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A Helpful Guide to the Best Self-Help Books

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05.20.16
MR Book Club
MR Book Club

When the topic of self-help books arise, I can’t help but picture Charlotte from Sex and the Citypost-divorce and curious in the Be Your Own Therapist aisle of some bookstore. She’s ashamed to be there, afraid to admit that her upset life is reality, concerned that a stranger will figure her out before she figures out herself. I get it. Shit is messy. Seeking self-help can be awkward to admit. But we’re all human, which means that while we have limitations, the square footage of our individual potential is boundless. Without limits. And once we experience the endorphin hit (whether it’s a placebo effect or not) of what could be a better us, we’re all in. So long as the pages we read are dog-eared with loving intent, ain’t no shame in the game of self-improvement.

The best part of all: sharing the book that helped us with a friend when we’re done.

Between a few team members and buds of Man Repeller, we compiled an 11-book list of our favorite self-helpers that run the gamut from career inspiration to happiness, meditation to productivity. Is it a definitive list? No! When is self-help ever definitive? It’s a living, breathing, growing thing in its own right — so click through and then share yours below.

1

“The Productivity Project” by Chris Bailey, recommended by Amelia Diamond

What made you read it?

The cover, which apparently you’re not supposed to judge when it comes to books. I was searching for productivity tips — I’m productive in that I get my work done, but I want to be way more efficient — and came across this. I thought it made my goal seem do-able.

How did it help you?

It’s help-ing me. I’m still in the process of reading it, but it’s giving me tools to apply right away while simultaneously comforting me that I’m not alone in my dicking around (which still somehow feels like work? Like either dick or don’t; stop with the unsatisfying in-between).

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

What the author calls “The Rule of 3″:

” 1. At the beginning of every day, mentally fast-forward to the end of the day, and ask yourself: When the day is over, what three things will I want to have accomplished? Write those three things down.

2. Do the same thing at the beginning of every week.

The three things you identify then become your focus for the day and the week ahead. That’s it.” (That over-oversimplifies it, but it’s the big gist.)

2

“Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person” by Shonda Rhimes, recommended by Patty Carnevale (she’s new to team MR — you’ll meet her soon!)

What made you read it?

My friend Erica strongly recommended it, and I was on the market for a powerful, funny, kick-in-the-soul read for an upcoming vacation along the California coast.

How did it help you?

On the first day of said vacation I received the lovely news that I was being offered a job at Man Repeller. Amazing, but the thought of leaving the company, team and work I had loved for over two years (still do, by the way) and the fear of making a wrong choice eclipsed everything else. Totally clouded the truly important things. I experienced, as Shonda would say, the “dry mouth, heart beats super fast, everything gets a little bit slow motion” excitement/terror/uncertainty that sometimes gets in the way of clarity, joy and fulfillment. By the end of the week/book I recognized with calm certainty that I knew what I wanted, and that I’d probably known since my first meeting with the MR team.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

On doing vs dreaming:

“I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, powerful, engaged people? Are busy doing.”

“You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real.”

“And every single time you get the chance? Stand up in front of people. Let them see you. Speak. Be heard. Go ahead and have the dry mouth. Let your heart beat so, so fast.”

On normalizing:

“I really hate the word diversity. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare. Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV. The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and love like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because perhaps then they will learn from them.”

3

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, recommended by AYR CEO Maggie Winter

What made you read it?

I was given this book by my sister, who is “slightly” more type-A than I am. She worships the KonMari cult. She folds her t-shirts in a six-step process and ruthlessly donates all of her books to Housing Works. I am, by nature, a hoarder, which is kind of funny because AYR is a pretty minimalist brand.

Then, my job got really crazy. Work became super busy and intense and completely consuming. I found myself clinging to meaning in internet memes — the kind that tell you everything is going to be okay

That was the headspace I was in when I happened to pick up this book.

How did it help you?

It seems like an organization manual, but it’s totally a self-help book. Pretty much every sentence, apart from the t-shirt and sock storage instructions (your socks are on “holiday,” need to “rest” and should never be balled, rolled, or tied), is just really solid life advice.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

Mostly, Marie tells you to toss out unnecessary clutter in your life, and only to keep objects that ‘spark joy’ when you touch them.

I started spending any scraps of spare time at home, methodically organizing every inch of my studio apartment. It sounds dumb, but organizing my home, editing and curating my possessions, made me feel calm and controlled and productive and present.

The best piece of advice, I think, was so basic I might have read it in a fortune cookie. It comes at the end of the book, after you’ve six-step-folded all your t-shirts and given your socks a rest, and it applies to every single part of your life, forever: “Follow your intuition and all will be well.”

And even though I’ve donated a bunch of my books to Housing Works, I’ve held onto this one, because its pretty little sea-green cover still sparks a tiny bit of joy.

4

The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay, recommended by Harling Ross

What made you read it?

Sometimes I feel like self-help books are just another way to indulge our most acute anxieties, which is fun in the way that popping a pimple is fun. Navigating my twenties definitely gives me anxiety, so when my friend Virginia recommended this book to me about making the most of this weird decade of life, I read it immediately.

How did it help you?

It didn’t tell me how to live my life, but it was helpful in educating me on the actual science behind how and why I should make a point of trying to figure it out now instead of later.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

30 is not the new 20. There’s a big difference between having the life you want in your 30s and starting the life you want in your 30s. It’s okay to experiment in your 20s, but don’t confuse experimenting with waffling. Be intentional.

– As a twentysomething, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if you feel anxious about your performance at work. In fact, that kind of self-awareness actually means you’re probably on the right track. Jay writes, “Twentysomethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed.”

5

“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, recommended by Kiran Gandhi

What made you read it?

A friend of mine had watched my TEDxBrooklyn talk on Atomic Living and suggested I read “Flow” because it takes similar principles but pushes them further.

How did it help you?

The best thing that I learned from this book related a lot to how I have felt about drumming, or about training for the marathon. It reiterated something I have always felt but was never quite able to articulate. You see, my happiest moments are when I have visualized success, especially success that I feel is within reach, and then have been able to accomplish it. It can be anything from a talk, to a personal conversation, to a drum rhythm or adding miles each week to my marathon training. This is exactly how “Flow” defines happiness.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

– The fun is in the work, in pushing your own boundaries and succeeding

– Set small challenges that are within reason. When you achieve them, you feel joy and purpose, which allows you to keep advancing your craft in a meaningful way without giving up. When you set goals that are not within reason, you get discouraged and move on.

– Happiness is the unintended result of the dedication to a greater cause beyond oneself.

6

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, recommended by Krista Lewis

What made you read it?

My therapist recommended it (multiple times until I got it).

How did it help you?

It offered really wonderful meditation guides that I actually used, but it also helped me realize that everyone goes through heavy shit and is trying their best to cope with it. I felt like I had a new commitment to focusing on being happy by noticing how my perception affects my emotions.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

One of the quotes that stuck with me:

“For many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much–just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work–to make us feel that we are not okay. Beginning to understand how our lives have become ensnared in this trance of unworthiness is our first step toward reconnecting with who we really are and what it means to live fully.”

7

“The Corner Office” by Adam Bryant, recommended by Joanna Goddard

What made you read it?

For five years, I worked from home. (Meaning, I spent 22 hours a day on my stinking bed.) But, finally, my lifestyle site, Cup of Jo, grew big enough that I could hire another writer. I found a shared office space and slowly expanded my team. It was exciting but also a sharp learning curve — what was the best way to hire? What perks should I offer? How could I work up the nerve to give constructive feedback? One afternoon, I spotted “The Corner Office” at a bookstore and devoured it in one sitting.

How did it help you?

“The Corner Office” interviews dozens of CEOs — from Gilt Groupe and Bobbi Brown to General Motors and Harvard — about real-world leadership. I felt like I had mentors at my fingertips, and my copy is now dog-eared and coffee-stained.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

I’ve always been super hard on myself (too hard, probably, as I think many people are), but of course I wanted to be softer with my employees. In the chapter “Be a Coach, Not a Critic,” Tachi Yamada from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation explains how to elevate people rather than focus on their shortcomings:

“Everybody has their good points. Everybody has their bad points. If you can bring out the best in everybody, then you can have a great organization. If you bring out the worst in everybody, you’re going to have a bad organization.”

Now, I try to figure out where each employee really thrives and then assign her those things and help her win at them, versus trying to mold a person into a strict pre-existing job description. It’s a great reminder for regular life, too — to celebrate what you do well!

8

#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso, recommended by Emily Zirimis

What made you read it?

I had recently graduated college and was feeling pretty lost after going on a ton of job interviews and not securing a job. I felt like I needed an outlet and had also contemplated working for myself but didn’t know where to start. It felt like the perfect timing to read this book.

How did it help you?

Right after I read it, I felt super inspired and had that “I can conquer anything I put my mind to” mentality. I soon after started a collaborative blog with a friend of mine, which ended up having a short run, but the point is that it gave me the motivation to actually MAKE something that she and I had only dreamt of doing.

Pretend I’m not going to read it..what should I know?

– It’s a great read for aspiring entrepreneurs who are truly starting from the bottom.

– It serves as inspiration if you’re currently feeling bored or unfilled with your job

– Even if you have no intention of starting your own business or leaving your current job, there are some great motivational quotes in there about saving money (and how Sophia was able to save $1 million all on her own). Something that stuck with me: “Money looks better in the bank than on your feet.”

9

“My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” by Ruth Reichl, recommended by Mattie Kahn

What made you read it?

I love Ruth Reichl — writer, gourmand, former editor of Gourmet — so much I would pretty much read her to-do lists for pleasure. Her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone,” transformed the way I conceived of not only words, but food, too. Who knew both could be such a pleasure?

So when I heard she had written a cookbook about the food she ate to ease her back into the kitchen after Gourmet folded, I pre-ordered it immediately.

How did it help you?

I didn’t decide to buy it for self-help, exactly. I decided to get it because I am a devoted fan and because it included what looked like a superlative recipe for apricot pie, which is so underrated. But self-help is what “My Kitchen Year” delivered. The book reminded me that creation can be healing and that making and eating good food is itself an act of self-care. It showed me that between our kitchens and our medicine cabinets, we have at least most of the tools we need to be well.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

Early on in the book, Reichl writes that when she got the news that Gourmet would shutter, she whisked her forlorn staff over to her house.

“It was curiously comforting, spending the night together,” she writes. “The cooks cleaned out their kitchens, each contributing something to the feast.” She explains that she proffered a few little pots of chicken liver pâté. “I always make extra so I’ll have some in the freezer should an emergency arise,” she continues. “It had arisen.”

I do not have chicken liver pâté in the freezer, but I do try to keep a few little morsels of homemade brownies or pistachio ice cream around in case of my friends come over and need it. Life is hard. Food makes it better. In 136 recipes, Reichl will make her case and prove it: More even than a $10 green juice or a very telegenic order of avocado toast, the warm stuff you make for yourself and for the people you love is what will sustain you. I am a believer.

10

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön, also recommended by Krista

What made you read it?

A roommates’ constantly-meditating boyfriend gave it to me for my birthday one year in college. It took me a while to crack it open, but I finally did when the stress of graduation was getting to me.

How did it help you?

It gave great little exercises to ease me into meditating that I still pull out at my desk when I need a break but don’t have time for a walk.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

Focus on your breath! Feel your body!

Also, this quote kind of sums it up: “When something is bothering you — a person is bugging you, a situation is irritating you, or physical pain is troubling you — you must work with your mind, and that is done through meditation.”

11

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, also recommended by Emily

What made you read it?

I was on a self-help/”how I made it” biography book binge at the time and this was on the best sellers list. I read it in close proximity to “#GIRLBOSS.”

How did it help you?

It put a lot of things into perspective for me, like how my level of happiness can be determined by how much I procrastinate and put things off. And that if I just tackle those things, even slowly or one by one, it will ultimately lead to me being happier, or at least, less stressed. Since reading the book, I can’t say that I’ve stuck to it, but I always have it in the back of my mind.

Pretend I’m not going to read it…what should I know?

It’s the perfect book if…

– You have a never-ending to-do list that seems impossible to tackle.

– If you’re feeling unhappy and have no idea why.

Photographed and collaged by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • I highly HIGHLY recommend The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

    http://www.amazon.com/Creative-Habit-Learn-Use-Life/dp/0743235274/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1463761670&sr=8-1&keywords=Twyla+Tharp

    Also, Gretchen Rubin and her sister have a fun podcast

    • Amelia Diamond

      my mom always tells me to read that one!

      • Listen to your mom! I read it when I was working in a soul-crushing corporate job that was the opposite of my strengths. I had some creative talent and interests, but no clue how to build a creative career and life

    • Aprildredden4

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  • I loved #GIRLBOSS so much and now I’m interested in The happiness project, will definitely give it a try! 🙂

    xx, Matea
    http://www.smilesnapsparkle.com

  • Leandra Medine

    APPARENTLY, my book rec got lost in the mailOR SOMETHING — i mean, you go to london for 4 days and poof! no one even remembers you exist. but my pick is: how to win friends and influence people.

    what made me read it: people are always talking about books changing their lives and i have never bought it because it’s a bullshit thing to say if it’s not true and it often is not true so rarely holds much gravity but this book came highly recommended from my career coach, who i trust implicitly and guess what? it did actually change my life! at least elements of it. the way i think, the way i approach people, the way i confront problems and myself.

    it helped me by teaching me exactly why being genuinely interested in other people is so important. you can’t fake genuineness, so this need not be taken lightly. what i found is that being self centered is really boring and detracts from your sense of worth in the world. you can self centered in two directions: either constantly hype yourself up, or just as regularly talk yourself down. both are lethal of the evolution process and takinginterest in other people and their well being and seeing them flourish/prosper is really satisfying in a way that’s just not when it’s yourself.

    if you weren’t going to read it, here’s what i think you should know: “be lavish in your praise and hearty in your approbation” – criticism doesn’t work it puts the person being scrutinized on the defense and limits their reception to accepting feedback. praise always but also, be kind about when something is done wrong.

    • Alessandra

      Read this book a few years ago, recommended by my dad. Really helps you rethink how you interact with others. Like when someone feigns interest but can’t look you in the eye – somehow that’s become normal. This book seeks to change it.

  • Excuse me while I put all of these on my to-read list. I’m going to be SO POWERFUL, HAPPY, AND ORGANIZED!

  • Adardame

    This post made me get up and do some things.

  • Kelly

    I’m taking notes. I’m about to graduate and it’ll be good to read some of these to ease me through the transition of student to boss woman.

  • Love these reviews. Thanks for all the recommendations 🙂

  • Fashionlessons

    I love this book lists, specially about self help. Recently Robin Sharma said in a podcast ” You become your conversations,and reading a book is having a conversation with the author” I loved it…. My recommendation on self help books should be “The One Thing” by Gary Keller Im actually on it, and I hope it gets me to be better at what I do every day. Love the Manr Repeller tem. xox from Colombia

  • Aggie

    This article is a self-help gem! I love Gretchen Rubin’s book and always have in the back of my mind ‘Tackle a nagging task off your to-do list’ which motivates me to do so and also ‘It’s easy to be heavy but hard to be light’ which makes me stop complaining right away and try to focus on saying positive things if saying anything at all.

  • Sam

    Ooh I see a few on this list that are on mine as well! Also I love how many book recommendations are in the comments! It warms the heart of a disgruntled former bookstore employee. 🙂

    And for anyone who hasn’t read Brené Brown, I cannot recommend Daring Greatly and Rising Strong highly enough. Her work pulled back the proverbial curtain for me on a lot of difficult feelings and insecurities that we all struggle with: being vulnerable, feeling shame or guilt, perfectionism, etc.