What is wrong with self-help books?

What is wrong with self-help books?

OK. Let me get this out the way I do not hate all self-help books, in fact I like several that I have read and I’m quite sure my critics could easily dismiss this blog as being of the self-help genre. The fact that I like a few self-help books for the millions that exist is hardly a ringing endorsement of the industry (accepting that I might not have read every single one). And I fully support the concept of self-help books. The idea of someone writing something that helps other people to do something better or overcome an obstacle in their lives is highly laudable.

So what is wrong with them?

Over-promise. I suspect in most cases the authors are very well meaning and want to share their insight (we’ll get to that later) so that others can realise the remarkable transformations that can be achieved with ‘positive thinking’ or whatever. Somewhere along the way however it became a business (the moment they walked into a publishers?) and then in come the ‘sellers’. They want and need to market the book so that it sells as many copies as possible. They will get hundreds of books in their inboxes and very few have genuine potential. So like the American Idol or X-factor business model they do whatever they can to shift stock as quickly as possible (ongoing book promotion costs money) and nothing to sustain sales or build the skill or reputation of the author. If people buy something for the wrong reasons they have still bought it and somebody somewhere still makes money.

Recommendation: Treat every new idea with optimistic cynicism look for the evidence on both sides with an open mind and assume that there are lots of things you don’t know about life and the universe – then give it a damn hard stare.


Lack of perspective. I almost wrote ‘unscientific’ for this point but actually it is fine to be unscientific, western science has its flaws and if we were all being scientific all the time there would be no stories. Stories are good. The real issue is people presenting their experience as fact. The classic example is the numerous books about having the right mindset and curing your otherwise incurable disease. Now the truth is that optimism does seem to enhance your health and increase your longevity. But once you have cancer (or other equally horrible condition) you have every right to be pissed off and not feel guilty about it. The simple fact is that lots of people who are extremely miserable about their disease survive because modern (western) medicine is very, very clever. I do believe people should ‘stay positive’ but they should also be allowed a full range of emotions and actually be equipped with the tools to achieve sustainable positivity despite the inevitable ups and downs (thanks to my sister who has worked in palliative care for that insight). Just because blindly failing to acknowledge how serious something is and having relatives around you that refuse to discuss death worked for one person, doesn’t mean that it will help someone else (although it is book-worthy).

Recommendation: Take most self-help books as representations of a personal experience and look to yourself for your truth. I have heard people say “well, they can’t all be true” except that they can, but just not all for the same person.

Focussing on money. Money is not inherently evil. It is currency and a means to trade skills and expertise for the life you want. In my view too many books seek to define success for others as being of monetary value. I was once on workshop when someone got very annoyed that he was being taught methods of increasing ‘success’. He got frustrated because he was looking for emotional contentment and a life of freedom and not for financial security. The facilitator did well to reassure him that success could be whatever he wanted. I suspect I would have fallen into the moral high-ground trap of pointing out that the only person in the room who had explicitly linked success and money was the protester himself. In reality who could blame him, how often in the west to do we hear the word ‘success’ and it doesn’t mean ‘money’?

Recommendation: Make your own definition of success. In fact just doing that delivers success for many people (or they realise they already have it.

A book isn’t a person. So perhaps I am now stating the obvious. Even more obvious when you consider I am a corporate coach/trainer. But I am a great believer that the agility of our self-talk, our internal dialogue, can only really be matched by another human being. I have come across lots of books that have made me think but I assimilated their concepts in to my pre-existing view of the world. It was rare for a book to directly challenge that. People on the other hand (the ones that are good at it) can keep up with whatever self-deluding beliefs you have (particularly if they don’t share them)  and ‘thrust and parry’ to the point that you are left with the concepts that help and support what you want to achieve in life but have reconciled the one that don’t to the bin of ‘how things used to be’.

Recommendation: To make the most of self-help books, allow others’ experiences (this works for biographies too by the way) to question assumptions you have about the way the world is, or should be.