21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century
‘Self Improvement’ doesn’t mean what it used to
“Self help” is about the “self” being “helped” — but guidance for personal growth is only useful when it works in the world we live in now. We’re most effective when we understand ourselves and the people around us.
The 21st century has been marked by crises that force us to re-learn where we fit, and how we should get where we want to be. The personal “ladder of success” feels increasingly outdated when set against a giant framework of systems and technologies, involving billions of other people. Last century, you could get away with adopting highly effective habits for winning friends and influencing people — especially if you were from Mars, not Venus. Now, you must turn to books that illuminate the world and inspire change.
Many of these 21 books aren’t found on the “self-improvement” shelf of a library. But from bell hooks to Emily Oster, Marie Kondo to Damon Young, these are thinkers who speak with lasting resonance to the conditions of their time — our time — defining new phenomena, transforming the zeitgeist, or answering a question we didn’t even know to ask.
As the editors of Forge and many of our Medium colleagues created this list, we looked for truly life-changing ideas. If you’re not ready to take the leap on a full book, we have also published excerpts from most of the books we selected, linked below.
The impact of the 21 books on this list lingers well after the final page-turn, helping us make sense of our recent past and present. They also give us the tools to forge the best path forward, for ourselves and for the world we want. They’re the new self-help.
by Esther Perel (2006)
Mating in Captivity catapulted the New York City psychotherapist Esther Perel from private practice to public intellectual — and a podcast and TV star. Her core assertion is one that’s both logical and revolutionary: Our need for security in a romantic partner threatens our desire for freedom. The more enmeshed a couple becomes, the likelier they are to find themselves wondering what happened to the spark they once felt.
Perel’s book is a frank indictment of the unrealistic expectations we place on partnership, as a culture that extols the all-encompassing virtues of love and marriage. But it’s also, at its core, a hopeful read. It directs its reader toward a radical conclusion: that a nurturing, emotionally fulfilling partnership can also be, well, hot.
What You Don’t Know About Your Partner Might Turn You On
Romantic desire thrives on uncertainty
by Damon Young (2019)
This heartbreaking and hilarious memoir delves into the “perpetual surreality” of the Black American experience through vignettes from the author’s life. Despite its sometimes painful subject matter, the book’s essays read neither as anti-racist polemic nor dutiful remedial reading.
Young, the co-founder of the blog Very Smart Brothas (now a vertical of The Root), has the eye of a social critic and the comic timing of the sharpest humorists in the English language. With wit and focused candor, Young explores complex, painful truths. He also grants permission to laugh, screw up, to roll our eyes, and to do better.
To Be Black in America Is to Exist in a Ceaseless State of Absurdity
Anger is inevitable, but allowing it to be the only response to the relentless absurdity of our condition would be…
by Marie Kondo (2014)
Three years after its initial publication in the author’s native Japan, the English translation of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up catapulted Marie Kondo to international mega-stardom. In an age of accumulation fueled by one-click consumerism, Kondo’s “konmari” offers a simple formula for relief from the burden of clutter — literally and, perhaps, existentially.
You’d have to live under a rock to have avoided hearing her Zen-inflected directive: to only keep those objects that “spark joy.”
The godmother of minimalism is not without her critics. But while Kondo’s approach to materialism isn’t for everyone, she has given us a new vocabulary for dealing with all our stuff — and a framework for getting it done.
Marie Kondo’s Daily Routine Is Delightful
It involves incense, fresh air, and pickled vegetables
by Susan Cain (2012)
In a culture that rewards “being bold” and “putting yourself out there,” Quiet proposes that the most effective leaders aren’t necessarily the biggest personalities. It’s a reasonable suggestion, on its face. It also goes against everything that business schools and corporate leadership trainings have been teaching us for over a century.
Unexpected though it may be, Susan Cain’s argument for the “quiet” power of introverts proves compelling: Since its publication, this book has spent more than seven years on the New York Times bestseller list.
by Shonda Rhimes (2015)
As the creator of the network television dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder and Catch, Shonda Rhimes is the uncontested queen of prime time. She’s also, according to her hybrid self-help/memoir, Year of Yes, a workaholic introvert whose just-say-no instincts pushed the limits of her mental health at the height of her success.
After getting called out by her sister at Thanksgiving dinner in 2013, Rhimes pledged to say yes to every invitation or opportunity that she found intimidating for an entire year. This book traces Rhimes’ ensuing growth and renewal, and makes a convincing case in favor of giving things a shot.
Why Women Deflect the Praise They Deserve
Shonda Rhimes breaks it down in ‘Year of Yes’
by Alexander Chee (2018)
A novelist, poet, and writing teacher, Alexander Chee’s memoir in essays is inherently instructive. After all, the life of a writer is riddled with logistical hurdles: How does a person, in this day and age, balance their craft with the need to make a living? How do you find the time to write while making enough time to live (and thus, to have stuff to write about)? On top of those practicalities, there’s the moral angst of a creative life — namely, wondering whether there’s value in pursuing your art when the world appears to be falling to pieces.
Though Chee’s book is not strictly about writing, nor about getting things done, his thoughtful accounts give us a blueprint for setting into place the moving parts of an integrated creative life.
by Layla Saad (2020)
Sparked by an anti-racist challenge by the author on Instagram, Me and White Supremacy became essential reading in the uprising for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd.
As a kind of anti-racist workbook, Saad’s bestseller delivers a guided series of self-reflective actions for White and non-Black people seeking to dismantle White supremacy and anti-Black racism. It’s the book to read for a real answer to “How can I help?”
‘I Don’t See Color’ Is an Act of Racial Gaslighting
There’s a reason only white children are taught to be ‘color-blind’
by Thomas Page McBee (2018)
Why do men fight? What makes a man, in the first place?
These are the questions that compel McBee, a transgender man, to train for a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. It’s a story of learning on the fly, in more ways than one: McBee’s development as a boxer also functions as a sort of gendered coming-of-age. He’s a beginner in the ring, and he’s a beginner in his man’s body.
Amid ongoing conversations about “toxic masculinity” and mounting scrutiny of the gender binary, Amateur confronts the shadow side of modern manhood — in the world, and in ourselves.
What Becoming a Man Showed Me About a World Designed for Men
Every day, I was rewarded for behavior that I was previously punished for
by Emily Oster (2013)
Pitched as “What to Expect When You’re Expecting meets Freakonomics” by its publishers, Expecting Better probes the warnings, myths, and received wisdoms of pregnancy with an economist’s data-driven eye. The book shows how the medical industry routinely undermines the autonomy of pregnant women by supplanting information and options with “doctor knows best.”
Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University, tackles various pregnancy don’ts — from sushi to the occasional glass of wine — by asking “why?” Though some of her assertions have drawn criticism — in particular, that occasional glass of wine — Oster’s book arms pregnant people with the science to make decisions for themselves.
The Hidden Struggles of Working Parents Are Now Live in Video Chat
It’s time to stop pretending our kids don’t exist
by Kai Cheng Thom (2019)
As the notion of so-called “cancel culture” migrates from the depths of Twitter to the mouths of the masses, the Canadian writer and social worker Kai Cheng Thom asks us to reconsider our collective thirst for retribution — from either end of the political spectrum — and invest in a model of justice that’s rooted in love.
Though she writes with reference to her extended queer community, Thom’s directive applies to all of us. As we face climate catastrophe and economic instability, inept leadership and social oppression, we’re going to need each other. Thom’s book shows a way forward.
by Ram Dass (2000)
With his first book, the self-help classic Be Here Now (1971), the hippie Harvard professor-turned-spiritual guru Ram Dass became a figurehead for New Age personal growth. Some 26 years later, in his late 60s, Dass survived a cerebral hemorrhage that left him unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair. In its aftermath, Dass wrote Still Here. The book offers a meditation on illness, aging, and the fundamental commonality of the human experience: death.
“Ten out of ten people die,” he writes. “Are you ready?”
In a culture where aging is defied and death feared, Dass implores readers to approach the vulnerabilities of aging with gratitude and awe. “That’s not just a new role,” writes Dass. “It’s a new state of being.”
Upon the author’s death in December 2019, his New York Times obituary declared that “for Ram Dass, God existed in everyone.” Still Here lets us see ourselves through his reverent gaze.
“Wisdom is one of the few things in human life that does not diminish with age.”
— Ram Dass, Still Here
by Cal Newport (2016)
A millennial wunderkind of the self-help blogosphere-turned tenured professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport has spent the better part of two decades excavating the space between peak productivity and information overload.
Deep Work argues in favor of a happy medium: a life built around concentrated, specialized focus work. By minimizing the task-switching and multitasking that clutters our minds, Newport proposes that we’ll produce better work in less time. (He also wants us to get off of Twitter, which, fair.)
The Secret to Hyper Productivity in 3 to 4 Hours a Day
Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ is a modern classic
by bell hooks (2000)
As the struggle for racial justice marches onward, our conversations carry the heft of bell hooks’ intellectual DNA. With All About Love, the pioneering feminist theorist and cultural critic lends her knack for precision to the knotty notion of love.
“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun,” hooks writes, “yet…we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”
hooks argues that love is not a feeling of romance but an ethic for interaction. Citing an exhaustive compendium of experts across disciplines, from poets to psychologists to philosophers, hooks lays out a road map for putting love into practice as a force that can change the world.
To Love Yourself, Find a Way to Love What You Do
Even if you hate your job, you can do it in a way that enhances your self-esteem
by Amy Fusselman (2015)
Life’s richest rewards require some risk. Every goal we set or milestone we meet is preceded by a gamble, a leap of faith for a life-changing romance, a dream job, or an overseas adventure.
Yet, as Amy Fusselman points out in the genre-bending Savage Park, Americans are an exceptionally risk-averse people.
The “savage park” of the title is an adventure playground that Fusselman and her family visits during a trip to Japan. A throwback to a distant past of free-range childhoods and skinned knees, the Japanese playground reads, to American eyes, like a lawsuit waiting to happen. But, through Fusselman’s perceptive lens, it serves as a point of contrast, illuminating the American impulse to micromanage every facet of our lives, down to the rounded-plastic safety of children’s jungle gyms.
Not just a paradigm-shifting read for helicopter parents, Savage Park shows us that there are alternatives to our neuroses. A happier, purpose-filled life is possible, if we only learn to let go.
‘Safety’ Is a Dangerous Delusion
But the idea that we — and our children — are never really ‘safe’ is hard to live with
The Body Is Not an Apology
by Sonya Renee Taylor (2018)
Bodies are not incidental; they are the site of human experience. Yet, the pursuit of physical self-love can seem trivial — or even shameful. Therein lies the problem.
The Body Is Not an Apology elevates the concept of “self-love” from feel-good Instagram fodder to social justice imperative. Taylor argues that our personal bodily hang-ups — and the beauty standards that inform them — are manifestations of internalized inequality. By lending credence to unjust strictures, our self-hate inadvertently perpetuates oppression.
Taylor implores readers to think beyond the limits of “body positivity” and toward a more expansive model for celebrating physical diversity. The work, she suggests, begins with yourself.
“Not knowing is an opportunity for exploration”
— Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology
Making Peace With Your Body Is a Mighty Act of Revolution
The three tenets of radical self-love
by Cathy Park Hong (2020)
In an America where conversations about race tend to center the Black/White binary, the Korean American poet Cathy Park Hong zones in on what it means to be Asian American — the identities its wide sweep haphazardly contains, and the contradictions therein.
“The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others,” Hong writes. “But racial trauma is not a competitive sport.”
Hong’s arguments can feel, at once, incendiary and uncomfortable. But the discomfort is instructive; Minor Feelings demands that readers confront both the arbitrary messiness of White supremacy and the presumptions it imparts.
What It Feels Like to Inhabit an Asian Body in America
In her new book of essays, ‘Minor Feelings,’ Cathy Park Hong confronts an identity that ‘takes up apologetic space’
by Crystal Marie Fleming (2018)
“Why are so many people so incredibly confused and misinformed about race?” writes the sociologist Crystal Marie Fleming. The answer to her rhetorical setup forms the basis of her book, and of the racial inequality that plagues us: “It’s the White supremacy, stupid!”
But neither White supremacy nor stupidity need to be our fate. Fleming draws on critical race theory, pop culture and media, and contemporary American politics to, as she puts it, “wig-snatch the hell out of White supremacy.” With wit and wisdom, the book delivers on its title with aplomb.
If You’re Serious About Anti-Racism, Listen to Black Women
The key to challenging multiple forms of oppression
by Jenny Odell (2019)
Part love letter to the burnout generation, part anti-Capitalist manifesto, Odell proposes a mass reclamation of attention — our most precious, and precarious, resource — to soothe our existential overload. In doing so, she invites us to think beyond the scope of digital detoxes and social media fasts to probe something bigger: “What happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.” Bonus: birds.
“If you can afford to pay a different kind of attention, you should.”
— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing
Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
Thinking, Fast and Slow is the culmination of a half-century of research by the Nobel laureate economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, marrying his research in those complementary fields to explain how the brain thinks and makes decisions.
The potentially disappointing news, per Kahneman’s basic thesis, is that human judgment is far more fallible than we may think. But in laying out the two main systems that drive our mood and ways of thinking, Kahneman offers an escape hatch for at least some of our annoying limitations. It turns out that with a little guidance, our imperfect brain can learn to hack itself.
by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga (2013)
A quirky book that sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide, The Courage to Be Disliked uses Socratic dialogue to apply the work of 19th-century psychologist Alfred Adler to present-day existential conundrums.
Its basic argument subverts popular understandings of trauma as lingering, life-defining experiences that can make or break your likelihood of ever being happy. Instead, the authors propose that happiness is yours to seize, and has less to do with your past than how you approach your present. One person’s fate isn’t contingent on another person’s approval. We are who we decide to be.
The Best Leaders Don’t Praise or Rebuke
The ideal approach is also the most egalitarian
by Alicia Menendez (2019)
Today’s workplace culture prizes the idea of bringing one’s “authentic self” to the office. That is, in theory. But, as the journalist and author Alicia Menendez points out, authenticity is only rewarded when it aligns with cultural expectations of what a charismatic and competent leader should look like.
For women, the pressure to be likeable is fundamentally at odds with the desire to be recognized for work well done — and doubly so when one factors race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and parental status.
Menendez untangles this bind while suggesting a way forward: practical strategies for ambitious women who wish to challenge the order of business…without losing the game, or themselves.