Why Self-Help Does Not Actually Help

(…at least, not enough)

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The Catch-22 of Self-Help Advice and Other Words of Wisdom

Most of us (especially those of us wealthy, educated, and lucky enough to be here on Medium) know what we ought to do.

We know we should eat healthy, think positive, work hard and work smart, get up early, yadda, yadda, yadda.

We might not know the details, like which specific diet would be the best for us. But the big picture generalities, the cliched self-help advice that are cliches for a reason?

We know those.

The problem is not in the KNOWING, the problem is in the DOING.

Which is why self help books and articles help some people, sometimes, but never everyone, all the time.

People usually know what to do. We often even know how to do it…We just can’t bring ourselves to do it.

Talent Versus Hard Work

Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated, argued that hard work — in the form of deliberate practice — overwhelms natural talent (if such a thing exists), every time. Hands down.

In other words, if you practice deliberately for long enough, you can be the next Tiger Woods, Mozart, or Jerry Rice of your time.

Colvin pointed out, however, that stars like Tiger Woods, Mozart, and Jerry Rice stand out because deliberate practice is hard, and not many people do it.

He just didn’t say why.

Why don’t people do hard things?

Why are some people so positive and hard working, and others so depressed and/or lazy?

Why are some people positive and hard working on SOME days, then depressed and/or lazy on others?

Why do some people see a challenge, lick their lips and dig in…while other people run away screaming?

Is it choice? Is it fate? Is it luck? Is it genetics?

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It’s Easy to Misunderstand Others’ Struggles

When I was younger, I confess I looked down on people with certain mental and mood issues (largely because I lived with one such person, and suffered from it).

I didn’t understand why people allowed themselves to deteriorate and didn’t (seem to) try (hard enough) to get out of their slump.

I thought, like so many people who maintain the stigma against mental illness, among other things, that such people were just being irresponsible, lazy, ridiculous.

I thought that they could, if they chose to, conquer themselves. That they were just choosing not to do so, for reasons I could not understand.

I was right about the last part — there was a reason, and I could not understand it.

No one can.

On Effort and Blame

I once read about a promising young lawyer who stopped working. His friends and family couldn’t understand his sudden apathy. They nagged and scolded him, blaming him for throwing his life away.

Then he died. During the autopsy, the doctors discovered that he had a massive brain tumor. It was this tumor that had killed his motivation. It was this tumor that had killed him.

His family had thought he had just grown lazy. They were wrong.

So wrong.

There was nothing they could have done. No amount of nagging or scolding, no self help book would have helped the young man recover his will to live and work.

No one knew the root of his problem, and even if they had, they would have been helpless to treat it.


When I developed my own mental condition I began to understand why my relative “refused to snap out of it”: because it’s hard.

Really, really hard.

I mean, “hard” doesn’t even cover how hard it is or can be.

Some days I feel so close…other days I feel like giving up. Some days I think if I just tried a little harder I’d make it…other days I feel like no amount of trying will ever work.

It’s not even about becoming a Mozart. Just being a “normal” person on most days feels like it requires a superhuman effort.

In fact, maybe it does.

Why We All Need Faith in Something Other Than Ourselves

Some people ridicule those who trust in God, saying they are weak, they need a crutch.

Know what?

They are right.

But there’s more to it:

The thing is, none of us are omnipotent. In certain times and situations, we are ALL weak.

We all have limitations. We all need help — from other people (but they are limited too, remember), and from God.

We probably all have more potential than we realize (as most self-help gurus say), but one thing is for sure, even if we DID reach our full potential, it would still not always be enough.

Nietzsche was wrong. We still need God. The most powerful ubermensch in the world is still not able to conquer everything.

Death, sickness, and bad luck happen to all. No human on earth can predict, prevent, or put an end to this terrible trifecta.

We will inevitably disappoint ourselves if we expect too much. You can’t rely entirely on any human being, not even yourself. Because all humans have their limits.

We need faith in something else because we always, inevitably, let ourselves down.

We are not gods. That’s why we need God.

(even those of us who don’t want to admit it).

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The Case for Self-Help

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that self-help is bad or useless. I have myself been helped by self-help.

Even if the information is old, sometimes hearing the right thing at the right time in the right style by the right person can kick-start a legitimate transformation in someone’s life.

But this transformation relies not JUST on the information and effort, but on other factors that are outside of human control — timing, fit, what some call “luck.”

In other words, we can, and should, take responsibility for our lives. We can, and should, push ourselves to be better.

We often let ourselves off the hook too early. We can learn a lot from the likes of Tiger Woods, Mozart, Bobby Fischer, and the plethora of other hard working, successful people throughout history (and in the present).

We can learn a lot also from the self-help gurus (maybe not all of them, but certainly some of them).

But just a note of caution: self-help is not everything. Give yourself a break now and then, be compassionate if your life does not currently look like the picture the confident self-help writers and speakers paint for you.

And don’t be quick to judge others — you do not know what that person may be going through, what limitations they have that you do not. More than likely, if you were in their position, you would react the same way.

Let’s not allow our natural penchant toward pride blind us to our own and others’ (very real) limitations.

On Temperance and Empathy

It’s always a struggle to strike the right balance between self-confidence and humility, without veering off into hubris on one side or hopelessness on the other.

This article, I’m afraid, is not a self-help piece written to help you figure out that balance in your own life.

All I want to say is: I get it. I understand.

If you are suffering and blaming yourself, and not sure whether you should try harder or give up, I know how you feel.

If you’ve read many self-help style articles and books and feel both motivated and cynical, I get you.

If you’re tired of bouncing between hope and despair with no end in sight, I know how you feel.

“Go with God”

So if you are about to launch into your next major self-improvement project, I wish you well — don’t be discouraged too soon. The harder you work and the more you believe, the more likely you are to make it.

And if you are suffering from your last failed self-improvement project, I understand. Take some time, rest and recover— but don’t give up. Chances are, you’ll get it right one of these days.

In either case, I’m here if you need a sympathetic ear.

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Thank you for reading

If you have more thoughts on this topic, or any encouragement for other readers, please share!