This summer, I decided to really give the whole “be-present-in-the-moment” thing a shot.
I wanted to take this seriously, so I decided to check out a couple self-help books dedicated to the idea of “living in the now.”
Self-help books aren’t meant to be mindlessly devoured and followed diligently, like a cookbook recipe for happiness. You can cherry pick the lessons that fit your life.
Which is why we’ve gone ahead and done the hard work for you. Here, we’ve curated a list of nine self-help books to help you achieve professional and personal growth -- along with our biggest takeaways from each.
The Best Self-Help Books
- 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
- Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World
- The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
- Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence - And How You Can, Too
- How to Win Friends & Influence People
- Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
- You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life
1. 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You by Brett Blumenthal (2012)
This year, my New Year’s resolution was to be healthy.
Originally, this meant a complete lifestyle overhaul: replacing meals with kale juices, waking up at 5 a.m. for runs, avoiding all contact with sugar, becoming so proficient at SoulCycle that the instructor would ask if I’ve ever considered teaching on the side …
As the month progressed, being aggressively healthy became more about moderation. Occasionally choosing the salad instead of the burger. Drinking more water. Cycling exactly twice a week -- in the back of the class, dripping and (usually) pretty defeated.
My quest for big changes became a search for small ones.
This is the main premise of Blumenthal’s book, which points out that all big changes start with small ones. Becoming a healthier person doesn't come from making one big change. It comes from small changes, like choosing salads instead of burgers, eating a little less sugar, and downsizing your portions.
In her book, Blumenthal challenges you to make one small change each week, targeted at improving your nutrition, fitness, mental well-being, or green living. At the end of each week, she gives you a weekly changes checklist, so you know how to integrate these changes into your lifestyle.
Even though many of Blumenthal’s changes seem small (e.g. take a multivitamin, enjoy time alone), Blumenthal promises that at the end of the year, you will have fully transformed your life: you will be happier, healthier, more confident, more productive, and more positive.
Her book encourages holistic changes -- improving your mental, physical, and spiritual lifestyle, one small, attainable step at a time.
The Big Takeaway: Slow and steady still wins the race. Tackle your health and lifestyle goals one small change at a time. If your New Year's resolution seems overwhelming and unattainable, encourage yourself to focus on one little change per week: get more sleep, practice five-minutes of meditation each morning, or take a daily multivitamin. Then, all you have to do is repeat for 51 more weeks -- easy, right?
2. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2012)
When you woke up this morning, did you do anything remotely different? Did you decide you’d start your morning with a glass of lemon water, even though you usually drink coffee first? Did you sit down to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, even though you always watch Fox News? Did you tie your shoes differently, just for fun?
I’m betting you didn’t do any of these things -- you were probably on autopilot, going through your normal routine without taking the time to weigh your options or consciously make any decisions.
What you do in the morning, what you do throughout the day -- it’s mostly just habit.
In this compelling book, Charles Duhigg examines why habits form, and how we can break them. He examines a range of different scenarios where big decisions were made, from MLK and the American civil rights movement, to the creation of Starbucks, drawing upon scientific research to bolster his claims.
Ultimately, Duhigg explains that our goals can only be met if we change our underlying habits, and we can only change our habits if we understand why they form in the first place.
The Big Takeaway: Your life rests on a firm foundation of habit. If you’re unhappy with any aspect of your life, your biggest opportunity to create lasting change lies in your ability to change your habits. For example, Duhigg wrote about one woman who decided to quit smoking. By breaking this one keystone habit, a chain of events occurred: first, she began jogging more, which eventually changed her eating habits, her sleeping habits, and even her spending habits.
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with your big aspirations, start by changing one habit that inhibits you from reaching that goal, and let new habits drive you from there.
3. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World by William H. McRaven (2017)
In 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven gave a Commencement speech to the University of Texas at Austin. He talked about the ten lessons he learned during six months of Navy Seal training, and how anyone can use those same lessons to change the world. The video of his speech went viral, encouraging McRaven to write a book based on those same principles, as well as additional stories from his naval career. According to McRaven, here are a few ways to change the world:
- Make your bed first thing in the morning, which reminds you little things in life matter.
- Admit you can't do it alone, and learn to ask for help.
- Don’t be afraid of failure or setbacks.
- Be your best in the darkest moment, like a SEAL is taught to be his best when he’s under the keel, at the darkest moment of his mission.
The Big Takeaway: The reason many people think they can’t “change the world” is because that sounds unrealistic and grandiose. But McRaven argues that you can change a life -- your own, and other people’s -- through small gestures, little accomplishments, and a sincere inclination to hang onto hope at all costs.
4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey (1989)
Not only has Stephen Covey’s book sold more than 25 million copies, but Time also listed it as one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Management Books.” Bill Clinton even invited Covey to counsel him on the book's principles during his presidency.
25 years after publication, the wisdom behind the seven habits Covey presents still holds true.
While I won’t spoil all these habits, I will say that Covey separates his seven habits into three categories:
- Private victory: learning to prioritize your goals, visualize your dreams, and act proactively rather than reactively.
- Public victory: learning how to collaborate and compromise, empathize with others, and become a team player and a leader.
- Renewal: learning how to use spirituality, meditation, and even service to maintain these lessons over your lifetime.
Covey provides you with the tools to adapt to change, and the power to reach your best professional and personal self.
The Big Takeaway: Covey came up with two terms in his book: “abundance mentality,” which applies to someone who is not competitive when it comes to success and believes success is more attainable with others' involvement; and “scarcity mentality,” which applies to people who think success is only possible if they do it alone.
Covey posits that the most successful people are the “abundance mentality” people: those who are able to celebrate the success of other people, and even share recognition and responsibility for their own successes. So if you want to be successful, don’t be competitive. Instead, learn to use the people around you as resources, delegate responsibility, and work as a team player.
5. Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence - and How You Can, Too by Gary Vaynerchuk (2018)
If nothing else, this book offers some pretty unique arguments next time your dad asks why you don’t have a corporate (read: full-time) job yet.
But honestly, in 2018 the arguments for pursuing a less conventional, more entrepreneurial career are valid: many people have found success by creating their own alternative paths.
But since these paths don’t follow any blueprints, it can be tricky (and scary) to figure out where and how to start.
In his book, four-time New York Times bestselling author Vaynerchuk outlines exactly how to become a successful person without following a corporate path. His book provides useful and tangible advice on how to excel on social media platforms to establish and sustain a powerful personal brand -- no matter who you are. Whether you’re interested in becoming the next YouTube superstar, Instagram influencer, iTunes podcaster, or Spotify musician, his book offers strategic advice drawn from other successful influencers’ real experiences.
The Big Takeaway: This book isn’t a “get-rich-quick” scheme. Instead, it’s a guide that shows you how other people have become successful doing what they love, and how you can, too. It encourages you to dream bigger: whether you’re a plumber (in which case, “your pillar should be Facebook,” writes Vaynerchuk) or a podcaster (like John Lee Dumas, who followed Vaynerchuk’s advice and is now the creator of one of the top-ranked business podcasts on iTunes, which grosses around $200,000 per month). Ultimately, there's a social media platform and strategy for everyone: you just have to find it and put it into action.
6. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of this book. It’s one of the best-selling books of all time, and was named number 19 on Time’s list of 100 most influential books.
To be honest, if this was written in 2018 and preached things like, “fundamental techniques in handling people,” “six ways to make people like you,” “how to win people to your way of thinking,” and, “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment,” I’d think it was a bunch of nonsense.
But, this book was published in 1936. And it’s still listed under Amazon’s best-sellers, 82 years later. So I’m thinking author Dale Carnegie is probably onto something.
Some of the advice is simple: smile, say someone else’s name when talking to her -- and some is more complex, like, “let the other person feel your idea is his or hers,” which might take some practice.
The Big Takeaway: Here’s the gist of why Carnegie’s advice endures -- people like to talk about themselves. Everyone wants to feel special, understood, and appreciated. If you make people feel this way, they like you better. So whether you’re the leader of a big marketing firm or in your first full-time position, learn to listen to the people around you, ask them meaningful questions about themselves, praise them for their good ideas, empathize with their point of view even during an argument, and remain humble. If you make people feel special, they’ll live up to the great reputation you’ve created for them.
7. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown (2017)
To me, the title itself sounded like a contradiction: find a way to belong, and find a way to stand alone? How do those two things fit together?
Brown argues that you can’t have one without the other: you can’t learn how to belong anywhere until you learn who you are and how you should fit. She writes, “True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone … true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity.”
In other words, how can you authentically fit in to a group or community if you’re not being your true self? And how can you be your true self if you don’t learn who you are without the pressures or expectations of your community?
Our culture today doesn’t make “belonging” easy. Brown says that we often strive to be perfect, pleasing, non-confrontational, and, as a result, quiet. We are terrified of braving what she calls “the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.”
While being quiet might make for less complicated relationships, it also makes for less authentic ones.
The Big Takeaway: The first important lesson is that all of us have an innate need to connect with others (something Brown found in her research). But making connections is hard. Brown suggests reaching out and finding connections with those who are different from you. She also advises searching for truth in these relationships, within yourself and in others. If that sounds a bit too much like yoga-guru-jargon, it really just means being honest about who you are even at the risk of confrontation, and encouraging other people to be honest with you. She recommends learning how to truly listen, ask deeper-level questions, and always be “more curious than defensive.”
8. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson (2016)
Have you ever heard someone say something overly positive -- “It’ll all work out, never give up on your dreams, you are a superstar!” -- and thought to yourself, Sometimes, it doesn’t all just work out … sometimes, life isn’t fair, and I wish we’d all just be honest about that.
You would probably get along pretty well with superstar blogger and author Mark Manson.
I’ll admit, at first, his advice can seem a bit jarring. Growing up in a society in which positivity and having big dreams are encouraged, it was weird to read, “F**k positivity. Let’s be honest, shit is f**ked and we have to live with it."
But his book has sold over two million copies, and this rare and unflinching honesty is probably why.
Manson provides research-backed arguments to say we can improve our lives if we learn to accept our limitations, our flaws, and the inherent unfairness of life. We can’t all be superstars. He writes that we will be happier, healthier, and more authentic, if we learn to accept when we’ve failed and re-direct our dreams, rather than inappropriately believing that we should be a winner just because we try.
Although it sounds rather grim, maybe it’s not. Maybe the person who hasn’t become the next Justin Bieber after ten years of effort should reach for a new dream, because likely, the only alternative to that is resentment and frustration, and there’s nothing positive about that.
The Big Takeway: Manson explains -- in his own very elegant way -- that there are only so many things we can “give a f**k about,” and we need to try our best to limit that list. We spread ourselves too thin, which does us a disservice. It makes us miss out on the important things. For instance, I bet you care about having a job you love, and becoming rich. But what if I asked you to choose? Manson says you should choose -- if you want to do something you love, focus all your time, energy, and effort only on that.
9. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero (2013)
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and thought, Is this really the best I can do, and is this really the best life I can lead? If you have, you’ll appreciate Sincero’s journey, which started that same way.
Her book is all about learning how to create the life you desire -- a meaningful, happy, purposeful life, however that looks to you.
As Sincero writes, “You may have heard stories about people who had these major breakthroughs … they found a lump or got their electricity turned off … when suddenly they woke up, transformed. But you don’t have to wait until you hit rock bottom to start crawling out of your hole. All you have to do is make the decision.”
If you’re unhappy, Sincero will inspire you to change your life. Plus, she won’t allow for any of your usual excuses, like not having the time (to which Sincero would reply, “you always have the time.”)
Besides delving into how to change your life, Sincero discusses where we learn these excuses (childhood, society), and why we’re sometimes more afraid to go after what we want than just accept failure from the start.
The Big Takeaway: Enough with the excuses. Enough with the “maybe next year” or “that’s for someone else” or “I’m not meant for that kind of (job, relationship, life).” Sincero explains that you have more time than you think, and you need to give yourself that push (“your life depends on it,” Sincero urges). So get started -- not just with the effort, but with the attitude. As many of her readers have praised, Sincero’s book led them to their “destiny” because it created a voice in their heads that told them they deserved to go after that job, that soulmate, or that hobby. And it reminded them how massively important it is to live your most fulfilling and meaningful life -- now.
Originally published Feb 19, 2018 6:00:00 AM, updated June 10 2021