How to read self-help

Which self-help is worth reading, and how to get the most from it

It happens every time I’m in an airport: I wander into one of those cramped munchies-and-magazines stores and find myself pulled toward that table. You know the one. It’s always in the dead-center of the store, and it’s covered with giant, glossy hardcovers with bold Gladwellian titles like

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

  • The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life

  • Super Human: The Bulletproof Plan to Age Backward and Maybe Even Live Forever

  • Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

  • Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

  • The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price

I usually glance at this self-help altar out of the corner of my eye while feigning interest in gallon-sized packages of M&Ms. I’m not one of those people, constantly searching for redemption in the acid-free pages of an expensive hardcover. But invariably I see a title I just can’t resist, and with flushed face I start reading the jacket of some book that promises me success in business, health, or love.

Almost all the books on the table are in this category—self-help—and its very presence intrigues me. Popular opinion on self-help ranges from ridicule to accusations of outright fraud, yet the bestseller lists practically burst with books like Gottlieb’s Maybe you should talk to someone (self-help through therapy), Epstein’s Range (how generalists can outperform specialists), and Levitin’s Successful Aging (no explanation needed).

We’re embarrassed by self-help, but we’re also attracted to it. We like reading it, but we’re skeptical that it works. We suspect self-help isn’t useful, but everyseriouslist of business books turns out to be comprised entirely of self-help books.

And, perhaps most infuriatingly, rejecting self-help turns out to be hard. Any attempt to articulate a theory against self-help ends up sounding eerily like self-help itself. Much has been made about the rise of self-care: an alleged rejection of the insecure striving encouraged by self-help. But somehow these new “anti-gurus”—Marianne WilliamsonMark MansonSarah Knight—sermonize about acceptance and tranquility in exactly the same tenor as the self-help gurus before them.

So which is it? Is our obsession with self-help embarrassing or admirable? Is self-help snake oil or salvation?

I’m going to argue that it’s both. Some self-help is terrible, individualistic hucksterism that the US has exported around the world. But good self-help also exists, and it provides a high-leverage way to lead a better, more fulfilling life.

Let’s talk about wisdom. There are lots of definitions of wisdom, but I like Paul Graham’s: “a wise person knows what to do in most situations, while a [knowledgeable]1 person knows what to do in situations where few others could.” In other words, wise people are moderately successful in many domains, while knowledgeable people are very successful in a few. Here’s a beautiful graph I made:

So a neurosurgeon is smart because she can solve a narrow set of problems that few can, but she may not be wise because, on balance, she can’t solve as many of life’s problems as someone else. (She could also be wise of course, but it’s not related to her smartness.)

How did the doctor become so smart? Well, she read books of course! And the stuff in those books was highly-specific, arcane knowledge about anatomy and neurons and…brain stuff. This brain stuff is devilishly difficult to learn, but once our doctor has completed her (lengthy) training she can solve problems few can.

But what if you wanted wisdom, not knowledge? Are there books that contain wisdom? In other words, are there books that give you general-purpose, one-size-fits-all advice for navigating life?

Of course there is! It’s called self-help.

The stuff in, say, Angela Duckworth’s Grit is wisdom. You can tell because

  1. It’s incredibly easy to understand—e.g. “sticking with long-term goals improves life outcomes”

  2. But very difficult to apply to real life

WisdomKnowledgeEasily understoodDifficult to learnWidely applicableNarrowly usefulHard to implementEasy to implementSelf-helpTextbooks

Viewing self-help through this wisdom/knowledge lens clarifies the above paradoxes. We’re embarrassed by self-help because (at its best) it’s full of banal platitudes—but these are platitudes because they’re so general. Specific rules like “if your boss likes golf and you want a raise, ask for it while taking her golfing” are too specific to be wisdom.

And we like reading self-help because it makes sense. When Tim Ferriss tells us to ruthlessly cut meetings out of our lives, it seems obvious! We nod our heads vigorously in agreement. But a few weeks later we find our calendar unchanged. We look back on The 4-Hour Work Week and think, what a bunch of nonsense, this whole self-help thing is bogus.

But this is a hallmark of wisdom: it’s trivial to read but nearly impossible to put into practice. We feel divinely inspired while reading Minimalism, but when it’s time to actually cull our wardrobes, it turns out we have good reasons for keeping everything! For wisdom, the devil is in the details, and the details are exactly what nobody else can help you with.

The wisdom/knowledge distinction also explains why there’s such a large overlap between business books and self-help: “business” has so much conceptual real estate that solving “business” problems requires tools that are closer to wisdom than to knowledge—no business book can predict what sorts of situations (businesses, market conditions, etc.) the reader will encounter, so instead it offers general, obvious-sounding rules.

Okay you get it: self-help is wisdom. So what?

The wisdom/knowledge distinction is more than a curiosity; it can help us get more from the self-help genre. Once we understand the purpose of self-help (acquiring wisdom), we’re in a better position to find good self-help and to extract the most from it. Here are a few tips and tricks.

Read self-help that makes sense

A good rule of thumb is that arcane wisdom is rarely right. By arcane I mean anything that is not immediately obvious, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s exhortation to put rocks in your vagina. So advice can either be arcane or obvious, general or specific.

And we want the general and obvious advice. If you hear something dubious like “drink lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup for 40 days straight” because it will “eliminate toxins…cleanse the kidneys…[and] purify the glands” you should first ask yourself: is this an obvious universal truth? Does this make sense? Can I apply this to a variety of situations?

If the answer is “no,” then it probably isn’t the kind of sage wisdom we’re looking for. That isn’t to say that specific knowledge can’t dramatically improve your life—certainly reading about new lifesaving medical treatments is worthwhile—but a good rule of thumb for filtering out bad self-help is to ask yourself: is this obvious?

It turns out that almost all the criticism of self-help involves stuff in the lower-right quadrant. When the New Yorkerpokes fun at at Tim Ferriss they dwell on his human growth factor injections, his resveratrol overdose, his habit of weighing his feces—but they completely ignore Ferriss’ more banal platitudes about defining your goals, shutting out distractions, and living intentionally. But it’s these latter bits of wisdom that have made Ferriss famous, and when we read Four Hour Work Week it’s this wisdom that enthralls us, not his breezy tutorial for doubling your reading speed.

A good corollary here is that old self-help tends to be better, because

  1. Wisdom tends to be stable over time

  2. Pseudoknowledge is eventually exposed

Examples, examples, examples

Anecdotally, it seems that general rules require more examples to be understood. Carnegie’s “be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise” sounds great. But I need to hear about Charles Dickens being spurred to greatness by a little praise from an editor, how a man’s horrid children became angels after some kind words from their parents, how a business owner raised productivity by complimenting the craftsmanship of his workers. When we hear enough examples we can begin to see the places in our own lives where this wisdom fits.

Be patient (with self-help and yourself)

It’s a common complaint that self-help books only give high-level advice and never explain specifically how to implement these changes.

But the whole thing with wisdom is that you can’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all method of application. Good wisdom applies to so many different situations, in so many ways, that going through every possibility would take millennia.

So this is the final lesson: self-help is hard. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up if one reading of Letters from a Stoic doesn’t transform us overnight. Reading wisdom is the easiest part of becoming wise.

A large part of the self-help’s bad reputation is due to the fact that lots of people read self-help, but those same people seem to keep reading self-help.

Inc. Magazine has a particularly infuriating piece with the alarmist title 11 Billion Reasons The Self Help Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know The Truth About Happiness. The whole argument is pretty much right there in the title, actually. Since the self-help industry is worth $11 billion—and, you know, some people out there still need help—then obviously the whole thing is this cynical scam where publishers trick the American public into buying stuff they know is bullshit.

But I think we read a lot of self-help because we need to. As I’ve already mentioned, we need lots of examples to drive this wisdom home. We should be more forgiving of self-help (the genre) and more forgiving of ourselves. Putting wisdom into practice takes requires reading, reflection, and practice—but it’s worth it.

Don’t be embarrassed

We (the cognoscenti) are terrified of sounding trite, of repeating obvious truths, of saying things that have been said for millennia—so we laugh nervously at phrases like “accept yourself,” or we utter them with a certain ironic distance—but the reason these sayings sound trite is that understanding them s trivial, it is easy and available to anyone, regardless of social circle or education. But practicing these things is incredibly hard.

”…in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.”

- David Foster Wallace, This is water

In a discussion about the perils of self-help culture, British journalist Will Storr told the New Yorker that “He [Storr] is quick to say that he isn’t encouraging anything quite as clichéd as self-acceptance. At the same time, he reports that he has, in fact, come to accept himself.”

I think that says it all.

  1. Graham compares wise with smart, but (a) smart doesn’t lend itself to a great noun (smartness?) and (b) I care more about the material, not the subject. [return]