I read to improve myself. Despite this, I actually read very few self-help books. Most of books I read are completely outside the self-help or business book genres. The world rewards unique thinking. If your entire library looks like the self-help section of a bookstore, you probably don’t have enough varied perspectives to handle the truly difficult problems life throws at you.
Two Self-Help Perspectives
Although there are always fantastic books that defy generalization, most self-help falls into two modes of thinking:
- Achievement-oriented writing. Designed to help you get more, reach higher and complete it faster.
- Happiness-oriented writing. Written to give you emotional control or inner peace.
These are both useful perspectives. But they are only two perspectives. There’s also stoicism, absurdism, taoism and hundreds of other philosophies on life that go uncategorized.
Broadening the Toolbox
Aside from some titles that truly break new ground, I believe once you’ve read 15-20 self-help books you should stop. Start reading from a broader background of ideas and you’ll be able to reach more interesting conclusions. A more varied reading diet fosters more unique thinking, which is sorely needed in a world requiring creativity and drowned out by mindless conformity.
Ten Books to Get Started
Here’s a quick list of ten not-so-self-help books that can get you outside the familiar aisles and into some completely different perspectives:
1. The Prince  – Niccolo Machiavelli
The classic book on power and strategy. Machiavelli’s writing is ruthless and politically incorrect by today’s standards. But his thoughts on achieving power and maintaining it stand in stark contrast to any self-help book you’ve glanced at before.
“Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.”
2. Siddhartha  – Hermann Hesse
A novel about a man’s life as he progresses towards enlightenment. A fantastic book that explores our relationship with wealth, poverty, sex and desire without falling into cliches.
“Was Atman then not within him? Was not then the source within his own heart? One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking – a detour, error.”
3. Meditations  – Marcus Aurelius
A classic in stoic writings. Stoicism is the ancient philosophical school that suggests that a wise man is completely invincible to suffering, since virtue is sufficient for happiness. Material wealth and poverty can add conveniences to life, but they cannot add to or subtract anything from true happiness.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  – Robert M. Pirsig
This book has been called the most widely read contemporary book on philosophy. Although it touches on many themes in self-help, what sets this book apart is it’s method of reaching those themes. This book is an exercise in thinking as many self-help titles are heavy on conclusions and light on process.
“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
5. The Art of War  – Sun Tzu
I’ve been told this book is now mandatory reading in some business schools. Being the classic in military strategy, I can certainly see why. This book suggests how to outsmart your opponent, and although it was written for war, it can also be a useful metaphor for many other obstacles you encounter in life.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
6. The Stuff of Thought  – Steven Pinker
A lot of self-help books deal with how we use language. The whole concept of neuro-linguistic programming is based on the idea that our language and thoughts are intertwined. But few of these books actually explore the science behind how our thoughts interact with our words.
7. The Fountainhead  – Ayn Rand
Few writers inspire as much love and hatred as Ayn Rand. I disagree with at least half of the ideas she espouses in her books, but I can still recognize the values of independence, non-conformity and creative passion in her works. Just as I think there is value for an atheist to read the Bible, I think even the most selfless humanitarian can get a valuable perspective from this book.
“But you see, I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me.”
8. The Selfish Gene  – Richard Dawkins
Evolution doesn’t just apply to our genes, but also to our ideas. Dawkins argues that unconscious, self-replicating processes can lead to incredibly complex results. It is in this book that he coins the term “meme”, an idea or technology that replicates itself through human minds. Evolution is an invaluable perspective when trying to make sense of the complex systems of life.
“The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”
9. Outliers  – Malcolm Gladwell
I wanted to include one more recent book in my selection. Outliers is a great book because it explores the staple self-help topic: success. However, it does this in a way completely different from classic self-help, focusing on the environments and opportunities of successful people, not just their personality traits.
“[T]he values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.”
10. Tao Te Ching  – Lao Tzu
Concise, beautiful and profound. The Tao Te Ching encourages the reader to reexamine closely guarded assumptions. Power is found through weakness. Leadership comes from serving. Progress is illusory. If you were born in a western country, I would strongly recommend this book since it departs greatly from the Judeo-Christian perspective.
“To live until you die is to live long enough.”
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”