What’s Wrong With All The Self-Help?

We are obsessed about it, but does it really help?

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

I was trying to explain my writing to my grandma. She asked me what I was writing about and I told her that I choose my topics according to what’s in demand. And I told her how much self-help is in demand. I explained her the term self-help, trying to make it sound as generic as possible, so that if she is interested she can still ask me or let it go if it’s not her thing to discuss.

She was shocked and fascinated by the mere notion of self-help. That people need it. That people read it. That people can make a living writing about it.

The notion self-help sounded strange as I tried to explain to her that it is about self-improvement and learning about yourself and growth, and productivity.

She didn’t understand the hype around it. She said that in her time — she is 90 now — it was life teaching the lessons. They didn’t need to artificially improve themselves, the only thing they had to do is to be a decent, hardworking, caring person; and the rest came with it.

She said that the lessons of life were taught day after day. You could read about it as much as you want to, but you needed to experience it so that it should really make a difference.

Eventually, when she got over her shock, she said she couldn’t believe that life has changed this much that we need a detailed explanation on how to be decent, hardworking and caring.

I have been thinking of what was wrong with self-help, and how it could be such a saturated market with self-help gurus, motivational speakers, self-professed growth experts all around.

And when my grandma told me her thoughts about it, it just clicked.

Life didn’t change that much. We did. With all our opportunities we got lazier.

With all the self-help books and articles available we are trying to accelerate a natural process of growth.

If you never had to grieve a loved one and never faced real loss, and you read a lot of books of grief, healing and processing difficult emotions, you are learning about the theory of it. You can be aware of all the stages, all the emotional turmoil experienced by others but it doesn’t come close to when you are really grieving.

Reading about it or hearing others talk about it cannot be even considered a preparation, because there are things that you cannot be prepared.

Grieving — as an example — is an emotional process where you need to get through it on your own, grow through it and somehow come out on the other side. It is inevitable that you will experience it at one point, but it’s impossible to get ready for it.

Similarly, you don’t know heartbreak until you have experienced it, you don’t really understand mental illness if you have never had it, you can’t imagine what it is really like to be a parent if you never had kids. Self-help books are just pointers, filling in some gaps and offering some guidance.

But your life is yours. The real process needs to be lived by you. You need to go through it and learn the lessons as you go. You can use the pointers and motivation, but they won’t teach you what to feel and how to manage it.

We skip the lesson to jump to the conclusion.

Self-help books are about a finished process — described from retrospect. Maybe it’s about financial success, or weight loss or meditation or writing. The focus is on the parts that worked.

Like most success stories, it might start from an underdog position — to increase the interest and the tension. But no matter how low it starts from, it will be disproportionately about the success. Even if the bad times lasted 20 years and the good times started 20 days ago, you will have a positive feeling of it.

You feel you get the whole picture, but you don’t. You get the conclusion, not the lesson. You get how it was solved, not all the ways that didn’t work. You’ll get the accomplishment, not the frustration.

And it doesn’t help you get through your own life, it merely shows you someone else’s reality.

We fool ourselves and make ourselves believe that we did the job just by reading someone’s advice.

There are people out there bragging about the number of books they read. Reading 100 books a year sounds great, right? Or even 50. But how many of those you really remember?

How many TED talks did you watch and how many made an impact on your life? How many articles did you read and how many pieces of advice did you implement in your life?

One of the most dangerous features of being obsessed with self-help that it gives the illusion of productivity. See, I am doing something useful, I am working on myself, I am reading the 10th book this month, so I must be doing great.

But the job starts after you read the advice. It starts by doing something about it. And to do something about it you need to remember. It might feel nice to read some motivational article about the best morning routine ever or emotional intelligence or relationship savers — but if you don’t act on them, the words stay words and you are exactly where you started.

We buy into hacks because we love shortcuts, but we fail to see that shortcuts don’t exist.

The origin of the word hack comes from the technology area, as in one who creates creative solutions to a computer problem is a hacker, who creates hack. In other words, a hack is a creative solution to an already existing problem that will shorten the time need and lessen the effort.

Our lives are so full of life hacks and productivity hacks that we tend to think that finding a quicker way of doing something is natural. Think about the diet fads that promise you to lose 10lbs a week. Or the 30-day courses that promise new a new body, a newly acquired skill, a new habit formed. You can become a writer, a programmer, a calligraphist and a runner — in 30 days. Really?

It sounds amazing and we want to believe it because we want everything to happen quickly without much effort. But success is about learning and getting through the whole journey. Building muscle is not a 2-week task. Losing weight won’t happen overnight. Becoming a writer just because you sign up for a course won’t happen — because you need to put the work in.

The course might last 7 days or 30 days or 3 months, but the real process lasts a lot longer. Habits form in the long run. Skills develop over time. Success and failure go hand in hand. And the shortcuts don’t exist, they are just illusions to keep us going.

Self-help is not evil. The idea of sharing thoughts, successes, journeys and tricks and tips with others is great. But on the receiving end, it’s not enough to just read and applaud it. It’s not enough to participate passively, admiring someone else’s journey and motivation.

You need to act. You need to start. You need to do.

And in fairness, deep down, we all know that it takes action. We also know what we should do. But it’s easier to get inspired and never actually start anything than to get out there and risk failure and success.

Writer. Dreamer. Hopeless romantic. Newsletter: zita.substack.com Email me: zitafontaine (at) gmail

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