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There’s a reason the archetypal character of the Wise Woman exists – all over the world, mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers have come together to share their stories, offer their insight, and help guide the next generation toward success. But not all of us are blessed with wise and knowing mothers we can call on a whim when we’re seeking guidance through hard times. However, there’s good news: in the modern era, none of us have to go it alone. There are shelves of self-help books for people of all walks of life waiting for you on Amazon, at the library, or on the shelves of your local bookstore.
We know that it can be a challenge to find the right book in the right moment, so we’ve gathered together a list of the best books by today’s Wise Women – including best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah Winfrey, and young stars like Keke Palmer and Rupi Kaur. These ladies offer their own sage wisdom and the encouragement and guidance to achieve your dreams, so you don’t have to waste your time reading book synopses and can get right to the important work of improving your life!
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)
Elizabeth Gilbert swept women’s book clubs across the world with her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. If you haven’t heard of it (or seen the movie with Julia Roberts), the book tells the story of Gilbert’s life after divorce, and her struggle to recreate her own definition of success. In Big Magic she takes those life lessons and creates a guidebook for women looking for inspiration, support, and the freedom to express themselves fully, without fear or doubt. The book is all about embracing your own beautiful strangeness, and though Gilbert herself makes a living as a writer and creator, the book isn’t necessarily about quitting your day job and becoming a sculptor or a performance artist – unless, of course, that’s always been your dream. Instead, Big Magic proposes a new way of living that focuses on finding enchantment in the world around you, being curious enough to explore and ask questions, and giving yourself permission to live a new kind of life. These lessons might help you complete that screenplay you’ve been keeping in filing cabinet for twenty-five years, or they might just help you learn how to walk down the street in a more optimistic way. However you channel that energy, Gilbert is a sympathetic and thoughtful guide through the difficult process of learning how to think in a new way.
The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer (2014)
Motivational books geared toward women often have one thing in common – they focus on getting over self-doubt. This is true of musician Amanda Palmer’s memoir, The Art of Asking, which she wrote after she ditched her corporate label and asked her fans to help fund her new record. The book begins with Amanda’s childhood and her life as a street performer. She had to learn to be ruthless in order to eke out a living playing music for strangers on the street. The real focal point of the book, though, is the story of her unhappiness in the corporate music world, and how she had to get over her own preconcieved ideas about who should fund her music. Palmer wanted the freedom to create the kind of music that inspired her, but she was too afraid to ask for help to get it. Palmer writes about doubting her own worth as an artist, and in the process guides other artists and creative types, as well as those struggling with self-doubt and anxiety in general, on their journey toward asking for help in order to accomplish their goals. Palmer used Kickstarter to fund her project, but The Art of Asking is more about learning to value yourself, so you can go out into the world and find your own path toward accomplishing your dreams.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverence by Angela Duckworth (2016)
Unlike your typical self-help book, a manifesto on how to think differently or improve your life with ten simple tips, Grit by Angela Duckworth is first and foremost a piece of scientific research. Duckworth works in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and has spent the last decade trying to figure out how to help children become successful. Her findings? Basically, there is no “secret” to success. If you’ve come looking for a list of ten easy fixes that will guarantee your future happiness, this isn’t really the book for you. Duckworth makes it clear in her book that success is all about traits that take time and effort to develop: hard work, humility, intelligence, and kindness. Her research shows that talent doesn’t guarantee success, and that though its helpful in making a name for yourself in the world, ultimately perserverence is the real driving force behind a promising future. This is a great book for social scientists, parents, teachers, and all those who are looking for something deeper and more meaningful than a self-help fad.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (2013)
Working and non-working moms alike, take note: Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is not another book whose primary advice for working moms is “just deal with it and keep going.” In the opening sections of her book Sandberg makes it very clear that working as a mother – or even a mother-to-be – is not easy, and she’s not judgmental of mothers who have the privelege and desire to stay home. Instead, Sandberg’s book is a commiseration and a confidence-booster – she validates the struggles of working women everywhere, and offers her own tips on how to navigate work, children, a relationship, and the general chaos of daily life. Sandberg talks about how to make deals “like a man,” how to talk to your partner about an equal partnership in parenting, and the ways that she still sees men as the primary holders of power in the corporate world. Sandberg considers herself a feminist, but makes some interesting, shockingly honest arguments about how the biggest downfall for many women is our own self-doubt and desire to be liked. The book is a commiseration with the struggles of working moms and women trying to get ahead in a system that works against them. It’s a great read for anyone who needs a vote of confidence that there’s hope, even in a flawed system.
Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rimes (2015)
When Shonda Rimes started her production company Shondaland to help co-produce Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, she never imagined what a success it would be. Thirteen years later she has a half dozen shows, all critically acclaimed – Private Practice, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, The Catch. Rimes is the queen of her fictional TV universe, and as a black woman in the media industry that’s an incredible accomplishment. Despite all this success, she still wanted more – she wanted a life that felt full and complete and thrilling every single day. Which brings us to her new book, Year of Yes, a motivational memoir with a pretty simple premise – just keep saying yes to the opportunities that come your way and see where the road takes you. The book is full of stories about how saying yes lead to some of Rimes’ most satisfying moments, including losing more than 100 pounds and speaking at Dartmouth’s commencement. And though Rimes is a super high-powered lady, she also includes some simple pleasures in the book. My favorte parts were the moments she said yes to playing with her kids, even if she was about to head to the office. This book on success isn’t just about those big career moves – it’s about saying yes to life moments, and enjoying every part of the ride.
How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide through the Paradoxes of Modern Life by Heather Havrilesky (2016)
I am absolutely in love with Heather Havrilesky. Her “Ask Polly” column at The Cut is a breath of fresh air I discovered a few years ago and have been reading voraciously ever since. Havrilesky is a tough cookie who doesn’t beat around the bush, but she is also incredibly sympathetic to the weird, impossible, bizarre toughness of the world. In How to Be a Person in the World she uses her trademark balance of tough truths and empowering optimism to suss out problems on identity, tragedy, love, work, family, and so much more. At the end of the day, the questions she answers all boil down to learning how to love yourself, let yourself be happy, and find the answers that work for you, even if they don’t sound good to literally anyone else. She is the queen of finding your own path through life, and she writes pages for each reader query, offering anecdotes from her own weird, complicated life along the way. From age-old questions like “How do I get over my ex?” to the tough ones like “What do I do now that my mom has passed away?” Havrilesky offers kind, honest, real answers that take into account the complexities of living in the world.
Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017)
Though Hunger isn’t a self-help book per-se, it’s one of the most powerful memoirs I’ve ever read. Roxane Gay is a writer, reviewer, and professor extraordinaire, and she actively writes for a number of magazines about obesity and what it’s like to live in the world as a plus-size, black woman. Gay’s memoir is exquisitely written, tender, and honest – she writes about the sexual assault that lead her to find safety in food, and the dozens of ways she has struggled to lose weight, navigate the world, and finally accept the realities of her larger-than-average body. At its core, this book is about living in a woman’s body, and how to exist in a world that makes having a female body challenging no matter your size or stature. Hunger is also a beautiful story about the lifelong impact of trauma and violence, and serves as a guide toward healing, acceptance, and personal growth. What I love most about this book is that it doesn’t offer a simplistic answer or stretch toward total acceptance and positivity. Instead, it’s an honest protrayal of work-in-progress. Roxane Gay is an inspiration to all women looking for validation, honesty, and inspiration to talk about the hard things, even when you don’t know if anyone is listening.
Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters by Laurie Ann Thompson (2014)
Be a Changemaker by Laurie Ann Thompson is perfect for the idealistic girls in your life, who dream of becoming the movers and shakers of the next generation. Thompson, a children’s author, is also the cofounder of a non-profit and internet start-up company, and has dedicated much of her life to helping kids with big dreams accomplish their goals and find meaning in the world. This book tells the story of a few teens who found meaningful ways to contribute, but is primarily a guidebook for social action and change-making. Thompson offers tips and tricks for people of all ages to use digital tools and social entrepreneurship to start their own non-profits and make a difference. And, because this is a book for kids, it features the stories of eleven and twelve-year-olds who started non-profits to help girls in Rwanda – an amazing feat which also begs the question: if an eleven-year-old can make their dreams happen, why can’t you?
The Book of Awesome Women: Boundary Breakers, Freedom Fighters, Sheroes and Female Firsts by Becca Anderson (2017)
Finally, we’ve arrived at the era of celebrating women’s history – the era which gave us Malala, Hidden Figures, and so much more. Becca Anderson’s The Book of Awesome Women is another addition to this collection of non-fiction books which feature the important work of women, both historical and contemporary, and their contributions to the world. Anderson was always angry at the lack of female representation in her history classes, and especially frustrated by the white-washing of history that essentially ignored the accomplishments of women of color across the globe. The Book of Awesome Women seeks to right some of those wrongs, by telling the stories of incredible ladies from antiquity onward. The result is an incredibly throughly researched encyclopedia of women’s accomplishments in eight chapters, one of which is specially dedicated to women of color, though women of all demographics are featured in each section of the book. The book has some familiar faces and some I’d never heard of before, but Anderson’s expert research offers new insights in every chapter, even when she writes about the lives of familiar famous women. This is a great book for casual perusal when you’re in need of some inspiration, or to read all the way through if you want to wow your friends with your gender-inclusive historical knowledge.
Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis (2018)
Its hard to be proud of your own all-too-real life in the age of Instagram, when you’re constantly inundated with pictures of your friends’ sexy international vacations and perfectly foamy lattes. Rachel Hollis, founder of TheChicSite.com, makes it clear from the very beginning of her book that though you might feel like everyone else’s life is perfect but yours, it’s all an elaborate hoax. Girl, Wash Your Face is Hollis’ response to our obsession with social media, and it stems from her own struggles to feel worthy and happy while living her own complicated and messy life. Hollis shares her own ugly stories – the kinds of stories you never see on social media – and talks about how she got through hard moments and stopped comparing herself to all the glamorous people around her. Her book is a reminder that everyone’s life has its ups and downs, and that nobody is nearly as perfect as they seem on the internet. Beyond that, though, her book is a guide for women who are looking for ways to overcome their own issues with self-esteem, by exposing twenty lies that we tell ourselves and offering tips and tricks to change the way we think.
How to Stop Feeling Like Shit by Andrea Owen (2018)
The thing I enjoy most about Andrea Owen’s book How to Stop Feeling Like Shit is that it’s formatted almost like a workbook. Owen spends most of the book revealing fourteen habits many of us do that make our lives much harder and less happy – things like isolating ourselves and learning how to set realistic goals. But unlike many self-help books, which offer the information but don’t give much room to apply it, Owens offers ample space and opportunity to see how each habit might be a part of your own life. At the end of each chapter Owen asks five or six guided questions, which she encourages her readers to reflect on in ways that are specific for them. She also includes exercises like the square-inch box, where she encourages readers to draw a one square-inch box on a piece of paper, and fill that box with the names of people whose opinions you value. The point of the exercise, of course, is that you can’t fit very many names in a one-square inch space – if you’ve got more names than space, Owen says, you should start ticking some of the less important people off that list. Owen’s book is all about finding your values and choosing to live by them, which I appreciate because it makes the book totally customizable and applicable for anyone. The experience I have reading Andrea Owen’s book might be completely different from the one you have, but at the end I think we’ll both feel more productive, more confident, and more certain of what we want and which direction we need to head to get there.
The Confidence Code by Katie Clay and Claire Shipman (2014)
The Confidence Code is a self-help phenomenon, and for good reason. Authors Katie Clay and Claire Shipman spent many years working on the research for this book, which focuses on one of our culture’s modern mysteries – why, they ask, do even the most successful women struggle to feel confident about their lives and their work? Clay and Shipman journey into the world of neuroscience to learn about the confidence gene, and perform their own genetic tests to uncover how their own genetic histories might impact their feelings of confidence. But the book isn’t all about science. Clay and Shipman spend much of their time interviewing women in politics, sports, the arts and beyond about how they overcame their own struggles with self-confidence, and talk to leading psychologists about how to become more confident whether you start life that way or not. They learn, along the way, some surprising facts about how we can physically rewire our brains by changing our behaviors, and in the process create a motivational book to help all women (and now girls too!) find the confidence they need to succeed.
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett (2016)
If you don’t know Krista Tippett or her popular podcast On Being, stop what you’re doing and start downloading. Or, better yet, pick up this book and start reading. Becoming Wise is a book of transcribed interviews from Tippett’s show, and each chapter acts as a little window into the wisdom of a particular master of their field. Though the show does talk a bit about spirituality, it’s non-denominational and there are many interviews with scientists, as well as meditation experts. Tippett interviews the famous author Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of a number of books on mindfulness, and self-help and confidence guru Brene Brown. This book, and the accompanying podcast is great if you’re looking for short readings to help inspire your morning, or just don’t have a lot of time to sit down with a longer book. It’s also great for those who have a hard time ascribing to one philosophy of living – self-help skeptics, I’m looking at you – because the book includes bits of wisdom and philosophy from dozens of different guests from a wide variety of backgrounds. If you’re new to the motivational literature genre, this might be the perfect place to start; with Becoming Wise you can dip your toes in and move on if you’re not feeling connected to a particular guest, flip to a new chapter, and try again.
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