Average people lead average lives. You, I’m guessing, don’t want to be average.
You want to be great, you believe you can be remarkable.
That means you need to take in extraordinary ideas and act on them… without even thinking about it… day in and day out.
Read these 15 personal growth books and you’ll become an unstoppable life enthusiast. You’ll become a master.
See, every decision you make, every person you let into your life, every moment that goes by… begins and ends with an idea. An idea about how the world works, and beliefs about yourself and your potential.
Ideas are free, yet we think the same things over and over.
To become great, that must change. You must learn to think differently, collect great ideas and start to take action.
Here are some of my favourite personal growth books of all time.
You’ll learn about a young neurosurgeon facing terminal cancer, the most popular course at Stanford, and the inside story of the New York punk rock movement.
Ready to absorb some extraordinary ideas? Follow me…
Stories based on real people are always inspiring. I’ve previously featured Walt Disney and Steve Jobs on this blog. This year, the following biographies taught me valuable life lessons.
1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks? Chances are, she’s saved your life, or your mother’s life, or your grandfather’s life.
Read the story behind the woman whose immortal cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances in vitro fertilisation, cloning and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Read the book before you see the film, starring Renée Elise Goldsberry and Oprah Winfrey.
2. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Patti Smith is an American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist who became an influential component of the New York punk rock movement with her 1975 album Horses.
Just Kids is her memoir, and the book is a promise she made to her former longtime roommate and partner, Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a poetic read, describing the struggles of creativity and artistic expression.
Her descriptions of the Chelsea Hotel were intriguing. I had no idea so many prominent writers, artists, and actors had lived under the same roof. It shows how important an environment and emotional support can be when you make art.
Above all, don’t go at it alone.
3. On the Move, by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks was portrayed by Robin Williams in the beautiful film Awakenings. This shy, British neurologist shares his experiences with unbridled honesty and humour.
He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists—Thom Gunn, A. R. Luria, W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick—who influenced him.
In this book, Oliver Sacks writes openly and freely about his homosexuality for the first time. As he later put it, “with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.”
The book inspired my own coming out journey. You can read more about that here: I’m not coming out, I’m letting people in.
Living your best life
These books share innovative ideas, time-tested principles, and a rational quest for finding your spiritual life.
4. Designing your life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Based on one of Stanford’s most popular courses, this book teaches you design thinking principles that will help you create a meaningful life.
The same design thinking responsible for amazing technology, products and spaces can be used to design and build your career and your life, a life of fulfilment and joy, constantly creative and productive, one that always holds the possibility of surprise.
5. The Art of Living, by Epictetus
Epictetus was born into slavery about 55 CE. Once freed, he established an influential school of Stoic philosophy, stressing that humans can’t control life, only our responses to it.
In The Art of Living, he advocated clear thinking, ruthless self-examination, and building your character.
To speak in modern terms, Epictetus was a doer. He cut through the BS and got straight to the point.
First, say to yourself what you would be; then do what you have to do.Epictetus
The ideas contained in this book have changed my life the most this year.
6. Waking up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, by Sam Harris
This is an excellent book, full of challenging ideas and helpful tools, to finding your own spirituality. If you’re looking to take your meditation practice to the next level, I highly recommend this book.
Nothing is as important as honing your thinking skills. These books help you sharpen your thinking and decision-making skills, so you can change your habits and avoid the most common pitfalls in human thinking.
Indeed, as you’ll see, our brains are far from perfect…
7. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Kahneman describes two systems for human thought:
System 1 is fast, intuitive, automatic, and subconscious. For example, System 1 helps you complete the phrase “War and…”.
System 2 is slow, effortful and conscious. For example, System 2 helps you spot that woman with the grey hair in a crowded train station.
8. Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, former trader, and risk analyst, whose work focuses on problems of randomness, probability, and uncertainty.
He criticised the risk management methods used by the finance industry and warned about financial crises.
One of the most useful concepts I learned from him was black swan theory. The term is based on an ancient saying which presumed that black swans did not exist. But they do! I’ve seen them with my own eyes in Australia.
9. The Power of Habits, by Charles Duhigg
One important concept I learned from this book was habit loops.
Researchers have found that each habit consists of a loop:
- a cue
- a routine
- a reward
By identifying the loop, you can change your behaviour for the better.
Personality and character development
These books offer great insights into who we are, and more importantly, who we can become.
10. The Road to Character, by David Brooks
We live in a visibility culture, which celebrates selfies, likes, and followers. The notion of “character” is not a hot topic these days.
David Brooks tries to change that with his book of autobiographical sketches. He documents the lives of Frances Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dorothy Day and George Eliot, to name a few.
The author wrote it to save his own life. According to The Guardian, he had spent:
“…too much time cultivating what he calls the ‘résumé virtues’ – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on the ‘eulogy virtues’, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered.”David Brooks
It’s a refreshing read, which will help you shift your own perspective on what truly matters.
11. Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and Well-Being, by Brian R. Little
I don’t usually recommend “personality” books, but this one is an exception. Dr. Little’s research provides ideas for how we can make everyday life more rewarding.
Want to improve your well-being? Turn your goals into personal projects. And be more open to experience and become more conscientious.
(The five big personality traits are a useful framework to understanding ourselves and the people around us.)
12. Mastery, by Robert Greene
Mastery explains how to become a leader in any given field by examining the lives and pathways to success of historical masters such as Mozart, Einstein and Darwin, as well as “living masters” which Greene interviewed—including Paul Graham, Freddie Roach, Santiago Calatrava, Temple Grandin, Yoky Matsuoka, V.S. Ramachandran, Teresita Fernandez, Cesar Rodriguez, and Daniel Everett.
If you’ve read my blog, you wouldn’t be surprised by the ingredients:
- Discover your strengths, passions and goals.
- Take on an apprenticeship, or internship.
- Find mentors (alive, dead or virtual).
- Build your habits.
- Be brave and go your own way.
In short, develop a learning lifestyle.
Personal growth books that made me cry, laugh and ponder the future of humanity
Some books just grab you and won’t let go. Here are three of my top picks.
13. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
I read this book in less than two days. I couldn’t put it down.
When Breath Becomes Air is a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question:
What makes a life worth living?
14. Surely, you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!, by Richard P. Feynman
This book is an edited collection of reminiscences by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.
Some stories contain laugh-out-loud moments (who said physicists must be boring?), while others are more serious, such as his involvement in the Manhattan Project or his critique of the science education system in Brazil.
Overall, the book buzzes with energy, enthusiasm and humour. Mr. Feynman was an unstoppable life enthusiast, whose adventures tell the story of a most curious character.
15. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
My history teacher used to say we can’t understand the future without looking into our past. And it’s true; the two are interconnected.
Human history has been shaped by three major revolutions:
- The Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago)
- The Agricultural Revolution (10,000 years ago)
- The Scientific Revolution (500 years ago)
These revolutions have empowered humans to create and connect around ideas that do not physically exist (think religion, money and politics). These shared “myths” have enabled humans to take over the globe and have put humankind on the verge of overcoming the forces of natural selection.
Nobody knows what’s next. But professor Nick Boström warns that machines may become smarter than humans and become the dominant life form on Earth.
Maybe we don’t have much time left on Earth.
One thing becomes clear: We need to unlock our potential.
Average won’t cut it anymore.
What are your favourite personal growth books?
Which books have changed your life the most? Don’t keep them to yourself. Share them in the comments!
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