Why Some Self-Help Books Are Useless

Why Some Self-Help Books Are Useless

Self-help books tell you how to hold onto and then ditch your partner, rule the world, kick cigarettes to the curb, remain connected to the unconscious collective and be really “woke.” Within that $24.95 sticker price, you may find that “something” you needed to hear, but like with any book, you eventually shut it, put it down and move on. What you move on to remains up to you.

If you don’t live from your heart or truth, then what is life worth to you? The meditative, lyrical writing of self-help literature is almost a form of meditation unto itself, and within those words are bits of science-backed wisdom to ask yourself the questions you need to explore your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Not all self-help publications are bad, but not all of it pays you back with concrete tools for the real world.

While self-help books have attention-grabbing covers and a few hidden gems, the lingo is all the same. The truth is that some self-help books are useless.

That’ll be $25 for Two Ultra-Spiritual Quotes

At the bookstore, run your fingers across the spines, and you’ll notice some of the covers look too similar, as do books of a particular genre. Now, open one. Chances are you’ve read this book before, only under a different author name and title.

Before you head to the cash register, use your smartphone to generate wisdom of your own via the power of Google. What does the author bring to the table, regarding science-backed evidence and real world experience? Check out their website, and their credentials, whatever those mean to you:

  • Where did this author get their degree?
  • What meaningful research has the author done on this subject?
  • Is the book based on real scientific research and evidence?
  • What real life experience do they have to offer you that you can’t get out of a cup of coffee with a good friend?

Is the author just jumping on the ultra-spiritual train? Did he or she hire a ghost writer to paint eloquent words by the number of an 80,000 word count? If this is the case, even if the author had a measure of respectability, the message has been over-simplified by the ghost writer. You have to decide if this is the book that will motivate you to change or grow:

  • Does the book let you monitor your growth and progress?
  • Is the advice user-friendly, practical and actionable?
  • Does the book address the possibility of setbacks or relapses?
  • Is there a section to advise people when and how to seek professional help?

Sit with the book. Read through it. Aside from a few poetic quotes that earnestly shift your thinking, is this really life changing for you? Do you want to buy a book for two quotes you just read over a cup of coffee from the Starbucks inside the bookstore?

The Birth and Sustainability of Self-Help: False Promises and High Hopes

With titles that mimic the lingo of a used car salesman meets “Barney and Friends,” bad self-help books rely on false promises and high hopes. In the make or break moment, when it all crumbles, at least the words are pretty. Take what is considered the self-help book that started it all for example: How To Win Friends And Influence People (1936) has become the unspoken motto of most works of self-help literature.

The book’s author Dale Carnegie became an overnight success with millions of dollars to his name, during the Great Depression, and went on to reel others in and teach them to fish from the net — like a fluffier pyramid scheme that influenced books like The Secret. Letting someone feel like an idea was theirs the whole time (Thanks, chapter seven) is right up there with the mind tripping verbiage of “Inception.”

Helping itself to a cold $10 billion dollars, the self-help genre is sustainable and sometimes helpful, but the focus on positive psychology needs to be based more on empirical evidence than meandering, lyrical memoir mixed with power quotes. The birth of the self-help genre is older than Carnegie’s publication, with seedlings of self-help taking hold with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Compensation” (1906) and the preceding work of George Combe’s The Constitution of Man (1828).

Anyone can write a self-help book. Unfortunately, there is no quality control when it comes to self-help literature, and what you’re reading should show how the author’s techniques have produced results for those who use them. Before you tell the cashier to take your money, take the time to look hard at the author’s credentials and real life experience, along with science-backed evidence, successful workshops and ability to monitor progress.

Not all self-help is bad, but a great deal of it is useless. Two power quotes, false promises and dashed hopes aren’t exactly motivating for someone looking to make real, concrete change in their lives. One tenant of self-help literature holds true in both cases: Sit with it and see if it resonates with you before you hand over your cash.