“The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one” Christopher Buckley wrote in the book God Is My Broker, a satire on self-help. And that was before the self-help industry became the behemoth it is today.
Most of us know someone who can always be spotted with the latest self-help bestseller, hoping to improve their life with a dose of expert advice. There is something admirable in the notion of self-improvement. Self-help books, seminars and other products are intended as a means to making people better in some way; better at their jobs, more confident, more successful in their relationships. In some cases, however, people become self-help junkies; more likely to be reaching the end of another self-help book than reaching any kind of real improvement in their lives. Consuming self-help advice becomes a stand-in for actual self-improvement. I want to explore some of the causes behind this, and offer some tips on how a self-help junkie can break out of the cycle.
Why do people get addicted to self-help? There are different reasons, but mostly they concern perceived rewards and punishments. Broadly speaking, we repeat behaviors met with positive outcomes and avoid those with negative outcomes; pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding. If we feel rewarded for reading self-help books, rather than actually improving ourselves, or if we’re punished in our attempts to make those real changes, these feelings will shape our behavior. [CL1] In relation to self-help I want to discuss three ways this happens: social rewards, cognitive closure and fear of failure.
Self-improvement doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. The rewards of improving yourself are not limited to the direct outcomes of the improvement. For example, if you are reading a new diet and exercise book hoping to improve your fitness, while fitness is a goal in and of itself, for most people the real reward is how fitness affects other people’s perception of you. This can sometimes lead us into a bit of a trap. Since fitness, or other self-improvement, is a long and arduous journey, perhaps we tell a friend or colleague about our plan. Naturally that person gives us encouragement and we feel validated. However, now we’ve already extracted some of the validation we sought, and without doing any hard work. Our goal was self-improvement, but we’ve already received validation and social reward. The easiest way to get more might be simply to pick up another self-help book and keep telling people about all the great stuff you intend to do. Now, rather than achieving our original goals, we’ve fallen into a cycle of reading self-help but not improving ourselves, and a self-help junkie is born. This counter-intuitive effect, whereby sharing your goals reduces your chance of success, is well explained in Derek Shiver’s short TED talk ‘Keep Your Goals To Yourself’
Another possible cause of addiction to self-help is cognitive closure. Cognitive closure is the very human desire to find distinct answers and end points, rather than accept ambiguity and uncertainty. Self-help books often present themselves as whole systems, which may incline those of us who feel a strong urge for cognitive closure to read them all the way through before implementing any advice. Upon completing the book our need for closure is satisfied, but then the task of actualizing the advice seems like a boundless task, with no clear end goals. Losing weight, or becoming more efficient in our professional lives doesn’t have the cognitive closure of the certain end point that the completion of the self-help books does. Implementation is difficult and doesn’t necessarily provide closure, but picking up another self-help book does, and reading self-help books feels like self-improvement. If we become addicted to cognitive closure, we can quickly find ourselves reading self-help books front to cover but never acting on them.
One final reason for self-help is fear of failure. Reading self-help books is easy, there is no chance of failure, but actively improving your life can be incredibly daunting. This is exacerbated by the fact that self-help often sells itself with tales of extreme success and wealth. The leap from words on a page or a speaker on a stage to making real changes in your life is huge, and frightening to some people. The prospect of trying and failing may seem much worse than the prospect of reading another self-help book or paying for another seminar, especially when success is built up to absurd proportions. It is cognitively easier to not to try than to try and fail, and if success is perceived to be an athlete’s body, a yacht and retiring at 30, then failure is inevitable and trying becomes frightening.
The self-help industry has ballooned to $12 billion dollars annually, and it thrives on those addicted to self-help. There’s a reason Think and Grow Rich has sold 10 fold more copies than there are millionaires in the world. Part of it has to do with how we interact with self-help. So here are some tips on avoiding self-help addiction and getting more out of self-help by avoiding easy gratification, reducing cognitive closure and conquering fear of failure:
· Don’t shop around for the perfect book or system, you are not finding a needle in a haystack. For example, if you want to improve your goal setting skills, one book on goal setting will not be monumentally better or worse than another.
· Don’t tell people about your self-improvement projects unless it is in a manner whereby you will be held accountable for delivering on specific promises. Promising to go to the gym with a friend every week will require you to be there, but simply telling someone that you plan to go to the gym more often will actually reduce the chance if it occurring.
· Implementing a single self-help book’s advice is worth more than reading twenty books. Implementing a single chapter’s advice is worth more than reading the whole book. It can help to go chapter by chapter and taking time to implement advice before allowing yourself to move on.
· By the same token deep learning is almost always better. With self-help, reading the same book twice is often more valuable than reading two different books.
· Beware the easy answers. Self-help should not be a magic bullet.
· To avoid fear of failure, manage your expectations. Don’t get caught up in the success stories, but rather in the nitty gritty advice. The goal of self-improvement should be gradual and iterative steps towards a better version of yourself, not finding a magic bullet to turn you into success story overnight.
· Accept the fact that failure is inevitable, and that success is built on failed attempts being turned into meaningful lessons.
· Actively set your sights on consuming less self-help but more effectively. If you are a bit of a self-help addict, then you already have more material than you could ever need to effect change in your life.
· Keep leisure reading and self-help reading mentally separate, reading self-help in the same way that you read for leisure will discourage you from actively implementing the concepts in your life.[CL2]
Remember most of all that self-help is a tool. A tool that, as the name implies, enables you to help yourself. Any self-help book, workshop, or system should ultimately serve you. If reading self-help feels indistinguishable from doing self-help, then it might be time to take a step back. What has your experience been with self-help? Did you find this advice useful? Get in touch, we’d love to hear your story.