The 20 Greatest Self Development Books Ever Written

After my previous post on the 10 best self development books of 2010 I’ve had a few people ask me what my my top self development books of all time are, so today I thought I’d take a stab at answering that.

The following books are the ones that have stand the test of time for me, and me alone.  What I mean by that is that I am fully aware that books like The 7 Habits, Flow and Think And Grow Rich were/are classics, and indeed, I enjoyed all of them.

However, I happen to think that there are now better, more accessible books out there, and as such none of the above make my list.

Although, it has to be said, they would have done if I was writing a list of the 20 most influential self development books ever written. As would, almost certainly, The Power Of Now, How To Make Friends and Influence People, As A Man Thinketh and Get Things Done.

I’m also including books that you may not necessarily find in the self development isle of your local book store.  I believe books on social and behavioral psychology that help us understand how, and why, we make decisions, can be just as useful for Life Coaching and self development purposes as more traditional ‘how to’ kind of publications.

All the titles link through to Amazon (except Nick Hall) and as per the last post they are affiliate links. I have also copy and pasted some previous reviews rather than written everything from scratch and spend a day and a half compiling this post. I hope you understand.

I pimped How To Be Rich and Happy with the last post enough, so modesty has forced me to leave it out of this list, but not enough to stop me telling you Friday the 17th is the last day we can guarantee getting you a copy in time for Christmas, so grab a copy now!

Anyway without further ado, drum roll maestro please, because here are my top 20 self development books of all time.

20. The Element – Sir Ken Robinson

I’m not sure if this book will stand the test of time because although it’s about creativity, it’s also about the education system as it stands now. Education sucks in this country (and the rest of the world I may add) and we need a fundamental overhaul from top to bottom and Sir Ken Robinson gets this.

Make no mistake though, The Element is not a rant, although Robinson could have been forgiven for allowing it to become one.

It is  however, a fascinating insight into creativity and there are some great stroies of people through sheer determination, refusing to allow their dreams and creative edge to be buried. If you are in any doubt at the whether this book is for you, go and watch what I think was the greatest ever Ted talk.

19. Embracing Fear – Thom Rutledge

I love Thom Rutledge because he is a real person. He’s a brilliant therapist that admits he had a huge alcohol problem and that his life isn’t perfect or even close to being perfect. He’s funny, intelligent and very, very good at what he does.

Embracing Fear is a thoughtful and amusing book with more of its fair share of A-ha! moments.  If fear is a problem in your life then this is good a starting point as any and in my humble opinion is blows away the more celebrated “Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway”

18. The Motivated Mind – Raj Persaud

I bought this book a few years ago back in England and never finished it. However, I pulled it out a few months ago to find something I thought I had read in it and was amazed at how much great stuff I had missed out on.

Persaud has since been found guilty of plagiarism after he lifted a colleagues work in a medical paper he published, and that almost caused me leave it off the list. But that would be an injustice because it’s an excellent insight into the human mind that deserves to be read no matter who wrote it.

It drifts between psychology, coaching and common sense and (he even takes time to slam Life Coaching, he’s a bit of an arrogant arse to be honest) and he’s not the funniest dude on the planet, nor even in his own household I would imagine, but it’s still a great book if you can track a copy down.

17. Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff (And It’s All Small Stuff) – Richard Carlson

I have to admit, I stole the idea for the format for ‘Don’t Ask Stupid Questions’ after reading this delightful book by the late Richard Carlson.

This book sat in my bathroom for what seemed like years. It did for me over that time period what my iPhone with its Scrabble app does for me now, if you know what I mean.

DSTSM contains 100 short chapters of timeless wisdom. It’s the kind of book that you can open, read a chapter and immediately be able to apply it to your life.

It’s probably not earth-shattering and it may not necessarily help people to change permanently, unless they allow it to. However, it may well prompt them to pause and take stock which has to be the starting point for conscious change.

16. The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

A fascinating and excellent book for sure and one that really opened my eyes to the potential of the human brain and what we can do at an individual level to maintain our own cognitive abilities.

The part that jumped out as me was the research that suggests there seems to be no real reason (drug and alcohol abuse notwithstanding) for the brain to deteriorate like it does in most people. And the predominant cause is through the lack of the right kind of stimulation, and not because of how old somebody is.

This book will be great if you ever bristle at people that claim others cannot change and use phrases like, “A leopard never changes its spots”. This book gives you the scientific proof as to why that is, and I use a technical term now so Google it if you’re not sure what I mean, total bollocks.

15. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari – Robin Sharma

Full disclosure: I’m not  a fan of Robin Sharma as will be explained in my post An Interview With Robin Sharma. However, I am a fan of this book and it would be unfair and disingenuous of me to leave it out because of my personal opinions of the author.

In a nutshell, a rather unhappy, unfulfilled but in terms of work, highly successful,  attorney, has a heart attack . He starts to question the reasons behind his relentless pursuit of money and winning court cases at all costs. When he doesn’t discover the answers he heads off to find himself an Indian guru or two hoping they can explain the meaning of life to him.

As you may have guessed, he does indeed find his purpose for existence as well as peace of mind and a nice saffron robe too.

When I first read this book I was quite indignant, because although Sharma uses other peoples quotes and ideas he attributes none of them. I kept thinking “Such and such said that” and that was “Such and such’s idea” I didn’t actually say such and such, just that it’s a few years since I read it and I can’t remember exactly whose ideas he used, and I’m not sure it even matters.

I was being churlish and anal using that as a criticism because it’s total jealousy because I didn’t think of such a brilliant idea.

If you want a fast track to some of the best self development material (without ever knowing where it came from), this is the book for you. Whisper is quietly, you may even find mention of 30 day challenges years before another well known self-development guru supposedly invented them.

14.  Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

Most people presume they are a rational person making decisions in life based on cold hard facts. The reality is, everybody is irrational and we all make decisions often in spite of contradictory facts and evidence.

As a sales person I have intuitively known people are irrational for years, but I never realized that irrationality was so predictable and so exploited by advertisers and marketers.

‘Predictably Irrational’ explains why we procrastinate, why we like to leave our options open, often to our own detriment,  the power of free, why people are dishonesty and the real cost to Society, the power of beliefs and the difference between social and market norms.

Some of the stories I have read or heard about before, but as a Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT, there is a lot of his own work included that was new to me. The way he weaves it all together makes this a highly enjoyable and incredibly enlightening read.

If you want to know more about what makes you and others tick and be even more aware of how the less scrupulous sometimes use that knowledge to sell to you, then this is the book for you

13. The Success Principles – Jack Canfield

I’m not even sure what I really think about Jack Canfield because he can sometimes appear smarmy and insincere and will be forever linked to the monstrosity that was (in my opinion) The Secret.

My suspicion, for what it’s worth is that Canfield is a genuine guy , but whether he is or whether he isn’t, The Success Principles is an excellent read. In fact, it probably provided me with the biggest A-ha! moment in my life when Canfield told the old adage;

“If one man tells you you’re a horse, he’s insane.
If three men tell you you’re a horse, there’s a conspiracy.
And if ten men tell you you’re horse, you need to get a saddle.”

Reading that made me realized that I needed a saddle and that all the people telling me I was a negative person weren’t delusional, I was.

One of the greatest collection of uplifting, inspirtational and can-do stories mixed in with Canfields common sense wisdom make this a modern day classic, at lest in my mind.

12. Awaken The Giant Within – Tony Robbins

Robbins is the easiest figure in the personal development field to poke fun at. After all, he’s about 13 feet tall, is outrageously intense, appears to be Benjamin Button and has the shiniest teeth in Christendom. Yes, even shinier than Jack Canfields!

He also took NLP techniques largely developed by Bandler and Grinder, repackaged them, re-named them in some cases and then delivered them to the masses as his own material.

To be fair, and to the best of my knowledge, he ever explicitly claimed credit and I’m not even sure he meant to mislead anybody, but he sure pissed off a lot of the NLP community nonetheless.

ATGW introduces some very powerful NLP ideas that are relatively easy to employ and can be life changing, and the story about how Mr Honda started Honda Automobiles is worth getting the book for alone.

It’s a long book though at well over 500 pages so if you like quick reads it wont be for you.

11. Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman

I  recently re-read this a few years after I first heard it on audio and I got even more out of it the second time round.

It’s important to understand the difference between optimistic thinking and positive thinking because they are not the same thing.

The jury is out scientifically speaking, as to whether affirmations and positive thinking are always helpful. In fact, many people think they can actually be unhelpful in certain circumstances.

If you’re being chased by a very hungry bear and you have 2lbs of live salmon wriggling around down your underwear, thinking affirmations and telling yourself not to worry because everything will be ok, probably wont help (not you or the salmon anyway, the bear will be fine with it).

Being optimistic that you have the power to change things however, would encourage you to look for solutions and in no time at all you’ll have either tossed out the fish or eaten them and died from mercury poisoning

It is serious science that Seligman presents and leaning on cognitive behavioral therapy research to explain how we can make changes.

The remarkable conclusions about the benefits of thinking optimistically are readily accepted wisdom now and include, better health, better prospects for success at work and a longer life span. Not bad huh?

10. The Power of Full Engagement – Jim Loehr and Tony Shwartz

This book really does deserve all the praise it receives. It’s the first book ever written (that I know of anyway) that transfers techniques developed by the authors to help athletes perform at a top-class level, to the world of business.

Loehr and Swartz suggest that you’re only as strong as your weakest link and as such you need to get all aspects of your life right i.e. spiritual, mental, emotional and physical if you want to excel.

They talk about the need for proper nutrition, exercise and disengagement from work that includes family and social time. In short they take an holistic approach they know works with world-class athletes and reason it will be helpful to anybody. I happen to agree for what it’s worth.

Whereas this is indeed a brilliant book, I was somewhat disappointed when I was contacted by somebody that works for the Human Resource Institute started by Dr. Loehr here in Orlando, claiming to be stressed senseless by work!

9. Prometheus Rising – Robert Anton Wilson

There is an NLP Presupposition that says ‘The Map is not the Territory’ This book could have been quite easily and accurately, called that.

Wilson was a maverick and a quite brilliant thinker, of that there is no doubt. PR gets a bit weird in places and his humor is somewhat off the wall, but there is a very important message pertaining to what we believe reality is, and probably more importantly, what we think it isn’t.

The paradox with this book is close-minded my way or the highway types are the people that would get most out of it, but they are the least likely to read it. Or if they do read it they’ll just dismiss Wilson as some pot smoking, liberal  intellectual, which is of course is exactly what he was.

8. I Know What To Do, So Why Don’t I Do It? – Nick Hall

Did you read my post on using your breathing to decide whether you are in a creative mood or not? Well if you did it came from listening to this guy speak live and he’s awesome.

One of the things we strived really hard to achieve with How To Be Rich and Happy is remove any filler so every page is relevant. Let me tell you every page in I Know What To Do, So Why Don’t I Do It? is relevant and Dr Hall packs an amazing amount of invaluable information into a short and easy to read space.

7. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Gilbert takes a look at how the brain works for us and sometimes against us. The twist is that he presents the information in such a manner that even I understood what he was talking about. Not only that, but he had me laughing out loud on several occasions and smiling almost throughout.

The book has a downside though. It will make you realize that you really aren’t that unique. Heavens to Betsy, what am I saying, not unique? Well of course you’re unique, but you don’t really think that uniquely. You think you do, so that’s the bit that might niggle you when you finally have to accept that your brain does a great job of fooling you for much of the time.

You’ll learn why it’s almost impossible to predict how you’ll feel about things in the future, hence the reasons why we make so many bad choices. Why money has almost zero effect on your happiness levels and why it’s literally impossible to know how happy somebody else is, even if they tell you!

6. Living As A River – Bodhipaksa

See the 10 Greatest Self Development Books of 2010

5. Overachievement – John Elliot

I actually have this book as an audio program called The Maverick Mindset and if you can afford it I would say buy that rather than the book because it’s outstanding!

There are so many great stories from his time as a Sport Psychologist at Rice University and whilst growing up with a father who worked with the US Olympic Ski team, that it’s been a constant mine of information to me.

It is heavily sports slanted so if you hate sports, it may not be for you. But it will show you  that you can think differently if you really want to and I have never had anybody that bought it tell me anything other than they loved it.

4. Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

Some people miss the fact that this book can really help with personal development. It’s the best book I have ever read on rapid cognition. Come to think of it, it’s possibly the only book I have ever read devoted solely to rapid cognition.

When I first read it I thought, “You bastard Gladwell, I wanted to say that

If you want to understand the power of your unconscious mind  and why you should trust it more often, Blink is your answer

A few people panned it on release saying it encourages people to be lazy with how they think and not bother to analyze stuff.

I want to say they’re idiots that have missed the whole premise of the book, but no Life Coach would ever say such a thing and they are entitled to their opinion.

3. How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer

‘How We Decide’ not only explains what is going on inside the brain as we make decisions and why we are sometimes so poor, but it does so in a manner that is accessible and interesting to most people. You won’t get lost in academic jargon because what there is, is explained clearly and concisely.

Lehrer brilliantly uses real life examples of famous ‘blow ups’ and successes to explain what was actually happening inside the mind of the person at that time. Occasionally his facts are a bit off, saying Jean Van De Velde lost the British Open on the eighteenth hole, when in reality his total collapse meant a play-off he then lost, but that is a minor quibble.

‘How We Decide’ will help you understand your thought processes better, realize when to let your unconscious make decisions and when it’s best to use your conscious rational mind. It even explains why so many people get caught up in credit card debt and others are prone to become addicts.

When researching this post I came across an interview with Jonah Lehrer and I loved his response to this question so much I wanted to share it with you. Remember it next time some Guru insists on telling you how things are, because, in my not so humble opinion, Lehrer nails it.

Q: Can neuroscience really teach us how to make better decisions?
A: My answer is a qualified yes. Despite the claims of many self-help books, there is no secret recipe for decision-making, no single strategy that can work in every situation. The real world is just too complex

2. Your Brain At Work – David Rock

An absolute classic, go buy it!

See the review here: 10 Greatest Self development Books of 2010

1. Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl spent four years in four different German run concentration camps during World War 2. His observations during that time led to his ground breaking development of the psychology field of logotherapy.

Logotherapy is almost anti-Freudian in its belief that human beings aren’t wired up to seek pleasure, but to seek a meaning in life. Those that survived the horrors of places like Auschwitz for any length of time, more often than not had a strong purpose for existence. It is that, which Frankl believed drove them on and gave them hope, ultimately helping them to survive.

At times the book is both harrowing and depressing, but if you can look past the atrocities and the degradation of mankind, you’ll find an uplifting book with some very dark humor.

The thing that makes this the greatest book of all time when it comes to self development, is that not only has everything Frankl observed since been supported by scientific research, but even more importantly in my opinion, it offers hope to every human being on the planet.

That no matter how desperate their circumstances they can prevail.

So what do you think? Agree, disagree, think I need locking up in padded cell, wearing a jacket with long sleeves?

Tell me in the comments the one book that is missing that makes you think I have a fragile grasp on reality.