Self-Help Books Don't Always Work (And Why You Should Read Them Anyway)

Life happens and a lot of times, regular humans like us get caught in the whirlwind. During those times, a lot of us look for guidance. Enter the “self-help” industry.

The self-help (or self-improvement) industry aims to let individuals improve their lives independently. Today, it is a thriving industry with at least $10 billion to its credit. Among the many platforms in which the self-help industry presents itself, books still seem to be one of the most popular ones.

Self-help books like Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People have become classics since their release and have been used in numerous seminars, classes, and self-improvement activities. Many self-help books attempt to be as influential as the books mentioned above. The question surrounding self-help books--and the entire self-help industry, for that matter!--has always been, “Do they really work?”


When did this all start?

Walk into any bookstore and you will surely come across an aisle labelled “self-help.” Self-help books always seem to be in abundance and it’s not really unusual to see more than two books discussing the same topic. With the sheer number of books in the market, we can’t help but ask how did we get here?

Going back to the beginning, the earliest prototype for self-help books is Samuel Smiles’ Self Help published in 1989. Smiles’ book contains a relatively simple idea: work hard, and you shall get everything they desire. This simple notion became a hit with people and outsold both Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

It’s important to note how well Self Help fit the time it was released. Its release fit the dominant mindset of people at the time, which was more liberal and empathetic with workers. Following this, most of the influential self-help books get their advice from the dominant ideas when they were written.


Why is it not working?

If you’ve ever read through a self-help book, you know that there are three possibilities:

First, you feel enlightened, apply the concepts taught, and find a significant change in your life;

Second, you scoff at the book and lament on the amount of time and money you spent on said book;

And third, you feel enlightened, try to apply the concepts, fail to apply the concepts, and ultimately realize that this book does not apply to you.

More often, the last two scenarios will be what most readers experience. This could be for any number of reasons, however it is also likely that you just read the wrong book. Remember how self-help books give advice with the same mindset of the time it was written? Well, that also applies to the problems most self-help books are trying to fix.

Remember, “Modern problems require modern solutions.” Of course, most self-help books try to address achieving self-goals and development, but the concept still stands. A millennial working in a vastly different economic setting from the Victorian era might not appreciate being told by Smiles to work hard and you’ll get everything you want. Similarly, a Gen X reader might not be too interested in reading Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck to solve their problems.


But this seems...right?

As you might have noticed, self-help books aren’t a one-size fits all. Some books do work fairly well for a lot of people, becoming best-sellers and cult classics. This doesn’t mean that said book would automatically work for you.

If a self-help book does seem more sensible to you, despite it not being written for you, then by all means--learn from it. Much like there is no one size fits all, there is no definite wrong answer given by these books.


So do they actually work?

TL;DR, it really depends. Self-help books, as much as they market themselves as the solution to all your life problems, can only do so much. However, if you really want to test how effective a book is, here are some things you can do to give you the maximum reading experience:


 1. Choose the right book.

For readers who experience the first scenario above, this is the reason for that. While a lot of books try to answer a general life problem, some are more practical (concentrating on habits), conceptual (emphasizes your outlook in life), specific (concentrating on an aspect of the problem), or general (gives you a general outlook of the situation). Be clear with what you aim to achieve when reading a self-help book and try to research a bit about the book you’re planning on buying beforehand.


2. Read with an open mind.

It is entirely possible that some books don’t resonate with a reader at all because they’ve already decided to reject the book. This is a bad idea if you want to read a self-help book, because it contradicts what you’re trying to do. Treat reading self-help books as discourse, a way to filter out good and bad ideas in your head and a way to let more “correct” ideas enter.


3. Take what resonates, leave what doesn’t.

This is a line that’s usually said after a tarot reading, but it can be perfectly applied here as well. Self-help books aren’t the end all, be all of solving life problems; they are just suggestions. It is fine to be critical!  If you happen to love a book but disagree with one of it’s points, that’s perfectly fine. Remember, you’re trying to improve your life, not copy the author’s.


So should I read self-help books?

While the decision is entirely up to you, reading self help books can provide a new perspective in your life. For some readers, it’s also a way to actually kickstart that positive change they’ve been looking forward to. Even if you’re not looking for solutions, self-help books are interesting because they can give you insights as to how the author and the people around him think.

Just remember, self-help books are not an end all, be all. They provide suggestions and guidelines, but improving yourself and your life ultimately comes down to you!

If you’re looking for particularly interesting reads, you can check our catalogue of self-help books here!