I read a self-help book last night. I read it more because I know the author than out of any specific need for help, though Jebus knows I could use a little help. It was a short book, and I am a preternaturally fast reader, so this was only an investment of about 30 minutes. The book was fine - well-written, full of great anecdotes and inspiring examples, as the best of this genre tend to be. It was the brevity of this book, however (and not the content) that crystallized a thought I've had marinating for years but never been able to fully articulate until now: why I hate self-help books. It isn't because they are a way for you to think about doing things rather than actually doing things, as my friend Matt Ridings suggested to me, though that's as valid a reason as any. And it isn't because I think the authors are in any way disingenuous about their prescriptions; to the contrary, I know the author of this particular book and believe me - he walks the talk he preaches. No, I dislike them for two reasons. The 30 minutes I devoted to this book drove home the first: it took me a long time to become the person I am - over four decades of continuous service. If each of us is made up of a tally of successes and failures, as the songwriter Frank Turner noted, then my tally sheets are richly packed in either column. It took me 40+ years to get screwed up. You don't unscrew that in 30 minutes, or an hour, or however long it takes you to read one of these things. You don't, despite what these authors preach, flip a switch and Get To Yes or Get Things Done or Unleash The Giant. If you were the sort who could flip that switch, you'd have done it already. The fact that you haven't doesn't mean you are a failure. It just means you aren't hardwired to flip that switch. There isn't a switch to flip. If you've ever read one of these books and felt like a failure because it didn't "take," don't feel bad. You didn't fail; the book did. The book underestimated you, and the process you require to right your ship. This is why we have therapists. (I'm serious about that.) The second reason I hate these books is more nuanced. Some people truly *can* flip that switch, and plot a direct path to figuring out what they want and exactly how to get it. I call those people "self-help book authors." Not only do I not doubt the sincerity of these people, I truly believe that their prescriptions work...for them. People who discover the 12 steps or the 8-fold path to success write books. People who plot paths to success that don't work, don't write books (or at least, they don't write books people buy.) In other words, there's a built-in, and substantial, survivor bias baked into this genre. History is written by the victors, and so too is the story of success written by the successful. Does this mean we have nothing to learn from their examples? Obviously not, and people surely do find inspiration in these templates of success. But these are anecdotal treatment plans without a proper diagnosis. In medicine, the fables (true or false) about people who "cured" their cancer through diet and herbs are amongst the most dangerous anecdotes in the universe, as Steve Jobs himself would later come to realize near the tragic end of his short life. The self-help fable is dangerous not because it is false; but rather, because it is true - for the author. When we search for "symptoms" in common with the author, and use our own confirmation bias to follow their prescriptions, we run the very real risk of screwing ourselves up even worse. It is this aspect of the self-help genre - the undiagnosed prescription - that puts the lie to the very term "self-help." When you buy one of these books, you aren't getting "self-help." You're getting Robbins help, Tracy help, or Covey help. These people don't know you. They can't diagnose you, nor can they treat you--without meeting you. I do not doubt their sincerity; nor do I doubt that for some, their long-distance prescriptions are accurate. For others, they simply aren't. When we try to follow these generic prescriptions and find that they don't work for us, we tend to beat ourselves up about it - to see this "failure" as evidence that we just can't stick to anything. This is inductive reasoning at its worst. You might have chosen the wrong treatment plan for your condition, but that's a mistake quickly rectified. You didn't "fall off the wagon," you simply picked the wrong wagon. So, where do we turn for help, then? Again, if it took you as long as it took me to screw yourself up, you probably don't need self-help. You need help. As in, someone else to help you. This is why people go to therapists for years - exorcising your demons is a practice, and it takes time. But even a good friend, or a mentor who cares, is vastly preferable to an impersonal prescription. Your relationship with an author ends when you put down the book. They might truly care about their readers in the aggregate, but they can't be there for you when you eventually discard their process. Having someone in your life at either a personal or professional level ensures that you stay on track. If you have an inflamed appendix, you don't read a book about appendixes (not "appendices," word nerds!) You see a doctor and get the thing taken out. And if you need help, you need help. Put the damn book down and go ask for it. I hope, ironically, that helped.