Books about very specific things that double as manuals for living a good life


I hate self-help books. Irrationally so, since I am just the kind of neurotic, self-conscious type who often looks at oneself and decides one needs help.

But most self-help books are so…pathetic. They’re too on-the-nose. Reading them seems to scream “I am damaged and weak” in the same way that reading a literary exegesis of humor screams “I am not funny.”

Which is why I love self-help books in disguise: books about specific, grounded pursuits that just happen to double as big-picture life improvement manuals.

My two favorites (one old, one brand new):

True and False, by David Mamet: This is supposedly a book about how to become a good actor. Actual actors tend to think it’s full of shit, because Mamet doesn’t really care about process, or Method, or “acting” at all in the sense of “how to become better at pretending.” He cares about acting in the sense of “how to become better at doing.” Like, “man of action”-type acting – which, of course, translates just as well to real life as the stage. Putting up or shutting up. Taking action even when you’re scared or uncertain. Just doing it – not because of what “it symbolizes” or because you think you understand your “motivation” – because it needs doing. Like in an “or else I don’t eat today” kind of way. If you want straight talk on how to act – or, in other words, live – with purpose and integrity, Mamet’s your man.

(He also thinks grad school is for pussies, which is an entertaining point of view.)

Rework, by The Founders of 37signals: This one’s about how to start, run and grow a profitable small business. It’s relevant to me because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with Small Mammal. But even if I weren’t, there’s scads of wonderfully blunt wisdom about how to square “making a living” with “making a meaningful life.” This book is all about how to zero in on what’s real in your world, and how to crop out all the bullshit that seems important but isn’t. Like how being a workaholic isn’t actually being a hero. Or how spending your life in “important meetings” adds up to jack squat at the end of the day (or the end of the life). Or, my favorite: how inspiration is perishable – that fire in the belly you feel today will curdle like spoiled milk a month from now. (Note: They don’t actually mix their metaphors like that.)

The point is that this is great life stuff, but the insights are simple and pointed and useful, because they’re about things that are not as abstract as “life stuff.”

Do you have books that are like that for you? If you’ve read this far, I’d love to get more recommendations.

5 Responses to “Books about very specific things that double as manuals for living a good life”

  1. 1 James

    I really liked The Three Laws of Performance, ostensibly a book on leadership and business, but it’s really a book that says, “How you see the world around is flawed by your own biases. Here’s some basic ways to show you whats really real and not your own projection.”

    I mean, when the first “law” is that how things occur to you is how you interact with them, you know you’re in for a weird and bumpy internal ride.

  2. Great post, J. I have never wanted to read a business book, but now I want to read Rework.

  3. Yes! The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a look at how world class performers build skill. He looks at musicians, athletes, chess players and notices some common threads. It’s a great read, and I think most of us can easily find ways to employ the lessons. By the way, this was a great post, can’t wait to read Mamet’s book.

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