The best lessons I’ve learned from reading self-help books

I love books.

I love to read, so I make a point of reading quite a lot, at least compared to some. It’s not something I started deliberately. I didn’t sit down and say, “I know — a year from today, I’ll have read more than thirty books…” Believe me — it’s a hassle. I’m quickly running out of drawer, cupboard, and bookshelf space. My house is a struggle for territory between two warring clans — the DVDs and the Paperbacks — which threatens to spiral out of control any day. Negotiations have broken down over the occupancy of the computer desk and the surrounding shelf territories.

Yet, while it’s no picnic storing them, there are certain advantages to reading a lot of books. As psycho-neurologist Dr. Susie Mitchell recently said to me during a workshop: listening to a radio program, YouTube video, audio-book or any other coaching material is a prompt nudging you subliminally toward positive action. Having read many books over the year, the cumulative effect is certainly positive. Whilst the topics have differed wildly — from self-help to sci-fi; from autobiography to ancient history — the more books you read, paradoxically the more similar they all begin to sound.

Having read this many books so far, I thought I’d spare you the trouble of seeking them out yourself by collecting some of their most compelling and consistent lessons. Each was first introduced to me by one author or another, but over time I’ve noticed the same themes appearing. It’s some of these recurring messages I’ve tried to summarise here.

The first lesson is that if you want to succeed at anything, you have to focus on you first before acting on your surroundings. For years the world at large assumed the way to happiness was to change your environment; if you were successful, it would follow that you’d become happy. It now seems this is not the case. What does this mean? For most of our young and adult lives, we hear the same message over and over: if first you become successful, then you’ll be happy. Only problem is, every time we think we’re getting close to this goal, it moves further away: if you can just nail that dream job; if you can just reach that salary band; if you can just hit that milestone, then you’ll be happy.

In his book The Happiness Advantage, Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor argues this conventional wisdom is backwards. In fact, happiness breeds success — success does not always breed happiness. If we spend our whole lives focused on our future goals, we stop paying attention to now. When this occurs, we court disaster. This comes in many forms: fatigue; depression; even just a nagging sense of unhappiness.

Research is emerging which, along with Achor, argues the way to be successful in your career is to change your outlook, and make changes that will make you happier right now. What sort of changes? Achor offers many suggestions. One of these is writing frequent ‘thank you’ letters to family and friends. This simple act encourages us to feel gratitude for good things in our lives. Gratitude strengthens appreciation for what we have, which leads to happiness. By including others the action is doubly effective, because it also encourages them to experience gratitude — leading to a happiness ‘feedback loop’. Achor also suggests visualising how your circumstances could be worse than they are; again, this shifts your perspective toward positive thoughts. Other effective actions include exercise and meditation. These activities will all lead to a happiness boost, leading to an increase in your performance, which will ultimately lead to greater success.

The second thing I’ve learned through reading, is that there is such a thing as deep and shallow work. Not only that, but deep work is far more effective in the long-term. In his book Deep Work, professor Cal Newport makes the distinction between these. Shallow work is any task that can be done quickly and does not require concerted mental effort. Examples include surfing the web; reading email; social media and collating reports. They can be performed with many interruptions because they aren’t difficult and don’t require problem-solving skills. Contrast this with deep work, which requires concentration and effort. Deep work can barely be performed at all — let alone well — if the doer is frequently interrupted, or if they are crowded or uncomfortable. Examples include computer programming and essay writing. People engaged in deep work will often lose track of time, missing meetings or meals. This shows that they’ve moved into a state of deep concentration, or ’flow’, as it has been referred to by psychologists.

On the face of it, deep work certainly seems more difficult to accomplish than shallow. And yet, Newport argues, it is deep work that will really help us achieve our personal and career goals. Unlike shallow work which can by and large be accomplished by anyone, deep work is personal and significant. It is while performing deep work that we can accomplish the sort of tasks that really move the needle for us. Doing deep work is when we really start to add value; in our jobs and in our lives.

Thanks to open plan offices, frequent meetings, and frequent ‘one to ones’, Newport argues our collective ability to do deep work is deteriorating. For people who depend upon the ability to summon a flow state, like programmers and writers, such disruptions can be particularly destructive. In his essay entitled “Maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule”, Paul Graham says: “For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.” If we really want to succeed and thrive in our careers, argues Newport, we each need to cultivate our ability to move into a state of focus and concentration, and to produce deep work accordingly. Unlike us, Newport says, most of our peers have not learned to value and cultivate this higher form of working performance; if we can, we will be uniquely qualified for most jobs and will stand head and shoulders above the majority of our peers.

Thirdly, through my reading I have come to believe that every single person has a unique speciality, and it is their destiny to discover and develop it. I arrived at this conclusion after reading Mastery, by Robert Greene. In his book, Greene argues that each person is entirely unique. Every one of us, genetically speaking, has never existed anywhere before, nor will ever exist again. Because of this, it’s easy to believe we each have a set of skills and specialities that we can do better and more uniquely than anyone else.

Not only do we possess these skills, says Greene, but we also each have within us the potential to perform them better than anyone else who has ever lived. Greene refers to this speciality as a person’s “life’s task”, and in Mastery he explains that each of us possesses the potential to develop such a task. What’s even more encouraging is that according to Greene this “life’s task” doesn’t have be determined for us by anyone else. He says in our childhood and at various points in our lives, we feel certain sensations and impulses when we perform certain activities. We may not know it, but this may be our instincts trying to help us rediscover our “life’s task”. Was there a skill or activity that you couldn’t stop doing as a child? Something you felt drawn to, or something that felt good or reassuring in a way that couldn’t be described? Albert Einstein, for instance, was fascinated by the first compass he was ever given at the age of five: he couldn’t stop staring at the roaming needle, and the fascination he felt with his world’s unseen forces would shape his entire career. Alternatively, some people don’t discover their life’s task until much later in life; or, rather than being drawn to a particular activity, they realise over time they have gravitated toward it.

Crucially, Greene says, it is never too late to discover your life’s task; or to begin developing your mastery towards it. Once you have an idea about what you want to do, it is your duty to yourself and to society to do everything in your power to bring forth that skill through your unique talents. Anyone can do this, Greene argues, by following a life-long process to pass through the sequential stages of apprentice, practitioner, and finally, master. This process isn’t easy, if the careers of historical or contemporary masters are to serve as examples. In fact, Greene argues that the reason there are relatively so few masters so far in history is because so many of us fail to discover and cultivate our life’s task. But it is never too late.

Each of these lessons has profoundly changed the way I think about my work, and indeed my life. But there is one final piece of advice I have learned through my reading that I believe is most important of all: we mustn’t judge ourselves too harshly if we come up short. Self-compassion, psychologists say, is one of the most crucial skills we possess and yet it is far lacking in most people.

What do I mean by this? Picture the following scenario. Your best friend tells you that they’re embarking on a radical diet. They throw out all of their cakes and cookies; they buy running shoes; and they embark on a strict daily exercise regimen. But three days in, disaster strikes: they don’t hit the gym after work like they should; they go home instead; they crash on the couch and eat a box of cookies. The next day, they tell you their story and roundly beat themselves up about it. What would you say? The chances are, you’d tell them not to be so hard on themselves. You’d tell them to learn from the experience, pick themselves up, and start again today. You wouldn’t criticise them, judge them, or call them names. And yet — compare this to what occurs when we fall short of the targets we set for ourselves. We judge ourselves harshly. We call ourselves names. We’re useless, we tell ourselves. We are just the worst. This lack of self-compassion, the ability to give ourselves a break, is a huge source of unhappiness for many. And yet, if my reading all these books has taught me anything, it’s that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and hard work, and it’s not easy. And, most importantly of all, we all make mistakes. “To err is human”, Rene Descarte is supposed to have said, and for most of us, this rings pretty true. So if any of us are going to succeed in meeting any goals, we need to show ourselves the same compassion and kindness that we’d show to others in our shoes.

As I said earlier: I love books; I love to read; and I’ve realised recently I enjoy reading books that offer new ways to improve my own life. But I also recognise that not everyone does, so I hope that by sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned, it will help people who otherwise may not encounter them.

I’ve realised however, if there is one lesson I want to pass on more than any other, it’s that self-compassion is the real key to happiness. I hope when you strive to improve yourself and expand your knowledge, you’ll remember that you’re already pretty great. Keep that in mind, and I think you’ll be fine.

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