Self-Help Books That Live up to the Hype

Allow me to start with a brief list of the self-help/advice books I’ve started and never finished: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up;” “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life;” and “What Color is Your Parachute?” I always have the best of intentions (and I believe all of those books are worth a read!), but sometimes reader-book synergy is purely a matter of right book, right time. 

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The self-help books that actually helped me are the ones that came into my life at exactly the right moment, helping me make changes to my habits and lifestyle in sustainable ways and inspiring me to look at challenges in a different light. Here are the titles that have (self-) helped me the most. 

The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

This narrative nonfiction book chronicles the year during which Rubin dedicated each month to maximizing happiness in each area of her life — family, work, friendship, fun, and more. As she tries out different techniques, all based on her extensive and enthusiastic research, it’s impossible not to be inspired. 

I imitated many of her methods: I compiled a list of my personal commandments, to help me stay true to my value system and priorities (Rubin’s First Commandment is “Be Gretchen;” mine is “The world doesn’t revolve around you”). I cleaned my bedroom, tried new hobbies (CrossFit and burlesque dancing were recent forays), and made intentional purchases to boost my quality of life (like rain boots—no more ruined shoes!—and a gigantic French press so I can make my own iced coffee). The effortless way Rubin weaves these happiness hacks into the story of her own personal growth makes this book an utterly charming read. 

“How To Be A Person In the World” by Heather Havrilesky and “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed 

Havrilesky is the advice columnist at and Strayed is the author of the Oprah-approved memoir “Wild.” Both books are collections of the authors’ advice columns. Unlike traditional advice columnists, Havrilesky and Strayed write with uncanny—and sometimes brutal—honesty, freely providing examples from their own lives. 

What haven’t I learned from these wise souls? Strayed’s column “Go, Go, Go” inspired me to move from New York to Chicago. Havrilesky helped me find new ways of cultivating joy while single. The writers’ honesty and empathy, combined with the breadth of topics they cover—heartbreak, family crises, death, transitions—make these books essential reference materials that you can turn to in any crisis or moment of panic. And I do. 

“More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say)” by Elaine Welteroth 

If recommending a book I haven’t technically read yet is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. This part-memoir, part-advice book by former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth is hot off the presses—and next on my list. As a woman in media, a notoriously cutthroat industry, I look up to Welteroth, who exemplifies that rare combination of hustle and grace. She was the youngest person ever appointed editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue and only the second black lead editor at a Condé Nast publication. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s now made the jump to starring on “Project Runway.” But rather than kicking back and savoring the (well-deserved) fruits of her labor, she’s committed to lifting up other women. “Getting into the practice of saying no saves space for smarter yeses,” Welteroth wrote in The New York Times. “Protect the seed of your ideas and your dreams from people and spaces that will crush it early,” she shared in Variety. On days when I’m feeling like the hustle is just too hard, Welteroth’s advice reminds me to keep going—and I can’t wait to read a whole bookful. 

“Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

If you want to change your life, you could quit your job, sell your possessions, and move to a garret in Paris, toiling away at your novel/screenplay/app while subsisting entirely on baguettes. Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad. But Bill Burnett and Dave Evans challenge the idea of upending your life with a technique borrowed from the design world: prototyping. Applying it to your own life means taking very small steps to explore your passions in low-risk ways. The approach has already benefited thousands of students in Burnett and Evans’ Life Design program at Stanford—and me. The proof? When I decided to transition to a freelance writing and editing career, I stressed over pitching article ideas to dozens of editors. Reading this book inspired me to focus on writing and honing one successful pitch for just one editor. The result? …Well, I think it speaks for itself!

Originally published on August 15, 2019.

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