Tips Don’t Trump Character and Context

97800608915411Our popular conversation about self-help is mired in confusion. Our categories are often vague. Our concepts are often ill-defined. And our efforts to change behavior are often self-negating.

Case in point: many self-help authors see their role as dispensing “tips” for success.

Want to make more money? I’ve got a list of my top 10 tips for that…. Want to manage time better? See my 20 tips for becoming more productive…. Want to attract a lover? Well, I’ve got a list of pick-up tips, too.

In book publishing and blogging, the self-help genre often sinks to tip-dispensing. Authors crank out reams of bulleted and numbered lists aimed at easy change and instant gratification.

That’s why I wanted to cheer when I read “Tips,” an article by William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.

A teacher asked Zinsser to talk to students and give them some tips for writing better.

Zinsser’s response: “I don’t do tips.”

He elaborates:

Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package–a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

His point applies to tips for doing anything. You can implement a “life hack”—an incremental change in behavior—and take a chance on the results. But molding character calls for the slow, steady acquisition of new skills and insights. And this is the work of a lifetime.

Another potent critic of tips is journalist Annie Murphy Paul.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” she writes in The Tyranny of Tips. “Sometimes a tip—the right bit of information at the right time—is a lifesaver.” More often, however, they “skim lightly across the surface of our attention and then disappear.”

Annie claims that behavior change is often tied to context. For example, she cites a study in which kids who understood why a balanced diet promotes health made better food choices than kids who were simply told to eat certain foods.

I don’t mean to put the folks at Lifehacker out of work. Let’s just go for balance.