Know what the best-selling self-help books on Amazon are right now? A Hollywood celebrity, an internet celebrity, two books on stoicism, a book by an alt-right anti-feminist, a book on crystal healing and Dale Carnegie, who seems to be perpetually there. Plus, a bunch more not unlike those.
Self help books are a bit like fashion. There’s trends and fads.
Ideas, thoughts and concepts become popular for a while, and then slowly fade away, as if they’re moving over for the next wave of self help ideas and authors in an endless parade of how broken we are.
Mostly, they leave you unchanged, even if they were a good read. You buy them, read, raise your eyebrows at a few tidbits you didn’t know, but for the most part, life continues on as before. Same old, same old.
Also like fashion, some books stand the test of time. The classics.
Books that were first published when there was no internet and Jeff Bezos was still in diapers. Astonishingly, some of those books are getting 5-star reviews. Today.
You know why, right? Because they shift something inside you.
It’s like that thing Emerson said about dimension. Once you stretch your mind to new dimensions, you can’t ever go back to the way you used to think.
Here are three really old books that will change your life.
They won’t give you step by step instructions to accomplish anything. They’re not how-to manuals that will be a fad one day and gone the next. No, what they’ll do is fundamentally change how you look at yourself and the world.
Once you alter how you see, change is almost inevitable.
Change your perspectives, change your life.
“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
#3. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight 
Taylor was neuroscientist at Harvard’s brain research center when she discovered what bliss felt like. A blood vessel had exploded in her brain. Despite that she couldn’t walk, talk or remember, it felt great.
When you look at reviews, you can tell who didn’t read the book. They think this book is about having a stroke, or preventing a stroke. lol. No. You’ll learn a little about those things, sure. But that’s not what it’s about.
It’s about the chatter in your brain and how to make it shut the hell up.
On Dec. 10, 1996, Jill Taylor woke up with a piercing pain behind her eye. A blood vessel in her brain had popped. Within minutes, her left lobe began to fail. The chatter that normally filled her head stopped. Just. Stopped. Her work and life stresses slid away. She wasn’t even worried about her mentally ill brother. It felt great.
The way she saw changed, too. The world was mystical and sparkling in a way that fairy tales and magic can only whisper of but in truth, know nothing.
“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air… I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle…”
She could see the atoms and molecules that make up her body blending with the space around her. The world was a giant field of shimmering energy. She could see other people’s atoms and molecules, too. Bright shining ones and dark gloomy ones that made her turn away and hide her face until those people left. They felt bad, those people. Angry. Toxic. Stressed out. She could see bad energy. Can you even imagine?
But while she was feeling bliss, her body was struggling to survive. She had a blood clot in her brain. She forgot how to walk, talk, or read. She couldn’t remember anything about her life. She didn’t even know her own mother. It would take 8 years and multiple surgeries before she would recover. Eventually — everything she’d ever believed about herself was gone.
Can you imagine the freedom of losing all those internal judgements you have about yourself? Of having the internal critic finally just shut the heck up?
there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!”
As she slowly healed and regained the ability to walk, talk and remember, she learned how much of our behaviors are are the result of neural pathways. Habitual ways of thinking that we have the ability to change if we just knew how. Being a brain scientist, once she remembered, she knew how.
When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.
Today, she is a new person and can step into the right hemisphere at will. It’s not faith, she says. It’s science. The hemispheres of the brain have different personalities. For most English-speakers, the left brain, which processes language, is dominant.
It doesn’t have to be, she says.
“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think… Based upon my experience with losing my left mind, I whole-heartedly believe the feeling of deep inner peace is neurological circuitry located in our right brain.”
After her recovery, her TED talk made her a mini celebrity. It’s been viewed over 27 million times so far, not including the views on YouTube. Today, she helps people rebuild their brain from trauma, but she also helps the rest of us understand how we can influence the neural circuitry underlying what we think, feel and how we react to life’s circumstances.
Note: The first 3 chapters of the book are about her life pre-stroke. It’s a little heavier to read. Slog through. Totally worth it once you hit chapter 4.
“Transformative…[Taylor’s] experience…will shatter [your] own perception of the world.” -ABC News [source]
“[Dr. Taylor] brings a deep personal understanding to something she long studied: that the two lobes of the brain have very different personalities.”
-The New York Times [source]
“Fascinating…invaluable…fearless…This book is about the wonder of being human.” -Robert Koehler, Tribune Media Services [source]
“Enlightenment is not a process of learning, it is a process of unlearning.” ― Jill Bolte Taylor
#2. Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics 
Maltz never intended to be a self help guy. He just wanted to fix faces and give people back their life. Like the woman with the cleft palate, or the guy whose nose was entirely blown off in an accident. Fate had other ideas for him...
Sometimes, he’d perform surgery and completely change a person’s life. They’d look in the mirror and, seeing the disfigurement gone, it would impact their life. They’d gain the confidence disfigurement had stripped them of.
But then, there were the others. The people who looked in the mirror and wept. Because they couldn’t see the change. They’d lament that they will look “like this” forever, sinking deeper into their despair. It led him to study psychology.
All he wanted was to understand how better to help those patients. Instead, it led him to understand why so many people are profoundly unhappy and miserable in their day to day lives.
“Whether we realize it or not, each of us carries about with us a mental blueprint or picture of ourselves…It has been built up from our own beliefs about ourselves. But most of these beliefs about ourselves have unconsciously been formed from our past experiences, our success and failures, our humiliations, our triumphs, and the way other people have reacted to us, especially in early childhood.”
He explains that each of us carries a deep seated idea of who we are as a human being, and often that idea of ourselves comes form our interactions with other, often in the earliest years before we have conscious memory.
What’s worse, we believe those ideas about ourselves to be unequivocally true, as though they’re written in stone. When we try to change, we almost always do it using external techniques. With positive thinking or affirmations or step by step instructions and when it doesn’t work, our internal beliefs just get stronger. We use methods that don’t work and our lack of success just confirms our own doubts about ourselves.
It is no exaggeration to say that every human being is hypnotized to some extent either by ideas he has uncritically accepted from others or ideas he has repeated to himself or convinced himself are true. These negative ideas have exactly the same effect upon our behavior as the negative ideas implanted into the mind of a hypnotized subject by a professional hypnotist.’
The more we strive to change, yet stay the same, the more we believe all those things we think about ourselves. Our broken beliefs become a self fulfilling prophesy. They affect us, and then we believe them all the more.
A human being always acts and feels and performs in accordance with what he imagines to be true about himself
The secret, he explains, is not external changes. It’s simply that we must have an adequate and realistic self-image we can live with. He discusses the difference between the end and the means to get there. Altering our self image in tiny steps is how we begin to affect long lasting change.
A note of warning…
This book has religious overtones. If you are atheist or have a belief system that is not Christian, I wanted you to know. Also, some of his musings on technology and machinery may make you laugh while reminding you that the book is 61 years old. If you can get past those things, there are a lot of insights about self image and how it plays out in your life. Once you see your own odd beliefs and behaviors, you’ll never be able to unsee them.
“We act, or fail to act, not because of will, as is so commonly believed, but because of imagination.”
— Maxwell Maltz
#1. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning 
People love to say this book is about Frankl’s gruesome experiences in Auschwitz. No, it’s mostly not. That’s a very small part of the book. There are books that will horrify you cover to cover. This is not one of them.
Frankl was a holocaust survivor. But before he was hauled away to the camps, he was a neurologist, a practicing psychiatrist, and a philosopher. He arrived at Auschwitz hiding a manuscript in his coat. It was for a book he would have to rewrite from memory as best he could.
Because of his vocation, education and experience, the years in captivity expanded his understanding of how the rest of us function. How we perceive reality and why some people have more mental perseverance than others.
He talks about men who were in utter despair. Ready to give up and just die and what type of thinking would give them the strength and determination to make it through the horrifying day to day experiences in a concentration camp and the small victories of the spirit in the midst of despair.
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
He observed that people who made generalizations about others struggled most. Those who believed all Germans are bad, all Jews are good, men will be cruel, women will be kind.
That kind of thinking caused most pain in the long run. The same kind of thinking we use in day to day life when we fall into racist or bigoted thinking patterns that are so predominant in society. It hurts us more than them.
He talks about Germans who would risk their own lives to sneak more food to prisoners and fellow Jews who would cause others pain. Men who were kind and women who were cruel. He doesn’t say we should not judge, because that’s what the human brain does. Judging is a function of self preservation. We need to judge. Instead, he teaches us how to judge.
There are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society.
He talks about the greater goals of life. To be happy, to be successful and how our approach to those can lead us astray in the long run. He talks about how the pursuit of that which should be a side effect leads us to misery.
Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself
After the war, after freedom, he talks about his reaction when his book became a bestseller. He didn’t see it as an accomplishment on his part. Instead, he saw it as an expression of the misery so many people live in.
A misery that many of us still live in, half a century after he wrote the book on it. As long as there are humans, there will be misery. Learning is the way out.
I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part, but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails…
I’ve read this book at least half a dozen times.
For me, there was a personal element the first time I picked it up. Had my grandfather not boarded a ship to Canada with his new wife, he would have perished in those camps along with the family who stayed behind.
Once I read it, I realized it offered more than a tiny glimpse of understanding into the experiences of relatives whose lives ended because of the hate of a mad man. It shone a light inward, offering understanding of the world we live in, the miseries we live with, and path out of the dark and into the light.
Highly recommended. Very highly.
“This is a book I reread a lot . . . it gives me hope . . . it gives me a sense of strength.” — Anderson Cooper, 360/CNN [source]
“One of the ten most influential books in America” — Library of Congress [source]
“This is a book I try to read every couple of years. It’s one of the most inspirational books ever written.” — Jimmy Fallon [source]
“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that every-thing can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
— Viktor Frankl
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