My Favorite Personal Development Books


imageI created a browsable list of my favorite personal development books.

I think I ended up with ~100 books, and that’s just a small subset of my collection (which explains why my bookshelf is overflowing).

I put my top 5 at the top, though it was hard to whittle down to my fave five list. 

I organized the books into categories to help make the list as scannable as possible, and I summarized the key problems each books addresses.

I think a good measure of a book is the value of the problems it solves.

How I Figure Out Which Books to Read

I have the benefit of being surrounded by a bunch of smart people.  I ask them which books made a real difference for them.

This helps me weed through a lot of books and get to the best of the best.

I also find a lot of books that just aren’t that mainstream.

For example, most people, I know haven’t heard of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion

Yet, this is one of those books that gives you an incredible advantage when dealing with conflict or persuading a room of people. It’s like unearthed arcana.

You learn how to frame compelling arguments and argue without anger using techniques from the best Greek orators. 

The best part though is the author is a lyrical genius and just when you think he’s dangling a particle, he slaps you upside the head with a subtle rule of rhetoric that just makes everything OK.

Some Great Personal Development Books that You Might Not Know

Here are a few books you may not know that might surprise you:

Brilliant NLP is one of the best introductions to Neuro Linguistic Programming I’ve seen.  You can learn how to build rapport, shake limiting beliefs, and model the success of your favorite heroes.

Dealing with People You Can’t Stand is one of the best books for improving your interpersonal skills.   It’s a quick playbook for understanding and coping with difficult behaviors from the Know-It-All to the Whiner.

Feeling Good is an intense read, but it’s a set consolidated set of patterns and practices for feeling good.  It’s not an easy read, but you’ll walk away with skills for handling everything from motivation issues to coping with the worst tragedies in your life.

Learned Optimism does what’s on the can.  It’s a set of thought patterns for defeating learned helplessness and pessimism.  If you tend to be a critic or you always see the pits in your bowl of cherries, this book is for you.

Overachievement is about kicking arse and taking names using the latest sports psychology in the workplace.   The author shares stories and insights that can instantly get you out of a slump and knocking the ball out of the park.

What is Your Favorite Personal Book?

Although my shelf is spilling many times over, I’m always on the look out for more gems of insight.

What’s your favorite personal development book that changed your life?


  1. Right now my favourite book is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert and I quote it everywhere I go.

    The other life-changing book for me was Judith Sills’ The Comfort Trap.

  2. Hey Alex

    I need to add Stumbling on Happiness to my hit list.

    One of my mentees mentioned it too. I asked him what his key take away was. He said that you can’t predict where you’ll be happy — the best is to check your potential paths with people with first-hand experience.

    I think it’s sound advice. A lot of things look good on paper. I think the other key is, wherever we go, we bring ourselves with us.

  3. While not directly aimed at ‘personal development’, most of my ‘surprise discoveries’ spin around system thinking in one way or another:

    – Slack and Peopleware by Tom DeMarco
    – The Fifth Discipline + (5thD Fieldbook) + Dance of Change by Peter Senge et al
    – Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World by John Sterman
    – The Art of Project Management by Scott Berkun
    – Funky Business by Jonas Ridderstrale
    – The Requirement Engineering books by Suzanne and James Robertson
    – Architecture and Patterns for IT Service Management, Resource Planning, and Governance by Charles T. Betz
    – Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents by James Reason
    – How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
    – Air Disaster Volume 1-5 by Macarthur Job

    The last two may seem odd, but they provide interesting insights into how humans interact with our physical surroundings and how bad things can go when we don’t fully understand how man and machine interact.

  4. Fiction writing has changed my life, but I have never finished a self development book. Years ago I tried to read “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” and “You Can Negotiate Anything”. I never made it past the first couple of chapters. Maybe I don’t need to develop. 🙂 Seriously though, reading self development blogs often makes me realize how happy I am with the big picture of my life. Obviously I have issues, we all have, but I pretty much know what I need to change and I trust myself to make it happen.

  5. I have not read too many self-improvement books really – but I have loved this book – How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (How to Help Your Child)
    – it is geared towards parents but I have learned a lot about talking to anyone actually.

    Thank you for the wonderful list – I just bought Thank You for Arguing.

  6. Hi J.D. – Like you, I’ve read a lot of self-improvement books. For me, they’ve helped to develop my own skills as well as help to understand why others act as they do.

    I’m currently reading “The Power Is Within You” by Louise L. Hay. She talks a lot about our mindset which I know that’s a key belief of yours. I also liked “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. It’s a good reminder to live in the present moment.

  7. Hi

    At the moment I’m reading “Introvert Power” by Laurie Helgoe. I am finding it very interesting and useful. I recommend it for any introverts who battle with some of the extroverted expectations of the world. It will help you understand yourself and your responses as well as how to feel more comfortable in social situations or excessive people-dealings.


  8. @ oddbjorn

    Intereting list! I particularly like the idea of the last two books you listed.

    @ Vered

    Good point on fiction. One of the best fiction books I read is Ireland. It made me really appreciate the value of stories and their impact on our lives. There’s always a lesson, no matter where you look.

    @ Maya

    Sounds like a good book.

    Great choice. You’ll be dangerous with Thank You for Arguing.

    @ Barbara

    I’m a fan of the power of mindsets — they make or break your ability enjoy the moment or get results.

    A few folks have mentioned “The Power of Now”. It sounds like something I should check out.

    @ Juliet

    “Introver Power” sounds great! I’m a fan of self-awareness. It’s really about rather than trying to be different, make the most of what you’ve got. I’ve found a little insights can go a long way.

  9. This is an incredible list of books. I love reading your “book reports” and truly utilize wisdom you share from the books your read.

  10. JD,

    As always, great post and thanks for sharing. You’ve got some great books listed there already! Some of the best books that I’ve read on personal development actually aren’t about personal development, but they are thought provocting and promote what I call “tangential learning” (i.e concepts and lessons learned that are so profound in their own context that they cause you to reflect on your own life context and apply those learnings personally). I find for me that types of learnings produce the deepest changes in me and are the ones that “stick” the longest:

    – Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee
    – The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
    – The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations


  11. JD, I have read and appreciated your blogs for probably a year now. They have often given me new insight in related to others and in trying to map my career within a large corporation. My favorite book that has changed my life is the Holy Bible. The message of salvation is tranformational above that which can be known secularly. If you have not read them, I think initially you would enjoy Proverbs as they are closest to your theme of self improvement. Isaiah is a harder read, but has contains clear message of God’s love toward man. In reading, look for truth as “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

    – John

  12. @ Stacey

    Thanks Stacey. Your input helps because I’m trying to balance between book nuggets, lessons from heroes, lessons on the job … etc. I enjoy creating the book nuggets because they helps me turn insight into action and test it against some real world scenarios. There’s a huge wealth of info across so many great books, but the problem is connecting the dots and getting results. My success on the job is a reminder that the techniques work, so I continue my hunt for principles, patterns and practices.

    @ Kevin

    I like your point on “tangental learning.” There’s lessons everywhere, if we learn to look for them. For example, I was surprised how many lessons about life and storytelling are in Ireland.

    I think when you connect your own dots, it sticks the most. That’s what questions are so effective. It also echoes the saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

    Tao of Jeet Kune Do is one of my favorites. I can’t believe I forgot to list it. I read it early on in life and it’s where I learned to take the best of the best and don’t get locked into one style — measure against results. It also taught me to make the most of what you got and play to your strengths.

    @ John

    Thank you and great to hear. I think our lenses we look through ultimately shapw our take aways. I like the point on truth. On the abstract level, I think of truth as getting to the underlying principles and getting behind the facades. More importantly, I think it’s related to “complete.” Basically, lots of perspectives are right, but they’re a part of the picture. The trick is to integrate the perspectives into a more complete view (which goes back to your secularly point.) On the concrete side, I think can start with simple self-awareness and just being congruent in your thinking, feeling, and doing. There’s some interesting work by Virginia Satir about how incongruence is connected with family meltdowns, as well as communication on the job.

  13. Nice to see your list of books here!
    One of my new year resolutions is to read at least 1 book per week. I figured that why wait until the next year and have been reading for a few weeks already!

  14. Gosh it is so hard to name favorites, so many books have shaped my thingking and who I am. I have an office full of boxes with my books, and as they are ‘unpacked’ I can not officially say what my favorites are but this list is some of the books that come to mind from memory.

    * Unlimited Power; Anthony Robbins
    * The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living; dalai lama
    * who moved my cheese?; Spencer Johnson
    * The four hour work week; Timmothy Ferriss
    * Stumbling on Happiness; Daniel Gilbert
    * Playing Ball on Running Water; David K. Reynolds
    * Living the 80/20 Way; Richard Koch
    * Do It Tomorrow; Mark forster
    * the book on the taboo against knowing who you are; allan watts
    * Tao the watercourse way; allan watts

    Dennis Groves

  15. In “Thinking for a change”, author John Maxwell mentions an interesting thing about creativity. He admits that as an youngster he scored lowest in creativity, and wasn’t happy about that. So how did he work on that? Whenever he read books, he gathered great thoughts, and filed them by subjects. So whenever he wanted a quote, story, or an article on a topic, he just had to look into the files. He had gathered several excellent pieces of material. “Originality is the art of concealing the source” – Thomas Edison.

  16. @ Ronan

    Thank you.

    @ Dennis

    Great set! There’s a few on your list I’ve been meaning to check out.

    @ Akshay

    Maxwell has so many books! I’ve never heard of that one, but it sounds great.

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