Martijn Schirp • • 19 min read
25 Best Books on Self-Improvement You Need to Read Before You Die
“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”
Brilliant books are maps that illuminate the routes leading to the treasures hidden within us. I remember the first time I got my hands on a self-improvement book. I was baffled. At that moment I realized my fate was not set in stone. I could become my own drill master and coach. The books I read would set out the training course for me to overcome. All I had to do was listen to that voice that aspired to climb higher and higher. Every time I committed to a new challenge I knew it was going to be outside my comfort zone, but after enough iterations, I also knew it will not just be part of my repertoire, it will be part of me. I just turned 25, and while I acknowledge some inherent dangers in the concept of self-improvement, I still believe in the beauty of self-directing your life. This is why I am sharing with you 25 Best Books on Self-Improvement You Need to Read Before You Die!
1. Whatcha Gonna Do with That Duck?: And Other Provocations – Seth Godin
This book is a masterpiece, and unlike most self-improvement books, this one targets an infinite array of areas in which you can, and ultimately must, improve. With its ruthless honesty and genuine inspiration, Godin makes you ponder the difficult questions you wouldn’t ever dare to ask yourself. The result is a completely new perspective of the world- a fresher, more vibrant perspective, packed with new and bold possibilities. If you need a friend that understands, a boss that forces you to venture deep in your non-comfort zone, a wise guru that tells you what needs to be left behind and a sage that proclaims the coming of a new age, then look no further; you will find these shrewd voices all tied together in this magnificent book. Make sure to get this one.
2. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Perhaps it is the fact that randomness played such a significant role in my years as a poker player that I find this book utterly important. We often attribute skill where there is only luck; we confuse correlation with causation and we underestimate the incredible effect small changes can have. This book and my time at the tables gave me a perspective I unfortunately rarely encounter in others: you can do everything right and still lose, or do everything wrong and still win. It is thus not about the outcome; it is about your actions that have lead you there. This important message is central to many of my decisions I make in my life and this book by Taleb helps you develop such a perspective so you will be able to live in a world one cannot fully understand, where the results are not always clear markers of performance and where chance seems to play games with our fates. Stop being fooled by randomness!
3. The 48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene
I read this book in a time where I thought power was something I should attain. Power for power’s sake. And while I disagree with my former self on this point, the fact remains that power is very real, it forms the invisible scepter of all hierarchical relations around us. I still recommend this book; I believe it is important to know how people use power for their own benefit and what to do to protect yourself from certain abuses of power. Besides the fact that all stories in this book gravitate around power, it contains many life lessons, amazing historical anecdotes and, if read in a certain light, the ability to use power for good. From Caesar to Goethe, Sun-Tzu to Machiavelli, this eye opening book spans a wide range of human development. If you, like me, would rather be interested in something less egotistical, perhaps Greene’s latest book Mastery will suffice (I haven’t read that one myself). Another great book in the same style, but this time around, covering a wider scope, and, perhaps, something that will make the world make a better place.
4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change – Stephen. R. Covey
The title of this book doesn’t capture it all. Covey shares with us seven habits one should adopt to become truly effective in whatever you would like to achieve. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds. He stresses the fact that we need to go through a paradigm shift – a fundamental change in how we perceive the world and ourselves. This book can be read as a guide, with practices and everything, to go through the stages in order to make such a shift happen. Part shock-therapy, part ageless spiritual wisdom, Covey’s book is packed with wisdom that actually makes a difference. And, as I mentioned, don’t let the title of the book fool you; it is about much more than just becoming more effective. It is about becoming a whole integer person who not only seeks the best in oneself but also in the people around her. A must read for anyone who feels there is always something left to learn.
5. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys – James Fadiman
While finding a book on psychedelics in a list of books on self-improvement might come as a surprise, I believe any metaphysical distinction between tools such as books, meditation or molecules hold no ground and they should all be solely judged on their merits. And the merits of certain chemical keys, used in a constructive way, are perhaps bigger than any book in this list. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide will teach you how to prepare yourself and your surroundings, what and how much to take, and what do do when something goes wrong, so you can safely enhance your thinking, creativity, introspection and emotional balance. This book contains everything you need to know about using psychedelics as a tool for self-improvement while drawing on extensive scientific literature and personal wisdom. A must have for the beginning and experienced psychonaut alike.
6. Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time – Brian Tracy
We all know how that destructive downward spiral feels. We have to do some big task, of which the thought alone triggers resistance, not sure how and where to begin and feeling overwhelmed before we start; we get easily distracted to get rid of that feeling, only to suddenly realize that hours went by- precious hours- and then find ourselves in the same position as before, still not knowing where and how to begin, but now, feeling guilty on top of it which expresses itself in more craving for distraction. Ad infinitum. To break this spell of procrastination before it paralyzes us, Tracy advises us to Eat That Frog, to set our priorities straight, deconstruct larger tasks into smaller ones, learn when to tackle the big frog first or to start out with something else. Tracy is truly a motivational writer, and while I wished he had gone a bit deeper into the psychological reasons why people procrastinate, it is still a must have for anyone who wants to break the spell and get shit done.
7. Think and Grow Rich: The Original 1937 Unedited Edition – Napoleon Hill
A from 1937, this book by Hill is a masterpiece. Don’t bother with the edited versions since they all omit important and controversial information: some historical, and some pertaining to the goal of the book, which is to think and grow rich. The word rich might imply that this book is all about material gain and personal finance, and while it certainly covers those areas, it is about much more than that. Perhaps the first explicit mention of positive thinking, on how to care not just about the cash in your pocket, but also the thoughts in your head, this book has been able to withstand the destruction of time. It covers all the basics from planning, decision making and persistence, to the more advanced techniques as auto-suggestion, transmutation and what we can learn from fear. This is not a grow rich book, but a timeless guide to find out what actually matters. As it says clearly in the beginning ‘Riches can’t always be measured in money!’
8. The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind – Alan Wallace
In a world that is dominated by ever stronger technologies designed to grab hold of your attention, a way to empower yourself is to bring that attention back to where you want it to shine. This book offers just that; in The Attention Revolution, Wallace describes the path to attaining Shamatha, a buddhist meditation state of mind that is free from any flickering of distraction. It is a hard and long path, probably not possible for us to reach in this lifetime. However, even getting to stage two or three will make everything in life easier. A wonderful introduction to meditation, The Attention Revolution will inspire you to take on the challenge and see what training your mind can actually achieve in your personal and professional life. Once you have achieved such a level of focus you can put it to use to open your heart with the practice of The Four Immeasurables or deepen the practice with this wonderful commentary by Dudjom Lingpa, both by Alan B. Wallace.
9. The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health – John Durant
In the last 10,000 years or so it seems we have been propelled into an ever faster paced world forged by our own hands and minds. Only recently have we been able to reconstruct our journey and reflect back upon our humble origins. This amazing book is such a reflection. It goes back to the paleolithic searching for answers to health and longevity. Between science and his personal experiments, Durant weaves a mind blowing story that will convey the importance of an evolutionary perspective on how to live well. It covers everything from nutrition to exercise, from sleep to fasting, from ancient practices to modern biohacking and even has an outline for a vision of the future where depression and other mental health disorders, along with obesity have become obsolete. If you only have room for a couple of books on this list, make sure this one is included.
10. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation – Daniel J. Siegel
As my Burmese meditation teacher often proclaimed, ‘Mindfulness alone is not enough!’ Siegel seems to have taken this to heart and made an unique synthesis between meditation, psychoanalysis and neuroscience which he calls ‘Mindsight‘, as he says himself, a potent combination between emotional and social intelligence. All of us deal with some disorder or another, something that seems to disturb the very core of our being at ease, and while it might not always be the best strategy to want to get rid of it, it certainly helps to understand and have compassion for that little aspect that upsets that perfect image of ourselves. Brimming with techniques, insights and epiphanies, this book contains everything you need to know to reprogram your brain and to optimally use its capacity of neuroplasticity. A great book for spiritual seekers and scientists alike.
11. How to Win Friends & Influence People – Dale Carnegie
This is the first self-improvement book I have ever read and it is also probably one of the oldest in this category. Written in 1937, mainly for the door to door salesman of that era, this book by Carnegie can truly be called a classic. It shows what we all intuitively know: it doesn’t matter what your line of work is or what you want to achieve- if you are doing business of any kind, you need to make it about the other person. Being nice helps, a lot. And while I might not fully defend the premise of this book, because it doesn’t distinguish between genuine interest and faking it to get what you want, it still contains a treasure chest full of timeless wisdom. Everybody wants to feel appreciated, and rightfully so. Learning to take a small effort to make someone’s day will make the world run smoother, no matter what your goal is. I still spontaneously remember some of his guidance, and perhaps this quality is the reason why this book still draws millions of readers to this day.
12. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy – David D. Burns
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the most effective therapy used by psychologists today; it consists of identifying thought patterns that have a detrimental effect on your self-image and mood, and deconstructing these in order to break out of these destructive cycles. If you want to know how this works, which moods are central in your life, what thought patterns are causing your depression, how to overcome self-judgment and guilt, how to defeat approval and love addiction and how your self-perfectionism is hindering you, then don’t look further; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has helped millions of people and it can help you, and this is the best book for the job. Packed with scientific research, step by step exercises and examples, this is the best improvement your going to get.
13. Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life – Maxwell Maltz
What can a plastic surgeon tell us about happiness? By dealing with his patients, Dr. Maxwell Maltz experienced firsthand that having your expectations come true doesn’t automatically result into a more positive life experience. Their outward appearances did indeed change but their inner insecurity remained. This caused him to find other means to help his patients, resulting in visualization techniques. He found a person’s outer success can never rise above the one visualized internally. This book carries a very honest and humbling story, loaded with fundamental truths about our psychology and how our own philosophy affects us, all told by a very compassionate writer. Of some books it can be said that it will be valuable for years to come, and I am absolutely positive that this is one of them.
14. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
This brilliant book by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman is a lucid account of all the amazing research he has done over the years. He is the founder of behavioral economics – the way our psychology affects our decisions – and explains in simple prose how our thinking is divided in two systems: one fast and one slow. The fast one is almost instant; it consists of the hardwired instincts that govern emotions, a remnant of an evolutionary past, an unconscious irrational machine. The slow one is deliberate, self-reflexive and logical, but can easily be distracted and takes a lot of effort. Both play a large role in our lives and Kahneman explores when the fast system fails and why the slow system is often not utilized. Packed with mind-blowing examples and sharp analyzes, this book teaches you how to learn to make sound judgments, and use the best of both systems.
15. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything – Chris Hadfield
A few extraordinary people journey to the edge of our world and come back with a unique story to tell. Colonel Hadfield is such a person, and his story is perhaps the most important one in this list. While the other books in this list teach you to be independent, visualize your future and dream big, this astronaut’s guide turns these all upside down. A truly remarkable book, overflowing with mind-blowing stories that illustrate the life lessons he learned as one of the most accomplished astronauts that ever lived. Full of compassion, warmth and genuine self-reflexive humor, he conveys to us to be prepared for the worst and never let yourself be swayed from enjoying every moment. Part action story, part no-nonsense hard truth and part timeless spiritual wisdom, this book makes you feel like you stepped onto a rocket ship and experienced what he did while learning these most valuable lessons on the way.
16. Perfect Health Diet: Regain Health and Lose Weight by Eating the Way You Were Meant to Eat – Paul Jaminet & Shou-Ching Jaminet
No self-improvement list is complete without a nutrition book and the Perfect Health Diet is arguably the best diet book on the market now. If you are overweight or not, feel sick, or just looking for an extra boost in health (and keep it this way), then look no further. From reading decades of studies the authors construct the optimal way to eat, destroying popular food fads in the process. They explain in sufficient detail the optimal macro-ratios, which starches are safe, which vitamins and supplements to take and what foods, or what they call toxins, to avoid. This book is a great supplement to the Paleo Manifesto as it shares its basic evolutionary perspective; we were evolved to eat non-toxic, high fat, moderate protein and carbohydrates. And, sometimes, going around with no food at all, can be a very healthy thing. If your body is not in optimal health, then it is almost no use to read the other books. Make this your priority number one.
17. Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success – John C. Maxwell
At one time or another, we will all fail. What matters most is how you deal with it once you do. Will you give up? Or will you use it as a stepping stone for success? I recently read an article about new start-ups in silicon valley. Its hypothesis was the more you had failed in the past, the more likely you were going to get funding. Why? Because failing teaches you invaluable lessons, and if you decide to continue after you hit the pavement, the more you have it in you to deliver. Now, this is not in anyway our instinctual reaction to failing. Most of us dread it, avoid it or refuse to fail at all costs. All three are by far sub-optimal. It is far better to accept failure where it arises, to accept responsibility and use it as a way to learn about yourself and your weaknesses. Only when you are absolute honest with yourself with respect to failure can you hope to grow. This wonderful book will teach you how to do exactly this. A honest book for everyone searching for a clean mirror.
18. The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
The Power of Now hardly needs any introduction. It is perhaps the book that has had the most impact on our collective consciousness in recent years. It has sold over 2 million copies and inspired countless people all over the world to live a more fulfilling and compassionate life, all through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness consists of moment to moment non-judgmental awareness. It is a technique that alleviates depression, increases emotional intelligence and develops compassion- and only recently has come to the west, which remained weary and skeptical until science had validated a wide array of its claims. The brain can be trained. The Power of Now teaches you how to release your attachment to certain thoughts and states of mind, thereby clearing the mind to fully embrace the present moment. If you already have read this book and are looking for deeper understanding, read Wherever You Go, There You Are.
19. The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch
At some point or another, almost all of us has come across The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. (If you haven’t, watch this powerful message here.) What would you say when you only have a few months left to live? This was probably Pausch’s question he posed to himself when he had to deliver his lecture a week later. But being confined to an academic setting and short time frame he felt he had more to share, thus marking the birth of this book. Filled with stories about his childhood, it is a very down to earth exploration of what it means to chase your dreams, to be a good person and live a life that gives value to others. A beautiful mixture of humor and optimism, his tender voice will be a source of inspiration for everyone who will take the time to listen, something he tried to impart on his readers. A very lovely read. And don’t forget, ‘It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.’
20. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brené Brown
I love Brené Brown’s books. She writes about an insight that I have found to be scary but true at the same time. Vulnerability, unlike we have been taught, is not a weakness, but a power to be tapped. Growing up with the idea that we have to hide certain parts of ourselves, to look strong and persevere at all costs always seemed a facade to me. And now she has the research to back that up. From that place of vulnerability comes a sense of worthiness, which for most of us, needs to be cultivated every day. Only if we get in touch with that tender spot of our hearts can we connect with others and develop genuine compassion, which are prerequisites, Brown tells us, for living a ‘wholehearted life.’ The reality, however, is that we often close down, feel neglected and misunderstood, and rather want the vulnerability and perhaps even ourselves to disappear. This book is an amazing antidote for that common instinct. Want to be truly convinced? Check out her amazing ted talk here.
21. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan
We all find UFO’s fascinating. We all really want to believe in magic or visiting aliens (surely the crop circles are conclusive proof!) and some of us believe the government is poisoning us with chemtrails. At the same time we are fascinated by the progress made by science, by all the new technology and medicines and the fascinating discoveries being made on a daily basis. Clearly, for the average person, it is quite hard to make a distinction between one claim or another – most of us are scientifically illiterate. Carl Sagan fought his whole life against such unreason and claimed that missing this ability to distinguish valid claims from hogwash could plunge us back into the dark ages. This book is perhaps his best on this subject, filled with examples and his eloquent mesmerizing voice, The Demon-Haunted World is a How To guide to arm you against manipulation masked as information. A must read for anyone who still feels the temptation to click sensationalist sophistry.
22. Philosophy for Life – Jules Evans
As philosopher Sloterdijk puts it; ‘philosophy is a beautiful child of an ugly mother.’ Philosophy first arose when the old Greek polis states were at the brink of destruction. Philosophy, according to Sloterdijk, was not just a way to make sense of the world, to come to knowledge or truth, but to serve as a psychological immune system. This book is an amazing expression of this perspective. From the stoics to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Jules Evans writes about some of the amazing philosophical techniques we can use to train and improve our cognitive immune systems. He weaves ancient stories with modern applications, from heroism to cosmic contemplation, Philosophy for Life a beautifully written book that makes it easy to understand the practical nature of philosophy. Perhaps the book would have been better if he would have gone deeper into the subject matter, but nonetheless he captures the essence of what philosophy can mean for the modern person. A must read.
23. Man’s Search For Meaning – Victor. E. Frankl
If I had to pick one book from this list for mandatory reading I would choose this one. For three years Viktor Frankl labored in four different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He tells us about his experience and that of his fellow prisoners. Both chilling and uplifting, confronted with the idea that they would be trapped there for the rest of their lives, he gives us an account of those who found meaning and those who succumbed to nihilism. A blend between a memoir, a psychological investigation and a self-help book, Frankl delivers a powerful message: finding meaning lies at the core of being human. From his own experience as a psychiatrist combined with anecdotes from his time in the concentration camps, he tells us how important it is to find meaning in our own lives and what we can become if we don’t. Suffering, he conveys to us, is inevitable. But as to how we cope with it is dependent on ourselves. If we can find meaning, even in the worst acts our species has ever inflicted upon his fellow man, we will be able to move forward with renewed purpose.
24. Simplify – Joshua Becker
This is a fun little book written by Joshua Becker, a big proponent of minimalist living. We all know that quote from Fightclub: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” Well, this is ending. Slowly we are outgrowing an era where the unquestioned mantra ‘more is always better’ dictates our behavior. Rather, we now find ourselves, our lives and our homes cluttered with too much information, too much stuff and just too much shit we don’t need. This simple book helps you become aware of the freedom gained from living with less. It is a small book, easily read under an hour, but it carries a persuasive punch to start living live in a very different way.
25. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It – Kamal Ravikant
The fundamental ground upon which all true self-improvement is build is called self-love. Because in the end, no matter which way you turn, if you don’t love yourself, you will sabotage yourself at one point. You will think that, for some reason or another, you are not worthy. And if you think that, why would you truly want to achieve anything? And this is not just about achievement. This is about how you approach yourself every day; this is what you see when you look in the mirror. We make so many snap judgments about ourselves- often without being conscious of them- that are filled with negativity, haltering us before we can even begin to heal. This powerful book shows you the antidote. Self-love. Not to be confused with creating some narcissistic image of ourselves that some previous books in this list implicitly endorse, but self-love, that inner gratefulness that no external condition can take away. Self-love, that infinite source you can share with others.
For an in-depth summary of Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It along with a detailed list of key ideas, action steps and more checkout The Stairway to Wisdom.
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