Why is Self-help so misunderstood

As Seth Godin points out in his latest work, Linchpin (see pg. 126):

“… we turn up our noses at the entire genre of self-help. We cynically ridicule the brown-nosers who set out to better themselves.”

The issue.

Self-help is usually associated in the UK with failure. In colloquial terms: You just can’t hack it. Why on earth should anyone turn to let alone rely upon a book to help with their lives – however broad that compass is: family, friends, health, career, wisdom, spirituality and general knowingness? And, worse still, not only turning to a book but looking to go deeper into the programme and possibly, just possibly, passing some of that learned wisdom on to someone else.

I know this sounds all very dismissive but that is exactly the way that the self-help genre is treated.

At best it tends to be associated with a semi-famous person who has managed to wrap their brand of self-help around a lifestyle issue like diet or smoking. That normally involves a process of gathering up the usual tribe of good-meaning and easily identifiable public figures who are willing to endorse their name to the programme and extol its virtues. And of course they give up all their time for nothing – umm.

At worst in gets a bad rap for being associated with some sensational event where, almost like the occult, it gets decried as being the cause of the dysfunction/headline grabbing event.

THERE JUST DOESN’T SEEM TO BE ANY MIDDLE GROUND. (I should qualify this by saying that Warren Buffet did attract some attention recently with his BBC broadcast when he said to Evan Davis that his original shyness had been banished as a result of reading Dale Carnegie’s seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Apparently this one book changed his approach to and dealing with people and it was almost placed at the centre of Mr Buffet’s much lauded financial success).

A credibility gap.

The problem, I think, is one of credibility.

Nearly every ‘ultra’ successful self-help book that I have read (and yes I am not the least bit ashamed to say that I have read quite a few!) had on the front cover: “More than x million readers have read this book …” or it has an ‘A’ list of similar authors to endorse it.

Why do I need to know that? Presumably it gives a degree or measure of credibility that the book would otherwise not have. Now as an old friend of mine would say: “Isn’t that just naval gazing!” In other words, isn’t the writer just pandering to the usual suspects who read this genre of books? It might mean that there were x million who read it but it could just as easily mean that there were x million who were intrigued by it but: (a) never got past the first chapter and never read it again; (b) read the book and thought it was OK but just a passing fad; or (c) those that not only read the book but got immersed in its (secret?) formula and it became part of them.

I must admit to being suspicious if I come across a book that I have never heard of before and it says that it has sold x million because: (a) if it is that popular then why haven’t I heard of it before now; and (b) if it so damn popular why aren’t people being quoted as having read it, relied upon it and got the benefit of it – you know a bit like the Atkins diet for quite some time.

We also have a great disdain for someone trying to tell us what to do – as if anyone should know better than me. We would rather get our bearings from almost any other source than a self-help guide, however that is produced.

Closing the credibility gap.

To borrow unashamedly from the movie, Jerry McGuire:

Jerry Maguire: That’s, that’s great. I’m very… happy.
Rod Tidwell: Are you listenin’?
Jerry Maguire: Yes!
Rod Tidwell: That’s what I’m gonna do for you: God bless you, Jerry. But this is what you gonna do for me. You listenin’, Jerry?
Jerry Maguire: Yeah, what, what, what can I do for you, Rod? You just tell me what can I do for you?
Rod Tidwell: It’s a very personal, a very important thing. Hell, it’s a family motto. Are you ready, Jerry?
Jerry Maguire: I’m ready.
Rod Tidwell: I wanna make sure you’re ready, brother. Here it is: Show me the money. Oh-ho-ho! SHOW! ME! THE! MONEY! A-ha-ha! Jerry, doesn’t it make you feel good just to say that! Say it with me one time, Jerry.
Jerry Maguire: Show you the money.
Rod Tidwell: Oh, no, no. You can do better than that, Jerry! I want you to say it with you, with meaning, brother! Hey, I got Bob Sugar on the other line; I bet you he can say it!
Jerry Maguire: Yeah, yeah, no, no, no. Show you the money.
Rod Tidwell: No! Not show you! Show me the money!
Jerry Maguire: Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: Yeah! Louder!
Jerry Maguire: Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: Yes, but, brother, you got to yell that shit!
Jerry Maguire: Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: I need to feel you, Jerry!

Jerry Maguire: Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: Jerry, you got to yell!
Jerry Maguire: [screaming] Show me the money! Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: Do you love this black man!
Jerry Maguire: I love the black man! Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: I love black people.
Jerry Maguire: I love black people!
Rod Tidwell: Who’s your m^%$(*)) Jerry?
Jerry Maguire: You’re my m_&*^%$£”!!
Rod Tidwell: Whatcha gonna do, Jerry?
Jerry Maguire: Show me the money!
Rod Tidwell: Unh! Congratulations, you’re still my agent.

In short: “Show me the money”. In our rather self orientated society it is only when someone can show [them] the money (and think broader than just £/$) that self-help will start to shake off some of its rather spooky, josstick burning and ethereal baggage and take more of a centre stage in our learning.

BUT HOW SAD IS THAT?

Why should a complete genre of work that is very often grounded over many hundreds of years, in religions that have been tested to destruction and science based methodologies have to been popularised for the sake of chasing the £££££ dragon. We need to put aside our notion of what we can get from something and start to ask ourselves what we might learn that we can use for the benefit of ourselves, our family and the wider community. Because the lid says self-help it doesn’t connote that you are in need of help but rather you are willing to expand your mind and think of this as part of the university of life.

The next time you look at that list of rather odd sounding titles under the wellbeing section of the bookstore (or Amazon), I implore you to look just a bit deeper. Consider one fundamental aspect of your life that you want to improve, forget your prejudices, pick up the book, read the first chapter and if you like what you read buy the book. Don’t just stop there. Think immersion – you know like the last time you had to learn a language or had to produce a big project at work and needed to have all the information at your fingertips.

If all else fails then find someone who you admire, respect or look up to and see if they have a website, are on Twitter or Facebook or have a blog. Sign up to whatever they have and start interacting. You might be surprised with just how much you learn and your hero might just start emailing you – what a blast that might be.

One thought on “Why is Self-help so misunderstood

  1. You make some good points here, Julian. I too am surprised at the persistence of the “self-help is pointless” myth. If we were all perfect, I could understand, but the fact is that every one of us has something we’d like to improve. To coin a cliche, self-help aids us to become the best we can be.

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