I get the sense that these are narrowly defined to be mutually exclusive, but I am a lumper, not a splitter. Therefore I am going to tackle these two together, rather than as distinct genres. My background was in philosophy. While stimulating, it always left me wanting something a little more applicable in the day-to-day. I have leaned on this (these) genre(s) for all kinds of things, to cope with stress, to challenge my culturally inherited assumptions, even to try to be more social and communicate more effectively.
I like all the books I reviewed here to varying degrees, but want to pay special attention to the first one, which isn’t about self-improvement at all, but about community. Recognizing the social component of success and happiness is sometimes overlooked in the traditional self-help genre, and almost always gets lost in the management focused, productivity and efficiencies of self-improvement. When I recognized that despite 30+ years of productivity gains American workers had received no wage increases, I started to see through the collective fog. So here it goes, self-help for the community:
Abundant Community by John McKnight with Peter Block
Block and McKnight have been talking about transforming society for over 30 years, they have successful consulting companies and have impacted a lot of lives. I think this is one of their best and most important books. I was exposed to the idea of consciously creating community about ten years ago and I have finally found a book that can teach me the basics of working with others to try and create the world I want to live in. Practical and clear, this books brings a picture of communities of support, building on existing associations and networks to honor human beings, meet basics needs, and create true and lasting justice. This is my present for all my closest friends, who already know these things intuitively, but will be glad for a way to articulate it and take it to a deeper level. So what makes an abundant community? Focusing on how groups receive and honor the contributions of individual members, Abundant Communities sets up a social context for all the books that are to follow. Without getting to share our unique gifts, we shut down and lose touch, turning to cheap substitutes to meet our existential needs. This is a must read for all ages.
Originals by Adam Grant
Combining research findings with easy readability and narrative threads is a theme throughout the next few books. It isn’t strictly self-focused, but rather, talks about patterns of behavior and routines that bolster creativity in the workplace. Of particular interest are two points that the book investigates in depth: failed management paradigms and outsiders who have been engaged in creative work successfully for decades. I was bowled over by the story of the company 3M and their whole story from origin to systematizing success. If there is a criticism of this book, it is from its breadth. There is so much research presented here, so many anecdotal stories of both success and failure that it can be hard to hold onto the takeaways. Luckily, the back of the book contains a whole section in short paragraph form called “Actions for Impact”. There are some interesting overlaps with another book, not on this list, called Drive by Daniel Pink. That book takes a much larger focus on organizations, systems, and transforming management to improve work life and productivity; the two authors use a lot of the same research. If you like Originals, then you might also head for OverDrive to take a look at Pink’s book.
Mastermind by Maria Konnikova
While I am pretty sure that I have not garnered an intellect to battle the fictional Sherlock Holmes, I definitely liked this book and found it worth the read. It provided a helpful bridge between some of my disparate interests, like critical thinking skills and nature based awareness training. I think the book struggles a little because the original subject matter is so fun and easy to read, that deconstructing the qualities and processes and laying out exercises took a little of the life out of my initial enthusiasm, but I think that this is an important fact to note: while it may have been fun to read about Sherlock Holmes, it was not necessarily fun to be him.
This is perhaps why the stories are always told from the perspective of Watson. Still, I think a fan of the fiction will find some great stuff here, breaking down essential scenes and interactions, using references from the text and cognitive research to flush out a unique perspective on the world. You may not end up thinking like Sherlock Holmes, but you will definitely gain a better understanding of this unique character and have some fun trying on this hat.
How We Learn by Benedict Carey
Maybe the best place to start out of all these books is How We Learn because it takes some of the mystery out of how to take the useful information off these many pages and make them a part of your life. So much of the way that education has been systematized - from the length of classes to abstract language - makes learning harder than it needs to be. With the insights and tips that How We Learn provides you can start to break up information into useful and absorbable units, connect it to things you already know, and use your visual processing centers to turn tough subjects into beautiful and easy to remember anchors. There is a lot in here, from calendars and app suggestions, to the importance of rest and sleep. It has been helpful for me to think of memory as two separate systems, one for the information and one for the retrieval, and that to call something up when necessary requires both systems. I have found it hard to bring a lot of this into my day-to-day life, which really takes planning and changing habits. However, it fits in and compliments some of the other work here and Carey’s writing style is one of the best on the list.
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
I am sure this book has already received heaps of praise, and Brene Brown’s TED talks have gotten tens of thousands of views, but I want to add my endorsement to her work. I have read both of her follow up books, but none is as risky or rewarding as Daring Greatly. Taking a straight look at one of the great limits to making change in one’s life this work lays out a theory of shame and its transcendence. With thoughtful chapters on work, parenting, and other aspects of adult life where a mask of confidence and certainty prevents learning and becoming, Brown offers personal stories and proven approaches to overcoming some of our greatest hurdles. At first appearing to take us from the Self-Improvement genre into Self-Help, I think this book’s true gift is breaking down the divide. While you may be “doing fine” and just want to “get a little better”, this book has the power to crack all that open and introduce you to a world where you can feel more, be more, and have more. Brown’s book is based on thousands of hours of interviews and masses of data she collected over the course of years. The result is insights into the human condition and our society you shouldn’t have to live without.
Grit by Angela Duckworth
After listening to this book on OverDrive, I checked out the book. After I read the book, I bought a copy. I think that Grit is an awesome historical revision as to why people succeed. A lot of it is not natural talent and in fact, being naturally good at something can get in the way of being great. What? Yes. Grit is an approachable and readable book that connects to other, more technical works like Carol Dweck’s Mindset, or The Brain That Changes Itself. I highly recommend it as a way of opening up to the possibilities in life. How many times have you heard stories about “natural” athletes or people with a special “talent”? Even the way we think of excellence, like gifted and talented programs in schools frame success in terms of some natural ability and give almost no credit to the role that hard work and persistence play in achievement. Grit deconstructs this cultural blind spot and shows that fundamentally those with grit will inevitably outshine any amount of natural ability.
Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath
The Heath Brothers have put out some great books, but this was the first I read and still my favorite. Taking a look at the flaws in our decision making processes through scientific research studies and providing both real world examples, and practical advice, Decisive sets the standard for self-improvement. And can I just so, Oh-my-gosh! Who knew? Confirmation bias. Groupthink. Feedback loops. There is so much here, just so much. But the Heath brothers realized that and have created all these great summaries and visual tools that you can access, for free, through their website. Perhaps even better than summaries, they have organized the whole book to follow the decision making process, from laying out options and multi-tracking possible solutions; to “ooching” or taking small steps to see the results before committing; or having checks in place so you can know when something isn’t working. This is the work of a lifetime and it is worth a couple of reads, and taking notes, and practice. Very well written, so readable, such great stories of success and folly... I think I am going to go and put it on hold.
Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn
I first encountered John Kabat-Zinn’s work in an 8-week meditation course, Mind Body Stress Reduction. This was my first supported introduction to meditation after years of struggling to establish a practice. It is an experience that continues to ripple through my life. Pioneered at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979, the Stress Reduction Clinic has produced major landmark studies in the positive effects mindfulness and meditation can have on health, healing and well-being. Full Catastrophe Living talks about all of this and provides introductions to the meditations practices that are shown in the clinic and the workshops. Take off your shoes and give it a try! Look for the 25-year anniversary edition with a new introduction by the author. Still one of our most popular books on meditation.
Pain Free by Pater Egoscue
We aren’t just brains walking around and visionary chiropractor Peter Egoscue has a book that is for everything below the shoulder (actually includes sections on the shoulders and neck). Using a stable of exercises to realign bones and allow muscles to release, this book will have you lying down to get better at standing up. In this age of healthcare uncertainties, it’s never too soon to take better care of yourself. While seeing a chiropractor for a knee injury I received a strong recommendation to get Egoscue’s book and “fix myself”. This suits my personality and within a week, I had it checked out from the library and was flipping all over the place through the book. Over the last ten years, I have turned to this book, again and again, to fix misalignment and prevent injury. It takes some discipline to get into the routine and some of the "stretches" take some time, but what else are you going to do with all of your newfound productivity?
*A note of caution: While these exercises have worked wonders for me, my girlfriend, who has a chronic back injury had no such luck. She found the first two poses excruciating, reminding us all that the best teacher is your own body. Thanks!