“We are what we repeatedly do,” said Aristotle some 2500 years ago, “meaning that excellence is not an act but a habit.” Throughout the centuries, people have turned to inspiring sources whenever they have found that their motivation is not as sharp as they would like it to be. In the modern era, personal improvement has become an industry, making countless billions of dollars per year by hawking everything from diet pills to love life advice to prescription drugs that improve memory. The quest for self-improvement has not changed much since Aristotle’s time, however, and some of the best advice remains written down by those who have achieved the mental clarity needed to succeed in many facets of life. Here are some of the best personal improvement books on the market today.
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Taking its title from Sun Tzu’s classic work, historical novelist Steven Pressfield’s War of Art provides a fantastic philosophical foundation from which to derive improvement. The title of the book may lead you to believe it is only useful for painters or poets, but don’t be fooled; the entire ethic of the book focuses on the creative process and the distractions that keep us from our greatest ambitions. Pressfield recounts his own struggles to write a novel, famously having to live in a roadside shed for weeks on end, cut off from the wider world, until he had hammered out the manuscript that began his career as a writer. He offers tips that are both practical and prosaic; recommending on one page that you create a studio or office specifically for hard work, and reflecting on the next page about the Japanese customs of removing shoes and bowing before entering this space to develop moral clarity. Pressfield’s text is not a how-to of improving your career, your business, or indeed even your writing. Instead, it is the process of creating a frame of mind such that your unique talents may be better expressed to create something beautiful.
Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
Talk to most people about their ambitions in life and you’ll often hear a similar response: to grow wealthy and successful, to have enough money in the bank that you can pursue what you want when you want, to escape the omnipresent human concern about dollars and cents. The pursuit of profit has driven thinkers and doers for all of human history and there is no shame to admit that desire for money is just as great or worthy a motivation as desire for love or status or belonging. If your life’s ambitions are tied directly to your bank account, there is no better source guide than Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. This book was originally published in 1937 but its core lessons are universal across space and time: the importance of failure on the road to success, the importance of a dream that you value above all else, the importance of mentorship by those who have walked the path, and the importance of a vision that you follow even if others believe it to be folly. Hill’s book never directly lays out a “central secret” or “one easy task,” instead following the footsteps of those who have become rich, and letting the reader come to their own conclusions about what they must do in their own life to go down this path.
Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees
There are only a handful of industries where it is harder to make it big than in professional creative writing. Copywriters and tech writers the world has aplenty, but far fewer are successful poets and novelists, and even fewer still are those who are skilled, driven, and lucky enough to make this a lucrative career. To pursue a career as a professional writer is to face rejection after rejection, dead end after dead end, and shattered hope after shattered hope. Betsy Lerner knows this well; she is one of the most accomplished editors in the world, with decades of experience in book publishing. Her work The Forest for the Trees is not a guidebook for writing the next Da Vinci Code, but instead a deep look at the motivations that drive writers on their career arc from the blank page to success – even if that success is far short of New York Times bestsellers, ten-book contracts, and royalties from film adaptations. Her advice is quite simple and quite blunt: figure out your strengths and your weaknesses, figure out how to write better each day, and figure out how you can be happy with a career that has long odds and zero guarantees.
Lucy Bellwood, 100 Demon Dialogues
All of us are our own worst enemies, forever anchored to doubt, frustration, fear, and anger by that voice in our head which only ever tells us one word, over and over again, in a thousand different variants: “No.” To overcome this voice is the goal of monks and philosophers alike, and if any one of them in all of human history have successfully done so, then theirs is an achievement on par with any Einstein or Gandhi or Washington or Mozart. Lucy Bellwood hasn’t conquered this voice in her head, which she calls a demon dialogue, but instead she has presented them for the world in a series of cartoons called 100 Demon Dialogues. Here are her fears laid bare to the world, fears of inadequacy and complacency, fears of imposter syndrome and existential dread, fears that drive some people to greater effort and some people to a nervous breakdown. 100 Demon Dialogues provides some small comfort on its pages, teaching us how to overcome our own demons as they voice doubts into a place no other human can reach.
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Some of the most powerful lessons in life come not from real-world experiences but from the vivid stories we tell one another. The best stories are those with a simple narrative and theme; the Greek legend of King Midas gives a more salient understanding about the pursuit of greed than the life stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk. Spanish writer Paulo Coelho has a particular talent in cutting to the quick of the human experience, which is why his best-selling novel The Alchemist can be found in just about every bookstore in the world. A simple but engaging life story of a shepherd boy on a fantastical quest, The Alchemist reminds us of the importance of staying true to ourselves as we encounter new people, new places, new opportunities, and new challenges. It is rare to find a book that is about a theme instead of a plot, and rarer still for the book to be so straightforward, practical, and compelling that a schoolchild can finish it in a day. The Alchemist contains perhaps the most important advice on the quest for improvement: remember that neither success nor failure defines who you are.
Conclusion: Excellence and Habits
Aristotle never published a self-help book, but his advice remains true to form as it echoes through the centuries. The pursuit of excellence is never ending, a journey rather than a destination, and by far the most challenging task a person can possibly undertake. For those who want to see their life change, the books on this list offer a starting point, a guide, and a much-needed morale boost. To read them and take that first step towards achievement is to create that habit of excellence and separate yourself from all those who only dream of success.