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Self-Help Books That I Frequently Recommend

Self-Help Books That I Frequently Recommend

Though the term “self-help” is a distinctly modern term, it is an ancient concept. Throughout history, the role of much written and oral mythology and storytelling has been to instruct, inform, and teach lessons about the path of right conduct and how to have more fulfilling lives.

While the modern book genres of self-help and self improvement have been criticized for a narcissistic and superficial bent, the best self-help books allow us the opportunity to shift our perspectives and gain a deeper insight into ourselves and our history.

In that light, I’ve put together a list of “self-help” books which have made an impact on my life and which I find myself frequently recommending to others.


Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a collection of a famous Roman Emperor’s personal writings accumulated over the course of his life. A true ‘philosopher king’, Aurelius conducted himself with poise and self-control.

Reading Meditations is surprisingly cathartic — the problems and stresses of Marcus Aurelius are surprisingly similar what most people deal with today.

At the time Stoicism was flourishing, the empire was facing the same breakdown of moral values, fragmentation of culture, and many other problems of anomie that modern Western culture faces today. Better yet, stoicism is cited as a source of inspiration for modern cognitive behavioral therapy, which has shown benefits for sufferers of anxiety, depression, and a host of other habits of thought.

Stoicism will help improve your thinking, be more at peace, and act more justly in your life. Marcus’ writings are some of the best examples of stoicism out there. Another excellent read from the stoics that I periodically revisit is Seneca’s The Shortness of Life.

The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell was a professor of mythology and the Power of Myth is Campbell’s most popular work. It is the culmination of his life’s work, previously only available in heavy tomes such as The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Occidental Mythology.

In The Power of Myth, Campbell gives a summary of his extensive research on ‘the hero’s journey’, a profound narrative motif seen across unrelated cultures around the globe.

Campbell guides us through the eternal symbols and lessons taught in the world’s oldest fables and stories. He shows us the age old wisdom contained in these stories, and how they can help us live more fulfilling lives and better understand ourselves.

Finite and Infinite Games

James P. Carse

“There are at least two kinds of games,” opens Carse, “One could be called finite, the other infinite.”

The rest of the book builds on this dichotomy in an astoundingly enlightening way. I have re-read Carse quite a few times and feel that I get something more out of it each time. Using Carse’s terminology, we often find ourselves competing in finite games for money, status, power, or whatever. There is nothing wrong with this, Carse says, indeed, we must play finite games at work and at home, but rereading the book often reminds me to to see these finite games in their infinite context.

I find Carse difficult to summarize, so I will instead leave you with a few of my favorite quotes:

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

“There is no finite game unless the players freely choose to play it. No one can play who is forced to play.”

“Rules are not valid because the Senate passed them, or because heroes once played by them, or because God pronounced them through Moses or Muhammad. There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on. All rules, therefore, are self-imposed, even if they seem absolutely universal.”

“While no one is forced to remain a lawyer or a rodeo performer or a kundalini yogi after being selected for these roles, each role is nonetheless surrounded both by ruled restraints and expectations on the part of others. One senses a compulsion to maintain a certain level of performance, because permission to play in these games can be canceled. We cannot do whatever we please and remain lawyers or yogis — and yet we could not be either unless we pleased.”

“To play the infinite game is to choose to play WITH limitations rather than WITHIN limitations.”

“Finite players play WITHIN boundaries; infinite players play WITH boundaries.”

“The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome — that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The purpose of finite play is to bring the game to a conclusion. it is competing for a ranking or status: to be the best lawyer or the best yogi. The purpose of infinite play is to allow the game to go on and bring as many other people as possible into the game.”

“The gap between ACTUAL FREEDOM and the EXPERIENCED NECESSITY to stay in the struggle of a finite game is the result of self-veiling. Finite players must forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play or their competitive effort will desert them. “The issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask.”

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

“The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.”

Out of Your Mind

Alan Watts

Alan Watts became well known as a popularizer of Eastern philosophy in the West during the 1950’s and 60s. He proposed that Buddhism could be thought of as a form of psychotherapy and not a religion.

Out of Your Mind was my first exposure to Eastern philosophy. I found Watts’ explanations lucid, and there is no question that Watts is a captivating storyteller. He’s very adept at creating metaphors and dichotomies to elucidate concepts like the organic, mechanical, and dramatic views of life.

Highly recommend picking this one up in audiobook form, as it’s an actual recording of Watts talks.

The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker

The winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize and the culmination of a career in anthropology, The Denial of Death is a brilliant work.

Becker argues, convincingly, that evolution has brought individuals to a point where we are trapped between our “creatureliness” and “symbolic self.” Consciousness has made us aware of our own powers, but also of our miserable creatureliness and destiny to die. This insight allows Becker to explain and re-interpret human nature and history in a new, and fruitful, light.

Some choice quotes:

“Those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.”

“To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams.”

“Early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyper-anxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.”

My full list of quotes and notes here.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Stephen Covey

My dad made me read this book in high school and I fought him tooth and nail because I thought I was too cool. I eventually read it and loved it, and it made a lasting impact. While some deride Covey’s 7 Habits as sort-of basic career advice, I think his habits are better thought of as fundamental career advice. I am constantly amazed at how many people don’t practice these habits and what a big impact it would make on their lives if they did.

7 Habits guides you through each habit step-by-step:

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive
  • Habit 2: Begin With The End In Mind
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win
  • Habit 5: Seek First To Understand Then Be Understood
  • Habit 6: Synergize
  • Habit 7: Sharpen The Saw

I still think about and use these habits on a daily basis.

The 80/20 Principle

Richard Koch

The 80/20 principle tells us that in any population, some things are likely to be much more important than others. A good benchmark or hypothesis is that 80 percent of results flow from 20 percent of causes (or less).

If most results come from few causes, there is great leverage in isolating the few causes that have the greatest results. For example, it may be that 80 percent of what you achieve in your work comes from 20 percent of the effort or time spent. If this is true — and it usually is — four-fifths of one’s effort and time is largely wasted.

The value is found when looking for 80/20 patterns that exist but haven’t been identified. 20 percent of the “chunks” of business may give 80 percent of profits and cash — but which chunks? How are they defined?

Here are a few examples of the 80/20 principle, which Koch points out:

“For personal success, specialize in a very small niche — develop a unique, deep core skill.Choose a niche you enjoy and where you can become an acknowledged leader.”

“Happiness can be increased by focusing on very few things and making them daily habits. My personal list of the most important daily habits of happiness — exercise, mental stimulation, spiritual or artistic stimulation, doing a good turn, taking a pleasure break with a friend, giving yourself a treat, eating healthy food.”

See Koch’s own summary of his book on his site.

Getting Things Done

David Allen

First published in the 2000s and since republished, Getting Things Done (GTD) is the most influential and useful book on personal organization.

To deal with the increasing barrage of emails, phone calls, and messages that we all face, Allen offers an organizational system to help process, sort, and identify the right things to be working on at the right time.

At the core of Allen’s philosophy is the idea that your brain is a thinking machines, not a remembering one. Many people are less effective than they could be because their “mental RAM” is constantly occupied with trying to remember minutiae rather than thinking about the important things in their work and life.

GTD lays out an actionable and comprehensive system for, well, actually getting things done.

After reading Getting Things Done, I felt a sense of control and mastery of my personal productivity, greater sense of focus, and peace of mind.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Steven Pressfield

Best known for his historical fiction Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance, Pressfield’s The War of Art, moves away from ancient Greece to pen an inspiring non-fiction account of the constant struggles of creativity.

Embodying the force and voice in our heads that hold us back as “The Resistance,” Pressfield shows how we all must learn to battle The Resistance, in whatever form it takes for us, in the name of taking authentic creative action.

I read this book after I had been blogging for a couple of years and Pressfield convinced me to be a writer and made me believe it was possible.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Cal Newport

This is one of my favorite books for recent college grads because Newport shows how “following your passion” is crappy career advice. Instead, he shares the real way that people can find meaning and purpose in their work.

Newport offers examples from a wide array of industries, including programmers, farmers, screenwriters, and more.

You’ll discover how passion comes after you’ve put in the hard work to be excellent at something that’s highly valuable to others around you. You’ll also learn that what you do for a living is actually much less important than how you do it.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Mark Manson

Manson writes a helpful book that at once lampoons the self-help genre for its incessant positivity, while standing out as one of the best examples of it.

“Let’s be honest, shit is f**ked and we have to live with it,” says Manson. He shows the reader how a tough love approach is necessary in order really appreciate life and find enduring purpose and meaning.

With strong undertones of Stoicism, this self improvement book will show you not how to turn lemons into lemonade, but to simply learn how to stomach lemons a little better. This is about living a contented, grounded life — not looking for a cure-all or miraculous fix for all of life’s woes.

Atomic Habits

James Clear

James Clear has a unique ability to distill complex topics into simple behaviors that can be easily applied to your daily life and work. In Atomic Habits, he draws on the most proven ideas from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to create an easy-to-understand guide on how to establish good habits and break bad ones.

I find Clear’s skill as a writer to be peeling back the onion and giving the essential information to create change. No matter what your goals are, you’ll be able to use Atomic Habits to find practical strategies to do it consistently and effectively.

Self-Help Books That I Frequently Recommend was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Taylor Pearson

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