Love it or hate it: Self-help books

by Patty Templeton

Love it“Done is better than perfect” is a mantra I learned from reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” Is it a problematic book at points? Yup. Did reading it make me someone who is nicer to myself and someone who finishes projects more frequently? Yup.

When I was a kid who late-night philosophized at Denny’s with other chess nerds, I was an asshole about self-help books. I thought they were written by charlatans for desperate folks who couldn’t take the time to think for themselves.

Like I said, I was a pretentious, little a-hole.

Now, I understand. Life takes a toll. Death comes in. Job satisfaction decreases. Lovers let you down. The long road before you diminishes. You gotta scatter flares on the shadowed road to make up for all the busted streetlamps.

Not all self-help books are created equal. I ain’t gonna pretend that the effing Secret is a phenomenal resource, but there are others, and they can be a bright light on a dark night of the soul.

— Patty TempletonHate itSeeing an issue or problem and reading a book to attempt to understand or fix it and then employing the new knowledge to live a happier and more fulfilling life? Sounds good to me. If only it were this simple.

The problem with self-help, simply, is people expecting simple answers to complex problems and a capitalistic industry willing to cash in on varying degrees of desperation.

Beyond the simple answers, self-help can give a false sense of progress and comfort while leaving the reader without long-term results. Reading self-help books can often provide great sources of information and insights, but without a dedicated plan of how to implement that information, readers might walk away patting themselves on the back for reading, thinking that merely taking in information is a magical change-agent.

Self-help books can also leave readers either focusing on the wrong issues or with information that simply makes them feel better about themselves without any resolution. Or, while we might begin to address the issue found in the self-help book, it might not be addressing the root of the issue, the equivalent of laypeople using WebMD to diagnose maladies.

Self-help is big business. It’s not entirely bad as a genre, but it’s one that preys on the desperate and usually promises more than it can deliver. That’s the fault of the books and authors, as well as those reading.

— David Holub


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