Next Time You Turn To Self-Help Advice, Remember This

When you are looking to move into a leadership role, self-help advice might provide useful tips for how you might improve. Yet when you read self-help, you should consider that editorializing impacts the information you receive.

Self-help editors help experts communicate information to the public, correct grammar, chunk information so that it is more digestible, ensure that content is sourced reliably, and connect ideas so that the writing is easier to read.

However, for each of the plusses of editorializing, there is a dark underbelly, too. Self-help has become an ideology — an industry that is expected to be worth $13 billion by 2022. Once the domain of books and seminars, self-help has gone digital, with blogs, podcasts, and apps allowing consumers to take self-improvement on the go. But some of these quick-hit self-improvement offerings present a bastardized version of reality.

So how can young professionals evaluate reliable advice?

Examine ‘Hacks’ And ‘3 Steps’ Advice With Discernment

While many self-help interventions aim to simplify information so readers can consume it, the vast majority of self-help interventions oversimplify the human condition. The human brain has more than 100 billion cells and 100 trillion connections. It’s pretty unlikely that there are “three simple steps,” “three tips,” or “hacks” to any psychological challenge that will last.

If it sounds too easy, it’s probably misleading. When you read these tips, know that they are simply a framework. They are not a stairway to psychological heaven.

I have written such tip-based articles, and when I write them, I am filled with tremendous ambivalence. On the one hand, I am glad that I can point the reader to a framework. On the other hand, I am aghast at what the reader might infer from these “simple” tips. I would not want them to think that they have failed or that life is that simple.

Strictly speaking, it’s not a one-sided situation. We all want brevity, and to some extent, editors are accommodating our needs. But what if editors felt the permission to lead with their own depth, too? What if they invited readers to consider that they might get more from reading and contemplating an idea or opinion rather than following steps? Also, as a writer, I am contradicting my own advice by outlining definitive ideas to consider rather than taking the lead. Perhaps the writer, editor, and reader all need to find a way to align on this.

Conclusions Based In Personal Experience Are Unreliable

Unlike many people with an academic background, I do not completely eschew the opinions of unqualified writers. There is wisdom in people who have gone through an experience, even if they are not experts. Yet research demonstrates that unskilled people also often reach erroneous conclusions, and they are quite unaware of this. You will find many such opinions from unqualified people online.

There are many charlatans out there peddling their own traumas, anxiety, and adversity so you can relate to them. Before you know it, you’ll be buying their diets, cognitive-enhancing products, and self-help programs because you, too, once felt overweight or foggy, or you might have been traumatized like they were. Beware of this kind of lead-in to self-help. Instead, look for qualified opinions and the background of the person giving you advice.

Research-Backed Evidence Doesn’t Mean It Will Work for You

Most scientists are aware that scientific research tells you what is good for the group as a whole, and the best data would be data that comes from you. We just don’t have that information. I prefer to read advice from experts with a background in a particular area, as long as they recognize that science is not personalized.

A truly qualified person, however, also recognizes the limitations of science. More than 70% of researchers have tried and been unable to replicate another scientist’s experimental findings. And 50% of preclinical research cannot be replicated, either.

At first glance, this might imply that the science is not reliable, yet it is also the only relatively controlled setting in which interventions can be explored. Without science, all you have are random opinions.

Recognize That There Is More To Improving Your Life Than ‘Action’

Telling stories can make a difference. But today’s online, instant-gratification audience responds better to “in your face” writing than to complex language and subtlety, a most beautiful quality of language.

The self-help genre lends itself toward skimmable concepts, breaking down the main points so readers can do what they want to in as little time possible. However, the research demonstrates the exact opposite — that if I spell things out, people will not activate their brains and learn. In that sense, questions and subtlety are more helpful than actionable tips.

Actions are increasingly the domain of robots. I believe that we are in an age when “being” matters. Ideas, contemplations, and provocations that are not translatable into immediate actions but serve as thought-provoking elements can also lead you down an actionable path that makes sense to you. When you design your actions, it might be more helpful because you have to be present for an action to be helpful. Just practicing something over and over again does not matter as much as we think it does.

Modern editorializing makes information more accessible. But readers should be discerning about the many factors that obscure the value of self-help advice. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Srini Pillay, M.D., is an author and the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group.

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