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Poll: Best Self Improvement Books?

Awaken The Giant Within

Awaken The Giant Within, without a doubt my least favorite self improvement book

Every time I am in a bookstore I wind up browsing the self improvement section. Most times I have the same thought:

“Hmm…if this book can actually change my life forever, for the better, they should probably be charging more than $20 for it. And they should probably say something that hasn’t been said before.”

As far as the best self improvement books, how should we measure them? Books that galvanize us to better actions? More productivity? Greater happiness? Is a book actually capable of doing any of this for us?

A lot of people hate it, but I still love The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It says The Same Old Thing in a way that resonated with me the first time I read it. This was true even though I saw that he was basically writing words inside circles, copyrighting them, and rattling off cliches like “Visualize success” and “be brave” and “Go get it if you want it!” and “Surround yourself with good people.”

But shortly after finishing it, I made some changes to my life and began taking some small steps that would eventually help me change the way I thought about some things that were stifling me.

I knew a lot of it was corny and trite, but it still helped me. Was it because of the book? Is it one of the best self help books of all time?  I don’t know. But based on results, the timeline looks like this:

  • Struggling with specific problems
  • Read 7 Habits
  • Found solutions to specific problems

The associations are there, whether or not there’s any causation.

Others, like Anthony Robbins’ Awaken The Giant Within feel so insincere and saccharine and patronizing and cloying to me that the mere sight of the book at the library gives me hives. I hated every single page of it, even though the message of the book (well, the message that is not Come To An Anthony Robbins Seminar!) was as positive as any other self improvement book I’ve read.

But plenty of people have told me that the book changed their life. If it really works for them, I’m glad and I hope it leads to the realization of their wildest dreams.

I don’t know exactly why I respond to these books the way I do.

Have you read any self improvement books that you can recommend? If they helped you, do you think you could have gotten the help another way?

And by “self help,” let’s try and limit it to the sorts of books you might actually see in the self help section of a store.


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  • Daisy June 16, 2011, 10:32 am

    I enjoy Lucinda Bassett’s books. She’s realistic, yet inspiring. I don’t find her trite; that’s a big issue.

  • Heather June 16, 2011, 12:17 pm

    My all-time faves–I have 2–are still “How to Successfully Meet Boys” (I read this in the 7th grade, and it has still stuck with me–and I still wish I had gone ahead and signed up for shop class) and an old one that I weeded from my school’s library collection years ago, simply entitled “Charm” which also discussed how to be lady-like in any situation. Granted, it was first published in the mid- to late 1950s, but the illustrations are delightful, and much of the advice I still find to be sound and. . . well, charming. I like Seth Godin’s stuff too.

  • Boris Bachmann June 16, 2011, 3:10 pm

    I’ve read an embarassingly large number of self-help books. I can’t help it. I need the help and I’m a sucker for a snappy title and slick-looking cover.

    The time grid (urgent/important, not-urgent/important, etc.) in 7 Habits was great. I’ve used it in class to discuss time management with teens. I would say that the segment had an impact on how I view the things I do in my own life.

    When I was in my early 20s, I read “You Can Be Happy No Matter What” – it was the right book at the right time. Probably still stands up fine and, if I can find it, might give it another read soon. http://www.amazon.com/You-Can-Happy-Matter-What/dp/1577310640

  • Ben Owens June 16, 2011, 3:40 pm

    There is only one book that could be classified as a self-help book that I have ever read. I had to read it recently for an Interpersonal Communications class. It’s called Leadership and Self-Deception. It was a surprisingly good book. I would recommend it to anyone.

    • Jason Norris June 18, 2011, 12:03 am

      Ah, I had been meaning to check that one out – it’s from the Arbinger Institute. I know the name because I “read” one of their other big titles – The Anatomy of Peace. Very powerful book told in a novel format.

  • Mark A Wilson June 16, 2011, 4:58 pm

    I just finished The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. I highly recommend it. One of the best reads I’ve had in a while.


  • Peter "Beck" Kim June 16, 2011, 5:43 pm

    Steven Pressfield’s “The War Of Art” (not a typo) has been oft quoted by bodywork and creativity folks as central (Scott Sonnon, you may have heard of him, and Seth Godin — Seth has partnered to release Pressfield’s more recent tiny neutronium tome, “Do The Work”).

    Speaking of Seth, his similarly recent “Poke The Box” nicely complements “Do The Work.” Compact, inspiring, get thee moving and take it to the finish line, sucka books.

    Probably not shelved in the self-help section, but should be. They’re the most helpful books I’ve read to get creativity and innovation started and to fruition.

  • Jason Norris June 18, 2011, 12:00 am

    I haven’t read a ton of self-help books, but with an hour commute for several years, I did listen to a lot of them. I think having the author “talk to” you helps impress the message. One that really sticks out in my mind is Brian Tracy – No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline. All about simply taking responsibility and “doing what needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not” (approximate quote). Highly recommended.

  • cinderkeys June 18, 2011, 10:33 pm

    Dunno if this counts as a self-help book, but I’d recommend Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. It’s for creative types who want to do creative things, and it articulated what I already believed.

  • Steve M June 20, 2011, 4:23 am

    I came across a book titled The Mental ABC’s of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance Enhancement by H.A. Dorfman, a sports psychologist. The book was touted in a piece by the NYT columnist David Brooks and is much more than a baseball book. Brooks points out that it offers a way to liberate yourself from “the tyranny of the scattered mind” through mental discipline. In one passage Dorfman writes “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.” Then he offers techniques to move yourself in that direction. Good stuff.

  • David White October 3, 2011, 4:01 pm

    How about Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It effectively obliterates the opinion that only people with pre-existing or inate talents, or sufficient upbringing/background can be successful. I think this is a great read for anyone attempting or beginning a new path in life. Takeaway message – the 10,000 hour rule…