Why Most Self-Help Books are Garbage

I try to read at least one book per week. It doesn’t always happen, but I try. While I love sci-fi and other fiction, I always find myself drawn to non-fiction so the majority of these books are from the self-help category. I don’t know what it is that draws me in – perhaps the quick fix, answer to all my prayers, one missing ingredient that’s keeping me from my dreams – but I find them fascinating. I also find these books to be fun – sort of like a treasure hunt – as I search for those useful morsels that I can apply to my own situation.

But with more and more of these books hitting the stores each week, the quality of the books (and their material) has dropped significantly. I’m finding it more difficult to not only find useful information, but actually getting through the book. I’ve noticed that many of these books use a similar format – a breakdown of the content of their book into a few distinct categories. As you read along, you’ll probably notice that many of the recent books you’ve read use this very same formula. So without further ado, here’s the breakdown of major parts of today’s self-help books:

Section 1: The Introduction:

Many books spend roughly the first 10% sharing the author’s story – how he or she went from rags to riches, made a great discovery, etc…. This information used to be communicated in a paragraph or two in the “About the Author” section in older books, but today’s authors feel the need to tout their credibility. Just like speakers use our speech introductions to get the audience interested in what we’re about to say, today’s authors want to ensure that we know what they’re about to share worked for them.

I usually don’t have a problem with this. The one exception is when the author over-uses this section to brag about his or her house, cars, relationships, etc…. And by over-using, I mean that it seems like the author is using this section of the book to thumb their nose at the disbelievers he or she encountered in life – and some explicitly do this. Also be on the lookout for “success stories” – authors like to establish credibility by sharing the plight of others – and not all of these stories are true.

Section 2: Why You Need This Book:

I find it ironic that many of these books consider themselves motivational because of this section. Here’s the part where the book makes you feel bad. Are you “working for the man,” “in a destructive relationship,” “overweight,” “hitting a plateau in your careeror just plain “unhappy?” If you’ve felt content with your life, this is the part where you’ll realize that your life is terrible. You learn the secret alright – that the glass is actually half empty.

Some of these books go as far as chastising the reader for having a job, renting an apartment, using credit cards or other things that many people do. It’s not uncommon for the reader to feel inadequate with his or her life after getting through this section (which is often intertwined with Section 1). However, there’s no need to fear because of the next section.

Section 3: Your Future?

So now that you know your life is horrible, the author explains that by simply following the steps outlined in the book, you’ll achieve success. In fact, the author will tell you how great your life will be, often in great detail. Don’t be surprised to see some of the information from Section 1 repeated here – the two paragraphs worth of stories that should have been in the “About the Author” section will now rear their ugly heads here – probably over and over again.

Keep in mind that the advice here is often worded in a manner so that you’re unlikely to follow it correctly. This means that it’s not that the advice was bad – it’s that you just didn’t follow it correctly. This helps the author maintain credibility among the people that keep coming back for more, even though they aren’t improving their lives.


Section 4: Dinner is Served:

Finally, you’ve reached the meat of the book – provided the prior sections didn’t turn you off. If there is something of value in the book, it’ll be here. Unfortunately, many books have a lot of great content in this section, but it only makes up 50-60% of the book. Mark off the beginning and end of this section so you can quickly re-read it when you need a refresher.

Look out for books that share common knowledge as if it’s a big secret. For example, you know a book on getting rich is garbage when an entire chapter is dedicated to compound interest. The real secret that you’ll learn is that the author made his fortune by selling books to well-intentioned readers.

Section 5: The Closer:

This section usually wraps things up and summarizes the key lessons of Section 4. Authors with big egos or a need to feel important will also rehash the first three sections here as well (with much of Section 1 repeated).

Good books will throw down a challenge to the reader or end with a call to action. Perhaps the reader will be challenged to take that critical first step. Unfortunately, for many of these books that first step is to go out and buy more products and services from the author. I had read one such book
where it provided basically no real information – it was mostly teaser information. It was about health secrets and just as you were about to learn which food helps you, the author said he couldn’t share the information in print and you’d need to visit his website (which you’d need to pay an additional fee to access) for the information.

Self-help books can really help you. But just be aware that many of these books aren’t what they claim to be. If the author is focusing too much on him or herself, then you know it’s not worth reading. Self-help books are supposed to be about the reader – if they’re primarily about the author, then they should be labeled an autobiography.

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4 thoughts on “Why Most Self-Help Books are Garbage

  1. Reid Walley

    I particularly like: “Self-help books are supposed to be about the reader – if they’re primarily about the author, then they should be labeled an autobiography.” Well summarized.

  2. Pingback: Why Most Self-Help Books are Garbage | Overnight Sensation – Public Speaking, Communication and Personal Development

  3. Theresa Walsh

    Hi James,

    you are right, those of us who are drawn in to self help books usually do it for the quick fix tips. Obviously (as you have also discovered) there isn’t something like that and many, if not all, self help books are a major fake. Unfortunately.

  4. Pingback: Public Speaking and The Matrix | Overnight Sensation - Public Speaking, Communication and Personal Development

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