Here’s What’s Wrong with Self-Help

“I’m not really into that personal development stuff.”

A friend said this to me the other day. I found it interesting not because it’s unusual to say, but because it’s common. I know many people who wouldn’t be caught dead walking around the self-help aisle of a bookstore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the desire to live a better life.

Self-help is an interesting field because while practically everyone is interested in how to be happier, richer, healthier or more successful, many of those same people will never read a book or blog about it.

It’s easy to understand why some people don’t learn about car repair or computer programming. It just doesn’t interest them. But since pretty much everyone is interested in having a better life, why are self-improvement junkies the minority?

The Difference Between “self-help” and Self-Help®

I think the key to understanding my friend’s sentiment and many people’s lack of enthusiasm over self-help is in understanding the difference between lowercase “self-help” and uppercase Self-Help®.

The terms self-help, personal development, self-improvement, lifestyle design, wellness or whatever you call them can have two different meanings. The first meaning being the overall philosophy of striving to live better, particularly with the individual as the agent in making this possible.

I think few people object to this first definition of self-help. Almost no one wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “I really hope my life gets worse today.” Self-improvement of this kind is hardwired in the human condition and we’re all devotees to some extent.

The second definition is of Self-Help®. Instead of representing the broad struggle for meaning and happiness in life, it represents a much narrower opinion on what the answer to that question is. More than that, it often represents a business of advice-giving which if not entirely corrupt and fake, certainly isn’t without flaws.

When people like my friend in the introduction say they don’t like self-help, it’s because they don’t like Self-Help®. They want better lives, they just don’t want to buy seminar tickets from a self-appointed guru.

The Two Things Wrong with Self-Help®

There are two reasons I see for disliking Self-Help®. The first is that you dislike the substance of the philosophy backing Self-Help®, the second is that you dislike the style in which this philosophy is delivered.

Many people are eager to criticize the style of self-help. This definitely has flaws, but as someone who strives to write about self-help but often falls into Self-Help®, I think there are reasons why these stylistic flaws exist.

More than style, however, I believe it’s the substance of self-help which is what people should be thinking about. But, just as political junkies should care more about the policies of elected officials, rather than the party they represent, too many people attack or worship Self-Help® without really viewing its contents.

Gurus, Goals and the Style of Self-Help®

“A self-help book you don’t like is self-help. A self-help book you like is just a book.” – Seth Godin

There are a couple big flaws in the style of self-help:

  • Guru-worship – the tendency to turn one pundit into an infallible expert.
  • Profit-bias – emphasizing ideas that are easier to sell as information products
  • Answer-bias – emphasizing easy answers over ambiguous ones
  • Anecdote-bias – focusing on emotional stories, rather than robust evidence
  • Success-bias – speaking from a minority of successes, ignoring hidden failures
  • Circular-authority – where the proof of your expertise is mostly in your success giving that same expertise

I could go through them one-by-one, but I see most of these stylistic flaws as having one of two root causes, self-help as a business and being a full-time advice-giver.

Self-help as a business creates many of these biases. Consider the tendency for self-help pundits to become gurus. Why is this? Well a big part of it is that there’s a large section of the population that wants gurus. They want to feel like they are following a leader who has all the answers.

People say they want healthy food, but end up buying greasy burgers, so McDonalds responds by mostly selling greasy burgers. Similarly, people say they want intelligent discussion, but they pay for gurus, so business pressures push pundits to turn themselves into gurus. I’m not saying it’s right, or inevitable, just that those pressures shape the business of self-help.

Answer-bias occurs because people are more willing to pay for answers than ambiguous, albeit more honest, questions. Success-bias occurs because people are willing to pay for how to be successful, not the cold facts about success rates.

Even if we ignore the profit incentives that warp the style of self-help, simply being a full-time advice-giver creates stylistic flaws. Circular-authority, particularly with the top people, occurs because it is insanely difficult to achieve extraordinary success both in a field and also in a field giving advice. At some point, your major claim to fame will eventually be your advice-giving business.

Realizing that these stylistic-flaws originate, in part, because of the pitfalls of trying to make money off giving advice and following that pursuit full-time, is a way to avoid some of them. I’d avoid the people and ideas you feel are too biased to be trusted, but expecting mild bias even in the people you do trust is a way to correct for it.

Optimism, Passion and The Substance of Self-Help®

While many people will attack or defend Self-Help® based on it’s stylistic flaws, what I think really matters is the substance of those ideas. What is the philosophy of Self-Help®, how does it say you should live and make decisions?

Unlike the stylistic flaws which influence all Self-Help® to a certain degree, the substance of Self-Help® varies dramatically. Some argue you should be disciplined, some argue you should relax. Some argue you should set goals, others say you should stay in the moment and ignore future worries. Save and invest or enjoy the present? Family or career? Faith or atheism?

The part I find most interesting is that many self-help junkies enjoy the majority of self-help books, even when they contradict wildly in actual substance. Similarly, many people hate Self-Help® even when they would agree with everything an author says on how to live. People emphasize the style over the substance, and buy the book because they like the cover, not because they actually have a well-thought agreement on anything the author is saying.

However if you’re interested in lowercase self-help (and who isn’t?) it’s this substance that really matters for your life. Assuming you’re not just buying books as paperweights, or avoiding the self-help aisle out of principle, what should matter to you are the actual ideas, not who they come from.

The Role of Self-Help® in “self-help”

I’m a devotee to lowercase self-help even though I’m often a sceptic of Self-Help®. I think there are many ways intelligent people can avoid the stylistic biases that often plague the business of self-help without giving up on their journey to thoughtfully pursuing a better life philosophy.

Some suggestions:

Final Thoughts

I’m both a reader and writer of lowercase self-help. And, yes, I do possess some of the stylistic biases of Self-Help®, as much as I try to avoid them. I even have a new video course coming out, so I’m very aware of how all these critiques could be equally applied to me.

Part of the solution for me has been to create a division between my blog and the business attached to it, so that I can still create money without turning every article into an extended sales pitch. Another part has been to focus my business end to a narrower spectrum of how-to advice (mostly rapid learning, and personal productivity) so that I can still explore the big ideas of life without making myself an expert in every facet of that big picture.

But ultimately, even I can’t avoid every trace of bias, so it’s up to you as a reader to think critically, read from diverse sources and have thinkers you respect, but none that you worship.