Self-help books are big business. Annual sales are approaching $1 billion, and that’s just books. The self-improvement industry as a whole is pulling in over $11 billion annually, and growing.
We may be living in the most affluent time in history. Inequality still exists, of course, but by most standards, this is the best time to be alive, ever. In the developed world, at least, even the poor are far better off than they’ve ever been. Still, people aren’t satisfied.
I won’t speculate on the reasons for this, and I’m not judging. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to improve yourself, no matter how well off (or not-so-well-off) you might already be. The amount of money in the self-help industry, though, is bound to draw in charlatans looking to capitalize on people’s innate desire to be better.
Do Self-Help Books Help?
It’s a pretty broad question, of course. The answer isn’t so clear, either. As a whole, self-help books offer a lot of great ideas that might benefit you. They are also apt to contain a lot of pseudo-scientific nonsense, slogans, and buzzwords designed to generate hype and oftentimes, not much else.
I won’t be calling anyone out in this post. This isn’t about who you should or shouldn’t listen to, or which books you should or shouldn’t read. Rather, I’d like to help you recognize what’s potentially valuable and maybe even pick out the nuggets of wisdom in otherwise not-so-great material.
The dark side of self-help—what to watch out for
When you’re browsing the self-help section of your favorite bookstore—online or otherwise—it’s easy to get drawn in by big promises. There are thousands of books that claim to hold the secret of unlimited productivity, undying motivation, perfect relationships, endless happiness… it’s practically overwhelming.
You’ve almost certainly read some of these books that didn’t live up to the hype. So, what are some red flags you should watch for so that you don’t waste time on books that are nothing but talk?
“Lose 50 pounds this week!”
“Get a date with a supermodel… even if you’re 55, broke, living in your parents’ basement, and have the personality of a potato.”
“Wish your way to untold riches!”
Those aren’t real examples. At least, I hope they aren’t real. I’d bet, though, that you’ve seen plenty of “personal development” books or seminars that make promises almost as outrageous.
I’m not talking specifically about the titles, here. Often, it’s not the author who comes up with the titles. Publishers and marketers know, sensational titles sell. I’ve read a number of good books with absolutely ridiculous titles.
But, if the title grabs your attention and you look inside and find the table of contents filled with similar promises… just remember the old adage about things that seem too good to be true.
Lots of “spiritual” or pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo
I know this one’s going to bother some people. You’re entitled to your own beliefs. If spiritual claims aren’t backed up by science, though, belief is really all you have.
Books that promise you can use the mystical energy of the universe to “manifest” your wildest dreams are almost universally pure, unadulterated woo. Speaking of manifesting, that’s one of those buzzwords I mentioned. Universe often is, too, especially if it’s implied that the universe is sentient; it’s frequently used as a replacement for God, hoping the nonreligious won’t notice. Likewise for energy.
If the process of achieving whatever the book or “guru” is promising you can achieve boils down to little more than, “Just want it really bad,” or if you can’t distinguish that process from magic, chances are, it’s nonsense.
Speaking of magic, here’s a pretty simple test. When reading any self-help book, try replacing buzzwords with the word magic. Does it change the process?
Is there a plan of action?
Another test: Is there a process you can follow? Unless the book’s only goal is to provide motivation, there should be something you can implement. I’m not knocking using books for motivation, but recognize motivational material for what it is.
If the guru, book, seminar, etc. promises that you can achieve something, but doesn’t provide anything actionable, you’d be right to be leery.
Claims backed by controlled studies vs anecdotes
When a self-help author makes a claim, you should be asking whether that claim is falsifiable—I talked about this in a recent post about skepticism, but that’s basically science jargon for “testable.” If it’s not, you can’t really assume it’s true.
If the claim can be tested, however, you should expect that the author provides documentation. There should be evidence for any claims, and the more outrageous the claim, the stronger that evidence needs to be.
Here’s the part where your skeptical skills come into practice. Is the evidence in the form of controlled studies or experiments? Or is it simply stories? For mundane claims, the latter might be good enough, but if you’re considering altering your life significantly based on the advice of an author or guru, you should expect nothing less than the former.
Trying to sell you more
Quite a few of the so-called gurus use their books as nothing more than advertisements for their more-expensive seminars. And then, if you pay to attend a seminar, they try to sell you even pricier seminars, retreats, subscriptions… anything they can to siphon a few more dollars from your already-depleted wallet.
They’re like drug dealers. They give you the “first hit” for free (or cheap) to get you hooked.
I’m not saying it’s always unethical to use their books to market other products. If you truly get value from their books, the seminars might be worth the money to you.
Still, you should see this as a red flag. If it seems like something was missing in the book and you’re hoping you’ll get it from the seminar, be cautious. If you instead loved the book, benefitted from it, and you’re thinking, “If this is what’s in the $20 book, I can’t wait to find out what they cover in the seminars,” it might be worth exploring.
The good stuff—finding the truly helpful in the sea of self-help
There’s a lot of bullshit in the world of self-help, but there’s good stuff out there, too. It’s smart to manage your expectations, though. If you’ve never earned more than $50 thousand in a year, you probably won’t become a millionaire by next Thursday. If you’ve struggled with your weight your entire life, you probably won’t be a supermodel anytime soon. If you’ve never played basketball, you won’t be playing center for the Lakers.
As long as you have reasonable expectations and you’re already working toward a goal (or you at least have a concrete goal and a willingness to work your ass off to get it), a good self-improvement book or seminar might help you on your way.
What should you expect from self-help books and “gurus”?
Well then, what are “reasonable expectations”?
- Solid strategies. You don’t change your life by reading a book or attending a seminar. You change by implementing the things you learn. You should expect a very clearly laid out strategy that you can follow.
- Realistic promises. If they promise anything, it should fit with what you know to be possible.
- Backed by evidence. Anecdotal evidence is evidence, but it’s very weak evidence. That doesn’t mean you should ignore it, but don’t put more weight behind it than it deserves. If the book you’re reading is filled with success stories, take them with a big grain of salt. If—in addition to or instead of success stories—the author cites controlled studies and experiments, and especially if those are published in legitimate academic journals in the appropriate fields, you should take it as much more credible.
- Motivational. All the instruction in the world won’t help if you won’t follow it. Clearly, this is entirely up to you, but if the author or guru is one you find particularly motivating, that is a benefit. That is also a completely subjective judgment you’ll have to make for yourself.
You might find self-help books useful and you might improve your life by following them. Still, many of them are more hype than they are helpful. If you have realistic expectations, you aren’t looking for miracles, and you enjoy reading this type of material, it can be worth sifting through the crap to find the jewels.
I’d love to read your thoughts on self-help books and the self-help industry overall. Have you gotten value from it? Who are some of your favorite authors? Let me know in the comments.
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