20 Incredible Self Development Books

There’s barely a week goes by without somebody asking me for advice on what self development books to read.

Rather than keep telling people I thought it would be easier if I put all the books I consider have been the most important to me in my journey from wannabe Life Coach back in 2004 to now.

That way, you can decide which are suitable for you.

You will notice that not many are on coaching per se and that’s for two reasons.

Firstly, I really haven’t read that many great books on coaching.

More importantly though, I believe as coaches that we need a broad base of knowledge to succeed and help us become as adaptable as possible.

Too many coaches gain coaching knowledge, but ignore the field of psychology because they think they are overstepping the mark.

Well, if that is the case I’ve overstepped the mark scores of times because I freakin’ love reading books on what makes us tick.

So here goes. All the books are in random order and I’d love your suggestions in the comments.

1. Making Habits, Breaking Habits by Jeremy Dean

British psychologist Dean runs the highly popular PsyBlog where he takes a scientific look at all things related to psychology and how the brain works.

There are a lot of reasons to love ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits’, not least of which he explodes the self development urban myth that habits take a predetermined amount of time to implement.

Of course they don’t, it depends on so many factors.

Although he did reveal that the average time is 66-days, which is worth pondering on when you think you can build a gym habit in 28-days after reading it in ‘7 Habits’.

He also goes on to explode others myths, my favorite of which is the one that worrying serves no purposes.

I have to confess to believing this after hearing a talk by Wayne Dyer a decade or so ago.

There are a group of people such called ‘defensive pessimists’ who actually perform better at work than other people.

Their worrying them allows to foresee and thus deal with setbacks more easily than people who are constantly thinking happy thoughts.

Makes sense when you think about it.

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2. The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay-Stanier

When I got asked to review this book last year I was reluctant. Do you know what persuaded me to agree?

It was fairly short.

I know, I know, I’m that shallow.

I didn’t even enjoy the start as it seemed too slanted toward management and business than coaching per se.

Boy am I glad I stuck with it. It’s a killer of a book for new, and even established coaches.

Bungay-Stanier offers up some killer questions, one of which had me cursing that it wasn’t in the PDF on question asking that we give to course attendees. It is now!

I confess I can tend to slip into small talk at the beginning of coaching calls and this book is the antithesis of that.

Bungay-Stanier believes that you can coach people in ten minutes or under if you cut to the chase. And he’s right.

His question to kick of coaching calls of, ‘What’s on your mind?’ is both simple and very powerful at getting straight to the heart of the matter.

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3. Your Brain At Work by David Rock

An absolute classic and a book that has never strayed from my top 3 of all time since I first read it and then listened to it – yes I did buy the hardcopy and the audio version.

David Rock isn’t a neuroscientist, but he takes cutting edge research from that industry and distills it to help us understand not just how our brain works, but more importantly, how we can apply that information in real life.

It won’t just help you understand how your brain works, but why it sometimes doesn’t work as well as expected and what it’s limitations are.

And of course if you know that about yourself, it also helps you understand your coaching clients better too.

If you aren’t convinced about reframing or think you can multi-task better than the average bear, this book may have a few surprises for you.

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4. The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Shwartz

I read this book just as I was getting into coaching, but a revisit a couple of years ago demonstrated it’s still as relevant now as it was when it published in 2003.

It’s the first book ever written (that I know of anyway) that transfers techniques developed by the authors to help athletes perform at a top-class level, to the world of business and self development.

Loehr and Swartz suggest that you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

As such you need to get all aspects of your life right i.e. spiritual, mental, emotional and physical if you want to excel.

They talk about the need for proper nutrition, exercise and disengagement from work that includes family and social time.

In short they take an holistic approach they know works with world-class athletes and reason it will be helpful to everybody.

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5. Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hansen

Quite simply an amazing book for anybody who wants the science and research (rather than the woo-woo) behind why meditation is so incredibly effective at lowering stress, improving happiness and contentment and improving both physical and mental health.

Hansen is a neuroscientist by trade, but he’s also a Buddhist and a meditation teacher and he does a delightful job of marrying the two topics.

10 years ago I never mentioned meditation to clients, now I almost never fail to mention it and it’s even included on my client intake forms – that’s the importance I give it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, you do not need to don a saffron robe, shave your head or even have any interest in Buddhism whatsoever to benefit from this book.

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6. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

You’ve probably heard of the expression “neurons that fire together, wire together”

Doidge didn’t invent it, but he sure did popularize if with this fascinating look at neuroplasticity.

The part that jumped out as me was the research that suggests there seems to be no real reason (drug and alcohol abuse notwithstanding) for the brain to deteriorate like it does in most people.

The predominant cause of degeneration is through the lack of the right kind of stimulation, and not because of how old somebody is.

This book will be great if you ever bristle at people that claim others cannot change and use phrases like, “A leopard never changes its spots”.

‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ gives you the scientific proof as to why it’s yet another urban myth.

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7. Co-Active Coaching by Kimsey-House, Sandahl, Whitworth

Probably the seminal book on Life Coaching that spurned an entire industry.

Pretty much every Life Coach training company worth its salt teaches at least some elements of Co-Active Coaching.


Because it has been scientifically proven to be the best modality for helping elicit permanent beneficial change with clients.

I have one beef with the book and one with the concept.

Whereas the book is fantastic at explaining the basics of this type of coaching, the scripts of examples of coaches working with clients are pretty lame.

The reason is, every script suggests an ideal scenario where you say ‘this’ and your client will automatically say ‘that’.

Real world coaching is seldom like that so the book doesn’t help the reader with tricky clients or when things frequently go off script.

The second part is that in my mind Co-Active Coaching is by some way the best modality, but it’s not the only one and it doesn’t always work.

Which is why we teach other approaches on the Coach the Life Coach course.

They are minor quibbles though and I recommend this book to anybody serious about coaching.

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8. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

I have to confess I have a man crush on psychologist and Harvard Lecturer, Kelly McGonigal.

She’s a humanitarian, pet lover (and rescue helper) and passionate advocate of meditation and compassion.

Not only that, but I loved her TED talk, and I was thrilled to get to interview her.

If I didn’t just want to limit this list down to one book per person I could have easily included ‘The Upside of Stress’ too because it was equally excellent.

What can I say about ‘The Willpower Instinct’ other than just buy the damn thing and if you think it sucks I’ll refund you the money?

McGonigal explains why avoidance tactic don’t work and how we can use glucose to fight our urges (presuming sugar isn’t the urge!).

She goes on to articulate why being good now can increase the possibility of being bad later and why we crave things that seldom, if ever, deliver to the extent we expect them to.

She explains clearly, and in easy to understand terms, what is going on in your brain when you feel your willpower waning.

And more importantly, what you can do about it.

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9. Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

Positive affirmations and positive thinking are not always as helpful as some people in our industry would have you believe.’

If you’re being chased by a very hungry bear and you have an angry live salmon wriggling around in underwear, thinking affirmations and telling yourself not to worry because everything will be ok, probably wont help (not you or the salmon anyway, the bear will be fine with it).

Being optimistic that you have the power to change things however, would encourage you to look for solutions.

Hopefully, in no time at all you’ll have either tossed out the fish or eaten it and died from mercury poisoning – just much more slowly than from the bear.

It’s serious science that the father of positive psychology Seligman presents and leaning on cognitive behavioral therapy research to explain how we can make changes.

The remarkable conclusions about the benefits of thinking optimistically are readily accepted wisdom now and include, better health, better prospects for success at work and a longer life span. Pretty cool, eh?

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10. Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I only got round to listening to the unabridged audio book recently after having it recommended by a client.

Kahneman is a giant in the fields of behavioral economics and the psychology of decision making and this book demonstrates why.

If you want to understand more about cognitive biases, flaws in your clients thinking (and your own too) and why we so often jump to erroneous conclusions convinced we are right, then buy this book.

I love the way the author admits to how many times he’s screwed up by not recognizing his now cognitive biases and that he was using heuristics (short cuts in thinking) rather than rational analysis.

Cognitive biases can catch people out who research the topic, nobody is immune.

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11. The Life Coaching Handbook by Curly Martin

This was the first book I ever read on Life Coaching and I liked it enough to sign up to train with Curly Martin’s course.

It’s really aimed at total newbies and it is a bit UK centric, so some of the advice may be redundant to people outside the EU.

Having said that it’s a cool introduction to Life Coaching and if I’d never picked it up back when there were real bookstores I probably wouldn’t be typing this post now.

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12. Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Possibly one of the greatest books written in modern times.

Frankl spent time in 4 different Nazi concentration camps during WWII and lost all his family in the Holocaust.

Frankl escaped the gas chambers because his captors put his medical background to use.

During his time he observed that the prisoners who survived weren’t those who were trying to think positively about the war coming to an end, but those who focussed on the meaning in their lives.

He himself was determined to get through it so he could not only tell his story, but also carry on his research into logotherapy using the findings he’d collected.

When I was researching this post I came across a blog that claimed not only did the Holocaust never happen, but that Frankl made up this entire book.

Where would you put that on a scale of 0 to straight jacket?

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structure of magic

13. The Structure Of Magic Vol 1 by John Grinder and Richard Bandler

This is probably going to be required reading on the next Coach the life Coach course.

The first book ever written on the topic of NLP introducing the Meta Model of language, and it’s a masterpiece.

It’s a bit boring to be honest, but worry not because it’s not that long and the value is immense.

If you want to understand, or more to the point not misunderstand, the language your clients use, then this is the book for you.

We all have a tendency to delete, distort and generalize information. We have to do this to stop us going nuts by analyzing everything to death.

But it also has its drawbacks when we presume we know what people mean, when we often do not.

Suppose you have a client who is having issues with her husband being unfaithful and kicks off a new session by saying, “He makes me so angry, he’s done it again and everybody knows he’s an asshole of biblical proportions”

You’d probably conclude the swine has been up to his old tricks.

But how do you know she meant that?

She hasn’t told you who the person is or what he did. And who does she mean by everybody?

I bet your mom didn’t know that, so it’s patently not true.

Sounds complicated? It really isn’t.

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14. The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb

This book kicks off by the assertion that nobody has a broken brain, just a brain that isn’t internally communicating with itself as well as it could.

This is crucially important because too many people with depression think there is nothing they can do about it.

And if they think there’s nothing can be done about their depression, then that is exactly what they do, nothing.

Korb is a neuroscientist as well as a coach, so he can make statements like that with credibility

The basic tenet of the book is that there is no one cure for depression and anxiety but a number of individual things a person can do that then exceed the whole and promote mental health. This is where the title ‘The Upward Spiral’ comes from.

A great many people find it easy to slip into a downward spiral, but harder to start an upward spiral.

But what if we could go the opposite way and start an upward spiral of one positive event leading to our brain looking for more and more until we’re happy just because we’re happy, wouldn’t that be cool?

Well fortunately for you, that is exactly what this book will help you do and you can then help your clients.

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15. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Gilbert takes a look at how the brain works for us and sometimes against us.

The twist is that he presents the information in such a manner that anybody can understand it.

Not only that, but he had me laughing out loud on several occasions and smiling almost throughout.

The book has a downside though. It will make you realize that you really aren’t that unique.

Well of course you’re unique, but you don’t really think that uniquely.

You think you do, so that’s the bit that might niggle you when you finally have to accept that your brain does a great job of fooling you for much of the time.

You’ll learn why it’s almost impossible to predict how you’ll feel about things in the future, hence the reasons why we make so many bad choices.

Why money has almost zero effect on your happiness levels and why it’s literally impossible to know how happy somebody else is, even if they tell you!

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16. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Some people miss the fact that this book can really help with personal development.

It’s the best book I have ever read on rapid cognition.

If you want to understand the power of your unconscious mind and why you should trust it more often, ‘Blink’ is your answer.

One of my favorite stories was that of a Fire Chief who stormed into a burning building with his crew.

All of a sudden he yelled for everybody to get out, not knowing why he did it consciously.

The floor then collapsed and he saved their lives.

The Chief thought he had ESP, but when everything was slowed down and dissected after what had really happened was his training had allowed him to pick up on several clues that there were actually two fires with one being below them.

A few people panned it on release saying it encourages people to be lazy with how they think and not bother to analyze stuff.

I want to say they’re idiots that have missed the whole premise of the book, but no Life Coach would ever say such a thing and they are entitled to their opinion.

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17. How To Be Brilliant by Michael Heppell

I couldn’t have such a list without including the book that finally made me realize, ‘Yes, I can do this shit!”

This was one of the first audio books I bought on CD way before I became a coach, so to be fair I never read the book itself.

I had the live version of Mr Heppell delivering the book to an audience and it cracked me up several times.

It’s a mixture of solid business advice, motivational snippets and a lot of humor with a great North East accent that you Americans will die for. Even Brits love a Geordie accent!

If you want to know why you need to take action to clear your garden of weeds and what FEAR really stands for – you maybe thinking, false evidence appearing real, but I prefer the other explanation – then this will help you out.

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18. The 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

This book straddles the spiritual/self development divide beautifully.

It’s chock full of ancient Toltec wisdom and if you can adopt the message and live by it, you’re life will improve exponentially and so will your clients

Just in case you’re wondering what the 4 Agreements are, I’m sure I it won’t spoil an awesome book to know they are:

Be impeccable with your word (including don’t gossip)

Don’t take anything personally (need I say more? Nothing is ever personal unless you allow it to be – it’s always the interpretation we give things that make them personal).

Don’t make assumptions (that guys an asshole for driving like that in traffic – Oh what’s that you say, his dad’s dying and in the ambulance he’s following? And by the way, I was that driver following an ambulance after my dad had a stroke and I was called an asshole)

Always do your best (your best will vary from day to day so don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t always attain the same standards – and that goes for coaching. Some days you’ll nail it, some you won’t – that’s just life)

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19. Awaken The Giant Within by Tony Robbins

Robbins is the easiest figure in the personal development field to poke fun at.

After all, he’s about 13 feet tall, is outrageously intense, appears to be getting younger year by year and has the shiniest teeth in Christendom.

He also took NLP techniques largely developed by Bandler and Grinder, repackaged them, re-named them in some cases and then delivered them to the masses as his own material under the umbrella of ‘Neuro-Associative Conditioning’.

To be fair, I like Robbins, and to the best of my knowledge he ever explicitly claimed credit.

I’m not even sure he meant to mislead anybody, but he sure pissed off a lot of the NLP community nonetheless.

Awaken The Giant Within introduces some very powerful NLP ideas that are relatively easy to employ and can be life changing.

Andthe story about how Mr Honda started Honda Automobiles is worth getting the book for alone.

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20. Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson

There is an NLP Presupposition that says ‘The Map is not the Territory’

This book could have been quite easily and accurately, called that.

Wilson was a maverick and a quite brilliant thinker, of that there is no doubt.

Prometheus Rising gets a bit weird in places and his humor is somewhat off the wall.

However, there is a very important message pertaining to what we believe reality is, and probably more importantly, what we believe it isn’t.

The paradox with this book is close-minded my way or the highway types are the people that would get most out of it, but they are the least likely to read it.

Or if they do read it they’ll just dismiss Wilson as some pot smoking, liberal intellectual, which is of course is exactly what he was.

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What Are Your favorite Self Development Books?

Come on spill the beans, I’ve shared mine, let’s hear yours in the comment section below.