R ecently, I received a comment on a blog I wrote questioning certain terms I referred to and suggesting that “…they were conjured up by people who just want to sell their books and courses.” In the interest of full disclosure, despite being the author of a book and a blog, I also have a full-time job and I am not banking upon the success of my book or blog in any way. This comment however, led me back to the bigger question of the validity of the whole self-help industry itself. Amazon has over 226,000 paperback books on self-help in general. Self-help can be defined as “the use of one’s own efforts and resources to achieve things without relying on others.”
As I researched articles on self-help books and how people supposedly get the best out of them, I found many interesting positive and negative views:
In 2011, a Mail Online article in the UK was titled “Self-help books could ruin your life! They promise everything—and sell in the millions, but a leading psychologist remains unconvinced.” That psychologist, Professor Timothy D. Wilson, was quoted as saying: “Many self-help authors offer mantras and ‘remedies’ that are designed to make people feel good—but they don’t actually cure what ails them.”
A 2012 Psychology Today article by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD provides five guidelines to help readers find the right self-help book for them. These include, (1) Check out the author’s credentials; (2) Think of your book as a therapist; (3) Look critically at the quality of the writing; (4) Decide whether the book will motivate you and (5) Don’t be afraid to give it a critical reading.
Another article in Psychology Today by Barbara Markway, PhD, suggests looking for a book that focuses on a limited range of problems, a book that provides specific guidance for implementing the techniques, a book that helps you monitor progress and one that addresses the possibility of relapse or setbacks.
My take on the self-help conundrum: There are no magic cures. Self-help books merely provide ideas and tips. Some may work for you and some may not. Reading them is usually the easy part. It is similar to attending a course or seminar on self-improvement. The hard part comes when you have to actually focus on applying ideas that gel with you, and making the time and effort to practice, practice and practice. Often for most people, they are not things you feel comfortable with, or want to practice, like public speaking.
Though this is somewhat subjective, names of books in this category might include: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, The Art of Happiness by The Dalai Lama, Good to Great by Jim Collins, and The 4 Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris. What made them so successful? Comment after comment, include themes like: a profound influence on people’s lives, life-changing; some were spiritual, some had key business ideas, some made you more productive. There are of course many, many other books.
Some of the responses I got from a broad array of friends and colleagues on reasons why they read self-help or inspirational books include wanting actionable ideas, a reality check, something that resonates, an easy read, and an “aha-moment.”
A self-help book is a medium that usually offers us a few memorable ideas that stick in our mind; we either consciously or subconsciously apply them in our lives in a way that makes us better at what we do or who we are.
One of my personal favorites is 20,000 Days and Counting by Robert D. Smith and I have a routine of marking up the date and the number of days I have been alive on the white-board in my office each day. That simple five-second action helps to remind me that “every single day counts.” The book also reminds me that life is a “series of moments” and there have been only a few really major influencers or people in my life that I have truly counted on, and I am talking less than 50. These include certain family members and friends, but not necessarily people I see all the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t have hundreds or even thousands of contacts or people we know, it’s the ones that are really there for each other that often count most.
Having read Good to Great several years ago, the one key takeaway I have from that book is “right people, right seats.” That means getting the right people in the right jobs—get that wrong, and big things that matter will likely go wrong! As simple as it seems, it is actually very hard and is often the Achilles’ heel to a leader. Emotional decisions and unsound loyalties can often screw that one up.
On Blogs: most blogs have some form of business or self-serving purpose, whether it is to share ideas, express a brand identity, expand a contact list, attract talent, build credibility etc. A cynic may question the gentleman who led me to this topic as to “why do you waste your time commenting on blogs and books on self-help if you truly believe they are just there to sell books and courses?” My question to the readers of this blog, is: “What do you look for in self-help materials, and do you get what you are looking for?” Please share – Thanks!