A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Development

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m kind of a nerd for personal development, but I realized the other day that I’ve really never taken the time to explain it.

The name doesn’t exactly sell it well; I much prefer self-improvement. (Both are better than self-help, though.) I say “nerd” because there’s nothing cool about it … “trying” isn’t looked upon so favorably by the masses who determine what’s cool. But I’d argue that reading or listening to something motivational, inspiring, or educational every single day is without a doubt the most important daily practice in my life.

My nerddom is to the point that more than once (in the past year alone) I’ve bought out-of-print cassette tape programs from the 1980’s on ebay, and either listened to them on a boombox in my car (really) or converted them to MP3’s. Which, I’m told by some new friends, is lame because not only do people not listen to cassettes anymore, they also don’t use ebay anymore.

But although I like to think the themes I learn from these books and tapes underlie my posts — those of taking responsibility, dancing with fear, thinking big, persisting, engineering habits — I’ve never written explicitly about personal development here. So that’s what I’m doing today.

A 30-Second Argument for Personal Development

For me, it’s religion for the non-religious. When so many other messages that reach us are negative (hey, that’s what gets our attention and holds it, hence what sells), I think I’d be hopeless without a source of daily influence in the opposite direction.

Some people will argue that it’s silly to strive for improvement and that we should instead strive to be content in the present moment, with the way we are. But in my experience, I’m happy only when I’m growing. And I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive: I love reading about Zen philosophy and I’m an on-again-off-again meditator. It provides a nice balance to the go-go-go mindset that personal development often promotes.

It’s been 10 years (almost exactly) that I’ve been into this stuff, and the other night I tried to put my finger on the key points I’ve taken from it in that time. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, there really aren’t that many of them.

Certainly a quick list isn’t going to have the same effect that drilling these messages into to your head for years does — for me it’s mostly reading, but also by audio on the majority of my runs and every time I drive anywhere — but I hope this will at least serve as an introduction for someone who needs it.

What I’ve Learned from 10 Years of Personal Development

Apologies in advance for any corniness here. Like I said, it’s not exactly fashionable to try. But this stuff applies to diet, running, career, relationships … you name it.

Take responsibility. For everything you do, and even for everything that happens to you. It’s immesely freeing.

Don’t recoil from fear. Everyone who isn’t bored out of their mind is afraid; some people just acknowledge the fear (or similar discomfort), put it in a box in their mind, and move forward. Often, it’s a weathervane that tells you exactly what you need to do.

Think big and have written goals. It’s such a cliche, but by simply asking more of life, you very often get it. I firmly believe you’re more likely to achieve a big, scary stretch goal (that’s so exciting you become obsessed with it), than more modest, “realistic” goal that you’ll give up on at the first sign of adversity.

Small steps add up. We’ve all seen two or three years go by in a heartbeat, and if you commit just a few minutes a day to making some improvement, it doesn’t take long for it to accumulate. A lot of people object to starting small (or starting at all), because they say things like, “But by the time I go back to school / train for five years / change careers I’ll already be 50.” The answer is that you’re going to be that age in five years no matter what you do, so why not go for it?

Don’t overestimate other people’s capabilities while underestimating your own. The impostor syndrome is so widespread that it’s, well, a syndrome. Most other people, doing the things you want to do, started in the same place you’re starting. There’s this perception that everyone else “out there” is confident and fearless, and it’s completely false. The good news: since just about everyone thinks this way, it really pays off when you learn not to.

Commit. Nothing happens without commitment. We like to dabble in things, quitting once they get difficult. The trick is to recognize at the outset that there’s going to be a dip, and decide then (before you start) that you’re willing to push through it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. And, by the way, once you’ve made the decision that you’re not going to quit, it all gets easier. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Starbucks cup: “The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating.”

Have faith. Like I said, religion for non-religious people. I’m not sure that faith is the best word to describe the only halfway-rational sense of “This is going to work, and even if it doesn’t, somehow things will work out for the best” with every project you dive into. But it’s the best word I’ve got for it.

Where to Start

Here’s a list of a few of my favorites. To make this list, I just wrote down all the personal development books or audio programs I’ve read or listened to more than once. This doesn’t mean they’ll resonate with you the way they have with me, but it’ll give you a jumping off point. (I’ve only put in links to the free stuff.)

  • Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins (a really long book, but the abridged audio version is perhaps the best place I know of to dive into this rabbit hole)
  • Personal Power II (audio) by Tony Robbins
  • Just about anything by Jim Rohn
  • The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy
  • The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen (basically the same book as the Compound Effect with a different title and metaphor — you only need one of them)
  • Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield (here’s a post I wrote inspired by this amazing, swift-kick-in-the-ass of a book that helped me pull out of a really rough time)
  • The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman (fiction, but I still consider it personal development)
  • The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (I have zero desire to work only four hours per week, and the business section in this book is more about building something you don’t care about than something you do, but I love the rest of it)
  • Startup School by Seth Godin (free audio, and more business than personal development, but Seth’s style and message are so great that I had to include it)
  • Linchpin by Seth Godin
  • The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin
  • How to Stay Motivated, Volume 1 by Zig Ziglar (very old and with some religious messages that I don’t particularly like, but a very good series for developing a strong self-image)

And don’t forget podcasts! My friend Jeff Sanders has a good one, called the 5 AM Miracle, and I like Tim Ferriss’ podcast too (the Josh Waitzkin episode is my favorite).

I realized as I was writing this list, as you probably did reading it, that there aren’t any women authors on it. This isn’t deliberate, and I’ve really enjoyed personal development material from Jen Sincero, Brene Brown, and Nicole Antoinette. (Marie Forleo and Danielle LaPorte are also superstars in the niche, but their stuff seems really aimed at women so I haven’t checked it out.) I’ve noticed that there’s an extreme imbalance in the number of men who write about these topics compared to women, but I also sense that this is changing, as the women I mentioned above are all modern, while a lot of my list is older material.

What’s Next for Me

I happen to be flying out tonight to a Tony Robbins seminar, the one where you walk across coals. I’ve been two times before, the first of which led to my going vegetarian and starting No Meat Athlete a few days later. Say what you want about Tony, but I’m an unabashed fan.

I have high expectations for the seminar, and I’m just as excited to have completed, after this, my busiest month (and three-month stretch) of travel since my book tour last year. But I’m not sure what’s next for me or where I’ll focus my energy when I get back. Certainly on writing far more than I have been (I mean, three weeks between posts?) but I’m itching to get back to serious running too.

I’ve thought a lot about doing another 100-miler over the winter, but my wife and I are thinking about a big change in the next few months that would preclude that (I’ll let you know what it is once it’s final). In the meantime, I’m thinking about returning to marathons for a bit — I’d still love to break 3 hours one day, but I know I’ve lost a lot of speed and that’s no small goal for me.

Which, of course, is where all this personal development stuff will come in handy.



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  1. “Some people will argue that it’s silly to strive for improvement and that we should instead strive to be content in the present moment, with the way we are. But in my experience, I’m happy only when I’m growing. And I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.”

    Gretchen Rubin has a great quote about this: “Accept yourself, and expect more from yourself.”

  2. Matt, this is such a great list. I’m definitely with you on the whole start small and put it out there to the universe business — it’s been amazing to see what just … happens, you know? (You know.)

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this list. Gotta run, I now have a date with my Goodreads app.

  3. Hi Matt, Thanks for the post. I would beg to differ on people finding it silly to strive for improvement. I believe that is why we are here. I also do not see the striving for improvement and being present in the moment as mutually exclusive. Please don’t apologize. I think you are awesome and inspirational and I really look forward to your posts. To me everything that you are dobodies ing is all tied together, and going plant based and taking responsibility both personally for what we put into our as well as our impact on the env

  4. Michael Middleton says:

    Great post – thanks! I would add one thing to your list of important life lessons which many in the field refer to as “embracing failure” or something similar. I prefer to think of it as, “I tried something and it didn’t work. I need to find what does.” as I find it to be more scientific and freeing. The concept remains the same, especially for us long distance runners on a “diet” that is different from the American mainstream. Quitting is the only real way to fail. Embrace the fact that there are many things you will try that will not be successful, and that what you learn from those tries will be far more beneficial than trying once and succeeding.

  5. Hi Matt-
    I first heard about Tony Robbins from a post you did several years ago, and I have to say thank you so much for that. I started reading Awaken the Giant within and was so intrigued and hooked! You and I communicated through email at that time because I was thinking of taking my daughter, who was a skeptic, to UPW. You encouraged me to go anyway. I ended up going with my husband in November of 2011 in LA to UPW and that was just the beginning of a huge change in my life. At that time we had one restaurant, and I was stuck in a whole slew of limiting beliefs and fear of growing that company. After UPW, and in the 3 years since, I have been totally hooked on PD. My library is full of books that I am reading or have read, I have audio galore, we have grown our company to 3 locations and growing, and our income correspondingly as well. I have been to Business Mastery twice, and we had the awesome opportunity to go to Fiji when BM2 was still being held there in a small group. I have taken most of my family members to an event, trying to share the amazing impact that this has had in my life (not all have been on board, but all have definitely learned something!)
    So my point in this is really to express my deep and sincere appreciation and thanks for doing what you do, for writing about this. Your initial brief post about Tony Robbins is the catalyst that has changed my life in so many amazing ways. Please give yourself a big hug from me, and I hope our paths will cross someday so that I can thank you in person.

    If you are in the SF Bay area, please drop me a line, I would love to feed you at one of my restaurants. Thank you and have an amazing day!

  6. Good Post. I’m going to recommend a book for you. “The Traveler’s Gift” by Andy Andrews! Personal development in a neat story. Fiction but historical. You won’t be able to put it down and you’ll learn 7 things about life!!!!! Loved it. I’ll lend you mine but I’ll want it back since it was a gift and I’ll reread it! Let me know what you think.

    • Thanks for the reading suggestion. I found it on Audible and listened to the beginning today on my long run. I am really enjoying it thus far. Makes me want to run again so I can listen more. 😉

  7. Thank you for the reminder. I seem to get off the track of self-improvement and it’s bloggers/writers like yourself that continually keep the good stuff coming and help me find my way back on the right track. Much appreciation.

  8. Matt, I can express how helpful this article is. Such a great list of resources and knowledge. To be honest, I help so many people, have been for years Matt. Why I can give them the best advice and sources in the world, I leave myself bare. I spend so much energy on everyone else, I have nothing to give when the week is done. I’m going to check in on some of your listed resources for sure. Your words are inspiring and have encouraged myself to think about “me.”

  9. Hi Matt, I just discovered your blog, thanks to Vegan Cuts. Love it! Alex (my daughter and co-founder of Veganosity) are runners and vegans. I’ve been a runner for years, but she started shortly after going vegan, and she just ran her first 1/2 marathon with me a few weeks ago! We are huge proponents of personal development, and I particularly love your old school list (Tony and Zig!). To me, all of the things that these motivational speakers say are reminders of what I already knew, but forgot. I NEED to be reminded. Thanks for the list, and I’m so happy that I found your site!

  10. Hey, just wanted to drop a note and say thanks because it was you who introduced me to personal development! I started with your Wake Up challenge in January and have been hooked ever since! Right now I’m very much enjoying Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning.

  11. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Hey Matt,
    I think if more of us were into personal development there would be less wars. When you have a deeper understanding of yourself (and hence the growth begins), you have a deeper understanding of others. Personal growth not only affects one person, but everyone we come into conact with.
    A humble offering of what helped me:
    -The Road Less traveled by M. Scott Peck
    -Men are from Mars, Women are from venus
    -The Prophet by kalil Gibrahn
    – Most anything by Tich Nah Han

    Rock on Matt!

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