For self-help content to sell it must be revolutionary. Each idea in a self-help book is surprising, supported by strong arguments and potentially life-changing. It does not have to be true. Each self-help best seller is followed by an array of studies that show that the book cannot be used as-is. Let us see a couple of bestsellers.
- Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, 2015. The authors argue that with some training anyone can learn to forecast. It may be true in “trend following” scenario, but occasionally trends change, and even the best experts fail. And here is another bestseller about it.
- Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, 2011. Malcolm Gladwell immortalized the 10,000-hour rule as the “magic number of greatness.” Has been ruled plain wrong. It is clear that some practice is required for success, but the number of actual hours needed for anyone is anyone’s guess.
- The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein, 2014. This book explores the question of nature versus nurture as it pertains to training for athletes in sports using anecdotes which favor both sides of the argument. These anecdotes are combined with the results of statistical studies to give the reader an understanding of the magnitude that biology plays in athletics. Topics such as the effects of gender, race, genetics, culture, and physical environment are discussed as contributors to success in specific sports. The Sports Gene is a timely reminder that unpicking the equation between nature, nurture and high achievement is not only a goal for researchers of expertise but also a goal of the many seeking a niche where their talents are likely to blossom. This sound study simply cannot be used by us practically.
- The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, by Ian Robertson, 2012. Key quote: “Who wins is the factor that shapes our lives more completely than anything else. Winning is a drive as powerful as sex, and we all want to win, whether we are aware of it or not.” The victory recipe that follows promises to make the lives of everybody around the victor a living hell, crushing their will. Now, being of sound mind, do you want to shape to the best the life of your children or your admirers?
- Mastery, by Robert Greene, 2013. Key quote: “You must understand the following: In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious.” This is a great recipe for increasing personal risk. With increased chance of success, there is also a strong increase of failure possibilities. To tell the truth, most successful projects during the last 50 years were a product of a strong teamwork under a visionary leadership. I would say typically vision, teamwork and leadership are more important than personal passion.
Each of the self-help bestsellers is very convincing, but it is recommended to think twice before following the advice within.
The bestselling self-help books are marketing masterpieces by expert storytellers. Otherwise, people simply would ignore them. The authors understand very well their audience and try to generate a dialogue: predict your arguments and masterfully answer your concerns. We feel we have the full control, and can rationally decide which advice to follow and what to believe in. In fact, we are guided by masterminds. The stories are told in such a succession, that we raise concerns the authors want us to raise, and the authors immediately answer them. This looks like a magic when properly done. In fact, this is an outcome of dozens of very similar conversations that prepared the author to act in a particular way after trying several different responses. IF the story is not sufficiently coercive, the magic fails and we understand all-to-human concerns and doubts between the lines.
The authors use all the tricks of the good marketing books: provide selective statistics, give personal encounter stories to make you relate, tell you a convincing story you can use, motivate you. The real motivations of the author often are not so benign. Some authors want to help you out of respect to people who helped them. This is my motivation. This is the motivation of the best people in the business… Others want to win your hearts and generate followers, or sell their expertise to international business, or simply make you buy more expensive products. The books I quote are decent, the people I work with are great people. Not all authors are nice. I have seen all sorts of self-help books, some of which are significantly more sinister than “The Prince” by Machiavelli. Again, most of the authors are good people, simply be aware that a book can make you feel more trust and susceptibility to the author.
Writing self-help books has many effects on the author. If everything goes well, this is an interesting business opportunity, but this is not the only factor involved. Many self-help books have a therapeutic effect on their authors. You get a chance to explore the issues you are most passionate and vulnerable about. If you are successful, you get a chance to understand the mechanisms behind your success. If you feel you wronged someone, this is your chance for redemptions. You can express gratitude to the people that help you and ask for an endorsement from people you want to mentor you. Your latent thoughts can become a written word. You may generate common language with total foreigners by explaining your world views to them.
When we write about something we also research and discover new things about it. We visit bookstores and search online to read what other people wrote about the subject. We characterize our readers and thus we understand much better who we are and who are friends are. We show samples and preprints to best friends and total strangers, generating a language that can be appreciated by both. Writing a self-help book can be a tremendous personal growth opportunity.
If you suffer from burnout or low self-worth, or simply have too many thoughts to count, writing blog may be the best thing for you. You will have a chance to crystallize your thoughts, and your readers will support you with endorsements, empathy, and gratitude. Writing blog is almost a life contact with your audience since you see the comments and can estimate when you helped someone or now. Writing a book is very different. You develop an idea for a year, formulate a very long and complex story and then you send it out to readers whose response you cannot really see. This is a jump of faith, and a serious investment for the author.
Personal stories and testimonies
Unlike an author of a blog, that writes about many subjects and exposes different sides of himself, the writer of the book chooses which sides to show and carefully shows the chosen sides.
A self help book will have some sort of personal encounters with other people. These personal encounters will always be successful. Even if the are a total failure, they come with a valuable lesson. Real-life stories are very different. People get sick and busy. They disappear and reappear. Occasionally they act in ways that do not coincide with our perception of them. Quite often they are plain boring. No book dialogue sounds like a real life dialogue, and all personal stories in the book are heavily edited – otherwise, they would be too boring for you to read. Do not worry, most stories get the facts right and follow real conversations, they just focus on the core experience and ignore everything else.
The testimonies are also interesting. Check who writes the testimony and why. Is it generated by an expert in the field? If so, is this expert the mentor of the author? Is it generated by a publisher, and then it is a quote from an important journal. Is it the testimony of a student or a follower? If so, what sort of relationship exist between the master and the student? If the book does not come with a testimony, then you should really worry.
I am a very unlikely author of self-help books. At some point, I noticed that people can be much more than they are. Then I got some help, and I felt I need to help others. I never intended to be an author. One thing led to another and books got published. Quite often people write me and tell me that I really helped them, and I appreciate this honest feedback. I do not consider myself a success story: there is so much to be done, and all my work is a drop in a see. Maybe this humble perspective makes me look differently at the masters of the self-help world, and wonder about their content and their motives.