Read and grow rich: seven habit-forming books of highly successful people

October 31, 2014, 11:02 AM UTC

Master motivator Tony Robbins, profiled in a new Fortune cover story, has reached countless strivers over the years with his blockbuster bestsellers Unlimited Power (1986) and Awaken the Giant Within (1991). Now the giant of the self-improvement genre—literally, he’s six-seven—is rousing people to conquer their finances with his first major book in two decades: Money: Master the Game (Simon & Schuster, Nov. 18). Here’s a brief history of personal development literature’s greatest hits.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

Carnegie’s classic self-help book counts people as diverse as oracular investor Warren Buffet and murder-mastermind Charles Manson among its acolytes. The book, which comprises a recipe for getting ahead, has sold more than 15 million copies since it was first published. Transcribed with help from a stenographer (at the suggestion of a Simon & Schuster exec who heard Carnegie speak), this likeability manual spawned from a popular lecture course taught by Carnegie. Here’s a nugget of Carnegie’s counsel: “You can't win an argument. You can't because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (1937)

Urged by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to research what underpins the fortunes of the world’s most powerful people, Napoleon Hill spent more than 20 years studying well-known financial front-runners. Inside he bottled “the Carnegie secret,” distilling knowledge from such captains of industry as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and, of course, Carnegie. Among those influenced by Hill’s “philosophy of achievement” is boxer Ken Norton, who cited Hill as inspiration after defeating and breaking the jaw of Muhammad Ali. As an L.A. Times sportswriter once wrote of the match: “The credit belongs to a famous man of the past named Napoleon. Not the Emperor of France; this one is Napoleon Hill.”

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1952)

Turn that frown upside-down: In the relentlessly upbeat world of post-World War II America, where everything seemed like it was on the rise and always would be, Peale optimistically codified simple procedures for “mastering the problems of everyday living.” Don’t be defeated, he counsels. The book “is written with the sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life.”

I’m OK—You’re OK by Thomas Anthony Harris (1969)

In the 1950s, psychiatrist Eric Berne expanded on Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis to develop his own system of diagnosis and therapy called Transactional Analysis. Rather than speculating about the unconscious mind to explain human behavior, Berne schematized social interactions—aka his “transactions.” Harris, one of Berne’s close disciples, took Berne’s ideas and ran with them, promoting the methodology in his pop-psych paragon I’m OK—You’re OK. Harris’ book became even more influential than Berne’s own and has made a host of pop cultural cameos, including in sitcoms like The Odd Couple, Taxi, and Seinfeld. The child, a transactional analyst might say, surpassed the parent.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (1989)

Managerial magician Stephen Covey became a much sought-after exec-whisperer after publishing his seven-maxim wisdom. Offering sharp saws like Be Proactive (Habit No. 1), Think Win-Win (No. 4), and, well, Sharpen the Saw (No. 7), the book delivers succinct, memorable advice. Covey, a onetime teacher at Brigham Young University’s School of Management and co-founder of its Department of Organizational Behavior, eventually set up a consulting business to market his insights. While Covey’s axioms may come as no surprise to some, it’s the book’s digestible structure that wins him converts—including former President Bill Clinton, who once invited Covey to Camp David for personal guidance.

Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (1993)

Conceived of as a collection of 101 inspiring stories more than two decades ago, the book begat a mega-franchise. Motivational speakers Canfield and Hansen took on the original project after their audience members solicited them to compile anecdotes from their talks. Snowballing into more than 250 titles and selling more than 110 million copies in the U.S. and Canada, the series has become a fixture of bookshelves across the world. Sold in 2008 to three new owners, the franchise has not lost steam. It has since launched a YouTube Channel and comfort food lines for both pets and humans.

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006)

Echoing the language of Hill and “the Carnegie secret,” Byrne produced a Da Vinci Code-esque video documentary claiming to reveal life-changing arcana in 2006. Her book of the same name quickly followed, receiving a major popularity boost from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Byrne’s premise is based on the “law of attraction”: positive thinking begets positive results. Cosmic magnetism and will power bring health, wealth, and happiness, Byrne says. She cites Einstein, Edison, and Galileo as famous possessors of this secret knowledge. Building on her own success, Byrne has continued to spread the word in soulful sequels such as The Power and The Magic.