sea' by David Whyte

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There's relatively little quality writing about the place of work in our lives.

That's why "Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity" by David Whyte is like an oasis in a desert.

In it, Whyte, a British poet now living in America, frames a career not as a quarry to be captured, but an ongoing conversation one has with the world and one's self.

"A life’s work is not a series of stepping-stones onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, which, of itself, is in conversation with the elements.” 

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'Tiny Beautiful Things' by Cheryl Strayed

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Sometimes you just need some advice.

And there's no greater advice columnist than Cheryl Strayed, who wrote essayistic replies to readers of the Rumpus literary magazine under the name "Sugar."

They're collected in "Tiny Beautiful Things," and they hit hard.

"The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people's diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming."

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'How Will You Measure Your Life?' by Clayton Christensen

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"How Will You Measure Your Life?" is a philosophical meditation disguised as a business book.

There's a mystery at the center: When Christensen graduated from Harvard Business School in 1979, he and his classmates were on top of the world. But by their 25-year reunion, many of his peers were in crisis — whether it be private in the case of estranged children, or public in the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the head of Enron.

The book investigates why some of those incredibly privileged people leave their lives in ruins, while others flourish.

“It's easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.” 

Find it here

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