Five books to make you super effective

by John_Maxwell2nd Apr 20158 comments


BooksPersonal development

There's a lot of focus within the effective altruist community on recruiting new EAs, and for good reason: if I convince a young friend of mine who is just as determined and capable as I am to become an EA, I’ve effectively doubled my lifetime altruistic impact.  However, I see relatively less focus on a different method of increasing the capacity of the EA movement: self-improvement.

In this post, I recommend five books on the topic of self-improvement.  I estimate that if a EA who hasn't done much self-improvement read these books and systematically applied the insights in them, they’d have a decent good chance of doubling their personal effectiveness (equivalent to the payoff for recruiting an equally capable and determined friend to EA).

I chose the books based on the following criteria:

  • Insight density: Most popular nonfiction books could be compressed to just a few pages without losing much of importance.  These are all books where I thought to myself "wow, this book is stuffed with great ideas" while I was reading them.
  • Lack of overlap with one another: One of the big downsides of being an autodidact is that in the process of designing a curriculum for yourself, it’s hard to identify resources with ideas that are mostly new to you (while still being accessible at your current level of knowledge).  By letting me pick books for you, you’ll waste less time encountering the same ideas presented over again in different books.
  • Lack of overlap with the existing EA memeplex: Many people in the EA community have or will run in to a standard set of self-improvement ideas, things you learn from reading the blog Less Wrong, the Methods of Rationality Harry Potter fanfiction, or going to a workshop run by the Center for Applied Rationality.  The ideas in these books are broadly compatible with what you’d learn at, say, a CFAR workshop, but they’re uncommon enough that you’re unlikely to run in to them by accident as a member of the rationalist community.  (Or, reading the book will give you a substantially deeper understanding than the summarized version you're likely to hear.)
  • Contrarian: There's little point in reading a book if it just restates conventional wisdom from your friends, family, teachers, coworkers, etc.  These books will present an approach to self-improvement that’s fairly different from mainstream popular books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or How to Win Friends and Influence People that have already largely seeped in to our culture (and aren’t very good books anyway, in my opinion).

Here are my book recommendations.  Because the books are dense with insights, it’s hard to summarize what you’ll get out of them—I’ll just give you a few key topics covered in each book.

  1. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams.  This book is a light, entertaining read that still does a great job of laying a contrarian but solid foundation for how to think about self-improvement in general.
  2. Don't Shoot the Dog by prominent animal trainer Karen Pryor.  Self-improvement is fundamentally about being able to edit your own behaviors the same way you might edit a computer program to change how it runs on your computer.  Karen Pryor is an intellectual leader in the field of animal behavior modification, and she explains many basic findings in this field that aren’t intuitively obvious.  (While writing this post, I noticed that she's written a newer book on these topics... I can't technically recommend it since I haven't read it, but reviewers seem to think it's a bit better.)
  3. Superhuman by Habit by popular self-improvement blogger Tynan.  This book lays out the best habit formation framework I have seen in print anywhere, along with a large collection of generally useful habits to consider forming.
  4. Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.  Awesome book packed with insights on how people think and how to do it better.  I was surprised that many of the ideas in this book were pretty new to me despite having been immersed in the rationality community for a long time, and even familiar ideas were presented in a way that helped me understand them on a deeper level.
  5. The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane.  Excellent book on social effectiveness.

I’d weakly recommend reading the books in the order I presented them.  Books 1 and 2 will do a good job of clearing the proverbial self-improvement minefield and helping you avoid falling in to standard traps.  (For example, before you read Don’t Shoot the Dog you might be inclined to palm yourself in the face if you realize you’ve forgotten to implement some life change you were trying to make.  After reading the book, you’ll realize that you should actually be reinforcing yourself for having remembered about the change—remembering is the first step to doing.)  The early sections of Book 3 will clear away even more traps, but the later parts will give you a bunch of ideas for actual concrete changes to make; I recommend you start experimenting with life changes at this point (if you haven’t been inspired to already).  Books 4 and 5 are “bonus books” on the topics of rationality and socializing respectively… given the foundation you’ve built in the formation of habits and behavior change, you should be unusually well equipped to put the insights from these books in to practice in your life.  If you’re skeptical about this self-improvement stuff and five books seem like too much of an investment, I’d read Book 3 only and see what changes you’re able to implement based on it.

I'd be curious if other EAs have more self-improvement book recommendations, especially if they meet the criteria I listed.

Thanks to Romeo Stevens for convincing me to write this post and providing feedback on book recommendations.

7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:38 PM
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Thanks for the recommendations!

Do you really think that some of these have low overlap with CFAR workshops/other random memes people are likely to be exposed to? I didn't get much out of Kahneman when I read him and it sounds like Don't Shoot the Dog might be similar in that regard (especially with CFAR overlap).

Do you really think that some of these have low overlap with CFAR workshops/other random memes people are likely to be exposed to? I didn't get much out of Kahneman when I read him and it sounds like Don't Shoot the Dog might be similar in that regard (especially with CFAR overlap).

I felt like the overlap was relatively low, but it's good to have another data point from you. Unfortunately, reading DStD and going to CFAR happened to me long enough ago that I'm having a hard time doing an informational diff, although I think I can remember several important & useful ideas from DStD that CFAR didn't cover.

(It might be useful to clarify that although these are all some of my favorite books, I'm still a little bearish on book-reading in general relative to what the best blog posts have to offer. So a good alternate framing for this post might be "if you're the kind of person who reads books regularly (e.g. you listen to audiobooks on your commute or you hate reading on computer screens), here are some I recommend". And yes, I expect the ROI to be lower for people who have already invested substantial time and energy in self-improvement.)

Did you finish Kahneman, by the way? My dad and I both got the impression that the book starts a little slow/dry but gets significantly more interesting.

It occurred to me that Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! might be a good addition to this list:

  • I think reading the book made me more curious, adventurous, and enthusiastic about applying math and analytical thinking to the world in general.

  • The book has a few interesting ideas that mostly haven't been written up elsewhere (cargo cult science, his method for producing "genius" discoveries, the value of having a different set of tools, and probably others).

  • It's highly entertaining and easy to read.

(There might be a different Feynman book that's better if you're only going to read one.)

Also Feeling Good for anyone who struggles with depression.

Edit: Mindhacker compresses a lot of ideas in to a small space, although they're not always that high quality.

Nice list - I'm a bit addicted to this genre, so I've grabbed a couple of those i haven't seen before.

My top 2 at the moment are "Getting Things Done" and "So Good They Can't Ignore You"

Thanks! Do any of these happen to be easily accessible online? I haven't been able to find them yet.

Did you try any of the links here?

There are two books which have greatly improved my focus and productivity:

Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser

The message is really simple, and can be expressed in 9 words:

Write down your goals, and they will come true.

It really works! Try it.

Another great book, full of practical tips on prioritisation and motivation, is:

Eat That Frog! By Brian Tracey