Top-notch personal development books?
September 7, 2011 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Are there any personal development books that aren't a bunch of woo?

I'm coming up on a fairly life-changing event in the next few days - like, a major opportunity to reinvent myself and go from awesome to AWESOME - and I would like to read a personal development book to commemorate it and help me appreciate it.

But all of the stuff I've looked at has the stink of self-promotion and douchebaggery to it - Anthony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, etc. - it all reminds me of Greg Kinnear's character in "Little Miss Sunshine." Just kinda sad. Most of the stuff in the genre looks like nothing more than a front for DVD and seminar sales.

I've just picked up Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich," and it seems pretty cool one chapter in, but I'm vaguely aware of negative things people have said about it, too.

So, are there any truly awesome books/authors in the personal development genre?
posted by jbickers to Human Relations (25 answers total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The absolute classic in the genre; completely changed me and my life. If you read nothing else for the rest of your life, read the first three chapters.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:57 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Where ever you go, there you are?" Not sure this technically makes the cut, but it's certainly a worthwhile read on meditation and being appreciative of life in the present moment.
posted by xammerboy at 7:57 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People at a job. I did not like the prospect but ended up finding several parts useful.
posted by michaelh at 8:02 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Offhand, I would say, no, there are no personal self-development books per se that are not a bunch of woo because that is what the category is all about. I'm not really up on such books and tend to ignore them, so maybe someone out there has actually read one that was decent. I have not been impressed by any I have looked at.

Perhaps more helpful would be some inspiring biographies of people who made it in your field, science, sports, the arts, whatever, or some actual philosophy books. I found the writings of Camus inspiring when I was young.

You don't need pop psychology to appreciate the great new thing in your life, just live it and be aware.
posted by mermayd at 8:02 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Conquest of Happiness by the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, though it's not a philosophy book. It's from 1930, so you need to make occasional allowances for blatantly outmoded gender stereotypes (like assuming men are the only ones who have serious jobs), but aside from that it's strikingly relevant today.

How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes. As the title makes clear, this is more narrowly focused on social interactions, from meeting someone at a party to networking to catching up with an old friend. She argues (convincingly, to me) that Dale Carnegie was ground-breaking but is now in need of an update, partly because his rules are so widely known.

Carnegie's book is the go-to recommendation on Metafilter, but following that book and thinking you'll become good at social interaction is like following Strunk & White and thinking you'll become a good writer. It's good to know about the rules, but you also have to think critically about them, and sometimes they just don't apply.
posted by John Cohen at 8:03 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not a fan of "How to Win Friends and Influence People". IMHO it just covers basic social interaction stuff. I find actual research papers to be infinitively more inspiring and useful than most self-help books. A lot of this research is collected under the umbrella term Positive psychology.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:04 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I found the Wu-Tang Manual inspirational, and it provided me with a few ideas about how to live my life as well. It doesn't prescribe many explicit Specific Steps to Achieve Ultimate Successmanship, but as a result, it avoids the kind of bullshit you're talking about.

In fact, I think that, in general, biographies of people you admire are generally more useful for personal development than the "Hey, I'll Tell You Exactly How to Make It" books.
posted by ignignokt at 8:07 AM on September 7, 2011

I really liked Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Bouton, although his other works have left me cold. I read it when I was transitioning into major gift fundraising from public radio and it gave a real understanding of making useful strides in a job that many people do but tends to be loathed by the general public.
posted by parmanparman at 8:12 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

To me, personal development means discovering (or acknowledging) your own priorities, deciding how to realistically enact them, and taking action. So it's hard to talk about "personal development" as a general matter without knowing what your exact goals are. I think that's why you are finding some books empty or pitiful - because they are focusing on contentless notions of "growth", or because you don't share heir goals/values.
posted by yarly at 8:16 AM on September 7, 2011

Maybe the only straightforward stuff I've read that didn't seem like garbage was by Pema Chodron. You might try Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears. She's Buddhist and doesn't really teach "self improvement" per se--more like your self is already OK, but your habits and actions can change.
posted by mattbucher at 8:33 AM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

The real classic (literally) of the genre, IMO, is Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. (In the woo department, he does mention the Roman gods in passing from time to time, but that's probably to be expected...)
posted by scody at 9:15 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

oh, and seconding Pema Chodron. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living is a good starting point (it's a series of short essays based on talks), and contains the following bit of wisdom that has stood me in good stead for awhile now: "In my life, I have learned to be more curious than afraid."
posted by scody at 9:18 AM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't know about truly awesome, but two reccomendations that "aren't a bunch of woo":

Mindset was written by Carol Dweck, a psychology prof. at Stanford. Crudely put, the central thesis is that some people tend to think along the lines "I'm naturally good at this and bad at that", while others tend to think much more in terms of "I've had lots of practice at this and need to learn a new technique for that". The former group tends to stick with what they're already good at, taking initial failures at attempted new skills too personally and as a sign that they're just innately unsuited to something. The latter are much more willing to assume that they're capable of improving any given skill and tend to take initial setbacks much less personally, making it much easier for them to learn new things and change habits.

Most importantly, she gives evidence that these tendencies to "fixed" or "growth" mindsets are learned behaviours, along with advice on how to recognise areas of your life to which you apply the "fixed" mindset and change that to the "growth" mindset, making you more willing and able to take on very challenging tasks. The book is better explained and much more nuanced than my short summary, of course.

The Amazon write-up and the book's website make it sound a bit kooky, but I found the book itself very convincing: plenty of descriptions of well-controlled studies, and closely referenced to peer-reviewed literature. I actually found it very useful for finally getting on with a couple of very daunting projects that I'd been procrastinating about.
NB: I read the paperback version, as sold in the UK. However, from the US spellings and the US-centrality of the references to well-known figures, I'm pretty sure that the version sold in the UK is the same as the one sold in the US.

59 Seconds is by Prof. Richard Wiseman, from Hull univeristy in the UK. It covers a fairly wide tranche of subjects, provides a very readable review of what the latest psych research has to say on the subject -- again, well referenced and with interesting descriptions of how experiments were run -- and suggests how to apply those principles to your life. It seems to have a pretty good reputation as an evidence-based self-help book and, in my opinion, is well written and
posted by metaBugs at 9:26 AM on September 7, 2011 [16 favorites]

The best "not-woo" personal development material I've seen is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow -- his term for the state in which people are "so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it". Check out Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and its companion Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.
posted by kanuck at 10:03 AM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding 59 seconds. I was convinced to give it a read after this glowing review.
posted by rouftop at 10:45 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
posted by and for no one at 12:29 PM on September 7, 2011

I'll third Pema Chodron, although my favorite of her books is The Wisdom of No Escape.
posted by doctord at 3:30 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

N'thing biographies of interesting, successful people whom you admire (or, hell, maybe even some interesting people you don't). Not only can you gain many insights applicable to your own life and problems from the (well-told, colorful, examined) lives of others, but you'll also probably learn a lot, which can open up new interests and make you a better conversationalist.
posted by applemeat at 3:44 PM on September 7, 2011

You might try David Deida. "The Way of the Superior Man" if you are male or "Dear Lover" if you are female. His work has had a profound impact on me. Osho is also amazing, if you don't mind diving in the realm of spirit.
posted by bprater at 5:42 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I found Your Brain At Work to be an excellent productivity / personal development book. The author explains how your brain has evolved to operate, and ways to maximize your overall potential. This covers things like focus, intent, and mindfulness, which fall in the realm of personal development but with the science to back it up.
posted by Terheyden at 6:13 PM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

EXCELLENT self-help advice generally comes from first-person rather than an omniscient speaker.

"Here's how I learned this BIG LESSON IN LIFE"

Well for me at least for me. And that being the case, auto-biographies are pretty good at this. The auto-biographies that don't just go from good to better person, but the believable kind that have lots of twists and turns that one could end up relating to. They end up motivating one to think "holy hell...If that's possible, I can DEFINITELY figure out how to email my work printer and find a stapled copy in the tray when I go into work.

That being said Benjamin Franklin and Malcolm X. Gandhi was kinda meh.

Just think of what you are trying to accomplish, look for someone who has accomplished something similar just WAY BIGGER and read what they wrote about it.

It never "changed my life", but I do remember feeling more confident about going out alone to meet people in brand new Cali after reading Casanova.

Like a boss, that self-help stuff worked.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:24 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but I find books that aggregate the findings of social scientists have the biggest impact on my personal development. Sometimes I take a run at the citations to see if I can learn more from the original studies (after all, thats what the author did).

If you're willing to take on a little scholarship, Aristotle is where it's at, especially when he talks about what it means to be a perfect human. Spoiler: he suggests that our perfection is in our process of becoming excellent, not in the product.

A bit easier and quicker to apply is David Brooks' new book The Social Animal. It follows the lives of two fictional characters, and the chapters are separated into themes like "Self Discipline" and "Morality."

My next book will likely be Switch by the Heath brothers, which talks a lot about what gets people (including yourself) to change minds and habits.

Maybe you would like just an article? The Secret to Self Control is a New Yorker article about the famous Marshmallow Test. The big implication (for me) is that changing yourself for the better has compound interest, so the earlier you start the better.

P.S. IMO David Deida is the epitome of 'woo.'
posted by jander03 at 7:31 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think all of Pema Chodron's books are worthwhile, but for avoidance of woo, I'd start with Taking the Leap, and then read everything else she's written, repeatedly.
posted by mimo at 6:37 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

+1 for Dale Carnegie.

The Now Habit is the lightweight version of Flow; both are good.
posted by talldean at 7:09 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Case for Falling in Love /Mari Ruti
posted by dracomarca at 7:39 AM on September 9, 2011

« Older Need a paper shredder that won't break   |   Workplace etiquette -- how to gracefully decline... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.