How To Read A Self Help Book

MikeachimThe Everyday17 Comments

Help, by Dimitri N. - Flickr

First the snark…then the rant. If I start to go blue, call someone. Thanks.

It’s true what they say. We’re beyond all help – living the wrong lives, governed by the wrong rules and surrounded by the wrong people. All our achievements are meaningless because they got us here, mired up to the neck in the sucking dreadfulness of modern life. Life? Don’t talk to me about life. Life is a string of dillusionments and we’re tangled tighter than iPod headphones fished out a deep pocket. Ever day is the same as the last one – or worse than it. It’s all broken. We’re broken.

And on and on, they whine at us.

I’m so very sick of bad self-help literature making our lives miserable.

There’s way too many people out there claiming to be lifestyle experts (rather like the “SEO guru” infestation on Twitter. Come on – they can’t all be experts). And why the glut? Because demand is sky-high. We’re convinced that our lives need fixing. In fact, we’re more worried than ever. Can it be that all the previous self-help bestsellers, the Anthony Robbinses, the Dale Carnegies, that Tim Ferriss book…they’ve all failed? So should we keep buying their books? When a mechanic consistently fails to repair your car, should you keep going back to him?

But maybe it’s not the lifestyle coaches that are failing. Maybe it’s us.

Now hold up a second. This is what unscrupulous self-helpists hope we’ll believe. It gets them off the hook. When their methods prove ineffectual, it’s because we did something wrong. We deviated from the tried-and-tested one true path, and now we have to pay – preferably by buying their follow-up bestseller Here’s What You Did Wrong, Stupid.

Meanwhile, we suck. Again. And the circle of non-life turns and turns, and nothing really changes except the price of the books we feel compelled to buy. We’re trapped by a dependency on self-help books. We need saving from help itself.

(Talk about screwed).

But maybe it is us. Maybe it’s the way we’re reacting to all this self-improvement advice. Maybe that’s where we’re broken.

So what’s the answer? For just $0.00 plus ten simple, affordable payments of $0, I’m going to show you how – with my 3-step plan to Help Yourself Self-Help.

Self-Improvement, by cogdogblog - Flickr

So, are you ready to embrace a whole new You? I sincerely hope not, because first up is….


Assume You Don’t Suck

Many self-help books work on the premise that we are failures.

I’m sure many lifestyle experts would argue against this, but all too often they’re offering up a philosophy that requires us to look at our lives and find them inadequate – not just in need of adjustment, but requiring an overhaul. We have a vague but nagging inkling of what we want out of life, and this isn’t it. Thus far, we’ve failed. We’re failures.

Except we know this is nonsense. The way to judge how ridiculous we all know this to be is to look at the popularity of Louis C K’s rant entitled “Everything’s Amazing & Nobody’s Happy“. That’s uncomfortable truth making us giggle there. Everything is amazing right now. And everything is amazing for a reason, which is us. We helped do it. Yes, us – the “failures”.

The problem is that we’re misinterpreting perfectly healthy ambitions and aspirations.

Human beings aspire. They always want more, and they always want better. While we’re learning that the first of these is damaging and possibly even deadly on a planetary scale, the second is merely a sign that evolution is still hard at work.

Except …we’re allowing ourselves to be fooled into thinking it’s a sign we’re inadequate. That wanting to improve means we need to improve, because we’re broken. And that’s a lie.

Self-help books that claim to change you into a truly different person are lying to you. You’ll remain You. And despite what you may have been led to believe, that’s a good thing. How to use all your unique talents – well, that’s what the good self-help books are for. Read them and learn what you’re truly capable of.

But that’s only part of why we don’t suck.

There’s another human trait that we’re losing sight of – the sanity-assuring art of selective attention. We notice the things that we need to be concerned about. We ignore the rest. Unfortunately for our sense of wellbeing, “the rest” usually includes everything that is working just fine. If we were truly aware of everything all at once, our brains would brown out. We’d be gloriously aware of all the subtle beauties of existence, but we’d keep missing our mouths with our food.

(This explains the general appearance of philosophy students).

Pessimism and disillusionment are easy when we only see the bad things, as we’re accustomed to doing these days (hi, news networks). Seeing the full picture takes a lot more effort – and that’s what self-helpists should be doing, expanding our view of our world to take it all in. The good ones do just that.

But the bad ones narrow it, onto just the bad things.

Distrust those people. They’re only after your money.

Angry cat - Flickr


Expect Nothing

You started out with nothing. You ended up with nothing. What have you lost? NOTHING. So cheer up, you old bugger.

– Eric Idle, Life Of Brian

It’s your life – but they’ve stolen it from you. Them. Someone else. Your parents, your government, your bank manager. They owe you. Get ANGRY. GET EVEN!

I like reading that kind of language. It’s stirring and makes me want to do karate-kicks in the middle of the living room. But after a while, I just sit there feeling bitter and helpless. That’s what bad helpists want, of course – that feeling of impotent victimization that will make you so desperate for help that you will, literally and figuratively, buy anything.

And in the wake of an economic recession that has turned the entire banking industry into the Enemy Of The People, the natural targets are the unseen strings-pullers in the upper tiers of the financial sector. They are our new, most hated Other. They owe us. This is why I reckon self-help is about to experience a Big-Bang-like boom in the field of personal finance. Never mind that there’s eminently qualified people quietly dishing out sound, proven advice (I’m lucky to know a few of these) – no, what the world needs is some flamboyantly sexy kneejerk quackery targeting our purses and wallets. And tragically, it’ll probably get it.

The problem with this payback philosopy is that the world actually doesn’t owe us anything.

Oh, society might. That’s why following politics and being part of your local community is important. But that’s specifics – and specifics don’t sell bad self-help books. What we’re talking about here is a vague, indefinable sense of being cheated, through no fault of our own, out of what we rightly deserve. So much for the modern meritocratic model where we enjoy the fruits of our labors. No – someone’s been scrumping up our tree, and now our fruit is gone.

And we want it back! Whatever the hell it was that we had. Because we don’t know. Because, like, it’s been stolen from us!

This is how bad self-help authors invent an expectation and insert it into our heads. Suddenly, we’re missing something we never had. (Why? Because we was robbed, innit! etc).

Bad self-help books peddle artificial expectations, and therefore create artificial disappointments.

There’s only one way to combat this kind of nonsense, and it’s to expect nothing.

You’re trying some new way of doing something, and naturally you hope it will work. That’s the whole point of trying it. But you don’t assume it will. You don’t assume you deserve anything by default, and you don’t assume you’ll get it either. Improvements and successes become a bonus, a lesson learned – but never guaranteed.

Infinite hope – zero expectation.

Yes, this is tough. It may even feel unnatural. We’re not used to separating hope from expectation – and zero expectation often gets labelled “pessimism”, even though it really isn’t (that’s negative expectation – you assume it will make things worse or be an utter waste of time, both good reasons not to try it).

The real power of expecting nothing is that it allows you to apply your full critical judgement to what you’re reading. What is the author suggesting? Will it work for you? It might, but you don’t assume it will. You treat what they’re saying as nothing but a nice-sounding theory – because theory is all it is. The authors don’t know you – and they certainly don’t know you better than you yourself do. All they have are ideas you might want to try out for yourself. That’s all.

It’s up to us to decide if they work or not.


Try Everything

“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”

– George Carlin

The bottom line is this: believe nothing in a self-help book until you’ve put it into practice.

Really, that’s the only judge. Did you have a go yourself? Did it help you in some way? If not, why not? Did you take what worked, and throw away the stuff that didn’t?

Use what works.

Discard what doesn’t.

And repeat – until there’s nothing left to try.

As much as I’ve slung mud around, I’d like to point you towards a few people whose work I’ve found thought-provoking, fun and ultimately useful.

All these people point out, explicitly or obliquely, methods and reasons for thinking about and doing stuff differently. I enjoyed reading what they had to say, so I tried a few things out – and some of them worked.

But none of them can tell me how to run my life. All they can do is suggest, and let me make my own mind up, by testing out their theories myself. And I’ve found some don’t fit me. In fact, part of the reason I respect Chris Guillebeau so much is the fact he admits up front that his lifestyle suggestions won’t work for everyone. (And he’s right in my case – I don’t like flying). I trust that kind of talk. I listen harder.

To sum up, then….

(And feel free to disagree. After all, you know best).

1. You don’t suck.

2. Don’t misinterpret the desire for self–improvement as evidence that you suck.

3. Generally speaking, no-one owes you anything.

4. So expect nothing.

5. Which leaves you free to try everything. Because what have you got to lose?

Images: cogdogblog, Jinx!, Dimitri N., tomitapio, phobia, marfis75 and