In 2006 Rhonda Byrne published ‘The Secret‘, a book that sold the power of positive thinking as the cure to the woes of the modern world. That book went on to sell more than 19 million copies in 46 different translations and define an entire genre of books, DVD’s, and workshops that make up the world up of self-help.
Byrne wasn’t the first person to publish a self-help book. She wasn’t even the first in 2006. The self-help world had been alive for over a century and had been a billion dollar industry for over a decade. But that book became the figurehead for a genre of books and products that have become one of those most profitable and predatory industries in the world.
These books are always full of the same old buzzwords and worn out phrases like “living in your authentic self” or “living your truth” or any other combination of words that fill up pages but don’t actually tell you anything. Nevertheless, the self-help world has grown up into a multi-billion dollar industry that lines its pockets thanks to the made up problems of millions of self-help addicts.
You probably know who I’m talking about. You might even have a friend that counts as one. They’re always reading books that talk about their truth and telling anyone that will listen about the power of positive thinking, all while talking about how much their life has changed thanks to [insert book name here].
But have you ever noticed that those same people tend to stay at the same points in their lives? There’s not much upward mobility. At least it doesn’t really look that way once you start peeling back the layers.
Sure, if you look at their carefully curated social media profiles, at a first glance things may look like they’re perfect. They have it all together. They’re constantly making moves, grinding, hustling, or any other mix of annoying internet slang for just staring at a laptop all day long.
But if you really pay attention, are they actually moving forward in life? Are there relationships improving? Are they making more money? Are they putting more into the world than they’re taking out of it? Probably not.
They’re too busy caught in the vicious circle of problems the world of self-help has told them they’ve got. Don’t join those people. Quit reading so much self-help. What do I mean by self-help books? This is a surprisingly general question since quite a few books and types of books can fall under this wide umbrella.
To be clear, when I’m talking about self-help, I’m not talking about psychology or philosophy books. Though those could definitely be considered self-help. Those take a bit of a deeper approach and tend to leave you asking more questions by the end than you even knew existed.
Psychology and philosophy, while expanding your island of knowledge, also make you painfully aware of your ocean of ignorance. No, when I talk about self-help I’m talking about the cannibalistic genre that promises to pull back the veil on your innermost problems and provide the fix overnight. The kind of book that tells you you’ve got a problem and the only way to solve this problem is by buying this very book. THAT is the kind of genre I’m talking about here. And if you’ve read these books, you know it never stops at one.
Once you’ve read one, they probably name drop a few books that are the only cure for other problems within that you immediately add to your Amazon cart. And then you talk to a few friends who have other recommendations because they had their lives radically changed by a similar book, so you add that as well. Before you know it, you’ve got 12 books waiting for you to crack open. And you’re only just getting started because more recommendations are flooding in. Especially because Amazon has figured out this is what you’re buying, so they show you more of this kind of book.
It’s like everywhere you turn you’re realizing you have all these fucked up problems, and people are offering the book that holds the solution.
This process is cannibalistic. I’m not saying people don’t have problems. In fact, people are endlessly fucked up in a myriad of ways. We all have our trauma that we have to deal with and work through. We all have issues that impact our day to day lives, our relationships, and our careers. And this is why the self-help genre was born. Because some people did have real solutions, that if you acted on them, would actually help you.
But over the course of decades, the genre has grown into this cannibalistic entity that sustains itself on the same repeat customers buying books from the same authors, constantly searching for happiness like it’s this endpoint they’ll magically reach. And that’s fucked.
Happiness isn’t an end point. It’s not like your vacation where you drive for what feels like years to finally get to the beach where you can kick back and drink all day long.
Life doesn’t work that way. But don’t tell the world of self-help that. They sell books with the underlying message saying that once you read this book you’ll solve your problem and you’ll finally be happy. Except you won’t. Because in that book you’ll hear about a couple of other books that address problems you didn’t know you had.
So what should you do instead of reading self-help books? First things first, if you’ve actual problems then you need to see a professional. The world would be a better place if more of us were open and willing to see a psychiatrist or therapist. That should be the first move you make instead of self-diagnosing and trying to solve a problem with a backpack full of books.
I’m not an advocate of book burning, so as much as I would like to tell you to go burn all of your self-help books, I’m not going to do that. That would be folly of me. Go take them to some local library or place where you can donate them. That would be a good move on your part. Make that happen. Next, go to your local bookstore and seek out some great fiction. If you haven’t ever read it, read ‘Lord Of The Rings‘, ‘Harry Potter‘, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and especially read Vonnegut.
Take your time and work through some of the classics. Read things that you were told to read in high school, but your eyes glazed over. You’ll have a much greater appreciation for the books now, I promise you.
All that matters is that you read fiction. Why? Because fiction offers a real road map to changing your life. A far more effective road map than any self-help or personal development book can. Which sounds crazy, right? But the truth is, we as humans have evolved to understand the world through stories. Stories are by far and away the most effective way we can understand the world, what is happening, and come to grips with reality.
Aside from the predatory nature of the self-help genre, they get this fundamental fact about humans wrong. The self-help world has done great in recognizing that one of the primary motivating factors for people is pain, and using that pain to peddle their wares.
But where they’ve fucked up is they tend to hit people with loads of information and very little context. And that’s the exact opposite of how we as humans have evolved to make sense of the world. We spend all day every day telling ourselves stories about our lives. There’s even a psychological phenomenon that speaks this very occurrence called the narrative bias. We unwittingly seek out stories in movies and TV. And when someone does a story well, it tends to blow up. Primarily because the story has touched on something deep inside us that can only be reached via story form.
Stories provide us with both an example of how to deal with reality and an escape from reality. They transport you into another world where the characters are dealing with problems you may not even be able to relate to, until you start to take a broad view of things and realize that each and every one of us has a dragon we have to slay, much like our favorite fictional character.
They stretch your imagination. They give you new ideas. They frame old problems in new ways, presenting solutions that may have never been available to you if your nose was buried in ‘The Secret’ all this time. And that is real value. That is learning how humans were meant to learn.