The irony of self help and the 3 problems that make it harder to change anything

I get why self-help is popular.

87% of people hate their jobs and 69% of Americans have less than $1000 in savings. Basically, we work at jobs we hate and we’re broke anyway. Which kind of explains why self help is a multi-billion industry.

If you have more than $1000 in the bank, you’re already in the top 31%.
If you don’t, you’re sure not alone.

But it strikes me as ironic that we look for someone to give us advice, and then call it self help.

Because, even if you read the words of some sage advice giver, you still have to implement that advice.

And therein lies the rub.

There’s a lot of reading going on. Implementing, not so much — which makes sense, because there are 3 major problems with the self help industry.

1. Most “self help” is too generic

Before we can help ourselves, we need to identify what changes we want to make in our life. Are they physical, mental, financial, spiritual?

Physical: Do you want to lose weight, or inches? Build strength? Reduce your heart rate? Be able to walk or run longer or farther? Be specific.

Mental: Do you want to learn a new skill, a new language, or to manage a particular emotion better? Improve your vocabulary or writing, or…?

Financial: Do you want to increase your income? By how much? Or maybe reduce debt or learn to manage money better? What do you need to learn?

Spiritual: Do you want to learn to be calmer? Maybe to meditate or find a different way to feel about yourself? What is it you’re looking for?

2. The concept of self-help is based in shame.

We all have a voice inside our head that speaks to us more harshly than we’d ever speak to anyone else. We beat ourselves up for what we’re “not” doing, (not earning more, not achieving more, not eating better) — and we beat ourselves up for what we “are” doing (too fat, too dumb, too broke, etc)

Self help pretends to give us help, but in reality it’s just pointing out what we aren’t doing. (Look at all the things that rich dude does that you don’t do!) In reality, the “things” are seldom the issue. There are “successful” people who wake up at 5 am and noon. Some “successful” people are fit, others are fat.
It’s not any of the “things” that actually matter.

It’s a lovely concept to think we can just look at successful people and emulate what they do and (voila!) find success, too. In reality, it doesn’t work that way. In reality, we need to identify what we need to change and take incremental, tiny little baby steps to changing that thing and block out everything else.

3. Reading self help makes it less likely we’ll change.

Dopamine is the “feel-good” chemical. When we achieve something, or do something good, our brain gives us a hit of dopamine. Ideally, that hit of feel good makes us more likely to do more of that thing that made us feel good.

But — we don’t need to actually DO anything to get a hit of dopamine. We get the same hit of dopamine when we watch someone else achieve something. That’s just how the human brain works. It lets us share the joy when people we care about have their own achievements. We get buzzed, too.

So, when you read self help and success tips, your brain gets a little jolt of dopamine. Yay, reward. You feel pumped and positive, like it’s really possible for you — but nothing really changes. Which goes back around to #1, because you haven’t clearly identified exactly what it is you want to change, much less the tiny, incremental baby-steps that will get you there.

If you’re going to read “self help” articles…

I don’t (for a minute!) think this will be the last self-help article anyone reads. But maybe do step #1 first. Identify what you want to change. And if there’s more than one thing, pick the one that has priority. One change at a time.

Then look for someone who can help with the tiny baby steps related to the specific thing you want to change. Interestingly, when we actually start seeing changes, we become much pickier about what we read. How ironic is that!


Top writer. Featured in NYT, Forbes.