Wes Baker

The Tyranny of Self-Help

April 04, 2011

We all read for different reasons, some of us read to wind down and strip back the problems of our day. Others read for inspiration. But I want to talk about the people who are reading to learn, more specifically the people who are trying to improve.

These folks see themselves as lacking something, imperfect in some way. They’re constantly striving to find the next book, the one that’ll help them finally get out of that funk they’ve been in: the holy grail of self-help books that will prove all of the other books wrong and will help them become the person they’ve always thought they could be.

So, they read the book, scribbling notes in margins, highlighting passages, and committing key tenants to memory. And for the next few weeks, they’re riding high, feeling as if the world is theirs with a feeling that they can do anything; all because the last book they read said so.

But talk to these people a month or so after they finished the book and see how they feel about it. More frighteningly, see what they’ve absorbed and remembered. Even worse, see what book they’re reading now. Typically, the most important---and most difficult---parts have been forgotten first. They openly admit that they’re not following the system verbatim, but they’re doing a pretty good job and they still feel as if it’s helping. They also confide in you that they’re planning on starting a new self-help book this weekend, one that promises to do what the last one did, but this one applies the methodology to another deficient part of themselves.

This is the crux of the problem. It’s not that reading self-help is always a bad thing, I don’t believe it is. The issue is determining when to stop reading and take what we’ve learned and apply it to our lives. We keep going back to try and find another solution, because finding solutions is easy, actually using them is incredibly hard.

Industry

To understand why people keep going back to the bookstore, it might be helpful to see how the self-help industry functions and it all begins with a very successful formula:

  1. Show that the reader is broken in some way, whether or not the reader came to you with this problem. You’ll typically find this problem on the cover (front or back) or in the introduction.
  2. Explain that you have the cure to this problem. A scrap of the solution---or maybe the whole thing---will be on the cover as well.
  3. Explain the cure and show them that life is better on the other side. This is the majority of the book.

This formula works because the book tends to do a good enough job of instilling a sense of inferiority because we don’t know the fix to what ails us, but this author does. Why else would they be a published author? After we buy into the problem, we begin to see the fix, but just a small part of it and this fix gets us exited. We start thinking of all the things we’ll be able to do after we’re no longer broken: getting a promotion, reading more, living a happier more fulfilling life, or whatever else is being sold these days.

But why does this formula exist? Why are there are so many self-help authors with too much snake oil to sell? Easy, in 2008 alone, the self help industry generated $11 billion1. These authors, and self-help as an entire industry, have gotten greedy. And this greed is producing two kinds of people:

  1. Believers: those with a voracious appetite for self-help who don’t know when to stop. These people never feel improved ‘enough’ and always feel like there’s something else to learn, something else they need to know before they can “get started” with whatever they want to start. Your author was---and to some degree still is---one of these kinds of people.
  2. Skeptics: people who actively shun self-help, who sneer at it’s polished veneer and it’s authors who grace the covers of their respective books. These people may or may not have the right answer, but they feel that they’ll learn it one way or another.

It’s easy to accept that there are skeptics, every industry has them. But how can that same industry also create a group that feels like they have a problem, fixes said problem, and comes right back for another serving of self-help?

the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months.

  • Steve Slareno, form self-help book editor for Rodale Press2

Therein lies the irony of self-help, your biggest customers are those that have already “helped themselves.” Yet, why would these people keep going back, over and over, creating an industry that rakes in billions each year? One simple idea:

[…] if your life does not get better, it is your fault---your thoughts were not positive enough.

The self-help industry sells improvement, yet when you don’t see the improvement, it’s not their fault, you didn’t try hard enough. It’s obvious that you need this improvement, otherwise why would you be buying this book? So, since you haven’t improved at all, you’ll just need to keep trying until you truly improve. That’s how this industry survives, that’s how they can continue selling the same ideas with different packaging.

Happiness

You’d expect with all of this improvement that these people are seeing, that they’d lead happier and more fulfilling lives. However, I’d argue it’s doing quite the opposite. All of this reading is introducing doubt, instilling fears and belittling people. That’s how it builds interest in ‘the cure.’ It seems that those skeptics mentioned above might be the happier group: they have no problem ignoring a book that is telling them that they’re broken.

What about the believers---the customers---are they truly broken? I don’t think so, I think they may have been living happy and contented lives, but through the right combination of self-doubt, a desire to improve, and good timing, they determine that they are in fact broken. They need a cure and this book promises it and what is printed must be true.

Speaking from experience, this is the road to unhappiness, the wrong path: this search for weaknesses will eventually break you. If you want to obtain the happiness that these authors are promising, my advice would be to do what you love and improve what you’re good at. Don’t ignore your weaknesses, but don’t focus on them either.

Recovery

If you can’t tell yet, I’m a recovering self-help ‘addict’. Writing this essay has been a cathartic exercise. At one point in my life I wouldn’t bat an eye at buying a stack of self-help books all telling me that I’m broken and how they’re going to fix me. After reading each, I’d feel two conflicting emotions: a sense of growth and motivation; and a proverbial slap-in-the-face, cautioning me to never read anything like this ever again. After which I’d pick up the next book in the pile and start the process anew.

I realize how stupid this sounds---how naive I was---to just keep reading the same thing over and over again, only with a different schtick this time. Yet, it was a way of life for at least two years. I’d peruse Amazon, looking for the latest in self-help. When I found something I liked I’d sometimes add them to my wish list, but more often I add it to my cart.

It was when I looked at my bookshelf and saw more than a handful of unread self-help books that I realized that I might have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe books are intrinsically bad, quite the contrary: I love books. My problem comes from the content of these particular books. How many times does one person have to tell you the same thing? How many ways do you need to learn to not procrastinate before you get off your ass and actually do something? It’s a hard lesson to learn and doing things is a hell of a lot harder than reading about them.

So far, my ‘recovery’ has been a long and winding road filled with doubt as to whether I’m doing the right thing and frustration after realizing that these books aren’t actually helping. My recommendation is to do what I did:

  1. Take all of the books that you might consider self-help off your bookshelf and put them on the floor.
  2. Categorize them according to what you think they might improve; keep the categories broad and try to only have three to five categories total.
  3. Pick one or two books from each category that you’re going to keep and get rid of the rest. (I got rid of mine through Amazon and PaperBackSwap.)

If you need help on figuring out which books to keep and which to get rid of, I’d recommend looking at negative reviews on Amazon---they tend to be the most honest.

Experience

How then are we supposed to improve if we can’t read self-help books? Start doing. If you want to write, start writing, don’t spend time reading a book that explains why you aren’t motivated enough to write. If you want to have a better outlook on life, start thinking about everything that makes you happy, don’t read a book that explains that a mission statement might make you a happier person. And for the sake of everything that is good in this world, don’t listen when someone else says that you’re broken and they have the cure for it, especially when that person is trying to sell you something.

Experience is one of the best teachers out there. No book can kick you in the ass as hard as experience and no lesson will stick with you as long as that kick in the ass. Hard lessons like these will make you a better person both personally and professionally. Ask anyone you consider to be truly great how they improved the most? Was it by reading the latest self-help book or was it by actually getting out there and doing something and learning from the results? My bet is it’s the results and I think Theodore Roosevelt might agree:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.3

Live your life as if the man who wrote that is watching.

Rinse and Repeat

Even considering all that I’ve mentioned, the self-help industry is going nowhere. Next year will be a better year than the last. Books covered with grandiose statements will still litter bestseller lists and you’ll still see far too many books with the author’s likeness plastered all over the cover. People will still be told that they are broken and that the fix is neatly packaged into an affordable $25 book or, worse, a $6,000 life-changing retreat.

So, like the skeptics, should we doubt every single self-help book we come across? I don’t think we should, but maybe we can learn something from our skeptical friends:

  • What does this book really talk about?
  • Is the concept new to me or have I read something like it before?
  • Why am I excited about this? Is it just because everyone else is excited?
  • Would I be better served by learning through experience?
  • What do people I know and trust think of it? Have they read it?

My bet is that if you ask yourself those questions, you might find yourself putting that book back more often than not. Real self-improvement starts with figuring out what you want to improve and trying to improve it through hard work and experience, not by sitting down to read a book about it:

A hard thing is never done by reading an article about doing it.

I would add the same for books.

Footnotes


Wes Baker

I’m a programmer who lives in Fredericksburg, VA. I enjoy board games, puzzles, and making things work. When I’m not in front of a screen of some sort, I’m probably spending time with my wife, my son, my animals, my board games, or my books.