Not all self-help books are helpful. At least I believe so. And I’ll tell you why.
I have found that a self-help book falls under one of the three broader categories – Motivational, Targeted Or Generic
These are books that pump you up to take action. The advice is more motivational than actionable. Examples of books in this category are The Secret, Think and Grow Rich, The Alchemist. Because such books have an inspiring concept they amass millions of readers.
Many people who read such books feel an adrenaline rush to get things done, and vow to become a new person starting the next day. But “the next day” never arrives. Even if it does, it lasts only a short while. Readers relish the positive feeling invoked while reading the book, and claim that it changed their lives, but go back to their old selves sooner than later. Therefore, not a fan.
If you’re a devotee of these books, did I touch your nerve there? Ahem. But I’m not gonna apologize. You can choose to admire such writing if you wish. I don’t. You might have found value from such books. I haven’t.
Targeted and actionable:
These are self-improvement books that target one specific area and offer actionable advice. They not only provide the background for the concept but also offer tips on how you can incorporate it into your daily life. I love such books because they’re well researched, and are a catalyst to action. They help you learn and understand an area which you had little knowledge about.
- Thinking fast and slow – speaks about the inherent flaws in human thinking
- Getting Things Done – a model for productivity and time management
- Never Split The Difference – an unconventional guide for negotiation
Generic, but insightful:
These are books that don’t particularly target one specific area or offer actionable advice on a niche, but they provide an excellent insight that can change the way you think.
For example, Outliers explains how randomness plays a major role in success. Sapiens speaks about the evolution of the human race and how we believe in things that exist only in our imagination.
The books listed out in this article will make you think and change your perspective either by teaching you a new skill or by offering a compelling argument with science-backed data. All of them fall either under the targeted or generic category. I haven’t listed any motivational books because I believe they lead to temporary gratification of taking action than actually taking action.
I’m well aware that many such books are international bestsellers that people claim to have transformed their lives, but they’re not among the books I advocate people to read. If they work for you, I’m happy for you. But will they find a spot on my list? Nada.
Without any further ado, let’s begin:
1. How will you measure your life
A unique book that will make you rethink your overall take on life.
Each of us looks at life differently. Some consider career as their primary goal in life. Some hold family above everything else. Some chase goals defined by society and believe them to be their own.
No matter which of these you consider most important, this book will make you rethink your goals and stitch them together with your overall happiness.
Though you find a groundbreaking takeaway from this book, a few of the pointers the author makes will get your gray matter tingling. After I read the book, I spotted areas where my viewpoint of life was lopsided.
Please note: This isn’t yet another follow your passion or enjoy the present book.
2. Learned Optimism:
“Optimistic people are happier” – that’s well known.
But, Martin Seligman, a psychologist who has spent decades on the topic of optimism speaks about how it affects different facets of your daily life.
Did you know that:
- Optimistic people have a higher chance of career success
- Optimistic people have a better chance of fighting disease and living longer
- Optimistic teams have a bigger chance of winning
By the way, these are not hypothetical theories, but conclusions drawn by a psychologist who has spent his entire career on understanding the brain by performing exhaustive research on different aspects of optimism and pessimism.
Though this book provides value for any person, you will draw life-changing lessons if you tend to overthink or look at most aspects in a negative light.
Though I’m optimistic, sometimes even to the point of irrationality, I use the ABCDE technique from the book every now and then to reframe my thoughts.
3. Man’s search for meaning:
Man’s search for meaning is the real story of Viktor Frankl who during World War 2 endured 4 different concentration camps over a span of 3 years and survived.
The story begins with Frankl, a reputed jew doctor facing a tough choice. The Nazis have taken over his country and the citizens know the fate they’re heading towards. Because of his profession, Frankl has an option to exit the country, but on one condition – he has to leave alone. He cannot take his family along.
Frankl chooses to stay behind, with his family and go through whatever comes. He enters the concentration camps with his father, mother, and wife. He spends 3 ghastly years undergoing torture, humiliation, and suffering. In the end, among his family only he walks out of the concentration camp alive.
In the book, the author Frankl himself describes the entire experience of a concentration camp with gruesome detail which will leave you horrified and teary-eyed at the same time. The main takeaway from this book is how a person can find a purpose amidst all this suffering and use that as a will to survive. Once you realize what he went through you might just feel that your problems are far more minuscule.
4. The Art of Thinking Clearly:
The Art of Thinking Clearly helps you understand how flawed human thinking is. It goes through 99 biases of the brain, which factor into small and big aspects of daily life and decision-making.
If you’re new to the concept of cognitive biases, be prepared to be stunned. Each chapter, less than 5 pages long, speaks about one such biases along with examples and methods to counter it.
Implementing pointers from all chapters is a challenging job. Nevertheless, if you can pick up the most common mistakes and correct them, you’ll avoid the little bloopers you commit each day and make better decisions right away.
Please note: Thinking Fast and Slow is another book that speaks about the same topic and comes from an author who won the Nobel prize for research on this subject. However, the list includes Art of Thinking Clearly because it keeps the chapters short and the concept crisp. Thinking Fast and Slow, though exhaustive, is a less interesting read for those who do not have the habit of reading regularly.
Factfulness makes you question some of your beliefs which are natural, but illogical.
For example, what do you think about the world now? Does terrorism, global warming, crime rate, discrimination, pollution, divorce appear to be on the rise? Doesn’t it appear as if the world is getting worse by the day?
But in reality, the world is a much safer place today compared to how it was 100 years ago. The way media exaggerates negative events combined with the human tendency to take the good aspects for granted creates a distorted view of the truth around us.
Factfulness covers 10 such instincts which lead to an incorrect perspective of reality. Once you read the book, you will look at your surroundings with a fresh perspective and also hunt for facts while making decisions.
6. What got you here won’t get you there:
A word of caution – this is one of my all-time favorite books, so my summary might be biased.
This book, a gem from Marshall Goldsmith, is best suited for achievers who have already reached a reasonable amount of success in their careers. The author speaks about the tendency of achievers to get overconfident and rely on the same methods which helped them achieve success in the past. The book explains how that’s flawed logic because to reach early levels of success, one has to compete with the average and mediocre people.
Once you march past the regular opponents, you fall under the above-average or elite bracket where your competition is against skilled people just like you. At that point, you need to step up your game to plod ahead. If not, you will stagnate despite your presumed superior skills(which turn into average among a bunch of talented people)
The book talks about the typical thinking errors an achiever is vulnerable to and ways to conquer them. If you’re already a manager, a leader, or a high performer enjoying the early stages of your success, this book is a must-read if you want to attain world-class expertise and be among the top 1% of the world.
7. Fooled by randomness:
Human beings have a peculiar tendency. When things go wrong, we blame it on bad luck, unexpected circumstances, and other external factors. But when things go our way, we pat our back and attribute it to our talent, skills, or hard work.
The same thought process applies not only to the way we perceive ourselves but to others too. We assume everything that successful people achieve is entirely attributed to their abilities. And to a good extent, it is.
In this book, the author Nassim Taleb, one of the few people who predicted the 2008 crash, talks about the influence of randomness in both our triumphs and failures.
Though my explanation might come across as an envious pessimistic mindset to devalue the efforts of successful people, the book has a lot more to it.
Once you read it, you will recognize how randomness plays an unavoidable part in our daily life and how to deal with it with preparedness.
Drive goes deep into the science of human motivation.
You want to work hard and grow in your career. You want to exercise regularly and remain as slim as a drumstick. You want to clean your cupboard and rearrange the house during the weekend.
But somehow, your goals and your effort – bleh. They don’t go hand in hand. Often, it isn’t that you don’t have the time – you do. It’s that you don’t feel like doing the things you know you should.
In the book, the author explains why we love to spend effort towards specific tasks which yield no reward and why we procrastinate some activities despite their benefits being as clear as a freshly washed windshield.
Reading this book which helps you discover the science behind motivation. With the newfound knowledge, you might rethink your goals and realign your efforts towards them.
Freakanomics uses a peculiar narrative to help you understand how economics works in real life along with relevant examples. It goes on to show how conventional wisdom about money and how it ties together over different industries is incorrect.
Once you read the book, you’ll spot the difference between correlation and causation for the events you encounter every day. The concept of supply and demand will take a new direction.
The author explains how incentives drive our behavior and how that stitches together with economics.
Each chapter goes into a bizarre topic such as “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”, “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?”
Sounds strange? Well, I did tell you earlier.
If you have never tried to understand the subject of economics before, Freakanomics is a book you should read. It will both entertain and enlighten you.
10. Presentation Skills 201:
Being last on the list doesn’t make this book any less valuable. Anyone who has to make presentations using slides must read this book. It will make you rethink the way you create and deliver presentations.
The author does a phenomenal job of pointing out little elements which are straightforward to implement but make a paradigm shift in the way your presentation comes across to the audience.
It challenges the conventional wisdom of preparing keynotes and PPTs.
For example, the first slide of most presentations contains the title or the purpose in a short sentence, along with some bullets. Instead, the author suggests starting with a blank slide. Guess why? The moment you put content on the screen, the audience starts reading. When you leave it blank, people listen to what you say, thereby making your delivery more powerful.
Another one: The normal style of preparing a presentation is to go slide by slide, adding a title to each, and some skeleton content which you then refine. The book recommends first putting together all the content you believe is relevant to the topic without thinking about slides. Only once you have the required information gathered, should you decide how many slides to create and what goes into each of them.
I have tried the techniques from the book myself and the difference in response received is apparent almost every single time. If you implement the tips mentioned in the book, you will stand out without a doubt.
I look at books as a method of learning by having a conversation with an expert. The best books are written by authors who have spent years, decades, or even their entire career studying and implementing the subject. Imbibing such information by yourself will take you years, if not forever.
Therefore, I look forward to harnessing new knowledge, fresh perspectives, and challenging viewpoints from every book I read. You should too. After all, you’re spending hours of your precious time on consuming the content.
Even if I find one takeaway from a book, I consider the reading effort worth it. The list compiled above are books that have taught me valuable lessons, improved my decision-making skills, or made me rethink my earlier beliefs.
Which one among these do you plan to read first?
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.