The Value—or Not—of Self-Help Books
February 20, 2014 | 2:25 pm
By Joanna Cabot
A financial blog I follow called The Simple Dollar had a great post yesterday called ‘Does the Investing Advice of a Billionaire Help Ordinary People?’ The post resonated with me because I have only in the last year or so outgrown my fascination with the self-help book. Don’t get me wrong, there are some gems in that genre—Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project was a recent series that resonated with me, for instance—and, of course, I would not be following blogs like The Simple Dollar if I didn’t think they had advice to offer me.
But I think that what people often forget to do with books in this category is to approach them with the same level of critical thinking they would apply to any non-fiction. Maybe it’s because they can seem so chatty and memoir-ish (as in Robyn Okrant’s Living Oprah, in which the author attempts to to run her life using the advice of Oprah Winfrey). Or maybe it’s because others overwhelm the reader with faux-science such as surveys, polls or studies (as in a recent book I saw which claimed to glean the rules for happy relationships by polling 1000 couples).
What we have to remember is that any rule has exceptions. Does Mark Cuban, cited in the blog post I mention, truly have advice for the common person? Maybe he does—for some people. Maybe he doesn’t for others. This is where some of the self-help stuff started to fall apart for me. When I first started realizing that the Beloved was, well, the Beloved, I had a sudden panic that I had to do everything perfectly so that he’d be as happy with me as I was with him, and I remember checking out some of those ‘rules for relationships’ books from the library. They were full of advice about how men felt about certain things. Occasionally, I’d read one to him and ask him how he felt about it. Invariably, he disagreed. Men ‘in general’ and ‘this specific man’ were not the same thing!
That applies too to so-called fact books. I am very prone to food sensitivities, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book or an article touting the merits of some superfood or another , only to find when I tried the food that I reacted to it. For 99% of the population, flax may indeed be a superfood. I turned out to be allergic. My special snowflake relationship to flax doesn’t negate its benefit for others, of course. But it does mean that it’s okay for me to turn a more critical eye to health stories, knowing that I might be the exception to the rule.
I am a lot more comfortable than I used to be at reading self-help advice more critically. If it helps me, it helps me. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. What’s changed is that I no longer feel I need to seek these books out to define myself. If a piece of advice crosses my path, I’ll read it and see how it goes. But I don’t feel bad at all about hearing what an expert has to say and deciding that it doesn’t apply to me.