I do enjoy a good self-improvement book. Some people throw their eyes up towards the heavens when it comes to self-help, seeing it as a space full of charlatans whose success is built upon telling other people how to be successful. There is a certain amount of truth to that. One can also fall into the trap of becoming a self-help junkie, consuming lots of material without necessarily implementing these great ideas (I put my hand up on that one).
There are more self-help books out there than the world will ever need, it is a multi-billion dollar industry, and most of them regurgitate the same messages in different ways. We have the most popular self-help book of all time in The Secret, telling us that if we just think positively enough about something, the universe will provide. And then there’s Tony Robbins, the guru of self-help, roaring and shouting in your face, being all motivational.
“Clearly, some people adhere to The Secret, and that works out well for them. I don’t think that’s because the universe cares what they think. Having a dose of positive thinking and all that of course is helpful to a certain extent, but the universe doesn’t give a fuck.” Derren Brown
Sure, being skeptical helps us filter out a lot of the shit, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot that we can learn from a good book, with genuine wisdom and an authentic message. Tony Robbins, as he says himself is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has helped transformed thousands of lives through his books and talks.
There are smart and successful people out there who have been able to deconstruct the keys to living a better and more fulfilled life, so why not take advantage of this and develop yourself? Success will mean something different to everyone, it can include, but certainly isn’t confined to, career or financial success. Good physical and mental health, emotional health, social skills, fulfilling relationships, happiness, sports performance, creativity, having a positive impact on society. We can find success in all of these things. Can we learn from people who have overcome personal obstacles to find success, and from those who have studied the lives and behaviours of successful people? Absolutely.
If you can find a good book, with inspiring ideas and real, practical advice, you can improve your quality of life. Now, I haven’t read all the self-improvement books in the world, but below are 10 of my favourite. I have left out a few popular ones that are certainly worth revisiting, including Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the original 1937 self-help classic Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Here are my top picks, conveniently ordered by date of publish, beginning with the most recent.
Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers, Tim Ferriss
“What might you do to accomplish your 10-year goals in the next 6 months, if you had a gun against your head?”
Tim Ferriss rose to prominence with his book he 4-Hour Work Week, which he followed up with The 4-Hour Chef, and now Tools of Titans. It is a collection of tips, anecdotes, and advice from world-class performers in all walks of life, gathered during interviews for his podcast The Tim Ferriss Show. There is something in here for everyone, with the book divided into three parts: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. It is filled with good questions, wisdom, and book and documentary recommendations. Definitely a book that I will refer back to for years to come.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life Mark Manson
“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires”
The core message of this book is not that we should be indifferent about everything in life, but that we need to choose our proverbial f*cks wisely. We tend to care about things that aren’t deserving of our energy and attention, and as Manson says; we have a limited number of f*cks to give, so pay attention to where and who we give them to. The philosophical approach to life described in this book is one we could all do with embracing. Manson’s style of writing is very funny (in my opinion), which gains it extra points as not many philosophy books have made me laugh that much. It does include the word fuck an incredible number of times, but it makes the message stick. Here is an excerpt from the book from his blog that sums up the key takeaways.
The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. Marcus Aurelius.”
An excellent introduction to stoicism that draws on the the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius from his writings in Meditations, expanding on the idea that how we respond to obstacles is what defines us. It is known to have been read by many professional athletes, and was famously distributed to the players and staff of the New England Patriots by coach Bill Belichick on the way to winning the Super bowl in 2014. I enjoyed listening to this one on Audible, narrated by Holiday, and sometimes replay parts of it to reinforce the message.
The One Thing, Gary Keller
“Extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”
The message from this book is clear and concise. It helps us focus our efforts and attention on what is important to your success by asking one simple focussing question: What is the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary? What is the ONE thing you can do…for your health? for your career? for your relationships?
It is a deceptively simple question, but in asking it, we sort out what is important and deserving of your time from everything else. We live in a world full of distractions, and it is all too easy to occupy ourselves with trivial matters that fill us with feelings of busyness. Applying the principles of the ONE thing, you prioritise the actions that align with your goals, and every day you take a forward step to reaching them. Whatever you decide your ONE daily thing is, until it is done, everything else is a distraction. We can’t be great at everything, but this book will help you figure out what your ONE thing is from the big picture perspective, as well as the small focus that will get you there.
The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind – you are the one who hears it”
The recommendation for this book came courtesy of Russell Brand on an episode of The Trews, who is partial to a bit of spirituality. It gets us to step back and examine the voice in your head. As Singer points out: If you spend some time observing this mental voice, the first thing you will notice is that it never shuts up.
This book really gets you thinking about yourself and your identity, although it took me a couple of reads to get get my head around some of his ideas. It teaches us that we are not our thoughts, we are the ones experiencing the thoughts. This was music to my ears, because it meant that I didn’t have to give too much credence to my irrational mind. This mind is constantly struggling to be okay, but we can step aside and not participate in this struggle. This concept is known in the realms of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as cognitive diffusion. Changing how we relate to the voice within, and in doing so diminishing many of its undesirable functions.
Mindset, Carol Dweck
When it comes to improving and developing yourself, mindset makes all the difference. Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation and psychology professor at Stanford University, distills research in this book which carries a very important message for parents, educators, coaches, and anybody invested in self-development. A growth mindset reinforces the belief that talent and ability can be developed through effort and persistence, while a fixed mindset attributes success to inherent abilities. Consequently, fixed-mindset individuals tend to avoid failure as they perceive it to be a reflection of their fixed traits, thus limiting their potential for development. On the other hand, growth mindset individuals understand that learning comes from failure, and are more likely to work through setbacks rather than avoid them. A key message from this book is that we should encourage young people with positive reinforcement of their efforts rather than their natural talent or intelligence. In this Ted Talk, Dweck expands on the power of believing that you can improve.
The Slight Edge, Jeff Olsen
“Simple daily disciplines – little productive actions, repeated consistently over time – add up to the difference between failure and success”
I would put the Slight Edge right at the top of the list of self-improvement books. It is about taking action. Applying the slight edge philosophy is the catalyst that makes the great information from all the other books and the how-to’s work. Jeff Olson’s message is that simple daily disciplines add up to the difference between failure and success. Little productive actions, repeated consistently, are subject to the force of compounding interest. This is the slight edge in action. Things that are easy to do, but just as easy not to do. And it works both ways. We can eat the donut or not eat the donut. We can read 10 pages a day or not. We won’t notice the difference immediately, but over time these simple disciplines or simple errors in judgement will put us on the failure curve of the 95% or the success curve of the other 5%.
Here are three things you should definitely do.
- Read this book
- Put the Slight Edge habits into practice
- Pass the book on to a friend
The Power of Now
“It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living”
This bestselling book can help us through life with a simple message about being mindful and living in the present moment. This book teaches us to not dwell on the past or stress about the future, but to be consciously present in the now. It draws on mindfulness and acceptance to help us deal with suffering, with the core message that our emotional problem’s are rooted in identification with our minds. In this way, there are similarities with The Untethered Soul. Along with a philosophy that might change your perspective on life, it provides meditative and breathing techniques that help anchor us to the present moment.
Since being re-published in 1999, The Power of Now has taken the world by storm, having been given the nod by Oprah herself and translated into 33 languages. For some reason, a lot of people run a mile from anything ‘spiritual‘, and I was at one time one of those people. The spiritual is not the preserve of hippies who believe in angels and magic, and can be separated from religion. Spirituality is a broad concept with space for many perspectives, but ultimately relates to the non-material and the inner-self, and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. So, do yourself a favour and set aside your ‘not for me‘ attitude, and open your mind long enough to read this book.
Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives, Dan Millman
“The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination.”
This is a part-fictional, part-autobiographical account of the author’s life as a young gymnast, and was adapted to the big screen in 2006 as The Peaceful Warrior. It is different from the other self-help books in that the lessons and wisdom within it comes in the form of story-telling, which makes the book easily digestible. In The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan has a chance meeting with an old man who he finds standing on the roof of a petrol station. This man, who goes b
y the name of Socrates, becomes somewhat of a spiritual teacher to Dan, and it is from him that the core philosophy and insights of the book comes. Go with the flow of this book and there is a lot to be taken from it. Dan Millman is a prolific writer, with 19 books published at the last count, including Body Mind Mastery which is worth checking out. His most recent published in 2017, The Hidden School: Return of the Peaceful Warrior, which is a continuation of Dan’s journey from the original, 37 years later.
Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hymas
“Those who are patient in the trivial things in life and control themselves will one day have the same mastery in great and important things.”
Zen in the Martial Arts is a little gem full of anecdotes and lessons drawn from the author’s experiences and teachings from Zen Masters, including Bruce Lee himself, on his martial arts journey in the 70’s.
Each short chapter contains a lesson learned by Hymas, exploring concepts such as emptying your cup, process not product, the power of focus, Zen breathing, and many more. You do not have to practice martial arts to get something from this book, as the application of Zen principles applies to every facet of life. This book fits in your back pocket and contains wisdom that will serve you well until the end of your days.
I would love to hear your suggestions on any books that you think should be in the list. Which books have had the most impact on your life?
Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.