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How to think about self-help books

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Ok, I admit it. I am far too familiar with the self-help section of my bookstore.

Alternative diets, positive thinking, 7 habits, four-hour workweeks– yes, I’ve read them all. I have a very high tolerance for bullshit, especially of that type. Always have, despite being rather cynical and dismissive of the majority of the category.

If you believe the media’s portrayal of the people like me, we’re lonely men and women who have tragedy follow us like a black cloud. We’re down on our luck and unlikely to get back up anytime soon. We are the downtrodden.

Some of that may be true– but I’m dismissive of that, too.

Here’s the way I see these books. I think they should be read by everyone, most of the text largely dismissed and appalled by, and then the morsels that apply to you should be absorbed and become part of your routine or mindset. Actually, this not only applies to the way I view self-help, but also a majority of the information in my life. Never accept information at face value, basically. YMMV.

One of my new favourite blogs says you should come to a book with a question. That may help when you’re going through the chaff that’s on that bookshelf, maybe even preventing the occasional gag reflex, who knows.

But I don’t think anyone is born just being successful, or just having all the answers. And most of us don’t have mentors, but we need to look somewhere. It’s weird that it has to be in these books that we find the answers we’re looking for, but it’s even worse that many people refuse to look at them because of how cheesy they are (and man, are they ever).

When I started being able to do this, I found a lot of answers to stuff I needed to know. And you can do it on the web, too– in fact, maybe the web taught me to do it, no clue.

But I’m happy for my ability to both accept and reject this stuff at the same time. Can you do the same?

* Filed by Julien at 1:47 pm under clear thinking


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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16 Responses to “How to think about self-help books”

  1. C.C. Chapman Says:

    I hope in about 12 months to point back to this post and blame you for some new success….Thank you for writing this. JUST the nudge I needed.

  2. Beau Blackwell Says:

    Interesting post, Julien. I find myself in a similar position, as I’m simultaneously an extremely skeptical person but find myself drawn to trying to find answers to the tough questions in these books.

    I think that regardless of how over-the-top a book’s claims might be, there are always nuggets of wisdom hiding amidst the crap.

    In my mind, the challenge isn’t just identifying and separating the valuable from the worthless in these books; it’s actually putting what you learn to practice and making changes to the habits or beliefs that led you to seek out the answers in the first place.

  3. Emma-Louise Elsey Says:

    Hi Julien,

    As a life-coach I get many clients who are self-help book ‘addicts’. In itself, this is not an issue.

    But, so many people read the (self-help) book, enjoy the ‘buzz’ they get from all the support, encouragement and ideas but then the buzz passes and whatever was unsatisfactory about life returns. Ah – it must be time to read a new self-help book…

    So, the question is – what are you going to DO with the information you discover/read?

    I like your suggestion of reading a book with a question in mind – I will use that with my clients (and myself!).

    And I absolutely agree about being able to accept AND reject things at the same time. I read all sorts of books – technical psychology, self-help, gaia, woo-woo, near-death experiences and much more. With some books I need to discard more than I take in… But (my values) it’s essential for me to keep an OPEN MIND. You never know what gems you will find – to use for yourself, for that struggling client, for that zippy article…

    People who dismiss and negatively label self-help readers probably NEED help but are afraid to ask. Because if they were fully enlightened/aware/sorted in life – there would be no need to dismiss those trying to get there…

    Thanks for this post – I enjoyed it and how it made me think! EL

  4. Tamsen Says:

    I justify my rather obsessive collection of information to exactly that: the more I take in, the easier it is for me to spot the truly good and truly different.

    When we only have one source of information, it’s easy to think all the answers lie there. But with multiple sources come multiple viewpoints, and all of a sudden the best information gets (often unintentionally) reinforced. I imagine most people read self-help books looking for a plan to follow. I read them looking for what elements constitute a workable plan, and which elements are consistent across books, genres, and time periods.

    That’s why I’m really taken right now with the idea of figuring out if there are universal elements to people figuring out their own plans–and if so, what those are.

    If we can’t give people maps, can we teach them how to draw their own?

  5. Briana Says:

    Yes! Love this. Oh how I used to slink down the self-help aisle. And sometimes I’ll still turn my book over so the title is face down on the tray table on a plane.

    But – Some of the stuff is incredibly useful and intelligent. So yeah, I can accept the good and reject the fluff. And enjoy reading it without being some storm cloud Eeyore or particularly gullible.

    And I actually heard a report on NPR (tried to find the link for you but no luck) that said something about how we self-improvement readers are actually happier than the general population.

  6. John McLachlan Says:

    “My name is John and I’m a self help book addict.”

    I have a similar attitude to yours about self-help books. I’ve read lots and there really is usually something of value, even in the cheesiest ones.

    As Emma-Louise said in her comment, the trick is actually DOING something with the information. I remember once someone saying that people who always buy self-help books are the same as those in the “how to get to heaven” lineup.

    Thanks for sharing this and being so honest about it.

  7. Serge Lachapelle Says:

    I am of the Napoleon Hill generation…I must have read ‘Think and grow rich’ a dozen times in my life…each time I kept a little something new…

    We read these books a specific times in our lives, and depending when we read them, we actually keep something different. Read one again today that you already read 10 years ago and you’ll probably see it in a new light…the light of the experience you gained since the last read.

    I always approached them as information, not gospel…after all, books are like opinions, any body can create one…

    I just knew you were a 7 habits disciple with your last whip yourself into shape post…

    Cheers…

  8. John Mardlin Says:

    I don’t like the term self-help, it implies that something is wrong that need fixing. That might be the case for some books, but what I’ve been enjoying lately would probably be better called success literature.

    It started when I decided to take someones advice and read “Learned Optimism”, which backs up the idea of being positive, bouncing back from failures with sound science. This somehow caused me to revisit 7 habits.

    On second thought, maybe my first venture into the genre was Joel Saltin’s, “You Can Farm”. Essentially a self-help book for the cubicle farmer wanting to become a food farmer.

  9. John McLachlan Says:

    Julien. I forgot to mention in my earlier comment, great to have the Tom Cruise photo. He was so truly creepy in Magnolia in that role. Quite the self-help he gave. “Honor the ….” Well, you know what he said. :-)

  10. Terrillific Says:

    I was really into a lot of self help books for a long time. I still am curious about the new ones that come out that get a lot of buzz. Mostly I’m disappointed in what I’ve read, but I do think it boils down to gleaming key points that resonate with you to put into action. I also like that some of them can help you start thinking in new directions. I prefer the ones that have a provocative viewpoints. I still think most of the answers we seek are inside us if we just take the time to reflect with ourselves.

  11. Dara Bell Says:

    Me too Julian, I made myself go into the other sections, I tried chatting women in the other sections to sustain passion for those areas. I would say it has not harmed me except for all the chatting up. Self growth is behaps a better title for the books. They have an image problem, for marketeers, I am writing one now.

    If Trust Agents was not a Business book it would be a self-growth (help) book. You are right the more provactive, getting on message again, titles draw you in. The less generic too I gravitate towards.

  12. Alex Gibbons Says:

    I agree with what Emma-Louise and John said, and that is that you have to do something, and not just read for the entertainment of it.

    Knowledge and action are two very different things.

    Two of my favourite books from the 20th century have things to say on this. The mystical ‘teacher of dancing’ aka Gurdjieff said that we must have an aim in life and that everything in your life must grow from that. The core aim? To wake from the sleep we are in. In this sense we can read consciously, or we can read unconsciously, we just need to decide on our goal and try and live with it.

    The other book was a long work of fiction by Proust, so I’ll end this long comment down with a quick quote:

    “Action is not the same as words, even eloquent words, or thought, however ingenious.”

  13. Kate Says:

    Julien, I love your idea about coming to a book with a question. Thank you! I read self-help books for pleasure and for work. I agree with you, Emma-Louise and Tamsen. The more I read and share the ideas I come across the more I can help someone else and discern what does and doesn’t work for me. Right now I’m reading Thomas Wakefield’s The Objective is Happiness, which emphasizes managing your mindset and feelings as well as taking action on what is important to you. To me, anything that keeps our mind thinking and acting in a positive direction is mind time that isn’t lost in the negative media and violent movie-making or perpetuating a doom-and-gloom culture. Better self-help than self-sabotage.

  14. Drew D'Agostino Says:

    I find most of the books really interesting reads, the kind of stuff that forces introspection which, even just for entertainment value, is much more productive than watching TV or reading some shallow pop-fiction.

    Beyond that, I think it’s really all about the JFDI principle, same as a lot of things in life. Just find those few valuable nuggets that stick with you, and determine yourself to actually put them into practice. Just a few nuggets though, because if you try a bunch, you’ll let them all slide.

    An example of this is from Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It made me really want to tell people why I appreciate them more often. So I took a post it, wrote “appreciate everyone” on it, and taped it to the inside of my hat. Now, every time I put on my hat, I’m reminded of this important concept.

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