Why I Hate Self-Help Books

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.
5 responses
I love the point you make here -- that self-help books are the stories of success. It's true, that for many, reading (and failing to accomplish) what seems so simple for someone else can have the effect of making the situation worse. And, as you point out, there is real danger in thinking that you can follow someone else's map rather than your own.

But that isn't always the case.

Sometimes people need to see the success story, just to know that success is possible. It's why (as I know well) all Weight Watchers leaders were and are successful members first -- we are living examples that the possibility exists. Indeed, I often say to my members, "You don't have to believe you can, you just can't believe you can't."

To me, that's the Force of these books, whose Dark Side you crystallize so well: maybe, just maybe, they seed the possibility of success. Read enough of them, and maybe, just maybe, you find the right piece of this one, the spirit of that one, the confidence from yet another, to put together set your own path.

It's true that these books (and maybe large numbers of these books, taken in succession) can kick start you towards something. But I would point out that, to your weight loss example. I know success is possible - I see thin people. But If I want to lose weight, I'm better off going to Weight Watchers meetings than reading a book - no matter how compelling. Right? That seeking help is superior to reading these books doesn't preclude the possibility that a given book or books might work for you, or catalyze a helpful action. But when the book *doesn't* work, maybe it's time not for another book, but to try another tactic entirely. Definition of insanity, and all.
Yes, of course. As in all things, the true test is: does it work? Does it achieve what you wanted it to achieve? If reading the books (alone) isn't working, then do something else, either instead of, or in addition to.
I'm a long term ragebot about self-help books -- and not because I don't believe we can help ourselves, and not because I want to underestimate the value of being inspired or receiving counsel or asking ourselves big questions.

And I think you nailed the why -- it's what worked for someone ELSE. And while it may work for you, inevitably, something about how you get where you want to be will be different. And if nothing changes, are you going to feel terrible? Like you can't be helped? Like others can do what you can't? Like you're not strong enough or awesome enough or disciplined enough to be great?

I have friends who have read diet books and done diets they read in books, and became frustrated that, whatever the prescription was, they couldn't quite get where the author had gotten. Was it because they didn't try hard? Was it because they were meant to be overweight? No -- because their bodies and their "whys" are different than the author's. Perhaps some element of the book's counsel could make a difference, but the reader's unique needs trumped the formula as a whole.

I also have friends who've read psychological self-help books, and found the same result in the end -- they weren't feeling a WHOOSH of inspiration and change, no matter what they did. Again, maybe there was advice of significant value... but the overpromise of the formula left them feeling like a failure.

I'm a strong proponent of four ideas: 1. You can learn important lessons from anyone or anywhere you are, if your eyes are open, and you want to learn. 2. What works for someone else might not work for you, but you can take what's worked and adapt it to who you are and your special needs. Find the core of a strategy, and move forward from there. 3. If you can't make something happen according to someone else's plan... well, that's okay. You aren't done yet. 4. Anyone who promises if you do x, you WILL get y isn't in touch with reality -- or they're trying to get in touch with your wallet.

Finally, the sheer amount of self-help authors that have committed fraud, stolen from their "true believers", lied about how they got to the place they're in, or are more interested in their own power than empowering anyone else... well, the number is staggering. And you don't need to give them more control in your life than you have. Take the good lessons, scrap the bad -- and if you accomplish something, it wasn't their power that did it... it was yours.

Excellent points Tom!

It took you 40+ years to get screwed up, you say. Aren't you getting things mixed up there? You're 40+ years of age, and screwed up - but what if that all started with 5 minutes of choosing the wrong path decades ago - couldn't you undo it all within the same 5 minutes, or maybe even less?

Just a thought

Are you hardwired even to do anything? What is hardwired mean, really? Is, or isn't there a bit to flip? If others can, shouldn't you be able to do it if it's a mere thinking process?

I flipped my bit a few years ago. Well, I didn't. Just seeing that I flipped the bit decades ago was enough for me to become aware of the fact that I've unleashed a torrent of awarenesses (sorry, word nerds) onto myself ever since. Is even one of them true? What does true even mean?

The fact is that you are a Borg like everyone else: you have been assimilated into a collection of belief systems that you now call yours, and even You. The demons you talk about, are in your belief system too - exorcising them only makes their case stronger, simply because you give them attention

2,000 years ago a slave called Epictetus said among others that the only things in your control are your own thoughts and feelings - and they are in no one else's control either

You are not who you think you are Tom, nor who others think you are. In order to find out who you are, you must first find out who you are not

Take one of the current identities you have, and put them to the test. Start with a small one (e.g. the hot-tempered Tom) and verify when he's around, and why - then try to find out since when he's around.
Is that really you for the full 100%? If not, which other identity is there - and follow the same questionaire

I guarantee you that, if you do this for 2-4 weeks and invest 2-4 hours, you'll be considerably less certain about the Screwed Up You you currently think you are. Let's talk / write again then