30 essential self help books

Books designed to improve one's self have been around for centuries and the genre, as we know it, began to take shape in the middle of the 19th century with a book aptly called "self-help" by a wonderfully named man called Samuel Smiles.

This list reflects books that have saved lives, sold millions of copies, spawned publishing empires, influenced work habits and has inspired presidents and prime ministers. We approached the subject from a variety of angles ranging from allegories to straight fiction to ensure diversity in our recommendations. Mind, body and health, family and relationships, work, money and finance, and lifestyle are all covered...

The No.1 choice on this list - Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book - was an easy selection. This historic book has saved thousands of lives of men and women around the world. The AA's 12 steps, outlined in the Big Book, have influenced countless other programs to beat addiction. Many books claim that they will change lives but the Big Book has done it time and again.


Essential self help books

By Randy Pausch
A powerful, beautiful book written by a professor of computer science with months to live. Based on his final lecture, Pausch provides inspiration to achieve childhood dreams.
By Bill Wilson and Bob Smith
Because it has saved thousands of lives since being published in 1939. This is where the 12-step guide to treating addiction comes from. Pray you never need it.
By Victor Frankl
Published in 1946, this book details Frankl's experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He argues for spiritual survival by choosing how you cope with suffering.
By Stephen R. Covey
AbeBooks' bestselling used book of all time. Covey offers seven simple rules for your business and personal life.
By Paulo Coelho
A young shepherd travels to Egypt to find treasure after having a dream. A book about finding your destiny.
By Dale Carnegie
Where are we without friends? Published in 1936, Carnegie began as a public speaking teacher which influenced his writing.
By Richard Bach
A very 1970s novella about a bird who targets self perfection by pushing himself to new limits. Inspired countless baby boomers.
By Napoleon Hill
Published in 1937, Hill, who was an advisor to two US presidents, always said this book was more than just about income.
By M Scott Peck
Scott Peck was a psychiatrist. Published in 1978, this book covers four sections - delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth and balancing conflicts.
By Orison Swett Marden
Scott Peck was a psychiatrist. Published in 1978, this book covers four sections - delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth and balancing conflicts.
By Samuel Smiles
Published in 1859, this book launched the genre. Smiles writes how poverty can be tackled by breaking irresponsible habits. Are his Victorian values still relevant?
By Timothy Ferriss
Only published in 2007, this book makes our list because it advises on managing technology and using technology to your advantage. Ignore those emails and carry on reading.
By James Redfield
Hippy dippy but influential. The narrator takes a journey to understand nine spiritual insights in an ancient manuscript. Mixes ancient and New Age spirituality.
By Wallace D. Wattles
Published in 1910, this book has 17 short chapters, each with an easy-to-understand message. Wattles argues creation is the key to being rich. Inspired Rhonda Byrne's The Secret.
By Carl Sagan
This is a science book where Sagan explains scientific methods to laypeople. He encourages critical consideration of ideas - ie. a guide to spotting life's misleading nonsense.
By Spencer Johnson
All about dealing with change in your work and personal life. Immediately became a bestseller in 1998 but remains relevant in a rapidly changing world.
By Rick Warren
A Christian devotional book offering a 40-day journey and borrowing many learnings from the Bible. Read a chapter a day.
By Harry G. Frankfurt
Not truly self help but included because our modern world is full of BS. An explanation between lying and BS-ing, and a book that makes liars easier to identify and understand.
By Robert Burton
Folks have been feeling sad for centuries. This 1621 book is supposed to be a textbook but in reality is a memoir on sadness. A 17th century perspective on depression.
By Norman Vincent Peale
Written in 1952, Peale argues an optimistic attitude can get you a long way in life. His message of positive thinking has been ripped off many times by other authors.
By Melody Beattie
Modern era self help. The subtitle says it all 'How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself'. Codependency is enabling another person's problems such as alcoholism.
By Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen
Basically, a motivational book that gets you fired up by recounting true stories from ordinary people. Chicken Soup is now a vast publishing empire.
By Robert Greene
Oddly popular with rappers and prison inmates. Using historical examples, Greene offers a series of laws for being powerful.
By Sun Zsu
Yes, this is a guide to fighting battles but its strategy and tactics can be applied to many areas of life from sports to business and marriage (that last one is a joke).
By David Schwartz
This 1959 book instructs in setting high goals and thinking positively to reach them. Lots of guidance on thought patterns.
By Robert M. Pirsig
Published in 1974, this is an analysis of 'quality'. Might change how you look at life rather than how you act.
By Daniel Kahneman
A modern book from 2011 but it tackles the age-old problem of whether to be fast and instinctive, or slower and deliberate.
By Hermann Hesse
This 1922 novel is a spiritual journey of self-discovery. The lesson it offers is that enlightenment comes from the total experience of life and not from individual events.
By Seth Godin
In 2008, Godin wrote it was our nature to join tribes, and the Internet made it easy. He offers tips on tribe building - desire to change, the ability to connect and a willingness to lead.
By Thomas Anthony Harris
A 1969 guide to transactional analysis, a type of psychoanalytics, as a way to solve life's problems.

More essential reading lists:

June 21, 2021
1 Min Read
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