One of the reasons self-improvement books are so popular is that they are for everybody. From regular workers to high-powered CEOs, fresh college grads to elderly retirees, urban dwellers to people living in rural areas – the learning experience is never complete. Reading a book in the self-help genre is a way of acknowledging that we all have room for improvement.
Personal development books have been around for as long as people have been reading. The ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks had books advising people how to live. In the Middle Ages, books told stories of kings whose behavior should be imitated (or avoided). The personal growth books genre exploded in the early twentieth century with books
like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich that have sold tens of millions of copies and remain popular today.
Here, we present our 10 top self-help books for 2021. Some of these books are well-worn classics while others are recent best-sellers. All of them have two things in common: they are great reads and they contain important lessons for personal growth.
Teaches us that true happiness comes from living in the present moment
Published in the late 1990s, The Power of Now remains a best-seller with its central message about living in the present. While this is not the only book on the subject, it probably does a better job than any other of making the case for mindfulness. After reading Tolle’s book, you will have a better understanding of how living in the present can boost happiness and emotional intelligence and remove pain and anxiety.
Even Tolle’s detractors have been forced to acknowledge the positive impact his book has had on millions of readers. In the words of one critic, “In the midst of all the psychobabble to do with happiness being based on getting what you want, Tolle sounds a clear note stating that happiness comes from a state of consciousness and a connection with being present to the wonder of life.”
Teaches us that motivation comes from finding meaning in our lives
Part memoir, part psychology primer, this book was once ranked in the top 10 most influential books in a survey conducted by The Library of Congress. In Part One, Frankl analyzes his own experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He concludes, controversially, that prisoners who maintained a positive attitude amid the horrors were more likely to survive.
Part Two introduces us to Frankl’s concept of logotherapy, which teaches that the primary motivational force of any person is to find meaning in life. According to Frankl, we can discover meaning in three sources: (1) through work or deeds; (2) through an experience with something or encounter with someone; or (3) by choosing our attitude in the face of suffering.
Teaches us to listen to our hearts, watch for omens, and follow our dreams
The only novel on our list, The Alchemist many people credit it with having changed their lives. It therefore deserves its place in our list of best personal development books. The Alchemist has sold around 150 million copies in dozens of languages since it was first published in 1988, making it one of the top three selling novels of all time alongside The Lord of the Rings and the first book in the Harry Potter series.
Coelho’s masterpiece tells the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who journeys to the pyramids of Egypt after experiencing a recurring dream about finding treasure there. The story of Santiago’s journey teaches us – in the way only a great story can – about the importance of listening to our hearts and following our dreams.
Teaches us to make ourselves vulnerable and face down our fears
It’s not often a book becomes a bestseller by saying something completely counterintuitive, but Brené Brown achieves this here. Based on a lifetime of research, this professor of social work argues that vulnerability equals courage – and that making ourselves vulnerable can transform our lives.
Drawing on her copious amount of research, Brown explains how vulnerability is at the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, and of positive emotions like love, joy, and creativity. She writes: “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Teaches us to aim high - and to be brave, creative, and unpredictable in our work
Seth Godin has written dozens of motivational books, and this one is his best. Anyone familiar with Greek mythology will know the story of Icarus, the boy with wings who ignores his father’s warning to not fly too close to the sun – and meets his doom. But we forget that Icarus’ father also warned him not to fly too low because seawater would destroy his wings.
Drawing on this theme, Godin teaches us that flying too low – i.e. taking no risks – is more even more dangerous than flying high. In his typically inspirational style, he urges us to be brave, creative, and unpredictable in our work. This book is a call to action to treat our work as a form of art.
Teaches us how to obtain power and protect ourselves against power
As it says on the back cover, this bestseller is for people “who want power, watch power, or want to arm themselves against power.” Drawing on lessons from great thinkers throughout history like Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Queen Elizabeth I, and Henry Kissinger, Greene gives us 48 laws that can be applied in all facets of life.
Highlights include: “Law 4: Always say less than necessary”, “Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument”, “Law 19: Know who you’re dealing with, do not offend the wrong person”, “Law 29: Plan all the way to the end”, and “Law 40: Despise the free lunch”.
Teaches us that doing little things right leads to doing big things right
McRaven’s commencement speech to the University of Texas at Austin class of 2014 has been viewed millions of times. His best-selling book is based on that speech and it begins with the same message: if you want to change the world, start by making your bed. In other words: “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right”.
“Make Your Bed” offers 10 lessons McRaven learned during his time as a Navy SEAL officer and later as commander of the United States Special Operations Command. These include, “If you want to change the world find someone to help you paddle”, “If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers”, and “If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward”.
Teaches us that following conventional wisdom isn't always the right path
This doesn’t just fit into the category of personal development books. It’s also an incredibly entertaining read for anyone remotely interested in astronauts and space. Hadfield, a former Canadian fighter pilot who flew two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station, shares the lessons he learned from years of training and space exploration.
Through dramatic stories about space launches, space walks, and returning to Earth, Hadfield teaches us not to be blinded by conventional wisdom. For example, he tells us that we should care what others think, should sweat the small stuff, and should always prepare for the worst.
Teaches us which foods to eat to stay healthy and protect against disease
It might seem strange to have a book on nutrition in a list of best self-improvement books, but there’s a logic to it. A healthy mind goes in a healthy body, as they say, and a healthy body starts with eating the right foods.
Based on a meta-analysis (a study of studies) of nutrition, Greger presents the “daily dozen” of food groupings that can protect us from the 15 top causes of premature death. The overarching message is that a whole food, plant-based diet is best at preventing disease. The good news is many of the foods on the list are probably already in your diet and all are delicious, e.g. beans, berries, nuts, and spices. The last item on the daily dozen checklist isn’t actually food – it’s exercise.
Teaches us to think deeply about what matters in life before it's too late
Before picking up this book, be warned: it’s a real tear-jerker. Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In 2006, doctors told him he had pancreatic cancer and had only a few months to live. Soon after, Pausch gave a lecture at his university titled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. The video became a YouTube sensation and led to this book on the same theme.
Pausch sadly passed away in 2008 but his legacy lives on through this book. “The Last Lecture” will make you smile. It will make you cry. And most of all, it will make you think deeply about what matters to you.