25 Must Read Self Development Books

I know I talk about great self development books a lot, but that’s largely because I get asked about them a lot.

Literally a week never passes without either a client or some random person asking me to recommend a book on one or more aspects of self development.

Today I’m going to take a slightly different tack.

Rather than just list my personal favorites I’m going to compile a collection of books that I feel should be read by every person that is genuinely interested in maximizing their own personal development

The books aren’t ordered in any way, the numbering was purely for my own benefit and for people wanting to scan.

I’ve also deliberately left out deep and narrow books like ‘Flow’ and ‘Spiral Dynamics’ that are too academic for most people and there is no real need to read the book to get the concept.

I know there will be must reads that you think I have left out such as ‘Think and Grow Rich’, ‘The Power of Now’ and ‘Feel The Fear and Do it Anyway’.

However with such titles I either think there are better books that cover the same subject or you can get the gist of the book from the title or even a blog post.

All the titles are affiliate links to the books on Amazon and I aim to make literally 3 or 4 dollars from this one post alone!

So without any further ado here are:

25 Must Read Self Development Books

1. The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz

This book straddles the spiritual/self development divide beautifully. It’s chock full of ancient Toltec wisdom and if you can adopt the message and live by it, you’re life will improve exponentially.

Just in case you’re wondering what the 4 Agreements are, I’m sure I it won’t spoil an awesome book to know they are:

  1. Be Impeccable with your Word (including don’t gossip)
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally (need I say more? Nothing is ever personal unless you allow it to be)
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions (that guys an asshole for driving like that in traffic – Oh what’s that you say, his dad’s dying and in the ambulance he’s following? Oops)
  4. Always Do Your Best (your best will vary from day to day so don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t always attain the same standards)

2. Influence – Robert Cialdini

This is probably the seminal book on influence and as such it has been raped and pillaged by a great many authors looking for information on the topic.

I only read it about 6 months ago and I was amazed at how much of the research I was familiar with. If you want to know how marketers try and get you to part with your hard earned and what you can do to prevent it, then this is the go-to book.

3. Buddha’s Brain – Rick Hansen

Quite simply an amazing book for anybody who wants the science and research (rather than the woo-woo) behind why meditation is so effective.

You cannot read this book and not realize the amazing effects of meditation and want to start your own practice. Highly recommended.

Note: You can also grab my free meditation ebook (also available as an audio) and all my other free ebooks, by clicking here

4. Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman

If you want to know why Norman Vincent Peele got it hopelessly wrong with his book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’, this book will tell you.

Science has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that whereas positive thinking has little beneficial psychological value (and neither do affirmations), optimistic thinking has lots, including being healthier, better paid and being a happier person.

Best of all Seligman teaches you how to become a more optimistic person.

5. Mans Search For Meaning – Victor Frankl

Next time you find yourself whining that it’s rained all day and England have been knocked out of yet another major football (soccer) competition on a penalty shoot out, go and pick up a copy of Mans Search For Meaning and let Victor Frankly bring life back into focus.

This book dovetails beautifully with Learned Optimism because one of the reasons Frankl believed so many Jews didn’t survive the brutal Nazi concentration camps like he did, was because they had adopted a habit of learned helplessness.

The last third is a tad hard going for the layman as he starts to delve into logotherapy (the belief started by Frankl that human nature is motivated by meaning), but it’s highly recommended.

Kelly McGonigal - The Willpower Instinct6. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

I have to confess I have a man crush on psychologist and Harvard Lecturer, Kelly McGonigal.

She’s a humanitarian, pet lover (and rescue helper) and passionate advocate of meditation and compassion.

Not only that, but I loved her TED talk, and I was thrilled to get to interview her.

If I didn’t just want to limit this list down to one book per person I could have easily included ‘The Upside of Stress’ too because it was equally excellent.

What can I say about ‘The Willpower Instinct’ other than just buy the damn thing and if you think it sucks I’ll refund you the money?

McGonigal explains why avoidance tactic don’t work and how we can use glucose to fight our urges (presuming sugar isn’t the urge!).

She goes on to articulate why being good now can increase the possibility of being bad later and why we crave things that seldom, if ever, deliver to the extent we expect them to.

She explains clearly, and in easy to understand terms, what is going on in your brain when you feel your willpower waning.

And more importantly, what you can do about it.

7. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

To me understanding human behavior is critical to being an efficient coach. And there is no person  better at explaining it than Dan Ariely.

Predictably Irrational takes a look at the way people seemingly act in very weird ways under certain circumstances. Except as the title alludes to, their/our behavior is often a lot more predictable than we may think.

Note: I am just reading Ariely’s new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. It’s a truly fascinating look at how we all lie from time to time and more importantly, how we justify that lying to ourselves.

8. The Story of My Life – Helen Keller

It would be a travesty pay tribute to the amazing Helen Keller without mentioning Annie Sullivan her teacher and mentor.

There’s little doubt that if the two had never met the world would never have heard of Keller, so instrumental was Sullivan’s patience, tenacity, compassion and desire to help Keller overcome her incredible obstacles.

Keller is one of the most humble and remarkable human beings to have ever graced the planet and you will get a true sense of that from this book.

9. Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

If I said that statistically having kids actually doesn’t make people happier, in fact it can have the opposite effect, would you be surprised?

I know I was, but the rationale that nobody admits to being pissed off with their kids most of the time and resenting the lack of freedom, peace and money is sound, if not somewhat taboo.

Gilbert is very funny, very honest and this is a brilliant book on finding happiness.

10. Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

In my top 5 books of all time, Gladwell’s look at gut instincts (rapid cognition) is without doubt the best I have ever read on the topic.

If you read this book I feel sure you will start to trust your gut instinct a lot more than you probably do now.

11. The Power of Full Engagement – Tony Swartz and Jim Loehr

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. It is.

12. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey

I have actually knocked this book on several occasions, but not because there isn’t some really cool information contained within, but more that Covey added so much padding that really wasn’t necessary.

However it’s still worth reading for people new to self development and the 4 quadrants chapter is worth the cost of the book alone.

13. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Whereas Covey padded his book, Pressfield did the opposite and this is a delightful read for anybody looking to unlock their inner creativity.

Tipping his hat to The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Pressfield explains that you are the enemy of your own dreams and you are the one that can either make them happen or let them die, but you have to do the work!

 14. Your Brain At Work – David Rock

Probably the book that has given me the most value of any I have read since becoming a Life Coach.

Rock takes a peak behind the shroud of how the human brain works using the latest cutting edge research on neuroplasticity and explains how you can use your brains limitations for your overall benefit.

If you’re a coach and you haven’t read this book, you’re probably doing your clients a disservice. if you’re into self development and haven’t read this book, you’re probably doing yourself a disservice.

15. Prometheus Rising – Robert Anton Wilson

One of the things I know about you is that you think you’re open-minded. The reason I know that is because the majority of people like to think of themselves as being so.

Go and read this book and then come back and tell me you think the same. Using dark humor, intelligence and rational logic Wilson will have you doubting yourself. I know he did me.

16. Embracing Fear – Thom Rutledge

A book few people have heard of which is a huge shame because it’s excellent. I mention ‘Feel The Fear’ in the intro and I believe that the sales figures should be reversed because this book from therapist and recovering alcoholic Rutledge, is infinitely more useful.

Rarely these days do books give me more than the occasional A-ha! moment but this book gave me several. Rutledge is also very self-deprecating and funny. Not a bad combination in my opinion.

happy brain

17. Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I only got round to listening to the unabridged audio book recently after having it recommended by a client.

Kahneman is a giant in the fields of behavioral economics and the psychology of decision making and this book demonstrates why.

If you want to understand more about cognitive biases, flaws in your clients thinking (and your own too) and why we so often jump to erroneous conclusions convinced we are right, then buy this book.

I love the way the author admits to how many times he’s screwed up by not recognizing his now cognitive biases and that he was using heuristics (short cuts in thinking) rather than rational analysis.

Cognitive biases can catch people out who research the topic, nobody is immune.

18. 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology – Lilenfeld et al

I hate it when I inadvertently give people erroneous information through this blog.

As you may know I love smashing self development myths and as such this book was a goldmine for me.

Be warned though it suggests the female ‘G’ spot has never been scientifically proven to exist and when I mentioned that in a post a couple of years ago there were howls of derision from my female readers.

I think most of the guys were thinking “I knew it wasn’t my fault”, but none actually spoke up.

19. Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hansen

Quite simply an amazing book for anybody who wants the science and research (rather than the woo-woo) behind why meditation is so incredibly effective at lowering stress, improving happiness and contentment and improving both physical and mental health.

Hansen is a neuroscientist by trade, but he’s also a Buddhist and a meditation teacher and he does a delightful job of marrying the two topics.

10 years ago I never mentioned meditation to clients, now I almost never fail to mention it and it’s even included on my client intake forms – that’s the importance I give it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, you do not need to don a saffron robe, shave your head or even have any interest in Buddhism whatsoever to benefit from this book.

20. The Success Principles – Jack Canfield

I don’t know what I think of the grinning Jack Canfield, but I do know I love this book. It is filled with amazing inspirational stories the likes of which will at least temporarily have you chomping at the bit and motivated to do amazing shit.

21. Awaken The Giant Within – Tony Robbins

I’m not sure whether it was because of a court battle at the time over who owned the name of NLP and/or a desire for Tony Robbins to separate himself from the legal wrangling and petty fighting, but this book ever mentions NLP.

But make no mistake, this book is the most read NLP book that’s ever been written and is probably the best introduction to the topic for the novice.

22. How To Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie

This was the first book I ever read on self development about 15 years ago and a quick revisit recently revealed it’s timeless genius. It does what it says on the cover.

23. As A Man Thinketh – James Allen

Written well over a century ago, but in many respects years ahead of its time.

Allen didn’t have access to fMRI’s and PET Scan, so when he said your thoughts dictate your life he was using observational experience. The fact that he nailed it just goes to show that sometimes science is behind the greatest thinkers.

24. Buddhism Plain and Simple – Steve Hagen

There are better books on Buddhism such as Living As A River by Bodhipaksa, but Hagen’s book is probably the best starting point.

And the reason it is is because he takes a very pragmatic and easy to follow approach and it is indeed plain and simple.

However, it’s also very informative and sure to make you ponder the bigger aspects of life.

25. The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb

This book kicks off by the assertion that nobody has a broken brain, just a brain that isn’t internally communicating with itself as well as it could.

This is crucially important because too many people with depression think there is nothing they can do about it.

And if they think there’s nothing can be done about their depression, then that is exactly what they do, nothing.

Korb is a neuroscientist as well as a coach, so he can make statements like that with credibility

The basic tenet of the book is that there is no one cure for depression and anxiety but a number of individual things a person can do that then exceed the whole and promote mental health. This is where the title ‘The Upward Spiral’ comes from.

A great many people find it easy to slip into a downward spiral, but harder to start an upward spiral.

But what if we could go the opposite way and start an upward spiral of one positive event leading to our brain looking for more and more until we’re happy just because we’re happy, wouldn’t that be cool?

Well fortunately for you, that is exactly what this book will help you do and you can then help your clients.

Grab The Book