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The 10 Best Motivational Books for Students

Whether you need to clean your dorm room, power through that chemistry class, or just find a little more happiness, the best motivational books for students can help get the job done.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

"The difference between try and triumph is a little umph." But sometimes, that last bit of motivation can be hard to come by. Furthermore, once you find that drive, it can be difficult to figure out how to stay motivated. Navigating the academic waters of college can be tricky. You’re in this weird kind of limbo where you are still a student, but also an adult, and now have to carry the responsibilities of both. You’re going to learn a lot about yourself, life, and others in the next few years, but sometimes you may feel just a tiny bit stressed. You may want some advice about different things along the way. That is how this list has come to be. I have gathered some of the best motivational books for students out there, each with a specific area in mind, to help guide you through whatever new problem school or life may be throwing your way.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Have you ever met someone who seemed to be so smart and talented and yet they’d done nothing with it? If talent is the measure of success, then why do so many talented people seem to miss the mark? This is the question that psychologist, Dr. Angela Duckworth, seeks to answer in her book, Grit, possibly one of the best motivational books for students looking to succeed. In it Duckworth argues that it is not talent that lets people achieve success, but how they react to failure. Grit, as Duckworth defines it, is a potent combination of perseverance mixed with passion, the ability to get back up and try again, over and over. From interviewing people in some of the most grueling professional and academic positions, such as teachers in low income schools and an incoming class of cadets at West Point, to speaking with top CEOs and best athletes, Duckworth gleans some fascinating insights that turn the notion of what makes people successful on its head.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

When we think of people who are considered successful, usually we think of charismatic businessmen in suits who swagger on to the stage with an air of confidence few can master, ready to tell an eager audience their rags-to-riches story. Most of us would characterize such people as "extroverted."  But what about the introverts? Those of us who would rather listen than speak, who prefer moments of solitude to crowded gatherings. Does their lack of bolster and charisma mean they’ve missed out on success? Not according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In her book, Cain examines how the extrovert takeover came to be and just how deep this belief in extrovert = successful goes in our modern society. More importantly, she asks us to consider what we may be missing by overlooking the more pensive part of the population. If you prefer to spend the night in with a cozy blanket and quiet, rather than going out to parties, then read this book.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Guide to Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

People collect a lot of junk. Whether it’s a product of a capitalist society or the idea that we are sentimental creatures, the fact remains that we like our stuff. This is the very premise of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, despite tidy in the title. Kondo’s book aims to force you to consider every possession you have and what it means to you. And while this book gives many housekeeping lifehacks, you can apply this to real life, as well.  If an item does not "spark joy" as Kondo puts it, then you do not need to keep it. So many of us hold on to things out of a sense of obligation or the ever popular ‘but I might need this one day!’, only to have it collect in piles that not only clog up our space, but also weigh us down mentally. The best part is Kondo’s method is a once-and-done approach. Meaning if done correctly, you’ll never have to deep clean house again! Except for dishes, there are always dishes.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

The power of positivity is great and all, but let’s face it, some of us just aren’t all smiles and rainbows, so that positivity schtick doesn’t do squat for us. Enter Mark Mason’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, where the goal is not to live a life of happiness, but a life that is meaningful to you— no matter what everyone else thinks. Considered the millennial approach to the self-help book, Mason gives a refreshing look into how to better yourself and your life by being straightforward and honest with his advice. He points out that you can only care about so many things before you run out of space, so you should carefully consider what you do decide to care about, because there really is such a thing as having no more f*cks to give. Paired with a hilarious, often juvenile, sense of humor, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is a fantastic read for those of us who just can’t be happy all the damn time.

Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman

Of all the motivational books for students, this one in probably my favorite, since it is by one of my favorite authors. This is no doubt the shortest book on the list, but it packs no less of a punch. In 2013, New York Times bestselling author, Neil Gaiman, gave a commencement speech to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts graduating class. Make Good Art, designed by graphic artist Chip Kidd, has brought this inspiring and motivating speech to paper with a layout that is just as engaging as its content. It is a quick read that will have you itching to pick up your pencil, brush, or laptop by the end. Too often people, especially creatives, set out to make art as a means to an end, a paycheck, fame, etc. But really, making good art comes from simply reacting to what life throws at you. Because when real life hits you hard, and it will, the best thing you can do in response is to "make good art."

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown

School is supposed to prepare you for the real world. My teachers liked to use the real world as a threat when I was growing up. They’d say "if you can’t solve for x, you’ll never make it in the real world!" Because, you know, in the 9-5 world you have to find missing letters to get your paycheck. But they completely skipped over the useful stuff like what to look for when renting, how to find a good mechanic, how to register to vote, insurance, all that stuff that everyone else seems to magically know. So if you really want a book of completely useless real world advice that you will use every day, try reading Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown. Based on her popular blog, ADULTING, Brown’s book offers funny and helpful advice for all types of grown-up situations, including the ones you never thought would happen, but totally do. 

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

Released in 1989, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey repeatedly shows up on list after list of must-reads, best ofs, and required readings. It is one of the most highly rated business books of all time. You could say it’s effective. By focusing on deep internal changes, what Covey calls "character ethic" rather than quick strategies, "personality ethic" which is a popular tool in other self-help books, Covey created seven habits meant to cultivate personal growth. Unlike his peers, Covey realized that no success stories were ever achieved alone, they all had people who helped them along the way. Hence why his habits are broken into three phases: independence, interdependence, and continuous improvement. The idea is that you first work on yourself, then you learn to apply your skills to work with others. He also built this idea that self-improvement is never finished, but an ongoing cycle. The book is a bit dated, so it has a definite air of early 90’s jargon in it, but still offers a lot of helpful advice for both your personal and professional life.

Addiction, Procrastination, and Laziness: A Proactive Guide to the Psychology of Motivation by Roman Gelperin

I like to know why things are the way they are. I was the annoying kid in class who followed every lesson up with "but why?" Maybe I’m stubborn, or maybe I just like to have a reason for something before I blindly charge forward. Which is why I enjoyed Roman Gelperin’s Addiction, Procrastination, and Laziness so much and why it makes it on the list of best motivational books for students. Finally, a motivational book that explains motivation! Now I know why I do all the things I know I shouldn’t, like waiting until the last moment to make an appointment, or binge watching all the seasons of Law & Order: SVU (I don’t have a problem, you do!). One of the most surprising insights to me was the idea that addiction and procrastination are, on a very basic level, the same thing. Best of all, after giving a thorough explanation of why we do these things, he gives us steps for how to avoid them.

A Private History of Awe by Scott Sanders

Sometimes you just need a moment to remind yourself of how beautiful the world can be, time to reflect back on your life and count up those moments that truly filled you with wonder. That’s where A Private History of Awe by Scott Sanders comes into play. Unlike many of the books on this list, A Private History of Awe is not intentionally a motivational book, but a memoir. It is a book about one man’s search for awe, those fleeting, profound moments where you feel connected to everything and you’re almost overwhelmed by the intensity of life as it shocks and amazes you. Sanders’ memoir is particularly interesting as he frames it by drawing parallels between his newborn granddaughter and his elderly mother who is going through dementia. For every moment his granddaughter learns something new, his mother seems to lose something old. Interspersed with recollections of his childhood and his own personal collection of moments of awe, it leaves the reader rummaging through their own memories to cultivate their personal collection of awe.

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler

Let me be clear on something, happiness is not positivity. You can be a negative person and find moments of happiness. I personally believe that one of the things that makes happiness so wonderful is because it is fleeting, you can’t be happy all the time. To do so would suck the very joy out of being happy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try living a life with a little more happiness. What I enjoyed about The Art of Happiness, written by the master of happy, the 14th Dalai Lama, and co-authored by psychiatrist Dr. Howard C. Cutler, is that it doesn’t push for happiness through the power of positive thinking, but instead in building compassion for others. A lot of self-help books and motivational books for studuents focus solely on the individual reader, but we don’t go through life alone. We’re all on this space rock together, so one way or another we have to learn to live with each other, and in some sense, for each other too.

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