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10 Personal Development Lessons I’ve Learned From 200 Hours of Audiobooks

I’ve listened to a lot of personal development audiobooks over the years.

Despite listening to hundreds of hours, I’ve always been reluctant to write about personal development. I like the tangibility of facts, stats, actionable steps, and takeaways. I like direct connections between action and financial results.

And I’ll be honest, I’m not big on “touchy-feely.” If you like the idea of improving your life but don’t want to sit around a campfire singing “Kumbaya” and swaying gently, you share my sentiments.

But who says personal development has to be touchy-feely? Why can’t it be grounded in those tangible facts, stats, and actionable steps?

Like any genre, certain themes recur again and again across personal development books. Here are 10 of those recurring themes, along with scientific research to back them up, and specific actions you can take today to start seeing real results in your finances and in your life.

1. Continue Learning

The economy and job market are changing faster than ever before. According to a 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, up to a third of US jobs will either disappear to automation or require significant retraining by 2030.

In fact, we’ve already seen it happen. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, many lower-skill jobs disappeared and never returned. MIT researcher Pascual Restrepo found that between 2007 and 2015, job openings for routine, low-skill jobs declined by 55% compared to higher-skill jobs, as noted in The Economist.

Coasting along in neutral is not a viable career strategy. In order to adapt to an ever-accelerating change of pace, you need to constantly learn new skills.

What applied yesterday doesn’t necessarily apply today – and what applies today won’t necessarily apply tomorrow. For instance, the technology platform you use for work may become obsolete. Or, your current sales and marketing channels may dry up overnight, forcing you to find new ways to stay in business and compete.

Nowhere is this clearer than in online marketing. In my previous company, I watched a change in Google’s search algorithm send our traffic and sales plummeting by 30% literally overnight. I watched as more aggressive keyword bidding on Google Ads from our competitors caused a 50% year-over-year drop in our profits from Ads marketing.

In short, if you don’t evolve and adapt, you will become obsolete.

As a final thought, there’s a saying I often hear in both personal and business development: “What got you here won’t get you there.” Essentially, this means that what helped you achieve your current success will not be enough to get you to the next level. At each step up the ladder, you need greater and different skills. Having technical skills may have made you a successful employee, but if you want to go into business for yourself, those technical skills alone won’t be enough.

Action Steps

  1. Make Reading a Non-Negotiable Daily Habit. Spend at least 15 minutes every day reading. In doing so, you’ll build a positive habit that has the power to change your mind – and your life.
  2. Read to Stay Sharp in Your Career. Read articles about news, changes, and trends in your line of work. Research hands-on, practical tips for performing better in your field.
  3. Read to Build Your Personal Wealth. Regardless of your career, set aside a little time every day to learn more about personal finance and building wealth. For instance, read about investing and retirement planning, and how to save more and spend less.

2. Get Intimate With Money

Schools don’t teach financial literacy, investing, budgeting, or retirement planning. So if you want to build wealth, it’s up to you to figure out how to do it.

Consider a study published in the Journal of Economic Literature by Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia S. Mitchell. They found that among college-educated adults, improvements in financial literacy boosted their wealth by 56%. Among adults with less education, the results were even more dramatic: an 82% improvement in wealth.

At the risk of venturing into “touchy-feely” language, an expression I often hear in personal development is “improve your relationship with money.” But the analogy holds together: if you believe money is the root of all evil, you will pay little attention to it and subconsciously divest yourself of it as quickly as possible.

In contrast, those of us who believe that money is a tool that can be used to create happiness and achieve goals pay more attention to our money. We learn how to earn more of it, how to invest it, and how to protect it.

Because the truth is that money is linked to happiness. A now-famous study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that up to around $75,000 of annual income, there is a close correlation between income and happiness levels. However, newer research published by the National Institutes of Health reveals that even wealthier people share this pattern, with the super-rich showing higher happiness levels than garden-variety millionaires.

Money is the most powerful and complicated tool in the world. The greater the skill with which you wield it, the better it performs for you. But remember that it is a tool – a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Action Steps

  1. Stay Abreast of Money-Savvy Tips. Subscribe to the Money Crashers newsletter for consistent, ongoing financial education to help you build wealth faster.
  2. Challenge Your Perspective. When you’re ready for a full-length book, read or listen to “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. There’s a reason why it remains a classic decades after being published: it can help change the way you think about money.

3. Actively Maintain a Positive Attitude

I have never read a personal development book that didn’t mention attitude.

A positive attitude is crucial to your success, and it doesn’t just happen. You have to work to cultivate it every single day.

Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania has conducted extensive research on how attitude impacts results. In one study of insurance salespeople reviewed by Forbes, he found that optimistic salespeople sold 37% more policies than their pessimistic counterparts. The pessimists were also twice as likely to quit within the first year.

Your attitude even impacts your physical health. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that cardiovascular patients with the highest optimism rates had a 31% lower mortality rate than their negative peers.

It’s not easy to stay positive. Optimists aren’t immune to bad days; the difference is in how they respond when bad things happen to them.

Action Steps

  1. Make Gratefulness a Way of Life. Try practicing gratitude when you first wake up and just before you go to sleep. In doing so, you retrain your brain to think in more positive terms.
  2. Surround Yourself With Positive People. Negative people sap your energy by complaining and always focusing on the downside. Positive people will reinforce your optimism and help you see the sunny side – even when life sends rainclouds your way. In the absence of positive role models, train yourself to think positively with inspirational quotes – like these inspirational quotes from Janice Wald’s Mostly Blogging.
  3. Think Positively About Your Finances. Try these positive habits to improve your finances through purely practical ways.
  4. Maintain a Healthy Sense of Humor. Look for the humor in it when something goes awry. When you can keep a sense of humor, you build your immunity to anger, depression, and pain.

4. Set & Measure Goals

Set goals just on the edge of what you perceive as possible. If you set small goals, you keep playing small and see small results.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras popularized the notion of “big, hairy, audacious goals.” The premise is simple: by aiming for extraordinary goals that genuinely excite and inspire you, you are more likely to achieve them.

The same logic holds true in both your career and in your personal life. Try these long-term personal finance goals as inspiration to help you get started.

Action Steps

  1. Dream Big. Choose two or three long-term goals that excite and inspire you. Write these big, hairy, audacious goals down where you’ll see them every day. A study by Gail Matthews at the Dominican University of California found that the simple act of writing down goals led to a 33% increase in their success rate.
  2. Measure Your Progress. Set a timeline and success metrics for each of your goals so that you can objectively measure your progress. Try keeping weekly and monthly records of your progress so that you can stay on track. As they say in business, that which gets measured gets done.

5. Be Accountable & Resilient

You are accountable for every result in your life.

Like everyone else, you have good days and bad days. You have strokes of good luck and strokes of bad luck.

Obstacles and even trauma arise in every person’s life, but your results are not about what happens “to” you. Your results and success are based on how well you prepare for problems and setbacks in advance, and how well you respond to them when they happen.

Yes, it’s awful that you suffered that injury or illness. Did you have health insurance? Did you do every physical therapy exercise, every day while undergoing treatment? Or did you lie around and complain that you’re a victim?

When these setbacks happen, or even when you just plain fail, you can either stay knocked down and blame everyone and everything else, or you can get back up and try another route to your goals.

That’s the difference between successful people and average people. To illustrate this point, research by Stanford professor Kathryn Shaw shows that failed entrepreneurs have a greater success rate at their follow-up business ventures than first-time entrepreneurs. But most failed entrepreneurs never see that success, because most never bothered to try a second time.

Embrace failures along the way as hard-earned lessons. Take ownership of both your successes and your failures, learn from both, and then forgive yourself and try again.

Action Steps

  1. Get Feedback. Earlier I urged you to write down your goals. The next step is sharing them with other people. Start by sharing your long-term goals with three people close to you, whose opinions you value.
  2. Find an Accountability Partner. Find someone who shares your ambitious streak and become accountability partners with them. Share your goals with each other, how you’ll measure your progress, and any progress reports with each other. According to one study reported by Inc. Magazine, participants had a success rate of 95% in achieving their goals when they had an accountability partner to help them.
  3. Invest More. If you want to take it a step further, you can hire a coach, find a mentor, or join a mastermind group. However, starting with an accountability partner is a free option.

6. Prioritize Your Physical Health

My uncle, a professor of biology at U.C. Santa Barbara, once shared an analogy with me: “Think of your body as a car. Everyone wants their car to last 200,000 miles. But for the first 80,000 miles, most of us abuse the heck out of our cars, alternately slamming the accelerator and the brakes, putting the cheapest fuel in them, and ignoring routine maintenance.

“The result? Most of our cars don’t make it to 200,000 miles.”

You have one brain and one body. They don’t get better with age. But you can increase and preserve their performance by taking better care of them.

And if you’re wondering what this has to do with money, success, and happiness, the links between health and wealth are well documented. For a simple example, consider a Gallup poll that asked respondents whether they ate healthily all day “yesterday.” Later in the survey, it asked whether they have enough money to do everything they want to do. Nearly 70% of the healthy eaters responded that they had plenty of money, while only 57% of the unhealthy eaters could say the same.

Or how about this study published in Psychological Science, where the researchers concluded: “We found that the decision to contribute to a 401(k)-retirement plan predicted whether an individual acted to correct poor physical health indicators revealed during an employer-sponsored health examination.”

The same goes for exercising. When The Washington Post analyzed data from the CDC, they found that “Among the nine indicators we analyzed, the biggest predictor of weekly physical activity at the state level was money.”

Action Steps

  1. Build a Goal-Oriented Library. Equip yourself with plenty of recipes and free home workout routines to eat healthily and stay fit on a budget.
  2. Create Healthy Habits that become as thoughtless as brushing your teeth. You can’t rely on willpower alone to do the right thing – it will fail you eventually. Instead, build a workout into your daily routine. Whether it’s before work, mid-day, or after work does not matter. The important part is that it’s at the same time every day.
  3. Foolproof Your Routine. The first few weeks will be tough going, and you’ll look for rationalizations to take days off. Don’t do it. Throw away all of your unhealthy recipes, and keep a virtual or physical folder – I use Google Drive on my phone – with healthy recipes on hand at all times. On weekends, plan out every meal for the week ahead, then go shopping specifically for the ingredients you need for those meals. Make enough at each dinner to save leftovers for lunch the next day.

7. Surround Yourself With a Successful Tribe

Surround yourself with positive, successful, goal-oriented people. For example, befriend people who ask to meet you at a healthy café, not McDonald’s. Find people who push you to work out instead of pushing you to take a cheat day, lounging around eating, drinking, and watching TV with them.

Most importantly, find people who share or exceed your own financial literacy and success. In my own life, I’ve seen this play out dramatically, as I have completely separate social circles in Abu Dhabi than I do in Baltimore. My friends in Abu Dhabi are nearly all teachers. They share stories about their students and complain about their administrators. If I try to talk about investments, the economy, or personal finance with them, their eyes glaze over.

My friends in Baltimore, however, are mostly businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and professionals. When I get together with them, we talk about what’s going on in the economy. We talk about investments and ways to earn more money.

One of these groups is far better about saving money, and it has nothing to do with salary differences. International teachers in Abu Dhabi earn the take-home equivalent of my professional friends back home, if not more. And most of these teachers blow nearly all of their high incomes every month because they have a poor relationship with money.

People behave similarly to the people around them. In a Russian study reported by Science Daily, students socialized almost exclusively with other students with similar GPAs. Likewise, a study published in Psychological Science found that people with low self-control were far better able to resist temptation when they surrounded themselves with strong-willed friends.

Action Steps

  1. Surround Yourself With the Right People. Hang out with people who practice successful habits. As the saying goes, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. The more relationships you cultivate with people equally or more successful than you, and the more time you spend with them, the more likely their good habits are to rub off on you.
  2. Be the Friend You’d Want to Meet. If you want to attract successful friends, be intentional about your self-development. Influence is a two-way street.

8. Take Charge of Your Habits

Just as you cultivate a peer group more aligned with the success you want to achieve, you also want to cultivate the habits of those who have already reached it.

Earlier I touched on physical health; consider that 76% of self-made millionaires work out at least 30 minutes every day, according to a survey by Tom Corley reported by CNBC.

The same survey went on to reveal that 88% of self-made millionaires read for at least 30 minutes every day. Plus, 89% of them sleep for at least seven or eight hours every day, often more.

Successful people have successful habits. The inverse is also true: poor people have poor habits, like smoking, watching an average of five hours of TV every day, and overspending.

You’re a grownup. You’re accountable for your own outcomes. So, take charge of your habits, rather than letting your habits rule your life.

Action Steps

  1. Build One Habit at a Time. Pick one positive habit that you want to adopt. Or, for that matter, one negative financial habit that you want to break. Commit to engaging in (or not engaging in) that habit every single day for the next 30 days.
  2. Get an Accountability Partner. Share your commitment with your accountability partner and keep track of your progress. If you slip up and miss a day, give yourself five minutes to feel guilty about it, then forgive yourself and get back on the proverbial horse.
  3. Educate Yourself. Learn about essential money habits that will boost your wealth. You can even take it a step further by adopting these habits and traits of billionaires.

9. Find the Constraint

What is the One Thing that would have the greatest impact on your progress toward your goals? Or, put another way, what’s the One Thing that’s holding you back the most?

Imagine you’re a salesperson, but half of your time is taken up by administrative or technical tasks. When you’re actively pursuing sales, you’re efficient and effective. But you only spend half of your time doing sales.

These administrative and technical tasks are distractions – the constraint holding you back from achieving far greater sales. In this scenario, your highest priority should be eliminating those distracting tasks. That could mean explaining the situation to your boss to have her remove the constraint for you, or it could mean hiring someone to take on these other tasks for you. You could even change jobs, to take a position where you can focus 100% of your energies where they will have the most impact on your results.

In any given moment, there is one area that’s holding back your progress. When you reduce this constraint, then some other area will become the constraint – the next worst offender holding back your results.

Action Steps

  1. Find Out What’s Holding You Back. Identify the worst constraint to remove the blockage, and then find the next worst constraint.
  2. Be Single-Minded in Your Quest to Alleviate Constraints. Research from Stanford shows that the more you split your attention and multitask, the less effective and efficient you will be. One of the reasons for that is because if you’re focusing on something other than the constraint, you aren’t tackling the One Thing that’s most likely to improve your results.

10. Have the Courage to Take Risks

A recurring theme among personal development experts is that the most successful people in the world dare to do what others won’t. They take risks, but not recklessly; they take calculated risks after research and rumination.

Consider that starting a business is a significant risk. But every successful entrepreneur did it. The wealthiest people in the world are not doctors or lawyers (although many of these are also entrepreneurs), but rather business owners who started their own business.

All innovation involves risk. The first iPhone was a risk; Apple effectively invented the smartphone market, where the closest existing analog was the PDA market. But you can be sure that Apple carefully analyzed the market before committing hundreds of millions of dollars into developing the world’s first true smartphone.

In fact, there’s even research published in the Journal of Organizational Computing and Electronic Commerce correlating risk-taking with higher career satisfaction among entrepreneurs.

What most people misunderstand about calculated risk is that by doing nothing, they are in fact both acting and taking a risk. This is easily illustrated with money: if you invest it in stocks, real estate, or some other vehicle, you accept a level of risk in exchange for the likelihood of a return on your investment. If you leave your money in cash, you can expect a guaranteed negative return, as your cash loses money to inflation every year.

It’s better to fail by doing the wrong thing than to fail by doing nothing.

Action Steps

  1. Take Calculated Risks in your career, your personal life, and your finances.
  2. Invest Money in Stocks. Every stock market correction in history has recovered sooner or later, proving that sitting on the sidelines can be far more expensive over time.
  3. Invest Time and Money in Learning New Skills – especially if that means taking a risk on investing in yourself.
  4. Get Feedback on Your Projects and Progress. Remember that perfectionism is a defense mechanism. The next time you think to yourself that something you’re working on is “not ready for anyone else to look at yet,” consider that an average book that’s published is better than a masterpiece that sits idle on your hard drive.
  5. Use Failure as a Launchpad. Failure and criticism can help you grow. Look no further than those repeat entrepreneurs who had a higher success rate than first-time entrepreneurs: they failed, they stood back up, dusted themselves off, and tried again.

Final Word

A final recurring theme in personal development is faith. It doesn’t have to be religious faith (although that can be helpful too), but rather faith in yourself, in your work, in your family and friends, and in a universe that fundamentally wants you to succeed.

The alternative is constant second-guessing and nail-biting. Faith does not come naturally to me as a skeptic who believes in data and science. But when I became an entrepreneur, I knew I had a choice. I could either believe that my hard work was creating something that would eventually bear fruit, or I could believe only what I could see with my own eyes: a company barely generating enough revenue to cover its expenses.

That same choice applies to you, regardless of whether you’re an entrepreneur or an employee. You get to decide whether or not to believe in yourself and your goals, even when you have no objective reason for belief.

If you believe in a better life tomorrow, it starts with taking action today.

What have you learned from self-help books?

G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.