It is only a slight exaggeration to say that self-help books promise the world. Peruse any online bookstore for a while and you’ll soon stumble upon their extravagant boasts. Transform your life! Quadruple your productivity! Unlock the secret to success!
They make it sound so easy, don’t they?
It feels like every week someone releases a new system or a new set of principles that people can use to achieve their dreams. Self-help is now a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. One that offers videos, seminars and online courses — and all for a reasonable price.
Every time, these products are marketed as the keys to personal fulfillment. And every time next year they are joined by yet more products promising the exact same thing.
So then, what gives? Is the entire self-help industry just one massive scam?
Well, not exactly.
You haven’t been deceived or bamboozled. In fact, the truth about the self-industry is probably something you already know: 90% of it is just repackaged common sense.
I’ve read my fair share of self-help books, seeking to improve my own circumstances and live a better, healthier life. And every book I read had one similarity between them. You could always boil their messages down to the same simple, time-tested advice that we’ve all heard before:
- Write down your goals and take baby steps towards them.
- Don’t sacrifice long-term happiness for instant gratification.
- Copy the habits of successful people.
- Cultivate a positive attitude.
- Put in lots of effort to achieve your goals.
But none of this advice is sexy or exciting. We’ve heard it so many times that it’s become banal. It’s white noise now. Something we tune out because it reminds us of the “eat your vegetables” line we used to get from our parents.
So self-help gurus decided to spice it up with analogies and diagrams and equations. They tell us we too can achieve a WARRIOR MINDSET. They give us self-improvement formulas, arguing SUCCESS = MASSIVE ACTION + CLARITY.
And the thing is, I can’t really blame them for this.
It’s easy to dismiss this kind of presentation as cynical or bird-brained. But it can also help simple insights resonate with people who might otherwise ignore them.
Some writers deliver the lesson with a cerebral spin. Others frame it as a spiritual matter. And others adopt the tone of a no-nonsense stoic. Each approach appeals to different people, but the intent is usually consistent: to help the same old solutions sink in.
None of this is problematic. But what I do take issue with are the “magic bullet” solutions some writers peddle. The “one weird trick” that will bring you fame, fortune and fulfillment.
These easy fixes persist for one simple reason. Common sense solutions are hard.
Changing your life for the better requires significant effort. If you want to be more productive you’ll need more energy, which means regular exercise and a healthy diet. Getting rid of negative self-talk requires a lot of mental training. And achieving your goals can take years or decades of hard work.
A self-help writer could deliver this ugly truth. “Put in countless hours of effort and maybe you’ll have a marginally better life!” They could even write a book about it. But with such a downbeat message, it hardly sounds like a best-seller.
And that’s one reason self-help remains a booming industry. People ignore the hard lessons about personal development and latch on to the easy solutions. The shiny new fad. And because that’s what sells, authors looking to turn a profit will happily provide it.
But there are no shortcuts when it comes to being happy or achieving what you want out of life. There’s valuable advice, there’s guidance from people who have won success, but there’s no magic path to enlightenment. It all comes back to basic principles.
Practice gratitude. Put in the work. Develop skills in your chosen field.
And to be fair, reading self-help can remind yourself of these principles. It can re-align your mind when you’ve lapsed into bad habits. But reading by itself does not accomplish change. And alluring promises won’t give you what you want either.
Taking action is the only thing that works. And there’s just no way around that.
Previously published on medium.com and is republished here under permission.
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