5 Reasons Self-Help Books May Not Work for You
After researching philosophy, psychology, behavioral economics, religion, and related fields for over 20 years, I began to notice patterns in the recommendations. The universal concepts that determined meaning became The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life's purpose, but there were also common assumptions made that anyone delving into self-help books should know about before reading.
If you begin to look for a self-help book that will help you find greater purpose or meaning in life, be wary of the following common issues with them that will either cause them to not resonate with you or lead you astray from what you really want to do:
- They Presume Your Goal(s) – This one is the least likely to affect you but can have the greatest impact on your life it it does. If you pick up a self-help book about money, the author will tell you secrets to getting rich. Now, this is a safe assumption by the author since you chose the book knowing it was going to be about attaining that goal, but it still presumes that this is your goal. Therefore, if you aren't sure what goal you should have, you might find forced into picking one before you decide just to start reading the book. Other books—including religious texts or "have it all" type books—presume that you should have a higher spiritual purpose or that you want what most people want, such as money, security, love, friendship, etc. Again, those are pretty safe assumptions if you willingly pick up the book to learn from it, but be careful not to assume that it's what you really want just because the book says so. There are plenty of goals that you can have in life that involve the common goal, growth, that we all have as life forms, so don't prematurely lock yourself into something if you're unsure. Pick one to read, see if it speaks to you, and then determine whether it's a good goal for you or not. Just don't assume that anyone else knows what's best for you because they're an authority on the topic or have had success in the area you're studying.
- They Dictate Ethics You May Not Agree With – This issue bothered me the most personally in my research. I jokingly call this the "butterflies are beautiful, therefore the world was created in this way and you must behave in the ways that I prescribe as a result" logic. In other words, many texts' narratives tells you the goal, gives a less-than-stellar explanation that you have to take the authors' word for, and then prescribes what they think the best behaviors are for you to live your life. Now, there's nothing wrong with giving people advice on the right/best way to live if someone asks for it, but I do feel that it's wrong to suggest that a certain set of ethics must be followed when they don't have to be to achieve the goal. To give some less-contentious examples, one might say, "honor your mother and father", but what if your father used to beat you and your mother abandoned you as a child? I personally don't think you should have to abide by that rule in that situation, and to make it seem like it's a necessary rule to live a meaningful life when there are clear exceptions may leave some people lost as to how to proceed if they cannot or refuse to follow them. So my recommendation here is to analyze any ethical recommendation and make sure that it applies to you and your situation before you incorporate it into your life or feel obligated to follow the rule without question.
- They Don't Explain Why or How Their Recommendations Work – I'm a "how" person, so I love to understand how things work so I can make the best decision or take the best action in any situation. As such, I've always been suspicious of anyone who says to do something because it works and then doesn't want to get into the "how". Now, many people will say that it doesn't matter how it works if it does work when you do it—both on the side of the advisor not having the time to explain it or the receiver of the information not caring about the details. However, if you're just starting out reading books on finding your place in life, I would recommend at least asking yourself how it works. Even if the words resonate with you, you can ensure that recommendations apply to you when you know how they work and, therefore, know how they'll work for you when you apply them.
- They Assume that "If I Can Do It, Anyone Can" – A similar point to the previous one, just because it works for one person, doesn't mean it'll work for someone else. You can watch or read a hundred success stories on how someone got rich with classified ads, real estate, affiliate marketing, or by e-mailing the most successful people on Earth to ask them for an interview...and no matter how self-deprecating they are to try to empower you to follow their approach, it still might not work for you. It could be that their success was highly driven by being the first person to do it, so now it's much harder and they're selling you a pipe dream. It could be that they were lucky (example: if you have enough people flip a coin, chances are one of them will flip heads many times in a row). It could be that they have people skills or know people that others don't. Because of those conditions, it could be that the recommendations provided—even if they explain how they worked—won't work given different conditions. Therefore, if someone makes recommendations based on their situation, make sure to check out the context and make sure that they can apply to you and aren't missing any possible exceptions.
- They Oversimplify the Messages – One thing that the best self-help books do is come up with catchy tag lines or platitudes that get you to remember them and spread them to others, and there's nothing wrong with marketing if it gets a good message out. You might have seen some popular and some unique ones: "you bring about what you think about"; "you are the placebo"; "quitters never win, and winners never quit". But despite the fact that they're memorable, they're very susceptible to misinterpretation. For example, what if someone seeing the "winners never quit" decided to never quit smoking or get-rich-quick schemes? Clearly, the pithy insight was about the fact that you have to keep practicing to get better if you want to succeed in an area and can't if you quit, but someone might think that that means they can't quit anything they do regardless of the results. I once read a parenting book that said you should never say, "No," to your child. I'm pretty sure that's not to be taken literally (lest you accidentally permit your kid to jump off a cliff or something), but that blanket statement is the memorable one and the nuance is likely to be lost from there. This is how myths get started. To avoid misinterpreting an author, make sure you understand the nuances and exceptions to statements like these. That way, you reduce your risk of misapplying a recommendation.
Avoid these five potential issues, and you'll find that you'll get more out of self-help books, religious texts, and philosophy books than you would otherwise. Note that there are always good reasons for the above—leaders don't have time and want ideas to stick, they assume your goals are similar to theirs so they can give advice, or they think they know what's best for you so they recommend specific ethics. But if their assumptions prove to be wrong or the omitted information would reduce the advice's applicability, you could be misled. So always be careful and make sure you find the right advice for you before applying it.
Author's Note: While The Meaning of Life avoids these common issues, it faces the other side of the trade-offs mentioned above: it doesn't presume your goals, so it can't give you specific help against one specific area you want to improve like a self-help book on that topic could; it doesn't recommend ethics, and you might want some to follow; it explains everything without oversimplification, so it's 358 pages; and it's not as motivational with inspirational tales to get you to feel like you can take on the world. But since every other book seems to fall into the above traps, I figured that at least one book should try it another way for those who want a book that wants an in-depth explanation and unbiased guidance vs. platitudes and worldview- or agenda-influenced ethical recommendations.