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Ten personal development books for book club

Inspired by episode #103, in which we interviewed the What You Will Learn podcast boys, I’ve put together a list of books falling vaguely into the personal-development realm for book club discussion. Some we’ve covered for book club on the pod, some are things I’ve read think would be good. Try them out and let us know. (– Kate)

Ten personal development books for book club (in no particular order)

1. Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This is a long read and arguably dips a bit in the middle, but so much of the content is electrifying and made for fantastic discussion when my book club read it a few years back. Essentially it was farming that undid us as a species, if we’d never settled down and started cultivating wheat we might all have been a lot happier. Other writers have tackled similar ideas (Jared Dimond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is an obvious parallel) but Harari turns out to be a lyrical writer with an enjoyably philosophical style. Having a sense of our history as a species might well help you make a few day-to-day decisions, and certainly provides more than enough fodder for a brilliant book club debate.

Humankind book cover

2. Humankind by Rutger Bregman.

Dutch author Rutger Bregman is such an interesting man. His internet moment of fame came when he went to Davos to harangue the billionaires about not paying their taxes. In Humankind he contests the idea that once you strip away the veneer of civilization human beings devolve into survival-of-the-fittest mode. In fact evidence shows that in extremis humans tend to behave rather well, queuing up in an orderly fashion to escape the sinking Titanic, for example. He cites William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies as a key text that imprints this negative idea of humanity on all those who read it, and yet in fact in real life when a group of boys were stranded on a desert island they co-operated and shared resources in such a way that they all survived. Humankind is a heartening read that invites discussion and debate. Even if Bregman doesn’t convince you, you’ll probably feel better about the world after reading it.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

3. Becoming by Michelle Obama.

I listened to this one on audio, read by Obama herself, and although it took me a few weeks I absolutely loved the experience of hearing her tell her story. She spends much of the book on her childhood and formative years, and a part of me was impatient for her to get to the White House. When she did, though, I understood the importance of all that background in understanding her perspective on the position she found herself in, and how she chose to use her time there. A remarkable read falling under personal development books in that it makes you want to rush out and do something meaningful with your life, and one that actually shows you the way as she leads by example. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Laura loved it, too – we discussed it on episode 58.

Why We Sleep Matthew Walker

4. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

As recently as thirty years ago scientists had no-idea why we spend so much of our time asleep and it’s only in the past few years that significant advances have been made in trying to work out what goes on when we do. Why We Sleep is a fascinating and deeply relevant read that felt completely revelatory to my book club when we discussed it. One of the interesting ideas is that when we’re sleeping we’re not in fact resting – our brain is working harder than ever to process our waking hours – so it’s wrong to think of it as a waste of time. We talked about the book on episode 38. Listen in and find out why it’s worth your while to prioritise getting a good seven to nine hours every night. Turns out you can achieve personal development while lying horizontal in bed! (Don’t read it if you’re someone who has trouble sleeping though, it’ll just give you new things to worry about.)

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, a great personal development book

5. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Japanese tidying sensation Marie Kondo with the book that made her a global sensation. When I first read it the premise seemed laughably simple. And yet, it turns out to be surprisingly hard to execute. Also are you someone who can live with having to keep your washing-up liquid in a cupboard? Essentially the big idea is that you tidy your stuff by category, piling all the clothes you have in the house, for example, into one huge pile on the bed, then sorting, discarding or saving to put away. In order to know if you should keep something or not you must hold it in your hands and ask yourself if it ‘sparks joy’. If you can follow it through you’ll have a tidy house full of things you love that you can immediately put your hands on when you need them. Despite admiring the principles I have never yet managed to execute the Kondo method in my house as I’m continually thwarted by the other people who live here. Girl can dream, though. Personal development book-expert Adam Jones of the What You Will Learn podcast is also a fan.

the book you wish your parents had read Philippa Perry, personal development through better parenting

6. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry

For parents, and for anyone interested in cultivating better human relationships. There’s so much wisdom packed into this book, and it would be an excellent one to discuss. I’d also recommend the audiobook, which is read by Perry herself. If you bump into her in the street don’t tell her how delighted you are with how well her strategies ‘work’. I’ve made that mistake for you – listen in to episode 46 for the story.

the course of love alain de botton, personal development in the fine art of sulking

7. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is a divisive figure, irritating many with his privileged carping on about the wisdom of the ancients and how we should all make more effort to lead better, wiser lives. He even founded The School of Life to teach those who can afford the courses how to live better. I confess to being a huge fan – I’ve read nearly all his books and enjoyed them enormously. The Course of Love is a departure for him from his usual non-fiction. It tells the story of a couple and the emotional ups and downs as the romantic love of their courtship gives way to the less exciting but more enduring love of a long-term relationship. In between italicised text provides a commentary on the story in much the way a marriage-guidance counsellor might intervene. My favourite bit of this book is the masterclass on sulking, where I think de Botton really comes into his own. There’s much to enjoy here, though, and discuss and debate so for me it’s a good one for book club.

Pleasures and Sorrows of Work Alain de Botton for personal development books list

8. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

An Alain de Botton book enjoyably read and discussed by my book club in the pre-podcast years. It’s my favourite of all his books, thoughtful but also hilarious. He interns at a thinly disguised Ernst and Young, to the bafflement of the various executives he meets there, and explores the world of biscuit manufacturing with a stint at United Biscuits. The story that has stayed with me, though, is the man who has spent his life painting and repainting images of a single tree. Much like Matthew Walker’s book on sleep (see no. 4, above), work is something we all spend most of our time doing, and for me, de Botton is the perfect guide to consider it with.

how to Live Sarah Bakewell

9. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell

I didn’t know much about Renaissance nobleman Michel de Montaigne before reading this hugely enjoyable book by Sarah Bakewell, and immediately became a lifelong fan. Bakewell explores the philosophical ideas which made Montaigne famous but weaves in a personal development angle in the way that the book is structured through a series of life lessons. It’s a wonderful read, a brilliant introduction to this philosopher and one of those books that makes you feel like a better, wiser person once you’ve read it. I love this one for book club – mine enjoyed it hugely when we read it.

The Undoing Project

10. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

I hesitated between this and Moneyball by Lewis, which I also adore (in fact, I’ve never read a Michael Lewis book I didn’t love) but I found The Undoing Project the more remarkable read. It’s a biography of two men who together did much to advance the science of behavioural economics, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The personal development angle comes through their work understanding our ability to make decisions. It’s also a story of a working partnership and a friendship, a distillation of a lot of complex academic theory and also a history of their home country, Israel. Jennifer Senior of The New York Times wrote that “At its peak, the book combines intellectual rigor with complex portraiture. During its final pages, I was blinking back tears, hardly your typical reaction to a book about a pair of academic psychologists.’ I agree. You might then go on to read Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman, although be warned it’s a lot harder going without Michael Lewis leading you through it.


The Sh*t They Never Taught You A final word on the book that inspired this list, in which podcasters Adam Ashton and Adam Jones distill the lessons they’ve learned from over 115 books and thousands of hours of reading and podcasting. Much like their show, the book doesn’t waste your time, giving you a quick overview of key ideas and providing lots of inspiration if you want to go on to seek out the books that were the catalyst. Listen in to our episode #102 for more, and check out their podcast, What You Will Learn.

How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop. I’m a huge Viv Groskop fan and her weekly newsletter is one of my favourite things in my inbox. Because I’m usually busy making ours I don’t get that much podcast listening time, so I’ve only dipped in to a few episodes of her show, but I haven’t yet listened to one I didn’t love.

I can’t leave out one last listen, which is By the Book, one of my favourite podcasts, in which podcasters Jolenta Greenberg and Kristin Meinzer attempt to live for two weeks according to the guidance of a self-help book. They put the ideas into practice using themselves as guinea-pigs, with often hilarious results. As well as being entertaining the show also gives you a very effective guide to the essence of the books they cover. Try this one on the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and see how they get on.

Over to you

What are your favourite self-help books? What’s something you’ve learned that has really stuck with you? Comment below and let us know.










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