On Questioning the Value of Self-Help

There recently was an interesting article in a major newspaper questioning the value of self-help books. Reading it reminded me of when I had my own epiphany about whether or not personal development books were actually helping me in any way. So let’s shine a light on questioning the value of self-help.

Like many other people, there had been a point in my life where I discovered self-help. The danger in walking down the self-help aisle is that you typically find yourself there for the first time when you are in a vulnerable position. When something about your life is unsatisfying.

Writers in this genre know this and they write specifically to gain your attention, using titles and promises that play into your hopes and fears. I’m not against helping yourself, and there are certain personal development books that I would happily recommend to friends. In my experience, though, these books have done little to help me succeed in any aspect of my life.

For me, a self-help book has been most useful if I was buying into help for a very specific reason. For example, I worked in management for years and I would read books on leadership and literally implement what I learned on a daily basis. A working manager educating herself on how to manage better is effective. Because I’m already doing the work. I just want to do it better. Kind of like a person who paints every day and buys a book to learn new techniques. That works.

However, whenever I’ve been generally unsatisfied and then immerse myself in countless motivational and self-help books that offer vague advice and tired clichés and platitudes, then over time, it can become an addiction. It becomes a distraction from the real work required for actually making my life better. However, students, especially those in continuing education, should really check out online courses. Today, there is an increased risk of ending up with a bogus degree! 

The answers aren’t always in books

I believe that many of us don’t reach out enough to our peers for help and feedback before looking to an expert. Books don’t talk back. And when it comes to problem-solving, there is so much value in talking out-loud to another person. Innovative, interactive online education may also help well.

 ”Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”  -Sherlock Holmes

I also believe that many of us have the answers to our own questions, but rather than trust ourselves, we seek the advice from these experts and gurus – perfect strangers who don’t know anything about who we are. They are writing from their experience. So, when you read advice are you taking into account that your experience and worldview is different from the writer’s? In the end, the world is not my mirror.

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”  –Jack Kerouac

What I write will always be useful to me. But, is it useful to you?

It can be if you know how to dismiss what doesn’t resonate. If you can say no, it’s not useful, if that’s what your gut tells you. And it helps if you can learn to trust yourself and your peers more often for wisdom before you entrust your money and time to a guru who is technically making money because of your failures, not your success. The reason you buy a self-help book (or take an online course) is because you’re unsatisfied with something and someone is profiting from that unsatisfaction, aren’t they? As opposed to when you reach out to your peers who would rather invest in your success. I know, it sounds a little cynical when you look at it that way, but it’s worth thinking about, nonetheless.

This is an updated version of a 2014 post.

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