Self-help books for the skeptics

Self-help is a tricky genre. The books can lean too sunny (read: coddling for the soul), or too doom and gloom in their attempts to tackle darker topics. And so, the cynic is rarely satisfied. As with any genre, however, patient digging yields eye-opening finds — even for unbelievers. We’ve listed some of our faves to get you started:

The School of Life series

Founded by philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is an organization dedicated to explaining — not just prescribing — human interaction. These intellectuals write books, produce YouTube videos, and hold classes for people to understand the way they operate. You could pick up the volume On Being Nice, and learn about how history has shaped our idea of it as bland. Or you could read Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person: & Other Essays, and be faced with the claim that marriage is never sensible. Agree or disagree, the cynic in you is going to love the intellectual challenge.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

This one’s a classic for the packrats. Kondo is a professional cleaning consultant who’s helped tons of clients over the years. When discussing her eponymous KonMari method, she leaves no abstractions. This book tells you, step-by-step, how to declutter once and for all: starting from the stuff you should throw out (anything that doesn’t “spark joy” upon touch), what to sort first, down to how you should fold your socks. Yup, she goes there. You should too, while listening to these tunes while you’re at it.

Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi

If you thought lunchroom politics were reserved for high school, think again. Never Eat Alone gives you hard and fast tips on scaling the social ladder in the working world. Ferrazzi’s pro-tip? Give more than you receive, and the contacts will come. He fleshes out that insight through a generous helping of stories, from his life or that of others. And so, though certain headings in Never Eat Alone seem typical (“Be Interesting,” “Share Your Passions,” among others), it’s still interesting to see how Ferrazzi backs his advice up. Take it from a guy whose day job lies in top-level management consulting.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

From its cover, this book doesn’t spare any f*cks: big black letters on bold orange, kind of yelling the title at you. Manson doesn’t deal with your self-pity, or your yearning for validation. He turns the concept of positivity on its head and just tells you to grow a pair for the important things. He’ll cuss a bit, throw shade and sarcasm, then drive at a lesson to close. Here, it’s about accepting that things will go wrong, but you get to choose where your f*cks go — and what you end up caring about makes all the difference.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

The quickest read of the lot is the one that packs the most punch. Snyder’s little manual is an Art of War for today’s citizen, and on his end, a reaction to the current state of U.S. politics — though his words are eerily appropriate for the local arena as well: “If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you,” he writes. “But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers, one day, doing irregular things.” Snyder supports each tip with historical parallels (starring dictators of the past 100 years), so you know to take him seriously. Sure, On Tyranny definitely isn’t conventional self-help, but we think it embodies what the genre should be: indisputably relevant.

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