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Here’s What I Learned After Spending A Year Reading The Top Motivational Books


If you were to peruse my bookshelves, you’d mostly find books written by friends, some throwaway novels for beach reading, and a few serious fiction novels. I generally read for fun or to support a friend rather than to better myself.

At the beginning of 2018, though, I found myself in a new season of life (hello, 40!) and decided it was time to delve into some purposeful reading. After reading more than 10 motivational books (as well as co-writing one that came out in June 2018), here is what I learned about the genre.

Start with the Classics

In the self-help genre, the leader is “The Power of Positive Thinking,” by pastor Norman Vincent Peale. When I received this book, I was surprised to see that it was published in 1952 because so many modern books repeat (and repeat and repeat and repeat) the same advice. Of course, there are some clues that this book was written in the ‘50s. For instance, most examples referring to work and stress are about male businessmen. I’m by no means triggered, but just something for women readers to be aware of ahead of time.

The heart of the book is one’s relationship and trust in God. Positive thoughts are what God wants for your life and negative thoughts are evil forces that seek to disrupt what God has in store for you. Among the book’s mantras are “If God be for us, who can be against us?” and “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

“The Power of Positive Thinking” has many successful fans, including Rev. Billy Graham, former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and current President Donald Trump. If you’re looking for a no-nonsense motivational book from someone who isn’t a YouTube star, start with this one.

Don’t Be Afraid to Skip Chapters

One of the first books I read this year was “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey. I am a fan of the financial advice on his radio show and social media accounts. If you spend too much time looking for the “perfect” book for your situation, you’ll never be successful in finding the right book. Several chapters in this book don’t apply to me, but I didn’t let it stop me from embracing the helpful advice in the book, most notably the “debt snowball.” I just skimmed over the chapters I felt didn’t apply to me.

Similarly, I found “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg to be heavy on the scientific evidence of building good habits. Like Ramsey’s book, it may be helpful to simply accept the author’s evidence and skip ahead to chapters about how the “habit loop” can be applied to your life.

Know Your Guru’s Audience

One of the highest selling books this year has been Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” What started as a reply on Quora turned into a best-selling book and then into a speaking tour. While the Quora answer was fairly universal, I found the book to be much more geared toward young men.

Likewise, there are a slew of motivational books I read that would be more helpful to audiences that don’t include me. For moms and those going through fertility issues, you may identify more with “Girl, Wash Your Face” and “Eat Cake. Be Brave.” than I did. Both were entertaining, but not relatable for me. If you’re a millennial, “Get Your Sh*t Together” and “How to Not Always Be Working” are more likely to apply to your life than to a Gen Xer like me.

If you’re into entrepreneurship, Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” will be much more of a motivational book for you than a book of positive mantras punctuated with funny stories. For people like me, it was a great primer on understanding tech culture.

Popular Books Are Often Religious

I am a Christian, so I enjoyed the books that integrated the importance of finding your gifts, strength, and purpose through God. Interestingly, however, even books like “Girl, Wash Your Face” that talked about God with a light touch were too much for some Amazon reviewers.

Liturgy of the Ordinary” was a great book I listened to on Audible that talked about how the ordinary things in our life––sitting in traffic, drinking a cup of tea, and eating leftovers––can help bring us closer to God. One Amazon review sums up this book better than I can:

Something about the way this author talks about a day in her own, ordinary life caught my attention and caused me to think in a new way about how the mundane becomes important with God. This book challenges the idea that following Christ must only be bold and dramatic and has reminded me that God breathes life into my ordinary.

One of the most fulfilling and motivational books I read over the last year was “The Struggle is Real” by Nicole Unice. In October, I went to a seminar led by the book’s author at a local church. I was really impressed by her presentation and felt like I connected with her message despite us having very different lives. One of the Bible verses her talk focused on is Deuteronomy 30:19, in which God tells us, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, choose life.”

One of the greatest motivational tools is choice. Even when circumstances seem dire and struggles seem overwhelming, we can still control our attitude. No matter what books you decide to read, you are taking the first step in choosing a better life for yourself.