Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why self-help books don't work

I cannot think of how many times people offer well-meaning suggestions -- "hey check out this book" or "listen to this podcast".   I went through a phase in my life where I was a self-help junkie.  I spent hours in the self-help aisles at Borders and Barnes & Noble (yes, this is back in the day when they were still doing well) previewing many books and buying a good fraction of them.  At some point, I started noticing that I really wasn't getting much out of these books.  In fact, I got to a point where it sickened me to even think of self-help books.  Why?

There's a formula to these books

They are typically about a subject that bothers the vast majority of people, e.g. anxiety, anger, weight management, becoming free from the daily grind, etc.  The book usually starts out with the author's story of why and how they got interested in the subject.  Then they proceed to discuss the science or research around that problem.  And finally they offer a basket of solutions and discuss success stories.  If one reads enough self-help books, one will immediately become aware of the pattern and also the repetitiveness of the solutions across different authors.  The same is true for TV shows and documentaries.

Success stories are always available, but one must realize that these are far from the norm.  For every college drop out that makes it to billionaire like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, there are a million others that dropped out of college to follow their passion and failed (well maybe some small percentage made it, but not quite as big).  In other words, this is not much different from the roll of a dice.  There is no formula to it.  The same goes with success stories for regaining physical health or learning to overcome psychological health issues.  For every one that succeeds, there are a bunch of others that tried the method and failed.

Does that mean that self-help books are useless?  At this point, I do consider the vast majority of them near-useless.  Reading them is basically akin to buying a lottery ticket.  Chances are, even if it works for one, there are 100,000 others for whom the advice did nothing.  So the odds are stacked against the average reader.  Next time you read a self-help book and practicing the advice doesn't work for you, don't be ashamed or disappointed.  Just realize that you fell for the trap of the self-help book!

(This is my personal opinion, of course.  Others may have had better luck with them.)