Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why 90 percent of self-help is useless

Wow. There's a title with some chutzpah. Here I am, writing what is essentially a self-help blog about becoming a real adult, and I've just asserted that most self-help doesn't do any good. Where do I get off saying that? And what, if anything, makes this blog different?

Let's take those questions one at a time, shall we?

I'm hardly the first person to notice -- nor will I be the last -- that self-help has become a huge and very lucrative industry. Considering the vast quantities of self-help books, movies, blogs (ehem), magazines, seminars, etc. at our disposal, every living person on earth ought to be an expert at everything by now. Yet people continue to buy books, attend seminars and pick up self-hypnosis kits with one goal in mind: shedding their personal insecurities and becoming better than they are today. It's almost as though some people are addicted to the idea of self-improvement.

The question is, after shooting up their self-help fix, do these people actually see any improvement in themselves?

David Wong of has written a clever (if somewhat profane) article that cuts to the heart of this problem: How 'The Karate Kid' Ruined The Modern World. Way too many of us think of skills to be mastered as though they were a 30-second training montage from an action film. In real life, the effort you must expend to master a skill is measured in months or years -- but in entertainment it's always edited down to a quick montage because, hey, watching people practice stuff is boring. Yet the brevity of these montages subtly encourages us to think we can become experts in less time than it takes to talk about it -- and later, we curl up and wail like infants when we find out that gaining expertise in a discipline requires a much bigger investment of time and effort.

We tend to read self-help books with the unconscious belief that reading is all that's required for us to enjoy the promised success, rather than actually getting off our duffs and doing what the books say to do. Worse, many of the people who write self-help materials deliberately exploit this widespread belief that success is effortless. (Think about titles like The 4-Hour Workweek, Think and Grow Rich, and 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot. They all point to the idea that personal change is easy and fast.) Even the media hop on board, perpetuating myths such as the "overnight success" of a suddenly-popular artist or band (ignoring the years of toiling in obscurity that an artist or band endured before making it big) or the idea that "natural talents" like Mozart emerged from the womb ready to write The Marriage of Figaro (hint: he didn't).

Here's a simple rule of thumb regarding success. If someone is making wheelbarrow-loads of cash doing something, you can pretty much count on one or both of these being true:
  1. It required a combination of significant time, effort and talent to get there.
  2. Something illegal is going on.
If Academy Award-level acting were easy, everyone would have an Oscar gathering dust on the mantelpiece. If it were trivially simple to learn speed skating or ice dancing, you'd see Winter Olympics medals being donated to Goodwill. And if everyone had what it took to become a neurosurgeon, brain surgeries would be a whole lot cheaper. Since you don't see these things, it's safe to assume that certain very lucrative activities require a certain base level of talent combined with a whopping crapload of effort, consistently applied over a very long time.

OK, so you get it. It's not enough to know your stuff. Reading self-help books doesn't make you successful, any more than smelling shampoo will give you clean hair.  The point is, no amount of reading is going to do you any good unless you actually get up and DO. IT.

So why is this blog different from other self-help?

Well, for one thing, because I'm telling you outright: The stuff I'm teaching you isn't always easy, and it isn't always fast.  It also requires more than just passive reading -- it requires consistent activity.  In other words, don't just read this blog for pleasure, GET OFF YOUR LAZY BUTT AND DO THIS STUFF.

When I write an entry on this blog -- say, an article on the basics of personal hygiene -- here's the behavior I expect from you, the reader:
  1. Read carefully. Smile at the snark, if it pleases you (and I hope it does).
  2. Review the points of the article to make sure you remember what you read.
That's it. In this case, it's literally lather, rinse, repeat until you've mastered the art of bathing.

Look, I don't expect you to master all this stuff next week. Becoming an adult does take time and work. But I do expect you to pick an article, read it, and PRACTICE THE STEPS until the skill becomes second nature to you. It may be hard at first, but it does get easier with practice -- so although I'm not going to tell you it's easy, I can definitely tell you that it's worth the effort.

Otherwise, if you don't bother to do anything with the information you learn here, this blog becomes part of the useless 90 percent of self-help materials, rather than the 10 percent that actually helps people effect change for the better.

But remember this: only your efforts determine which materials make up that useful 10 percent for you.

Act wisely, won't you?


  1. I don't comment all the time, but I am reading all the posts. Great, great stuff!