For too many years, I did not believe in the power of self-improvement books. I always believed that there must be a catch, and these books must have been written simply to profit off the weak minds of readers. After all, why aren’t more people better off if these books were really useful?
I was wrong, because the reality is that most people don’t want to read these books (like I did), or even if they did, they lacked the discipline or willpower to apply the learning on a consistent basis.
At the same time, there are so many of such books on sale, it’s mind boggling and one does not know where to start. Just visit any bookstore or library to see what I mean.
If you are still not convinced about the usefulness of such books, there is this line I paraphrase from one of the books : Why do we insist that we spend years making mistakes and learning from them, when we can do it in a matter of hours by reading what others have gone through?
Ten years ago, when I had left Singapore Press Holdings and joined Microsoft, my ex-boss and mentor Ben Tan bought me books and kept recommending some books to me. I was foolishly resistant but over the years, I’ve realized my folly – I now spend a great deal of time searching out for good books, reading them, and then recommending them to friends.
I’ve decided to share some of my top recommendations here. Some are management books, others focus on balanced living. Overall, I read these books repeatedly to remind myself on how I need to constantly improve the way I live and interact with others, and renew the discipline and focus in my personal life. To be honest, I also read a lot of fiction books (mostly sci-fi and horror books) because non-fiction books can get quite dry.
Note: I put Amazon affiliate links to each book since I shouldn’t offer free lunches to the authors or Amazon, and in turn, this can fund more of my own Kindle book purchases.
Also, the only economical and decluttered way to read these many books is to own a Kindle – and my family gets to read them too on multiple devices in the house.
OK, I start with the Bible because every other secular book here may lead you astray into thinking you are in absolute control of your destiny. Sorry, but it does not work that way.
For me, the Bible is the only starting point for self-improvement because it contains all the moral teachings to keep one’s clarity and focus on “doing unto others as you would do unto yourself.” The world would really be a better place if we simply follow that Golden Rule.
For newbies to the Bible, I always recommend people start with the Book of John to learn about the life of Jesus, because you shouldn’t criticize a saviour you don’t know about.
For those who really don’t want to believe, you can read Proverbs for age-old advice on how to lead an upright life, and Ecclesiastes for a philosophical take on life and how to find meaning in a seemingly meaningless existence.
What is really important when reading the Bible is to find easy translations for your own language. The most recommended English version is the New International Version (NIV) and I can also recommend the Good News Bible. I avoid King James Version (KJV) because it is full of obsolete words that turn people off. Religion does not need to difficult to understand, people!
How To Win Friends And Influence People – Dale Carnegie
This book has a weird title that sounds tacky today, but I personally believe that every single person ought to read this (after their key religious text) and it ought to be required reading in schools – oh how many teachers would benefit themselves!
The fundamental problem of society is that people often do not know how to engage or communicate properly with each other, and Dale Carnegie dives straight into the heart of this.
Criticize less, appreciate other people more, listen harder, talk less – we know all these pointers but we fail to do it because too often, we learn from poor role models around us who do the exact opposite and get away with it.
Dale Carnegie also has another bestselling book called “How To Stop Worrying and Start Living” which is also excellent in its own right but a bit long-winded.
Crucial Conversations – Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler
This is a good follow-on book from Dale Carnegie’s because it focuses on the difficult conversations we have at work and at home.
Fundamentally, we often don’t take each other’s perspective into account when we are discussing difficult matters – from tough business decisions to bringing up our children. Most people then go for the “my way or the highway” approach which is destructive to all parties. The book deconstructs how we converse wrongly, and shows one how to neutralize tensions and come to an agreement (or at least an agreement to disagree) while building stronger relationships.
Cultivating Ch’i – Kaibara Ekiken
There’s not much point in learning how to engage with others if you are often in poor health. There are many health books out there but this is a fascinating read because it was written several hundred years ago in Japan, yet is very applicable in this age.
Kaibara was a trained samurai and doctor, and he spent decades figuring out the better way to live through moderation, healthy dieting, exercise and “cultivating one’s ch’i (life force)”. This book was important for me as it shaped the way I changed my diet and lifestyle in 2013 and I continue to follow its principles to keep myself from gaining weight and becoming ill.
Spark Joy – Marie Kondo
In order to change your life effectively and at the fastest possible pace, you need absolute clarity of thought. And you’d be surprised, but your physical environment has a huge influence on how much clarity you possess.
The more cluttered your environment, the harder it is to focus – disregard all the rubbish people say about how creative people need messy tables, please!
Marie Kondo is already world-renowned, and you shouldn’t read her book just to find out how you can clear up your cupboard and storeroom. When you start to declutter, it is both a physical and mental experience of creating clarity by removing distractions. You begin to focus on the real value of the items you possess, and understand what you should spend your time and money on (which is “not much”).
Of course, her book’s guidance is hard to apply because it takes a lot of willpower. While my personal areas at home and at work are always neat and decluttered, I am tolerant of the clutter that my kids or other people have because it is a personal change one has to make.
The Effective Executive – Peter Drucker
Too many people will tell you that they’ve worked long hours so they deserve better salaries, lifestyles or rewards in life. However, the world is cold and cruel, the only thing that matters is results, and real results are driven by effective people.
The funny thing is that we’re never taught how to be effective in schools or even at work. We’re taught how to follow a curriculum or take orders, but we do not often stop to think about whether the work we are doing actually moves the needle.
This book is written more for managers of teams and senior executives, but it is applicable to individual contributors of all ages, and the many aspects of life. How do you manage your time, how do you focus on results, how do you bring out the best in people, how do you overcome crazy challenges. It is also a stark reminder that many managers we encounter are poor managers, simply because they haven’t been trained. They are simply the blind leading the blind.
The Five Major Pieces To The Life Puzzle – Jim Rohn
Again, another tacky title (and even worse cover design as of 2017) but Jim Rohn provides a hard hitting guide to changing yourself. This man was full of quotable quotes, and much of his practical advice is written here.
One of those quotes:
“Don’t wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom.”
With all the recommended books above, you get a lot of advice on different practical matters, but Rohn gets to the heart of one’s mindset and attitude to really overhauling your behavior. The five major pieces are in the following order : Philosophy, Attitude, Activity, Results, Lifestyle and he ends off with A Sense of Urgency (something seriously lacking in most people).
Amazon : Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle