While it is common to hear think of Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s contributions to English writing, personal development books are often overlooked in how influential they really are in the modern world. However, many of these books may have had an even greater impact than some of the literary classics. They have not only impacted the worlds of language and writing, but some have fundamentally changed the way that people think and interact with one another.
That is not to say we wish to overlook the contributions of the great fiction writers of history, but for a category of books that have only been around for less than 70 years, personal development books have had a much larger impact in this relatively short time. Many of them formed the very foundation of ideas upon which our modern society is built. They created the fundamental principles of persuasion, relationships, self-confidence, quitting drinking and almost an almost unlimited number of aspects of life.
While many modern personal development books deal with one specific area of improvement (procrastination, dating, amazing list-writing), this list aims to focus more on books that help individuals grow in all aspects of life. They have helped millions build better careers, relationships and overall lives for years. These books represent the absolute best of what the genre is about.
Still, some of the books in this article may be more specific than others, but even the seemingly specialized ones contain information and strategies that will help people change their lives in ways outside of their intended purpose. Even if a book seems to only be about successful public speaking, it should also teach invaluable lessons about confidence, communication and persuasion.
Many are also books that have been staples of the personal development genre for decades, but we also tried to include some of the more recent books that have greatly impacted people’s lives. While it will be difficult to predict the impacts they could have on generations to come, many of them contain seemingly new, yet timelessly useful techniques that should be read for many years to come.
When first developing the idea of this list, we had multiple goals in mind. The first was to turn new readers onto some of the books that greatly influenced our own lives and enabled us to have success in business and personal life. The other was to remind readers of where they read and first developed certain ideas and hopefully inspire them to re-read some of the books that changed their lives. We also hoped to educate some readers on where ideas that are accepted as common knowledge nowadays first originated.
It would be difficult to place these books in any real order, since the level of help they provide cannot be measured. However, there are some that have undoubtedly had a large impact on the world and could not be left out of any list of books for success. You will probably read this list and feel that a certain book that changed your life has been omitted, but it would be impossible to include all of the life-changing work that is out there. However, in building this list, we took great pains to include many of the universally recognized books that influenced the genre and had the largest positive impacts on society.
“How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie
Any list of the most influential and impactful personal development books of all-time would have to begin here. This book basically defines the genre of personal development or self-help books, and its strategies formed the backbone of what we now accept as traditional in social interaction.
It is funny to think that when it was first published in 1937, the original printing was only for 5,000 copies. At the time, the publishers thought this was an optimistic number of books to hope to sell. However, it quickly took off and became the Bible of businessmen and career-minded people everywhere. It has sold several millions of copies and is regarded as one of the all-time best for its lessons on dealing with people.
The reason for its success and staying power is largely based upon a concept that was new at the time: learning how to be successful with people in order to be successful both in business and in your personal life. It was the combination of these two aspects that made the book groundbreaking.
It also dealt heavily in being genuine and authentic. This may seem surprising if you only read the chapter titles, which come off as a little manipulative; for example, “12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking” and “Six Ways to Make People Like You.” But it was honesty and authenticity that Carnegie stressed above all as methods of being an influential person. These strategies have lasted the test of time, and this book is just as impactful on the lives of its readers as it was almost 80 years ago.
“Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill
One of the fathers of modern wealth creation, Napoleon Hill is at his absolute best in this 1937 book that changed the way many people thought about money. It’s no coincidence that the first two books in this list were first published in the same year; it was a time when American capitalism was first coming into its own and the idea of the American Dream was beginning to take shape in the of people.
It is on this mindset that Hill focuses in this insightful work. The book focuses on the power of the mind when applied to success in business and caused many to rethink what they knew about many financial principles. Hill had spent 20 years of his life studying the lives of many of history’s most successful and influential people, particularly business legend Andrew Carnegie, and wrote his findings in an in-depth series “The Laws of Success.” “Think and Grow Rich” takes these same principles but condenses them down into a much shorter and more easily digested form.
“The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason
This book originally began as a series of pamphlets on money management in 1926, a time when wealth was booming in America. It takes a much more entertaining, prose-based form of imparting its lessons than many of the other books in this list. It begins by telling the story of three childhood friends in Ancient Babylon, two of which are still common peasants but the third is now the richest man in the city.
It takes a storytelling approach of how he managed to build himself up from his humble beginnings by applying a few simple techniques of planning, saving and investing what he earned. The book focuses on how these principles are still the same in the modern world as they were thousands of years ago. They were helpful in ancient times, in the 1920s and still helpful in our age.
“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey
Stephen Covey’s 1989 book was groundbreaking, not so much in the concepts it listed, but in the method of application and how they could be implemented in your life.
It was set apart from the other self-help books of the time in that it did not offer a quick, simple fix to all of your problems. Covey speaks of how mastering these seven habits could take a lifetime, but what you learn as you work towards them is what helps you grow.
It is divided into three sections: Private Victory, Public Victory and Renewal. Each section deals with different areas of improvement that combine to make one a happier and more effective member of society. It focuses on how our behavior should always coincide with our beliefs, and when they do not, we are bound to fail consistently. This books takes a holistic approach to improving your self which then leads to improving your life.
“Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives” by Dan Millman
This is the first book written by Dan Millman, who would eventually become one of the most well-known and respected writers of personal development material. Similar to “The Richest Man in Babylon,” this book combines great storytelling with useful, practical techniques of improving life.
It takes the unique view that discovering one’s meaning does not always coincide with complete happiness. Millman explains how a person can be accomplished and successful even though they may not always feel that way.
According to the book, he first learned the way of the peaceful warrior as a young college student from a mysterious old man called Socrates. He is led on a journey of self discovery in which he is forced to endure and eventually accept ideas that are important for anyone seeking a greater meaning in life.
“9 Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Steps So You Can Stop Worrying” by Suze Orman
This 1997 masterpiece helped Suze Orman to become a household name. It takes a unique to achieving financial success, dealing with three major areas: mental, physical and spiritual.
“Acres of Diamonds: All Good Things Are Possible, Right Where You Are, and Now!” by Russell H. Conwell
This book was based on a speech given by Conwell about taking advantage of opportunity. He states that people spend too much time thinking success is “out there somewhere” while missing out on opportunities for success right in front of them.
“As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen
This book is the oldest in our list, first published in 1902, and its impact cannot be overstated. While it takes a more philosophical approach than modern personal development books, Allen stresses personal responsibility in thinking and acting.
“Maximum Achievement: Strategies and Skills That Will Unlock Your Hidden Powers to Succeed” by Brian Tracy
Tracy’s 1995 bestseller is all about discovering and harnessing the talents you already possess to be successful. It takes an overall approach that any individual can use to get the most out of life, health, relationships and wealth.
“The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale
Decades before “The Secret,” Norman Vincent Peale was explaining the direct correlation between positive thinking and positive results. Originally published in 1952, the book teaches proven methods of dispelling negative thoughts and replacing them with a more positive outlook that will enable you to achieve your dreams.