Being brought up in Singapore, the culture of learning was one that was based on memorization and rote learning. I did well in school thanks to a good memory, but hated the fact that the curriculum was limited and did not apply to reality.
Thank God I have a mum who saw the limits of this education system and signed me up for cool enrichment activities that would open my eyes to a bigger world and equip me with life skills necessary to thrive in adulthood. Dad was another superhero who fought against the administration when told that I talked too much or rebelled against the norm.
It was through these enrichment activities that I fell in love with true learning. Reading became a passion and learning became self-driven.
(Note to mums and dads: You really have influence over your child’s inherent beliefs and habits. I say this now in my 30s – that my mindset, drive and habits now were mostly shaped from a very young age)
Why Self-Improvement Is Key to Living Your Best Life
After graduating from school, I brought these learning habits and aspirations into my working life. Instead of classrooms I had virtual mentors the likes of Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins and John C. Maxwell teaching me through their books. Instead of pop music, I had audiobooks and podcasts to accompany my runs.
Do not underestimate the power of reading and learning. These books caused my aspirations to grow; I no longer wanted to float in life nor live a mediocre one. I became ultra-motivated to live a life of excellence, and create a life that I want to live.
“LUCK IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PREPARATION MEETS OPPORTUNITY”
Prepare by building the right mindset and the right skillsets for what you want – when the opportunity comes, you will be ready to latch on it and achieve much!
Case in point: Eventually life would bring me out of the small country into the UK for my studies, and eventually in a career that would take me around the world. Now I’m working towards my dream of becoming an entrepreneur, and I cannot be happier in this pursuit.
Reading is Key to Self-Improvement
If you are ready to change your life, you can start with reading for self-improvement.
There are thousands of self-improvement books available, but not all are good (some are totally BS in fact). So I’ve done the homework for you – below are the 36 of the best ones that have changed my life in some way or another.
Just a heads-up, this will be a long post. I have compiled the list in a PDF for you to download.
Are you ready? Here we go!
27 Best Self-Improvement Books
Note: As a Christian, I have included a couple of Christian focused books. These are not meant to influence anyone with religious thinking but are resources which I truly feel can help you guys in your personal growth journey. Take what you need, leave it otherwise.
Books to help you find meaning and happiness
Note: The new “Timeless Edition” of this book retails at more affordable prices – get it here.
I read this book 3 times, and never got tired of it. M. Scott Peck shares his personal and professional view of how we can live a more fulfilling life by developing a better understanding of love, religion and grace.
Peck delves deep into what really causes unhappiness in or lives. When we avoid confronting our problems and solving them, it results in greater pain and an inability to grow mentally and spiritually.
My take: There’s a reason why I read this so many times. I have never heard anybody talk about the concept of love nor dive into the nature of all kinds of relationships as well as M. Scott Peck.
This book has helped me walk away from a very unhealthy relationship I had (which was really more dependency than love), and helped shape my vision of my future life.
Read this book if you are seeking a different perspective of self-improvement and spiritual growth.
Man’s Search for Meaning details the experiences of Viktor Frankl during his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II. The second half of the book delves into the branch of psychotherapy he developed and refined during and after the war.
My take: This book offers insights into how human beings can survive terrible situations and ultimately find meaning. It is a short book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to work out the meaning of life or want insights on how to cope with extraordinary circumstances.
Brene Brown is one of the people I look up to. As mentioned in my other post on Best Ted Talks to Watch on Youtube, I was introduced to Brene Brown through her Ted Talk on vulnerability and shame.
This book delves into Brown’s research in greater detail. She walks readers through ten principles to live a more fulfilling life, defined by courage, connection and compassion towards others.
My take: In a world where perfection is valued and people are afraid to show their flaws, I like how this book tells us we need to live otherwise. When we find the courage to live with our whole hearts and are not afraid to be “out there”, we can live more authentic lives and find deeper connections that would bring about greater happiness.
This is a book for anyone who wants to live a more meaningful life, who wants to find happiness, or who is feeling inadequate in life.
Awaken the Giant Within was published in 1991 and is one of the first books I’ve read in the self-improvement category. Tony Robbins, a world-renowned motivational speaker, argues that ultimately, we are all in control of our own lives. By changing our habits, having the right mindsets, and controlling our emotions, we can make our dream life a reality.
In this book, Robbins provide readers with strategies for creating change by helping them make conscious decisions (rather than mindless bad habits).
My take: Ever heard a friend say “I have no choice”? I get frustrated whenever I hear that, because these people believe they are a victim of life. That is not true – it’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s how we respond to them that determines our lives.
I love this book for helping readers to first have the right mindset about change. Change can happen, and it’s all about choices.
This book is for anyone who wants to change his / her life, or wants to make better choices, or wants to make his / her dream life a reality.
The Purpose Driven Life shares the Christian answer to the questions: “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?”. Rick Warren helps us understand God’s amazing plan for our lives, and enables readers to see the big picture of their lives and begin to live the life they were meant to.
My take: I was introduced to this book at church during a time when I was lost and trying to find my place in this world. Although no book can tell you exactly what your purpose in life is, The Purpose Driven Life provides us with tips and guidance on how to get greater clarity.
In addition to this book, I also did the free 40 day online devotional.
At the end of my journey with The Purpose Driven Life, I did not have a 100% clear view of my purpose, but I did become VERY SURE that I was not born to just live and die as a mediocre person. God has a good plan for me and my purpose is to live out this plan with excellence.
Read this book if you desire a deeper connection with Christian spirituality or are curious about the Christian’s answer to the meaning of life.
In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin embarks on a year-long Happiness Project to answer this question: “What is happiness and how can we bring more of it into our lives?”. She provides practical tips and guides on how to increase happiness in your everyday life.
My Take: Before Rubin embarked on her Happiness Project, she had fulfilled the checklist of a happy life – she had a good job, sufficient money, a family – but found herself unhappy frequently.
I picked up this book because I resonated with Rubin’s situation. At the time, I had a great career with a multi-national company, a supportive family, a good education, and lots more. But I hated my life.
Rubin’s tips gave me practical tips to act upon – it wasn’t fluffy like many other self-help books I read in the happiness category. I actually implemented some things including refining my exercise regime, making a point to find balance everyday and not only during vacations, and more.
Read this book if you are an action-oriented person and want to make incremental and constructive changes in your life. #onestepatime
Oprah Winfrey did not have an easy life when she was young. But she overcame her struggles of her early life and made it to become one of the most renowned influencers in the world.
In this book, Oprah outlines the moments that shaped her into the person she is today. Her early childhood struggles taught her how to be more resilient. She highlights how we should look inwards to learn to love ourselves the way God meant it to be, and not from others (which is actually dependency). She overcame her fear of judgement and her deepest insecurities to reach her full potential.
My take: Read this book if you want to know how one of the world’s most influential person actually had to overcome struggles most of us can only imagine, to get to where she is today. More importantly, this book shows how resilience and self-love can help us find success and fulfillment in life
8. Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living | Joseph Prince
In Destined to Reign, Joseph Prince – a world renowned Pastor – tells us how we can become victors in life because “it is not about what you have to do, but what has already been done” through grace.
This book is dotted with anecdotes that bring hope to people who are battling sickness, financial lack, broken relationships and destructive habits. Learn to reign over your challenges because you are fighting from a position of victory, not for the position of victory.
If you want to supplement your readings with daily inspirations, there is a daily devotional version of this book as well.
My take: Before I was introduced to the Gospel of Grace, I believed that in order to be righteous, I needed to be sinless. I needed to be perfect. That is true in the old testament – people are justified by their work. And my God, life is tough trying to do things right all the time because we are wired to sin (thank you Adam).
Pastor Prince changed my entire perspective of how Christianity is supposed to work. Instead of trying to live right to be righteous, the Gospel of Grace posits that we are righteous and justified by the finished work at the cross. This means that we are made to receive unmerited and undeserved grace, despite our faults and failures, to find success and reign over all adversities.
I am not as good a writer as Joseph Prince and can only urge you to pick up a copy of this book and open your eyes to a new world of Grace.
Experience a change in your mindset – which will help you live more victorious and attract success the way you were meant to be.
Elizabeth Gilbert writes about her experience of an early mid-life crisis. She had success – as defined by the modern person – but was unhappy. She then went through a divorce, depression, a failed love and decided to give herself time and space for self-discovery.
She then quit her job and took a year-long journey around the world, visiting Italy, India and Bali.
In this book, Gilbert shares her journey of how she found herself and fell in love again.
My take: I do not often reach for non-fiction books that talks about someone else’s life – I’ve got problems my own.
However, Eat, Pray, Love surprised me. While there are times when this book made me think that Gilbert was absolutely self-absorbed, I felt more entertained than I have been in a long time.
For the most part, I disliked the fact that Gilbert was really missing out on the “why” of her visiting the 3 countries The reason this book made the list was because I absolutely agreed with Gilbert on one thing: Taking time off on a self-discovery journey is crucial for those who really want to find what life means for them.
Books for Personal Success
One of the most classic self-help books, the techniques from How to Win Friend & Influence people have been cited by many prominent people as one their secrets to success. Dale Carnegie provides tips on how to handle people, six ways to make people like you, how to win people over to your way of thinking.
My Take: If there’s only one book on leadership and influence you should read, it is this. This book is THE definitive guide to helping you improve relationships with others by influencing them the right way. The techniques shared by Carnegie will completely change the way you influence people.
I personally use most Carnegie’s tips especially for my work, where I have to manage people from different functions who do not report to me. The impact of these techniques are obvious – not only do I get more done out of a team that I do not directly manage, but the resulting shared purpose allowed for greater team morale and project successes.
Definitely highly recommended for those who are dealing with people, whether you are at the frontline, a parent, a manager or leader.
This is another classic self-improvement book, published in 1982 with more than 1.6 million copies sold in hardcover. Zig Ziglar is one of the most renowned motivators – he is known also for his amazing energy and expert in sales techniques.
The fundamental premise of this book is that “you can get everything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want”.
Finally, See You at the Top stands out in that it emphasizes the value of a strong personal character and a healthy self-image for personal success. The book provides step-by-step instructions on how to change the way you think about yourself and tips on how to set and achieve personal goals.
My take: I’ve been a loyal reader of Zig Ziglar’s book – the principle of helping others get what they want so that we can get everything we want in life is something I apply to many situations as well.
At work, we add value to our employers so that we get the compensation we want; As an entrepreneur, we deliver (sometimes over-deliver) value to build a strong base of followers. You can even apply this principle to your relationships.
Also, as a fan of productivity techniques, I use many of this book’s tips, combining it with Getting Things Done (GTD) principles to translate my goals into actionable daily activities.
This book explains the nature of emotional intelligence and shows how it impacts many areas of our lives. Emotions form our choices and interactions; They can create positive outcomes or lead us astray. Because emotional intelligence makes us healthier and more successful, this book explains various ways to boost emotional intelligence for a more fulfilling life.
My take: If you think that IQ is the best indicator of success, think again. Emotional intelligence is actually as important, if not more important, to help us navigate the social world, as well as manage people and relationships better.
I can see why this skill is so important, especially for those who want to be successful in whatever they do.
Ever heard the saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know”? This is why networking events are so important in any vocation. Emotional intelligence allows us to manage social interactions better, even with strangers in a networking event. We can better understand non-verbal behaviors, connect better with others and build relationships for a successful and fulfilling life.
If you prefer a guide that teaches in detail on how to become more emotionally intelligent, then I would suggest a different book to Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence 2.0, written by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, expands on this topic by breaking down emotional intelligence (or EQ) into 4 elements: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management. For each of these elements, Bradberry & Greaves delve into techniques to improve our level of EQ.
My take: While Emotional Intelligence, written by Daniel Goleman, is great for opening your mind to the “what” of emotional intelligence, it does not delve into the details of the “how” of boosting it. I prefer books that structure topics into its bitesized components so that I can actually improve my skills practically.
If you are already familiar with the topic of emotional intelligence, this book is a better guide than Goleman’s, in my honest opinion.
Gallap first introduced an online assessment, StrengthsFinder, to help people discover their innate talents. StrengthsFinder 2.0 is the new and improved version of this popular assessment.
The book provides 2 things:
- The framework to understand different personas and their strengths
- A free assessment to understand your strengths and which persona you align most to
Loaded with hundreds of strategies for applying your strengths, this new book and accompanying website will change the way you look at yourself–and the world around you–forever.
My take: In order to succeed at work and home, I understand that there is a need to work on my weaknesses, but also leverage my strengths.
This book provides a very clear framework on how to think about your strengths. I did the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment, and the report has stayed with me for close to 10 years. It has been my reference throughout my career changes, at home, and even as an adult student in business school.
I recommend this book for those who don’t know their strengths or how to go about using them. The framework by Gallup is tried and tested, and the amount you pay for the book is nothing compared to the report and guidelines that you can refer to for years to come.
John C. Maxwell has published over 30 books in his 40+ years as a preacher, author, and leadership trainer. He writes about topics spanning from leadership, to communication to time management. Maxwell’s books are also known for being practical, with actionable guides for developing readers into the best versions of themselves.
In this book, Maxwell explains what it takes to become a great leader. He posits that leadership is a skill – no one is a born leader and you can develop it if you put your mind to it.
My take: I read this book early in my career when I was tasked to manage a portfolio with a team of people from other business units, who had many more years of experience than me. This book was a bible – I learnt so much about the traits and skills of successful people that I could apply in my actual work.
Leadership skills can be applied in any context – at home, at work or with friends. I believe ANYONE will benefit from this book if you are looking for tips on how to grow as a leader.
Good to Great shares findings from a five-year research which identified factors that differentiated public companies with enduring success versus those that suffered from mediocre performance.
This was done by identifying a set of elite companies that made the leap to great results and sustained them for at least 15 years. The good-to-great companies generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of 7 times in 15 years.
Understanding the key factors of success can help other companies make the same leap from good-to-great.
My take: Although the target audiences for this book are leaders, investors and entrepreneurs, I believe anyone who is interested in business management and leadership will find this very insightful.
Read this if you want evidence-backed insights on how to create a great company or how to lead an existing one towards lasting success.
In Grit, Angela Duckworth shows anyone who is who wants to succeed that the secret to outstanding achievement is a mix of passion and persistence (aka. “grit”), rather than talent.
Grit is the characteristic of a person that allows them to find a purpose in life, do what they love, and stay with it long enough for it to flourish.
My take: I’ve mentioned that Angela Duckworth’s research on Grit was one of the ideas that shaped how I thought about success. Hers was one of the best Ted Talks I’ve come across in the personal growth category.
Beyond her Ted Talk, her book on Grit provides a much more detailed account with specific anecdotes to help contextualise the value of Grit on long term success. The idea of being able to accomplish success due to persistence and passion is right up my alley.
Read this if you want to discover your level of grit, tips to grow it, and how to use it to achieve your purpose in life.
The 48 Laws of Power takes a look at power, how to understand it and defend against it. There are 48 laws, and for each of them there are fantastic stories to help readers contextualize and understand the law better.
In case you are short on time, the Concise 48 Laws of Power provides a summary of the important points in the full version
My take: Thisbook is rather overwhelming if you try to read it like a general non-fiction book. I would suggest you to treat it like a textbook and read one law to start with, chew on the insights, and successfully apply the tip in your life before moving on.
That said, some of the tips may not be entirely relevant to your life. The book makes it easy to skim through these less relevant laws and focus on studying those that mattered.
The effect of seriously studying this book? I’ve started understanding how to manage my bosses better, to influence laterally when I have no direct power over others, and to stand out in my workplace dominated by men.
This is THE book to read if
- You are an entrepreneur struggling to understand the dynamics of competition and control and need concrete tips on how to gain an upper hand in your market
- You want to understand how to gain power, to protect yourself from it, or simply interested in power dynamics
Outliers examines individuals who have achieved extraordinary success in their pursuit (“Outliers”) and tries to answer the question: “what makes high-achievers different?”
While we often think that outliers earned their successes through innate talent and hard work, this is not what the evidence shows. Many unseen factors affect a person’s success, and most of them are beyond the person’s control.
My take: While the book received many criticisms for its lack of a scientific rigour behind the research, I believe that this is a must-read book still.
Why? Because social science focuses on behaviors, which in itself is subjective and dependent on individual factors. If Malcolm Gladwell tried to explain his answers in the scientific way rather than the brilliant anecdotes he had used, then it would have been too abstract and much less of an impactful book than it is now.
This is an eye-opening book to say the least.
Who Moved My Cheese? tells an amusing story of four characters who live in a “Maze” and look for “Cheese” to nourish them and make them happy. In the story, the characters are faced with unexpected change and need to learn how to deal with changes to find new cheese.
In your life, the cheese may be a career or relationship. This book offers valuable insights on how to manage change to eventually find new “cheese”, have less stress and more success in work and life.
My take: Possibly one of the shortest yet most impactful book I have read. An excellent read for anyone who is afraid of change or is dealing with change. This book will teach you not to be shaken by change or loss, because you can come out better with the right attitude.
Books to Inspire
Alibaba is an engrossing account of how Jack Ma built Alibaba, now one of the world’s most valuable e-commerce companies which millions of consumers use (including myself). For those who have not used or heard of Alibaba yet, this is the Chinese version of Amazon. Alibaba’s $25 billion IPO in 2014 was the largest global IPO ever.
My take: I couldn’t stop reading this book and finished it in 2 working days. That was how fascinated I was by Jack Ma’s rise from a man of modest beginnings into one of the most influential businessman in the world.
More importantly, I think this book works the heart at a deeper level – I am more motivated than ever to stay on the journey to creating my best life. While the road to success will bring challenges for sure, I know these can be overcome.
Read this book if you want to understand the important traits that enabled Jack Ma to overcome early struggles and failures to eventually achieve success globally.
Steve Jobs is based on more than 40 interviews with the man himself, as well as interviews with more than a hundred friends, families, colleagues and rivals. This biography describes Steve Jobs’ successes as an entrepreneur as well as his battles along the way, written by the author of bestselling biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.
Anyone who wants to discover how Steve Job’s intense leadership style drove many around him to frustration, and the very same personality and push him to achieve great things, then this is the book to read.
Steve Job’s story is written in a brutally raw manner, yet filled with inspiration and lessons on innovation, vision, leadership and character.
My take: I like to read biographies of people who inspire me, mainly because I can get a glimpse of their thoughts and what shaped their successes.
As an avid user of iPhone and iPad, I picked up the Kindle version of this huge biography during the time when the world was mourning his passing. I wanted to learn about the man who transformed the world and made today’s tech gadgets indispensable for the modern man.
This biography is a long one, but I assure you that it will not be a boring one.
Books to Help You Become More Productive
In Getting Things Done (or GTD), David Allen shows readers how to become much more productive and reduce stress through his revolutionary task management system. With this system, David Allen posits that even when you face an overwhelming amount of things to do, you can still be productive, relaxed and creative.
My take: As mentioned in my post on 15 Practical Self-Care Tips to Reduce Stress & Anxiety, I am a fan of the GTD system.
I believe that many people focus on goal setting, but stop short of taking actions after the goal setting process. The GTD system can effectively translate the goals and plans into a structured way to manage daily tasks. Combining principles of goals planning and GTD will provide you with a powerful system to not only set, but also crush your goals.
Anyone who feels stressed, overwhelmed, or wants to be more productive should read this.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a timeless book that has helped many to achieve greater effectiveness in their personal and professional lives.
In this book, Stephen Covey presents an approach to being effective in attaining goals by aligning to “true north” principles. By adopting these principles and turning them into positive habits, you are on your way to greater success professionally and personally.
My take: This was one of the first books I read in the self-help genre, and I keep coming back to it. In fact, a couple of companies I worked with made it mandatory for new managers to undergo a course based on the Seven Habits, to understand these principles and to incorporate it into their ways of working.
There are a few things that I always talk about when managing projects; These have been based on principles from the book. These are:
- Begin with the end in mind
- Be proactive and not reactive
- Think synergies and win-win
- Keep learning (“sharpening the saw”)
This book changed the way I manage everything from my personal life to my work projects. Dive in and see how you can benefit from the Seven Habits approach!
Books to Help You Create Good Habits
Essentialism teaches readers how to do better by not by getting more done in less time, but by getting only the right things done. This is not a productivity technique but is a habit to create a lifestyle focusing only on what is essential, then eliminating everything else that is not.
The book provides practical solutions for how to get priorities right and eliminate unnecessary things in our routine that is keeping us from a fulfilled life.
My take: I got this book in a bid to understand how I can straighten up my priorities and live a more minimalist life. Through this book, I started applying principles of Essentialism in my life, including:
- Learning how to eliminate, delegate or outsource tasks that I am bad in, are not valuable for my goals, or that I do not enjoy
- Digitalizing my books where feasible (I still prefer hardcopies, so I only switched to Kindle where books are too bulky for carrying)
- Paring down my wardrobe to the essential items
- Spending quality time with people I absolutely hold dear in my life, and less time on those whom I can keep as acquaintances
Read this if you are want to do less, do better, declutter, understand how to prioritize and organize your life.
The Power of Habit explains the role of habits in our lives, how they are formed and how we can change them at the personal and organizational level.
Readers are provided with tools that help us determine the triggers of our bad habits – understanding the source of our habits helps us to break them effectively. Duhigg also helps readers to establish new positive habits through a system of cue-reward cycles.
My take: Being constantly on the search for better tools to help me create good habits and break bad ones, I like the fact that this book goes right to the root of the problem of habit building.
Forming new habits is a practical skill that impacts the level of our fulfilment. While it is still a challenge to implement the cue-reward system, since not all cues or rewards are as effective, once you find a personalised system that works for you, habit building comes naturally.
27. The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now! | Mark Hyman
In The Blood Sugar Solution, Dr. Mark Hyman reveals that the culprit to diabetes, weight issues and many other modern day diseases are imbalanced insulin levels. The keys to wellness are good nutrition, balanced hormones, low inflammation, good digestion, detoxification, energy metabolism and a calm mind.
My take: Although I have read many nutrition and health books, many of them come short of expectations – most are short term solutions that do not focus on long term health or longevity.
This is one of the exceptions. I felt the effects on my focus, energy levels and frequency of getting sick since I started implementing Mark Hyman’s tips. (Spoiler: Mark Hyman’s recommended diet is all the “pegan” diet, which brings the best of veganism and paleo diets together.)
That said, even though this book provides really great tips for healthy eating, I would caution against over-controlling your diet as that tends to bring about negative effects on mental health. The point is to learn to eat intuitively, focusing on the healthy tips shared by Dr Mark Hyman and experience the positive effects on your mind and body.
Further Reading Suggestions
These are the 27 self-help books that have had a tangible impact on the way I thought and lived. However, I hope to never stop expanding this list.
Currently on my 2021 to-read list in this same genre are the following:
- Atomic Habits | James Clear
- Code of the Extraordinary Mind | Vishen Lakhiani
- The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months | Brian P. Moran
- Rising strong | Brene Brown
- The Unthethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself | Michael Singer
- Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work| Mason Currey
- Free to Focus | Michael Hyatt
- The Brain that Changes Itself | Norman Doidge
- The Tipping Point | Malcolm Gladwell
- Mastery | Robert Greene
- How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease | Greger M.D. FACLM, Michael and Gene Stone
- Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way | Richard Branson
Do check out the above books as well if you want more ideas for your reading list!
The YogaMad is founded by Mila, an avid yogini who is passionate about inspiring others to live their best lives while finding mind-body-soul balance. She has a background in business consulting but has left the corporate world in her quest to live out her dreams as a yoga nomad.