There was a time when there weren’t aisles full of self-help books at your local bookstore. I recall that there were some self-help books that your local B. Dalton or Waldenbooks wouldn’t have carried. For those, you had to go to your local crystal wearing, chakra aligning, toad licking new age store.
Today, there are two or three aisles of it at Barnes and Noble, and they consistently rank higher and higher on Amazon. Not only that, but since they are no longer content to just have a bestseller, they’re all over YouTube, Instagram, and they have podcasts. I don’t know if it’s because the snake oil salespeople have gotten better, or we as a society believe we’ve gotten worse. Of course, believing we aren’t quite right is what self-help gurus want us to do, and millions of us have bought into that idea. I would suggest that for the most part, we’re fine, and we need to stop believing the motivational flavor of the week.
I have a few reasons why I believe we need to see this industry as the flim-flam it is:
First, a personal note: If you have to plant doubt and possibly a small amount of fear into a person to get them to buy something from you, I just don’t think you’re a decent human being. No amount of baby-kissing, puppy rescuing, or school planting you do in Africa, I can’t escape the fact that you profit off that doubt and fear.
Second, there’s a small part of the population that suffers from a sort of self-help attention deficit disorder. They jump from method to method, and when they don’t see immediate or short term improvement in their lives, they give up and move to the next method that hooks them. In truth, the books aren’t the help that person needs, rather recognize that the action of moving from thing to thing when one doesn’t work quickly might be the beginning of the answer to their problems.
Third, and I can’t stress this one highly enough, most of these books say the same thing. Of course, they dress it up to match their personality and voice, but the basic premise is almost always the same. I spent two years reading every self-help and productivity book I could lay my hands on while I was researching a character for a comedy podcast. After that many books, I concluded that it’s almost formulaic:
- These books always start with a generalization. It’s meant to describe for you the person who ‘needs’ this book. It’s almost always written generally enough that many people will recognize some trait they possess in the writer’s avatar. That plants a seed of self-doubt in your mind, and that’s by design. If you recognize yourself here, the chances of you buying the book go up.
- Next, the writer will introduce themselves and explain why they are qualified to help you. Generally, they do this by telling you they were once where you are right now by way of a sad and almost tragic story but for the epiphany that changed their life. Depending on the writer, they will next go into what has happened since then. They might tell you the number of accolades they’ve received. They might name drop people that you will certainly know to suggest an association. Some writers will tell you of their abundance, while others will share their philanthropic efforts. All of them will tell you that you can live that same life if you follow their directions, not all of which will be in their book. More on that later.
- In every chapter of their book, they will have a quote from some deep thinker you might know. They’ll lay out a premise that will introduce the subject of that chapter, and then unnecessarily remind you of who they are, by way of a ‘personal story’ that relates to that chapter. They’ll then cut to the main idea of that chapter and give a list of x number of reasons why they think they’re right. They’ll recap, and close.
- At the end of the book they’ll offer some congratulations, and tell you that if you want to get even more information, you can go to their website and get their online course, join their premium membership, or buy some product that costs more than people have the sense to pay.
When you see this formula laid out, it makes you wonder: If it’s all the same, why is this a bajillion dollar industry? You’re not paying for the content. You’re paying for the personality, style, and voice that hooks you, for whatever reason. Once you’re on the hook you’re part of their gravy train until you decide you want off this ride.
I believe the best way to get off this ride is to give you the common denominator. So, here are the things that every self-help book has in common:
1. Set A Goal, Make A Plan
The first thing you must recognize is that getting your life under control can’t be a scattershot thing. Start small and identify a particular area of your life you would like to improve and define what success would look like. For example, I wanted to get up earlier and have at least an hour to myself before going to work. This would mean I needed to get up between 4:30 and 4:45 in the morning on the weekdays, much earlier than I was used to. Working backwards from there, I realized that I needed to go to bed earlier, stop consuming caffeine at a certain point in the day so I could go to bed earlier, lay out clothes and pack a lunch at night before bed, stop taking devices into the bedroom and read a book instead, and force myself not to hit a snooze button no matter how much I would like fifteen more minutes. After a month of incorporating these steps into my life, I have made that time possible. Now I can move to the next goal.
2. You Can’t Just Think About It.
This is the linchpin of everything else I’m going to put on this list. If you’re addicted to self-help and productivity porn, and you plan and make lists and think about it and never take action, everything else is useless. For years, I would carry a notebook with me everywhere and take all kinds of notes, to-do lists, and write endless amounts of ideas and vision statements that I never used. I was always ‘Fixin’ to get ready’, which is another way of saying I wasn’t ready. Eventually, I had to recognize that the reason I wasn’t moving forward was that I wasn’t moving at all. Once I took action, things started happening. You have to make procrastination and paralysis a thing of the past. Go do the thing.
3. Progress Is A Daily Practice.
When I was a very young child, I had a problem with a bully kid punching me every day on the playground. I cried to Dad about it, and he said, “If he hits you, then hit him back”. The next day I went back crying to Dad. “Did you hit him back?” He asked. “Yes, but then he hit me again,” I said. Dad was confused by my answer. “Well, why didn’t you hit him back a second time?” I got very upset by the question. “Because I didn’t know I was allowed to him *again*!”
You can’t just hit the bully once, because they’ll hit back. Only this time the bully is Life, and Life hits harder. Hit Life back hard every day. You may not win, but you will get stronger at dealing with the bully.
4. Your Discipline Equals Your Results
It’s this simple: If you can get your mind right, you can get your life right. The more you can incorporate the second and third points on this list into your life, the more you will be able to get your life under your control and work towards the goal you set. When my life is going the way I want it to, it’s because I have followed the systems I built for myself, and I do my best not to let other people control my day. I make time for quiet, that’s generally my drive into work in the morning. I don’t keep my email open during the day, and I don’t ever open it up first thing. I do one thing at a time because I know I can’t multitask. I find the time to hit the gym. I get a good night’s sleep. I block out time for the side gigs during the week, and I make sure that every day includes the wife and the kids because they’re the reason I do anything. When I forget to use these systems and lose my discipline, my life is not where I want it to be. So I do my best to keep to my discipline. Find what works for you, and stick with it.
5. It Won’t Happen Tomorrow
As I previously wrote, people often jump from system to system and guru to guru because they don’t see results in a short amount of time. To quote a favorite meme of mine, ‘That’s not how this works’. I started lifting weights Memorial Day Weekend 2018. It’s a year and a half later and I’m finally seeing some visible positive results from working out two to three times a week. I had to commit to putting in the time and the work for the long term. If I had become discouraged six months in, I wouldn’t have ever seen the progress I see now. Now that I see results, I’m even more compelled to keep going. I have a simple goal. I turn 50 in July 2020, and I want to define for myself what 50 looks like. It’s a long term goal. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Stop treating everything like a sprint.
6. You Need To Own It.
When you have minor setbacks or major failures, sometimes we look to place the blame on anything but ourselves. “It’s not my fault, the dog ate my homework. Mercury was in retrograde. The Illuminati towed my car.” Having agency over your own life means you get the wins AND the losses. You have to own it, so stop making excuses for why things don’t go well. Learn, Adapt, Overcome.
7. You Don’t Have To Be Nice But Don’t Be A Jerk.
People will understand if you’re having a bad day if you’re honest about it. What people don’t deserve is your sour attitude. Try to be nice, try to be positive, but on those days where it’s hard, make the effort not to be a jerk. Or, as my Nana used to say, “Be nice, or be quiet”.
It seems a bit weird to say ‘It’s that easy” because clearly, it isn’t. But, without the fluff, it does look simpler than the motivational voice of the day makes it out to be. You don’t need to find the next voice out there that hooks you, instead, listen to your own. You’re OK. Yes, everyone can be better at something, but that does not mean that you’re a failure. You don’t need self-help. What you need is self-help that works.
Where I come from, self-help that works…is help.