Personal development is a vast and sprawling category of books. As with autobiography and memoir, I have to add the caveat that my reading breadth here does not span as widely as in fiction. I only recently started to get into this genre, around the end of 2020, beginning of 2021. With the world shutting down in various ways, it seemed to make sense to turn inwards and improve the self for re-entry into the post-pandemic (trans-pandemic?) world. I’ve got about 100 of these books sitting on my ‘want to read’ list, so as a top ten, this list will certainly be revised in the future.
The following dip into mindfulness, behavioral science, philosophy and finance, and have been my favorites so far.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. The more personal development books I read, the more I find that other authors are recapitulating what Stephen Covey wrote nearly thirty years ago. Covey reviewed all the character literature in preparation for this book, and we all get to benefit from his research. You can’t beat this book for systematic comprehensiveness and perhaps the best part is that there is no belief system agenda, religious or otherwise. Covey doesn’t even claim ownership of the seven habits, insisting that they are only universal principles and he is merely a conduit for their application to our lives. This book is definitely a great one to start with, or to return to as one refines one’s practices. (Sharpen the saw!)
Atomic Habits by James Clear. Again, Clear claims to invent relatively little in this volume, but his summary and interpretation of the behavioral science on habit is so clear, concise, consumable and applicable that the book is a gem when it comes to behavioral optimization. He pictures it as a kind of sequel to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. I read Clear’s book first, but if you’re going to read both, it does make sense to start with Duhigg’s. Clear’s weekly newsletter is also great.
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. I’ve gotten very into Stoicism recently. Although I studied Greek and Roman literature as an undergraduate and in graduate school, I was focused on epic poetry at the time, so I had read relatively little of the philosophy, other than the Plato and Aristotle that came along with the standard intro level philosophy requirements I took. This book is a great introduction to that philosophy. It doesn’t get bogged down in any academic discussions of the ancient texts. It’s short and easy to read. I’m looking forward to reading more of Holiday’s writing.
Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. Originally published in 1937, this has been updated in the revised edition, but even the original parts are timeless. Hill was charged by Andrew Carnegie with interviewing a boat load of mega-successful titans of industry, and it’s heady to think of not just getting an assignment from Andrew Carnegie but also all the other huge names of the people he interviewed to try to capture the essence of what makes success happen. Similar to the Seven Habits, this is a book that subsequent books lean on heavily, especially for the mindset side of choosing to be successful and implementing the steps required to bring about that success. There is an air of mystery surrounding this book, too. Hill writes that he does not explicitly state the secrets of success, but that they lie within for those who are ready to receive them. I think I comprehended the book fairly well, but I will definitely be reading this again to mine the rich content within and access the deeper levels of meaning.
A World Without Email, by Cal Newport. This is the only book I’ve read by Newport, though now I’m excited to check out his others. He's a professor of computer science at my alma mater, and shares my healthy distaste for email. The title is meant to be catchy rather than a prediction of the future, but he does outline a way in which we can move beyond our current use of electronic communication, which, he cogently argues and demonstrates, is making us both unhappy and inefficient.
Think Like a Rocket Scientist, by Ozan Varol. Varol uses his background as a rocket scientist to draw out the principles of ‘moonshot thinking,’ taking aim at something so audacious that it requires us to mentally strip away obstacles, thereby making room for us to take action in reality. I quite enjoyed reading the book and have been enjoying his newsletter as well.
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, by Deepak Chopra. By intention, this list is largely devoid of books on spirituality, mindfulness and religion. I think those are important areas of personal development, but we all approach them in the way we find most appropriate to our individual selves. That said, if you’re open to the concept of dharma, this book is a good introduction to it. It’s short, straightforward, simple, fundamental and not dogmatic.
What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, by Shad Helmstetter. The mind is like a computer that will run whatever program you feed it. Feed it positive programming and watch it feel good and do well. Simple but powerful. Don’t short change yourself with negative self-talk! This book is good for bringing your awareness to what type of self talk you’re already engaging in and gives you a template for changing.
Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, by Dan Heath. This quite enjoyable book takes most of its examples from industry, where the problems seem so large scale that it can be hard to relate to them in one’s personal life. Nevertheless, I love the idea of upstreaming problems (and using upstream as a verb). My wife and I now routinely talk about going upstream. Kids waking up in the middle of the night? How can we upstream this?
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth. There are many ways to analyze traits to try to predict success. Angela Duckworth has elucidated the character trait that is most correlated with success and has dedicated her academic career to studying it. Through elegant study designs she has been able to define and measure grittiness. This book will reassure you that you don’t have to be ‘born with it.’ As she points out:
talent x effort = skill
skill x effort = achievement
Effort counts twice!
Be willing to show up, work hard and put in the effort, day in and day out. I hope something from one of these books will help you on your way to doing just that!
Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins.
Spiritual Economics: The Principles and Process of True Prosperity, by Eric Butterworth
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg