How many times have you picked up a great self-help book, read through it, felt energized and motivated, and then… went back to your life exactly as it was before?
As a long-time reader and current writer of self-help books, I’m still a fan of the genre, but I’ve grown more selective about what I’ll buy and why. Let’s walk through the pitfalls of the genre and what you should be looking for before making your next self-help or personal-development purchase.
I can’t overstate how often I see this. Folks love to read books and listen to podcasts about personal development because it’s a rewarding experience. We often feel that by doing so, we are automatically going to make our lives better. But, this often goes wrong in one of a few ways.
The Problem with Self-Help Books (and Their Readers)
For self-help connoisseurs, there’s the risk that you’ll fall into one of the following categories:
- The Permanent Student: The Permanent Student is someone who is hungry to keep learning more. He probably buys books at an alarming rate, fills his commutes with podcasts, and tries to attend every seminar and workshop he can. He accumulates knowledge well and feels the need to keep doing so. And yet, he struggles to put it into practice. The rubber never quite meets the road for a variety of reasons; usually fear, insecurity, uncertainty, or a lack of direction is to blame.
- The Emotional Ostrich: One of my favorite tropes as a child was that of ostriches burying their head in the sand to avoid conflict or danger. Many folks use self-help books as a tool for doing exactly the same thing. They feel pressure to improve in some area of their life due to an insecurity or fear that they hold on to. As a result, they study self-improvement as a way of burying their head in the sand. It’s easier to put paint over broken plaster than it is to rip out the walls and hang new sheetrock, but it won’t take long for the cracks to show through and the walls won’t be any less likely to fall down. A clear indicator of someone being an Emotional Ostrich comes from social media. Posts along the lines of “I’ve always struggled with XYZ but now I’m really committed to ABC and already feel so much better” are dead giveaways. They simultaneously allow the ostrich to put up a shield to defend their insecurities (i.e. “now I’m really committed to ABC”) and it also frequently serves as a vessel for them to get external validation that gives them more distance from the source of their pain (i.e. “no, you look so good!” or “wow some people can be jerks– you’re doing perfect”).
- The Obsessor: Most of us know one or two Obsessors. If you don’t, it may be because you are the obsessor in your friend group. Obsessors are constantly trying to focus on improving themselves because nothing ever feels quite good enough. When they reach a milestone, it doesn’t really matter because now there’s another milestone to reach. It’s like they’re on a journey with no real destination. They just feel constantly compelled forward, so they’re always ready to read and learn more about different forms of self-improvement and personal development. Unlike those who abide by Buddhist philosophy, there is no Nirvana or point of transcendence. They’re always on the same hamster wheel trying to cover as much ground as possible but never really reaching an endpoint.
Mark Manson, the author of Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, has made a huge impact on the self-help industry as a whole. Throughout his various works, he calls self-improvement and self-help as an outlook into question and argues that they’re not the best (or even a particularly helpful) framework for improving your life.
As he sums it up here, “The only way to truly achieve one’s potential, to become fully fulfilled, or to become ‘self-actualized’ (whatever the fuck that means), is to, at some point, stop trying to be all of those things.” According to his way of thinking, self-improvement creates a paradoxical cycle in which the thing you’re focusing on is ultimately aimed toward not focusing on it anymore. One facet of this is that we get so caught up in trying to do something better that we ultimately fail to just do it.
I’m quite guilty of this one. For example, there have been several points in my life where I’ve recognized that I needed to spend more time writing and focusing on my craft. I read books and blogs and articles about developing a writing routine. I studied the psychology of focus and time management. At times I’ve even purchased expensive apps or subscriptions to tools that were supposed to help me get better at incorporating writing into my routine.
Ultimately, I spent so much time learning about writing routines and the benefits of doing so that I was then too exhausted to– you know– write.
Why You Shouldn’t Give Up On Self-Improvement Just Yet
I fully see the irony in a website whose name is a play on “self-improvement” criticizing the self-help category and pointing out the drawbacks of investing in self-help content.
But, recognizing the flaws is not the same as discrediting, discouraging, disavowing, or just plain dissing. You can be critical of an institution without completely writing it off.
I don’t want to argue that self-improvement is a futile endeavor. I deviate a bit from Mark Manson in that I don’t necessarily see it as creating a paradoxical undertaking. I think he’s spot-on in calling out the limitations of the traditional approach to self-improvement, but I’m not fully on board with his assessment.
Instead, I see self-improvement as a means of enhancing your overall life satisfaction when it
- Is values-oriented rather than goal-oriented
- Is not based on shame or insecurity
- Enables you to have a sense of control and direction.
For me, these three criteria are significant because they are rare. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I am well-versed in the realm of self-help content. As a byproduct, I am exhausted from seeing the same content being repackaged over and over again. Sometimes I go to my local bookseller and stroll through the self-help section just to make a mental note of how many times I can find books that can be reduced down to SMART goals, the Law of Attraction, or an abstract philosophical circle jerk that gets off on how deep it sounds.
Not to sound too bitter, I should clarify that there is a time and place for having a clear framework for your goals, the Law of Attraction, and embracing philosophical perspectives.
To borrow a quote from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, these resources often end up being all flash and no fury.
And yet, between these repackaged versions of the same information, you can sometimes find a few gems. Occasionally you’ll find something that manages to be well-researched without being pedantic. Resources do in fact exist that encourage you to transfer your learning into action. They’re practical, straightforward, and don’t waste time regurgitating the same information you’ve heard from a dozen other sources. Brené Brown, Liz Gilbert, Sam Horn, James Clear, and John Hargrave stand out as a few of the notable names that fall into this fruitful category. In my experience, authors like these are the ones most likely to provide you with the fuel needed to propel yourself forward as long as you’re wary of the traps I discussed previously.
Big Picture Living: What Makes for Good Personal Development Content?
Recently, I’ve been focused on what I call “Big Picture Living,” which is also the title of our book, which is available now! You can order your copy here..
The reason this concept has captivated me is that it’s a way of approaching life that has made it much easier to have clarity about what is helpful and important. It’s an approach that trims the fat, so to speak, leaving behind the meat that you want.
Re-reading the same advice and strategies that you’ve been reading about for years isn’t going to lead to significant pay off for you in the long run. That’s why Einstein coined his definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. If cheery books with advice that echoes a dozen other books haven't contributed to a sustained change in your life, another book with the same traits won’t either.
Long-term change requires being able to mold, or altogether rewrite, how you see yourself and the identity that you take on. That should be your litmus test for what makes a “good” resource. Different sources may have this effect for different people since one-size-fits-all approaches never live up to their name.
In my experience, and what we explore in-depth in Big Picture Living: A Guide to Fulfillment (Even When Everything Sucks), for a book to spark this type of sustained change requires three distinct components.
- It has to nurture your sense of insight and enable you to have a better understanding of why you do what you do.
- It needs to cultivate a capacity for shame resilience so that you’re able to avoid the hindering pitfalls of the patterns, habits, and attitudes that you’ve developed over the years.
- It should explore methods for refining and amplifying your core values so that you can use them as your North Star for guiding the direction in which you’re moving.
When a book or other resource sets you up for success in all three of these areas, it's easier to take the concepts of the book and use them to create a feedback cycle in which you're continually developing a better sense of your own values, deepening your understanding of your motivations, and actively pursuing opportunities that are congruent with your values.
How Does A Big Picture Approach Differ From Other Popular Approaches?
Often, personal development and self-help resources are in a spectrum that ranges from being very conceptual and spiritual to being militantly pragmatic. I typically think of the Law of Attraction as being on one end of the spectrum and the Hustle-is-Life mentality as being on the other.
The Law of Attraction is the idea that as you align your thoughts with your desires, you're energetically manifesting the outcomes that you want. Books like Think and Grow Rich and The Secret sit at this end of the spectrum. They're often quite spiritual in nature and rely upon metaphysical concepts. People who already have a spiritual practice and who rely upon ritual and positive visualization as their development process tend to gravitate here. The shadow side of this camp is that it often relies upon para-psychology and conceptual frameworks that can't always be backed up or proven by science, and for some people it feels more like a pseudoscience or scam than applicable advice.
The Hustle-is-Life camp is on the other end of the self-help spectrum. This is a dominant model of thinking among entrepreneurial and start-up oriented blogs, magazines, and social media accounts. This is the framework that looks to figures like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates as modern heroes and attempts to extrapolate the secrets of success from the routines and sayings of billionaires. Money and prosperity is typically the mark of self-improvement for this camp. The shadow side here is that this approach often over-distills concepts into one-size fits all solutions that sound great in theory, but don't always have room for a very practical application. I often joke that if you've ever met someone who loves the movie The Wolf of Wall Street for the wrong reasons or just plain misunderstands it, they're probably in this camp.
Somewhere toward the middle of this spectrum is the burgeoning realm of Big Picture Living. This is the branch of self-help that tends to be a sweet spot for finding content that can enable you to produce meaningful results. It typically draws upon lived experience, psychology, and sociology to create systems that are intended to help readers analyze and reframe why they're investing in personal growth to begin with. The Big Picture living approach often feels like coaching or mentorship since it is prone to leading readers to drawing their own conclusions and finding bespoke solutions rather than prescriptively outlining umbrella methods for growth.
The table below breaks down some of the core principles of each of these schools of thought.
What Have You Found to be Helpful?
As discussed above, no one approach is going to be a perfect fit for everybody. What's important is identifying what kinds of content work well for you and being realistic about when you're best equipped to apply the concepts you're learning. Most religious traditions contain a variation of the idea that faith without action is meaningless, and the same is true of your personal development; motivation without change is wasted potential energy.
What has helped you to implement change and growth in your own life? We'd love to hear your success stories in the comments below!