I read a lot. I mean a lot. Like James Altucher, I have changed my life by reading books, but for those seeking an instruction manual for the soul, there’s a lot of rubbish out there, which Sali Hughes writing in The Pool summed up perfectly:
While, as with anything, there are great, good, bad and terrible examples of the genre, what most of these books essentially promise is a happy new way of life via a better body, healthier habits, more satisfying relationships, increased income, more positive thinking, greater professional success or a calmer, more zen-like disposition. All this can be yours for seven-odd quid and just a few hours of your time while it pisses down outside.
Writing recently about major life changes in Psychologies magazine, Oliver Burkeman reveals why reading a self-help book simply isn’t enough:
The crucial point about any major life change, is that it alters who you are: it’s what philosopher Laurie Paul calls a “transformative experience”. Hopefully your future self will love whatever unfolds. But your present self will always feel unready, by definition, as it’s the very self you’re going to transform. So you’ll need to be courageous – and we mistakenly think that means not feeling fear, when in fact it means acting while feeling afraid. Those around you won’t be ready for the “new you” either, as it threatens their assumptions. So if you wait to make a change until you’re sure your boss won’t be angry, or your friends or family won’t judge you harshly, you’ll wait forever.
The point is, reading great book can be a catalyst for change, but the key is having the courage to follow through and try out the wisdom on yourself, in the real world, on your own life. This is often terrifying; it’s no wonder there’s such a proliferation of terrible examples of the genre.
Of course, it’s not just self-help books that can be a catalyst for change. I studied literature at university, but I only recently made the link between the type of books I loved to read, and my desire to understand myself. Franz Kafka suggested the only books we should read should be an “axe for the frozen sea within us”:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
British psychotherapist Adam Phillips sees a relationship between psychoanalysis and poetry:
Freud suggests not exactly that we speak in poetry, because poetry has line-endings, but that we potentially speak with the type of incisiveness and ambiguity that we’re most used to finding in poetry. So, to put it slightly differently: the reading of poetry would be a very good training for a psychoanalyst
Poetry is such a significant part of my life now – I agree with Phillips that poetry is somehow able to express the experience of being human more fully than any other literary form. I am constantly discovering new poets, but Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have a special place because I studied them in 1st year at Uni. Today David Whyte never fails to take my breath away.
Looking back, I can see that I was taking a psychoanalytic slant to what I read and identifying with characters such as Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw and Janice Galloway’s Joy Stone because I felt fragmented myself. I further alienated parts of myself when I chose to become an accountant, to the point that I’d actually forgotten that I’d studied literature until I began to write again, 20 years later in 2014.
Aside from literary greats, here are some books that have been a catalyst for change for me (roughly in the order I read them):
1. Pema Chodron: Comfortable with Uncertainty
I found her by googling: “why can I not handle uncertainty?”. That book got me into the concepts of mindfulness, being in the moment, things just being, no good, no bad and what she calls loving kindness. I sent a friend her book “Heart Advice for Difficult Times” which she loved. Her latest book The Places That Scare You is sublime. Subscribe to her weekly heart advice here.
2. Oliver Burkeman: Help
A good summary of all the self help techniques out there – Burkeman took a year trying them all out on himself and writes an excellent column in UK newspaper The Guardian. Good for an overview of what’s out there, easy read, also very funny.
3. John Kabat-Zinn, Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal: The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness
I love this book explaining the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, brought to public attention by comedian Ruby Wax. Good even if you’re not depressed – I was burnt-out rather than depressed I think (every few months I just had to stay in bed for 3 days). Brings the science and mindfulness together and the CD is good – I use the 1st track, the bodyscan every few months, say if I am anxious about a big presentation or meeting, it really helps to bring me into the present moment.
Kabat-Zinn is the founder of mindfulness in the West – read why we should care about mindfulness here.
4. Sue Gerhardt: Why Love Matters
I had read this when my first was born – I was determined to parent very differently. The basic theme is that all a baby needs to thrive is love. I’ve re-read it and still believe it to be the best parenting book there is, and is great coupled with…..
5. Oliver James: They F*** You Up
Good overview of the impact our upbringing can have on us. Great to read as daughter / son, sibling or parent. All Oliver’s books are great reads – gain an insight in to the office sociopath reading Office Politics: How to Survive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks
6. Susan Nathiel: Daughters of Madness
The only book I could find that specifically covered the impact having a mentally ill mother has on a girl’s development. It is an amazing book – reading it felt like I’d been to group therapy.
7. Jeremy Holmes: The Search for the Secure Base
This is a very good overview from the UK’s expert on attachment theory.
8. Donald Kalsched: The Inner World of Trauma
A very difficult book, harrowing in places, but was critical for me in understanding how the brain develops and how mental illness can be the outcome of an abusive childhood.
9. Connie Zweig: Romancing the Shadow
All this child development stuff got me into Jungian theory. This is a great book. My friend had several telephone sessions with Connie, which marked a massive step change for her.
10. Sue Gerhardt: The Selfish Society
Sue for Prime Minister. I want to make every politician and CEO read this book.
11. Seth Godin: Poke the Box
This book changed my friend Neale’s whole outlook on himself and his career when I shared some insights with him. I subscribe to Seth’s blog, which is invariably thought provoking. All his books are great – Linchpin’s also a favourite. I’ve given away several copies of What to Do When It’s Your Turn.
12. Manfred Kets de Vries: Sex, Money, Happiness and Death: The Quest for Authenticity
One of my favourite business books all about the power of finding your purpose and how these 4 key themes impact. Kets de Vries believes that after leaders reach a certain level, they don’t require further leadership development, they need therapy. Yip, I worked for one of those once.
13. David Richo: How to be an Adult in Relationships
Should be on the school curriculum. One friend said it changed her life, another re-reads annually. Just a great book for the basics of how relationships do and don’t work. He is a genius.
14. David Whyte: The Three Marriages
I love David Whyte. His website’s definitely worth a look. Read his beautiful 10 Questions That Have no Right to Go Away here. In December 2015 I attended his workshop on Conversational Leadership – I never stopped scribbling and bought his book Consolations – a real feast for the soul. This TEDx talk gives a little taster of his workshop.
15, 16 and 17: Elaine Arron: The Highly Sensitive Person; The Highly Sensitive Person in Love; The Highly Sensitive Child
Discovering that there was a classification that exists in all animals called “highly sensitive” changed my life. I manage my life completely differently as a result of reading these books (I realised that I am a gregarious introvert and so need down time from the intensity of being around people which I love, but I used to get burnt-out thinking that as an MBTI “E” I needed to maintain my energy by being with people constantly).
I discovered Arron when I googled “what is the opposite of autistic” – I felt way too tuned into other people and their problems and found myself constantly trying to help them fix them – exhausting! In 2014 I worked with yoga teacher Bo Forbes and learnt all about empaths, her language for Arron’s HSP.
18. Dr Dale Archer: Better than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional
This is such a wonderfully refreshing read on mental health. Throw away the tablets and embrace what others might regards as liabilities.
19. John Welwood: Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships
Welwood wrote this as an attempt to understand the concept of grievance in a post 9-11 world and how terrorism has its roots in a sense of not being seen or valued (see Robert Dilts making the connection between this and the concept of the coach as sponsor here). It’s one of my all time favourite books – read it at 6 years ago and gave me the biggest “now I get it” moment. This is a great article from the book.
20. Scott Peck: The Road Less Travelled
Picked this up in Waterstones as it said it was the original self-help book. Loved it, a classic indeed, I return to it often.
21. Phil Stutz & Barry Michels: The Tools
Basic premise: what the f*** do you do after you’ve had the therapy? Therapy gives you insight but doesn’t equip you to deal with the world. This is a great book and I have used several of the tools. It was particularly helpful when I was going through bruising break-up with my employer.
22. Hermiana Ibarra: Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career
Very good if you’re thinking about “future possible selves” in a career sense. Ibarra also wrote Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader which I reference a lot in my corporate work.
23. Daniel Pink: A Whole New Mind
A really great introduction to left-brained, right-brained thinking, which will get you thinking differently about trying to find meaning in work, and valuing the qualities in yourself – such as empathy, relating and story-telling – that are so needed in society today.
24. Anna Fels: Necessary Dreams – Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives
I reference this a lot in my writing. Psychiatrist Fels argues that receiving recognition for one’s accomplishments is critical to identity and happiness. However, unlike men, women are required to continually reshape their goals and expectations when motherhood forces them to downsize or abandon their ambitions.
Further, growing up to believe that they must defer to men in order to be seen as feminine, women who do seek recognition risk exposing themselves to attacks on everything from their sexuality to their sanity. Fels’ solutions – to seek reliable sources of affirmation and achieve mastery of our skills – is a thought provoking, feminist companion read to Dan Pink’s Drive.
25. Zander & Zander: The Art of Possibility
If I was only allowed 1 big instruction manual for the soul, it’d be Benjamin and wife Rosalind Zander’s wonderful exploration of easily applicable practices to transform your life. Benjamin Zander is conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra – watch his wonderful TED talk here. How fascinating!
26. Todd Henry: Louder Than Words
Todd Henry describes himself as “an arms dealer for the creative revolution”. I love this book on developing your authentic voice and how to ensure your work speaks for you, not just about you – it has really inspired me and I am trying to use every process, tip and advice that Henry offers.
27. Cheryl Strayed: Tiny Beautiful Things
I came to Strayed via the movie Wild (starring Reese Witherspoon and scripted by Nick Hornby), the true story of her walk back to salvation along the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail, told in her memoir of the same name. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Someone Who’s Been There is a collection of letters and advice from her Dear Sugar agony aunt columns where she explores the complicated business that just showing up every day and being a human being is.
“Dear Sugar, WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything everyday”
“Ask better questions. The fuck is your life. Answer it”
I had already created Courage Matters when I discovered Strayed, but that is precisely what I was doing when I was answering “Vicky Ferrier: What the F**k?” Read “write like a motherfucker” if writing is what you’re here to do, but struggling to overcome feelings of insecurity and limitation.
28. Piero Ferrucci: What We May Be
How had I never heard of this?! Ferrucci is an Italian psychotherapist, who studied under, and collaborated with, Roberto Assagioli, a contemporary of Freud’s. Frustrated with psychoanalysis, Assagioli developed his own techniques for psychological and spiritual growth, which he called psychosynthesis. What We May Be is is a beautiful read, very practical and accessible in a way that similar works rooted in Eastern philosophies are sometimes not.
The forward was written by the wife of Aldous Huxley (Ferrucci’s uncle) Laura Archera Huxley. What an interesting character she was.
29. Stephen Gilligan: The Courage to Love
Genius. Stephen Gilligan is one of the most interesting voices in the world of NLP, and alongside Robert Dilts, has founded an approach to coaching known as generative. In this book, Gilligan explains his contribution to psychotherapy: self-relations therapy, in which self-love is seen as a skill and a force necessary to live a good life. Gilligan’s work is informed by his mentors Milton Ericsson and Gregory Bateson, is influenced by the martial art of aikido, the work of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Buddhist teachers such as Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, as well a Carl Jung amongst others. Fostering a loving relationship with yourself is at the heart of Courage Matters and this book really helped me join the dots in my own work.