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The Origins Of Self-Improvement: The Facts, Figures, And Founding Fathers Of Personal Development

The personal development industry has been exploding since the mid-2000s. What began as a niche market in the 1980s (mostly relegated to late-night infomercials) has now become an international powerhouse. In fact, the self-help industry is projected to grow from USD $51.06 billion in 2024 to USD $64.44 billion in 2028 and then to a staggering USD $71.42 billion by 2031.

With a constant stream of new books, events, courses, seminars, etc., the self-improvement space is continuing its upward trajectory. Both companies and individuals understand the value of investing in themselves.

But what are the origins of self-improvement? How and where did it all begin? Who was responsible for making the major contributions that brought this industry to where it is today? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Self-Help And Why Is It Important?

The self-help genre is more popular than ever.

And it’s easy to see why. We all want to be, do, and have more in our lives. Everyone wants the wide range of experiences that come with having a growth mindset. I don’t know a single soul that desires poverty, ignorance, and a limited life. Personal growth is the process of reaching for and becoming more.

It’s human development. For this reason, any activity, habit, or lifestyle that improves your knowledge, skill set, or quality of life can be classified as self-help or self-improvement. Now, why is self-help important? It’s important because it’s the only way to attain your dreams.

Dr. Wayne Dyer once said: We don’t attract what we want; we attract what we are.

What does that mean? If you don’t have everything you want, something about you needs to change. Now, this doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it’s just an indicator that some improvement is required before you can move to the next level in your life.

That’s why self-help is essential. It’s about YOU taking personal responsibility for YOUR life and moving it in the direction YOU want it to go.

And EVERYONE benefits from this: your family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, society as a whole, you name it. We all win when we start to improve who we are.

What Are Examples Of Self-Help?

A cool aspect of self-improvement is that it always has modest beginnings.

The millionaire was once broke; the bodybuilder used to be scrawny; the outgoing extrovert started out shy and timid, etc. So, no matter who you are or where your starting point is, there’s hope. Here are some examples of self-improvement habits to give you a little inspiration on where to start.

  • Reading self-help books (or books in general)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Drinking more water
  • Eating healthy food
  • Starting a morning and evening routine
  • Getting around positive people
  • Investing in personal development programs
  • Saving and investing money
  • Quitting bad habits
  • Getting out of debt

I could go on, but you get the point. Anything you do that improves the quality of your life falls within the category of self-help. It’s a broad genre; however, it has a focused outcome: become a little bit better every day.

Understanding The Origins Of Self-Improvement

Now, let’s get to the origins of self-improvement. Some people consider The Constitution of Man by George Combe (1828) to have started the self-help movement. It supported the idea of personal responsibility and self-directed development through discipline and education. As a result, the origins of self-improvement are often associated with his work.

However, self-improvement extends further back than most are aware of.

Self-help literature dates back thousands of years. As early as 2800 B.C., the ancient Egyptians released literary texts known as “Sebayt” (which means teachings). These writings encouraged ethical behavior, self-discipline, and maxims on living moral and fulfilling lives.

The literature of The Middle Ages reflected this same philosophy in the Mirror of Princes books. These works shared narratives of royal figures whose stories served as examples (what you should imitate) and warnings (what you should avoid). However, because there was no way to print written text en masse at this time, self-help literature (and literature in general) was confined to hand-written documents.

Texts were produced manually on tablets, scrolls, etc., by monks, scribes, and other officials.

This made access to written documents out of reach for most people. That all changed with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455. The printing press made text easily available and widely distributed. As a result, anyone could produce their own views of how to live the good life.

Moreover, any man could now access the information available in books to raise his status and succeed in life.

The Nineteenth Century: The Birth Of Modern Self-Help Literature

The nineteenth century saw the birth of “modern-day” self-help. Now, the term “modern-day” is relative; as we now know, this movement has been around for millennia. However, the 1800s saw the published works of George Combe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Samuel Smiles, who all contributed to and gave “life” to the personal development movement.
In fact, Samuel Smiles’ 1859 classic book gave the movement its name as it was appropriately titled “Self-Help.”

The Twentieth Century: The Rise Of The Self-Help Movement

The origins of self-improvement retain roots stretching back thousands of years. However, the movement amassed momentum in the twentieth century, which saw the rise of many of its modern-day forefathers. Gurus and innovators began revolutionizing this budding industry and changing the lives of millions in the process, from the origins of self-improvement to the industry exploding into the twentieth century and beyond.

The Founding Fathers Of Personal Development

Modern-day personal development began in the 1900s. While many previous writers and orators laid the foundation, the next generation of innovators erected the structure. At this point, the names are more familiar, the books have become classics, and the content is modernized.

James Allen: The Early Self-Help Philosopher

as a man thinketh

In his masterwork, “As a Man Thinketh,” James Allen elegantly lays out the power your thoughts have over influencing your life. With graceful metaphors and beautiful wording, this book is an artistic expression of one of the most tried-and-true self-help principles: You are what you believe you are.

Napoleon Hill: The Think And Grow Rich Legacy

think and grow rich

Published in 1937, Napoleon Hill’s landmark classic Think and Grow Rich has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, making it the most-read self-help book ever. I have read this book more than 20 times. It has helped me gain new clients, improve my writing skills, and increase my income. It’s written in a formal and instructive style, making it easy to digest with its practical steps toward your goals.

Dale Carnegie: The Master Of Social Skills

how to win friends and influence people self help book

Dale Carnegie is easily one of the leading pioneers of modern-day personal development. Although he’s written numerous books on public speaking, quality living, and leadership, his most notable work is undoubtedly the literary landmark “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Originally published in 1936, the book is a definitive and timeless guide on how to navigate the murky waters of personal and professional relationships.

The book offers numerous examples of how a few simple techniques can make you more charismatic, friendly, and approachable.

Psycho-Cybernetics By Maxwell Maltz


Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon, so he’s not typically associated with the world of personal development. However, his classic book Psycho-Cybernetics has sold more than 35 million copies, placing it high in the ranks as one of the most influential self-help books of all time. The book was written in a very warm and empathetic style. As a result, you almost feel like Maltz was talking directly to you as you read.

The Impact Of Earl Nightingale’s The Strangest Secret

the strangest secret

With his bold, booming, baritone voice, writer and radio personality Earl Nightingale was one of the modern forefathers of the self-help movement. In fact, he is often cited as The Dean of Personal Development. In 1956, Nightingale wrote and recorded “The Strangest Secret.” Without any advertising, it outsold all non-musical, non-entertainment recordings, becoming an instant self-help classic. 

It was later transcribed into a book (as seen above). It’s a short read, only about 45 pages, so you can easily get through it in an afternoon. 

The Rise Of Personal Development Gurus

When it comes to the origins of self-improvement, a few heavyweights have carried the torch from the twentieth into the twenty-first century. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the innovators:

Jim Rohn: The Mentor’s Mentor

As one of my favorite personal development speakers, Jim Rohn was a quintessential leader in self-help. He mentored the great Tony Robbins and made his living lecturing around the world on personal development. He wrapped timeless life lessons up in simple concepts and Biblical teachings that made his work truly one of a kind. Moreover, he had a love and appreciation for life that you could sense in his talks.

In my opinion, that’s just one of the many things that made Jim Rohn an irreplaceable figure in the world of self-development. God bless his soul, and may he forever rest in peace.

Brian Tracy: The Success Guru

The success guru of success gurus, Brian Tracy, is a Canadian personal development speaker, writer, and mentor. He has written over 80 books and is one of the leading figures in self-help. As of this writing, the man is 80 years old and is still continuing his mission of helping others achieve their goals and build the life of their dreams.

Tony Robbins: Unleashing The Power Within

Few names hold as much weight and potency in self-improvement as Tony Robbins. This man is a powerhouse. I would say he’s easily one of the most prominent figures in self-help and the world’s best life coach. His programs, courses, seminars, books, and educational training videos have changed the lives of over 50 million people worldwide.

Protégé of the late great Jim Rohn, Robbins has become a world leader in personal development.

What Is The Power Of Self-Improvement?

If you know my story, you’ll know why I’m such a huge advocate of personal development. The beauty of self-help is that the onus is on you. You don’t have to wait for anyone to give you permission to start the process. Any area of your life that’s not to your liking can be improved through time and effort. You’re in full control. 

From ancient times, when self-improvement originated, to the present moment, a vast storehouse of knowledge and wisdom has been accumulated. And now, thanks to the internet’s instantaneous performance, it’s all at your disposal.

You have access to the knowledge of the world’s great thinkers and philosophers. And you can use that wisdom to transform any area of your life. That’s the power of personal development.

How Do I Start A Self-Improvement Plan?

Every goal requires a plan, and your self-improvement ambitions are no different. You must have a framework to guide your actions. This simple step is a practical way to take out the guesswork. Here are a few suggestions that can help.

1. Start With One Area At A Time

First, decide what area you want to improve. I recommend starting with one area at a time. If you try to fix a hundred things at once, you won’t be effective at anything. So instead, choose one area and pool all your focus into that. This strategy doesn’t mean you let everything else in your life fall by the wayside.

It just means you’re giving the majority of your focus to the most pressing issues first. Here are a few areas to consider:

If you have something else in mind, then start with that. The idea is to simply hone in on one—maybe two max—areas that matter most to you at the present moment and then commit yourself to improving in those areas.

2. Create Your Personal Development Plan

Next, you need to create your plan. How are you going to tackle your self-help goals? Going at it haphazardly with no rhyme or reason is the equivalent to throwing darts at a bullseye blindfolded. You’ll miss the target pretty much every time. So, create your self-improvement plan. Here are a few ways to start the process”

  • Start Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and plans helps solidify your ideas. It also acts as a form of accountability when you review your entries and see your own words jumping out at you, detailing the plans to reach your goals.
  • Find An Accountability Partner: Enlist a good friend to hold you accountable to your plans. This can be incredibly effective when it comes to follow-through. If you fail to honor your word, have some kind of punishment lined up for this failure. This will boost the incentive and motivation to push through toward your ambitions.
  • Ask For Wise Counsel: Ask someone who is more successful than you or who has what you want what they did to get it. Many times, this simple inquiry can help shift your perspective on yourself and the actions you’ve been taking.
  • Set A Deadline: Having a deadline is incredibly effective as it attaches a sense of urgency to your goals. And this can be useful for getting you to take action, especially on those days when your aims feel out of reach.

3. Get Clear On The Details

An essential part of planning out your self-improvement goals is becoming crystal clear on what you need to do. Clarity is power. You must put vagueness in the background for good. Decide at the outset what tiny actions you’ll take daily to inch yourself toward your goals. Here are a few examples:

  1. Example 1 – goal is to lose 10 lbs: You may decide to cut out all sugar from your diet and exercise for 45 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.
  2. Example 2 – goal is to save your first $10k: Your action can be to slash all unnecessary expenses (Netflix, junk food, cable, unused subscriptions, etc.) and stash away the extra margin until you reach your $10k savings goal.
  3. Example 3 – goal is to find 3 new clients for your businessThe actions you could take could be to send out 5 to 10 cold emails a day offering your services to companies, corporations, nonprofits, etc.

All of these examples have one common element: The actions you’re taking are simple, easy, and sustainable. And that’s what’s required for your self-help plans to be practical and effective. The secret to success is to take small steps that can be sustained over prolonged periods.


It’s clear that the origins of self-improvement reach back farther than you may have initially suspected. Those origins are the foundation on which the self-help industry stands today. As a result, it’s important we understand and respect them.

If you’re looking for additional self-improvement tips or advice, ensure you sign up for The Motivated And Disciplined Newsletter below.

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