Self-help Books are Great, but…

Garrett MacLean
Aug 9 · 14 min read

Think and Grow Rich, embrace the Power of Now and take Extreme Ownership. Learn Grant Cardone’s 10X Rule, Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and all of the Atomic Habits that assemble the Tools of Titans. Also, don’t forget: Never Split the Difference, Make your Bed, Fail Forward, and while you’re at it — go ahead and Unfu*k Yourself if you haven’t already learned the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Round and round we go without ever moving the needle. What’s the solution? Here’s an idea:

Self-help books are great, but creating your own personal philosophy to live up to is better.

Ever since I can remember, I have been an introvert who is fascinated by other people. Why do people think the way they do? What makes people do the things they do? Why do I think and do what I do? These questions lead me to study Psychology at CU Boulder (Go Buffs!), continuing on to read numerous books on the subject, and now on to finding joy in expressing myself through writing about such topics. My recent thoughts are as follows…

Winston Smith, the protagonist from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is the last name I would have guessed to be the influential figure to encourage me to write this article. In the novel that Orwell worked on between bouts of hospitalization for tuberculosis, Winston’s repetitive and overwhelming thoughts are saturated with the notion “Down with Big Brother!” which leads him to the underground mafia ‘The Brotherhood’ and eventually on to it’s ever-transient, iconoclastic group bible, ‘The Book.’

When Mr. Smith first opens the book and begins to read the sermons of the antagonist gang, he arrives at a dual epiphany. For starters, his hidden thoughts regarding the current macroeconomic structure of London, the chief city of Airstrip One and part of the superstate Oceania, are verbatim to the screen write his subconscious has been directing. The opening act demonstrates how this leaves him no choice, but to risk his very existence, subject to doublespeak, by documenting such ideas onto a crumpled piece of paper hidden away from the telescreen’s omnipotent surveillance.

The simple lesson that resonated was what happened after Winston got his hands on ‘The Book’. He said, “the greatest books tell you what you already know.” After that line, I had to put my own book down and start writing.

The self-improvement category of present-day literature is a billion-dollar industry. It operates much like industries such as cosmetics, fad diets, and many other sectors. However, let’s not forget — it is a double-edged sword.

First, let’s set the scene.

In 2013, Jim Cramer, most infamously known as the host of CNBC’s Mad Money, popularised the term ‘FAANG Stocks,’ an acronym for the big modern-day tech-giants: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google. They are headed by modern-day data robber barons, such as Bezos and Zuckerberg, who have risen, or potentially already surpassed the likes of Carnegie’s steel or Rockefeller’s oil.

FAANG’s combined $3.1 trillion market capitalization arguably has now grown to a size where dare I say it, they are too big to fail. We are now amidst an existing gold rush caught up in an all-out land grab panning for our hedonically adapted, narrow-focused, and short individual attention spans.

Entrepreneur, angel investor, and co-maintainer of AngelList, Naval Ravikant, said it best in an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, “The most powerful people in the world today are the people who are writing the algorithms for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram because they’re controlling the spread of information. They’re literally rewriting people’s brains. They’re programming the culture.

Now, let’s shift gears.

Theodore Roosevelt is quoted saying, “Comparison Is the Thief of Joy.” However, I am not sure even he could have predicted the unfathomable amount of opportunities today to strike gold.

Staking your claim by opening up your own brick and mortar or pitching a novel to the Big Five publishers has changed tact, and now our destiny has manifested into self-publishing our own Kindle e-books, creating Shopify eCommerce stores for makeup and t-shirts, or selling nutrition and fitness plans through Instagram or Facebook. Not to mention, you are one Youtube video away from going viral on the internet and finding yourself on the Ellen DeGeneres show e.g., ‘Damn Daniel! Back at it again with the white vans!

At the macro level, this is great!

The corporations mentioned earlier are leading the pack in an effort to create a better world for you and me.

This pursuance is paired with large financial institutions establishing a more reliable fiduciary agreement with its customers and even small venture capital-backed start-ups with eager college students developing AI and nanotechnology to help solve all sorts of problems for the 7.7 billion of us.

On a micro level, humans are mere fragile beings.

We are all well aware of our specific faults and shortcomings to the finest detail, which is why we too, gravitate toward the idea that is necessary to improve ourselves.

A common route is a self-help book. Don’t believe me? Go to right now and type in “self-help books,” you will receive over 100,000 results!

Many of us search for quick-fix solutions from these romantic road maps when an internal compass would be far more useful in stirring you towards meeting your personal standards of success. What’s beautiful is there still are countless implicit benefits in reading such books to discover ways to uplift your current situation and millions of people have become beaming benefactors.

Even if you read an entire book and only one sentence made enough of an impact to slightly alter your perception of life, access to such resources provide a catalytic ability to ignite inspiration and fuel our imagination.

The real kicker?

Any individual can foster knowledge from a myriad of places; and it doesn’t have to stop at self-help books, dystopian novels, or even outlandish threads on Reddit.

For the “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffet, it was Ben Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor” and for the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, it’s Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” but one of my favorite stories is billionaire business magnate, Elon Musk. When he was just 9 years old living in Pretoria, South Africa, at a rate of almost two books a day, he read his town’s entire library (including Britannica’s Encyclopedias).

Let that sink in for a minute.

Young Musk devoured all topics on the bookshelves available to him, but it wasn’t until he found himself in the world of sci-fi novels did he stumble across “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

The characters and events created by Douglas Adams’ series manifested into the tailwinds that commandeered his personal philosophy that humans, in order for us to survive, need to evolve into a multi-planetary species.

Beyond Musk’s tabloid bonanza regarding Tesla and SolarCity, SpaceX is in an all-out competition with front runners like Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in the quest to commercialize space travel for the Average Joe down here on Earth. Pretty cool stuff if you ask me.

The adrenaline and overall stamina necessary to withstand a pursuit of that astronomical proportion, which includes becoming self-taught in building rockets and working 20+ hour days, could not, was not, and will not, be drawn from the chapters of a book articulating the age-old question of “Who Moved My Cheese?

You and I could sit down for a morning cup of coffee, openly discuss our contradicting ideas, and still confidently arrive at an agreeable conclusion that we need much more than the likes of a self-help book to build a better future for generations to come.

That all being said, once again, here’s my humble take on the subject matter: Self-help books are great, but creating your own personal philosophy to live up to is better. Let me rephrase that in a different way: Self-help books are awesome, they truly are! Be that as it may, you must strive to go above and beyond by crafting together a personal set of principles that lifts you up even higher.

The irony of my conclusion was derived from going through the process of reading all different kinds of self-help books and finally landing on 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The highly controversial author, Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist, professor at the University of Toronto, and Youtube sensation thanks to releasing several videos of both public interviews and his lectures formerly taught at Harvard.

In his book, he talks about the concept of ‘Aim High.’ I felt that it is an opportunistic approach to grapple with the modern Buddhist paradox of attempting to utilize the power of striving for goals while working to not become attached to the outcome of whether or not you actually achieve those goals. It’s arduous, but a courageous process that’s intrinsically rewarding.

The Buddha says the two biggest traps that lead us to unhappiness along our own life’s journey are getting what you want and not getting what you want. A potential counteragent to this dilemma is to still continue constructing a personal philosophy, such that each decision you make is aiming at, not worried about failing and succeeding, your short, long and lifetime goals.

How does this benefit YOU?

Avoiding these traps establishes a virtuous cycle that works to collectively strengthen your value system as a whole. This helps allow you to love yourself unconditionally. If you make unconditional deposits to yourself every day, you will follow a natural growth process. You will not rebel and resist. Rather, your relationship with yourself will form through acceptance and you can then spread unconditional love to those around you encouraging others to be the best version of themselves.

At first, I personally struggled with conceptualizing and accepting the mentality of playing the game of life to win, while at the same time disassociating myself with what the scoreboard looks like. It brought me back to one of the greatest personal philosophies of all time created by arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time, the former UCLA head coach and “Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden with his famous, meticulously structured ‘Pyramid of Success’. Wooden’s approach is clear; he states,

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Furthermore, our perspective determines the world we see and the world we create for ourselves. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Victor Frankl said that in his personal narrative, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” His extensive work in logotherapy after being a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II demonstrated it’s excellence by helping millions of people get a grip on the meaning of life. A sector of his work discusses Paradoxical Intention. This could be viewed as the most effective form of escapism from the hellish, nihilistic, bottomless pit that makes up the existential vacuum that he says so many find themselves in.

Frankl continues on by adding the fact that self-actualization is a by-product of self-transcendence. Not to be confused with the other way around. Despite any type of circumstance — approachable, sufferable, terminable, etc. the result of aiming at something outside, above, or away from you gives you a chance to lose yourself in love of the process of moving forward.

Why then, not go for it?

So, set the goal you want. Start there. Take a step back. Then ask yourself, What happens now? Take another and carry on all the way back to your current motives and actions. You set the goal in your terms, so now you have to do what is necessary. This is a way to focus your attentiveness to the task at hand. Your Now. Your own state of flow. Your Tao. Your own version of love. Love to what you’re trying to do. Whatever reason or ‘Why’ you have, you’ll move towards that goal. Movement in the slightest means good things are bound to happen. If they do, it will help you through the hard times because again, you’ve chosen your Aim.

But, how can you tell the difference between a goal of worthy value and one that has a lack thereof? How can you spot a good action from a bad one? How does someone even get started?

It helps put things in perspective by taking into account the approximate yin yang situation in all of us. Peterson discusses at length the magnitude to which humans can cause violence and destruction in the world, and constantly reverts back to terrible monstrosities of the 20th century as a point of reference for how messed up things can really get.

Throughout history, good is not as easily able to ascertain compared to bad. Bad is easy to spot. Whenever you read, watch, or hear something, you light up right away and tell if something is unacceptable, offbeat, or just plain wrong. Use that as a positive and to your advantage. If you know, for example, in a given situation what would be the wrong thing to do, aim towards doing the diametric opposite of that, something much better.

Things may not work out as you anticipated due to circumstances that are outside of your circle of influence, but nonetheless, it will still be marginally better in the long run.

Experiencing peace of mind from the results of your decision making can only be determined according to your own personal philosophy, values, and goals which only you can design and live up to. If you’re able to establish a strong foundation harmonious to your innermost values that has a wide aim at the ultimate, self-evident good, for both yourself and those around you, and then if you zero in on a few key goals, the alignment in thinking leads to clarity of decision making and further on to acceptance of the present sacrifices necessary to make those dreams become a reality.

What does this look like day-to-day?

A person with a calm demeanor that enjoys remaining disciplined to their chosen process all the way through, in and of itself. Your achieved level of success will be in direct proportion to your level of sacrifice; the deeper the sacrifice you make, the more you will profit in the future. Ralph Waldo Emerson describes this relationship better than most in his essay, ‘Compensation.’

Thus is the universe alive. All things are moral. That soul which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is a law. We feel its inspiration; out there in history we can see its fatal strength. “It is in the world, and the world was made by it.” Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. Hoi kuboi Dios aei eupiptousi, — The dice of God are always loaded. The world looks like a multiplication-table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself. Take what figure you will, its exact value, nor more nor less, still returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty. What we call retribution is the universal necessity by which the whole appears wherever a part appears. If you see smoke, there must be fire. If you see a hand or a limb, you know that the trunk to which it belongs is there behind.

Every act rewards itself, or, in other words integrates itself, in a twofold manner; first in the thing, or in real nature; and secondly in the circumstance, or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance the retribution. The causal retribution is in the thing and is seen by the soul. The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding; it is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread over a long time and so does not become distinct until after many years. The specific stripes may follow late after the offence, but they follow because they accompany it. Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.

The best, and frankly the healthiest, aspect of a developing and living out a personal philosophy is that things get ultra-quiet. Due to the fact that we have an ingrained empathy for other human beings, we can start to comprehend how difficult it actually is to align your everyday thoughts and daily actions with your uniquely constructed philosophy.

The tranquility within the mind renders comparison to others within your related social dominance hierarchy, including your close peers, to now be proven wasteful and thus eradicated. Win-Win!

Few, including the outspoken Musk, would argue we’re living in a simulation built off statistical theories. Whether we are or not doesn’t matter a whole lot. Our reality and the act of aiming to improve our self within its present confounds is forged from our own self-made framework.

Another way of putting it: We’re all plugged into a big single-player game of 1 formulated based on the results of chiseling away and refining your own foundation. It boils down to you aiming to become a better version of yourself than you were yesterday. That’s it, nothing more.

We are going to occupy this planet for a very short period of time limiting what you can actually experience, let alone digest, reflect, and make amends with; you are simply outnumbered to the world’s ability to inflict pain, and or pleasure. Therefore, there becomes this everlasting craving to want to learn about other people’s views because they have experienced a reality very different from you.

What’s the added bonus?

Now you have a huge gained respect for other people’s values built from their experience because you can be sure they too, have tailored their philosophy specific to them and only from their personal viewpoint can discern whether they are successful or not.

If one is able to learn to process the hard-earned lessons and even more importantly find joy, from other people’s experiences external to theirs, the world will open up to them in ways that are inconceivable.

People must be willing to give themselves a fighting chance to shift their mindset from one based on scarcity to that of abundance. Only then can we learn, only then can we actually move forward. Our reality may be finite by divine design, but luckily our ability to feel gratitude for others remains as infinite as the cosmos.

The overall point being is that it’s ideally practical to utilize as many sources available to you for piecing together a personal philosophy. Yes, read self-help books to learn, but don’t stop there. Metaphysically speaking, the goal to aim at is acquiring textiles from different types of cloth to stitch together a fabric of understanding that makes sense to you. If you are the weaver, then the blanket can feel more like a shield when dealing with the harsh reality of making tough decisions in an oftentimes cold world.

Whatever the case may be, I believe it is imperative to proactively seek as much knowledge as you can from others to help yourself learn and provide a vision for what your better self could be. This can come from books, travel, relationships, anything and everything available to you.

The potential to experience more inner joy, less comparison to others, and a greater appreciation for other’s unique experiences come down to putting in the work to become self-reliant and a disciple to your own constructed philosophy.

In that spirit, I remain ever curious: What’s your personal philosophy? What sources did you come by to create it? Who or what motivates you to ‘Aim High’?

Garrett MacLean

Written by

San Diego Native. Colorado Buff. Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City.

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