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Essay: An ironic self-help guide to choosing self-help / development books

Posted by on November 29, 2017

An ironic self-help guide:

How to choose self-help / development books

Coming up to the December holiday period, time tends to warp itself. Tasks seem to happen much quicker with the expectation of free time alluring ahead. And then with the free time that isn’t quite yet “free”, things tend to slow down to immeasurable proportions. This means that I tend to while away my extra time reading.

Throughout the year, my booklist has grown quite substantially. Not only do I have to catch up on my usual fanfiction fetish, as well as my standard collection of sci-fi novels, but this year has also seen a massive influx of non-fiction books piling up. I have always been an avid reader; however I have always read for pleasure. Even when in the academic world, I never savoured picking up an article “for fun” – the intention was always to amass knowledge and information in the shortest proximity of time so that I could re-word and re-wire that information for the purposes of my thesis.

That being said, whenever I am faced with a disgruntled employee who has no budget available in his/her department for self-development, my recommendation is always to read. The question following such a statement has always been, “read what?”. In which case, yes, that is a good question. If I have not read the prospective options out there, how can I ever recommend something for development purposes? So began my investigation this year into creating a library (or suppository or reference list), that I could draw on to properly recommend books for different development needs.

I have despised “self-help” books since I was first faced with depression in my younger years. This depression was not of my own, but of a friend who had grabbed my hand instead of a knife – and in so doing, had firmly solidified my life’s foundation in psychology. She had been given a book that “would help” by her family, but really the book’s purpose was so that her family could have an excuse not to talk and deal with the issues at hand. In other words, they had done their part: they had “helped”. I swore that I would not lay a hand on self-help books unless I needed them for kindling.

So, from that very adamant stance at the age of 14, I now was faced with exactly that: laying not only my hands on these books, but also delving into their depths to properly gauge their worth. My year, being frantic and full of article-induced-coma-ridden-endeavours, did not allow for much in the way of reading. But the listicle was a popular feature on my internet search history. And so I managed to comprise a massive list of books. The problem was, without having the time to read these books, how could I possibly decide whether or not they should be on the list?

I was definitely in over my head. There are so many self-help, self-guide, self-teaching, self-knowledge, self-insight, self-serving books out there! And then, since I was looking at cheaper options, I also came across podcasts, online videos, mooks, conversation forums, and too many other things to mention! The main problem? A lot of it is all rubbish.

That might be the main problem. But there are many other problems as well. One that I came across all to readily and all too easily (after reading 1 book, actually), is that there seems to be consensus around a set few books that are “must reads”, and all the other books are merely spin-offs or integrators of what is already written out there. Another problem is the very real circumstance of setting – meaning the time when the book was written. In some instances, any set of wisdom one might want to glean out of these books is so related to the political and environmental influencers of the time, that very little can be accomplished by reading it other than gleaning a taste of historical nuances.

So we have three problems outlined so far: rubbish content; regurgitation of the same thing but in different books; and an over-reliance on the boundaries of the time of publication. There is very little that can be done about the latter of the three – we write books in such a way that we can make them appropriate and applicable to our times. In that way, we can expect regurgitation of the same thing in a different book happening in a much more recent time frame. And rubbish content…well, it’s about sifting through that content to find the diamonds amongst the mud.

When looking at self-help books, I think the main thing is to go for something that is specific towards your field of enquiry. Go for something too generic, and you’ll end up with limited insights that aren’t actually practical. Go with something too specific, and you might end up seeing jargon that sounds like an apocalyptic version of Latin. For me, I started with “The Cult of Personality” – a book written in 2004, so arguably a little outdated, but written with such finesse that I thoroughly enjoyed the snark, sarcasm, and undoubtable truths in between. What I enjoyed even more was the mentioning within this book of the various “self-development” books that one can read to better understand oneself – books that I have gone through my studies hearing reference of and being told to read.

The main thing, though, about this book, was twofold: firstly, it was not a self-help book but rather an enlightening expose on elements and the history of my chosen field; and secondly it was something that I was interested in reading. Nothing that it had to say would make me cringe inwardly because it was a book that was not asking me to do anything to my life. It was not filled to the brim with some person on the other end of a keyboard supposing that they know “just how exactly” to “fix” me or my situation. I couldn’t get angry with the book, because all it was doing was giving me information – albeit of a remarkably straightforward nature – on my field. And the best part about it, was I learnt more from reading it than I did in my first psychometric class delving into the history of psychology.

Even better – now that I’ve read it, I can decide how I want to develop myself with this newly acquired (and in some cases not new, but refreshed) information. I can take control of what I put into place and what I leave the same. Most self-help books require you, step-by-baby-step, to complete the tasks in chapter one, and only then move onto chapter two, and the discontinuation of reading really stunts any progress one might have made towards finishing the book in the first place.

When one is reading, one is applying themselves quite strongly to the act of pursuing the intended goal of the book. That goal, of course, is actually finishing the book. The accomplishment of closing the last page of a book is exceptionally rewarding, and is quite a driver even when one might not be enjoying what is being read. This means that, with self-help books that require a task before moving onto the next chapter, it more clearly hinders the motivation to finish the book what with so many interruptions to the flow of thought.

I think there are some books where this hindrance is not quite so clearly distinct. Where the motivation to finish beats the urge to use the book as a fire-lighter. I have my list…maybe I’ll find those books. And in the process, maybe I’ll develop myself along the way…

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If you have any recommendations to add to my self-development book-list, send it along in a comment!

Wonderwhiterabbit hopping off…

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