Finding Credible Self-Help — Separate the Experts from the Entertainers

max-ostrozhinskiy-134186Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable and conform your conduct thereto.

— BUDDHA

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.

— BRUCE LEE

These quotes often come to mind when I pick up a book written by someone with instructions for changing my behavior.

On the one hand, I feel a sense of possibility and hunger for new ideas.

At the same time, I brace for disappointment.

In book publishing, the popular psychology and self-help genres are plagued with two persistent problems:

  • Generic content. Writers and speakers are often appealing to the masses. Authors splatter a lot of ideas on their audiences, cross their fingers, and hope that the content resonates with as many people as possible. This is about as precise as painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Individual differences get ignored. Techniques that work for someone else might fall flat for you.

Stick with the researchers

One solution is to distinguish between two types of self-help authors — data-driven and ego-driven.

The data-driven authors typically do original research. Many of them publish in peer-reviewed journals. Many of them are also academics, but this does not mean that their books are dull, abstract, or jargon-driven. In fact, many of their publications are aimed at a general audience and filled with practical suggestions.

For starters, check out the work of these people:

I also recommend the work of David Allen and Tiago Forte, whose ideas are stated in testable forms and supported by carefully documented anecdotes.

I won’t mention the names of any ego-driven authors, but you can spot them. Their books are not research-based. You won’t find references to rigorously-designed studies. Instead, what you get are mash-ups of random personal stories, uninformed opinion, and ideas cribbed from other sources. Often the result is a vanity piece — a thinly-disguised memoir with little relevance to you.

The problem is that many ego-driven authors are charming and charismatic. Some are riveting presenters who leave you feeling entertained, energized, and inspired — at least temporarily. This just makes them all the more dangerous.

Stay open — and skeptical

As readers of self-help books, our job is to balance open-mindedness with healthy skepticism. This means looking closely at published work, asking questions, and testing ideas in the laboratory of daily life. Yes, expose yourself to new perspectives. At the same time, keep your crap-detector handy.

Start by asking three questions about any book with instructions for changing your behavior:

  • Have these instructions been tested? Look for credible evidence that an author’s suggestions work for someone besides the author. This sounds like such an obvious criterion to meet. Yet many authors fail to do so. Compare, for instance, the motivational speaker who tells an amusing personal anecdote about habit change to BJ Fogg — who through his Tiny Habits program has over a half-million data points from thousands of people that support his model of behavior change. Who has done more to earn your trust?
  • Do these ideas call on me to do something? What’s the overall outcome or big result that the author promises that I can achieve? And what’s the very next action that I can take to achieve that outcome? Is this a physical, visible behavior that I can actually carry out?
  • Do these ideas work for me? As you experiment with an author’s suggestions, collect data. Monitor your new behaviors and their results. You’ll experience the power of precise awareness — and discover more about what truly works for you.

In this blog, I’ll continue to reflect on my experience with books for behavior change. I am not a psychologist or spiritual teacher. But I am an intelligent non-expert.

More importantly, I am a mortal human being who wants to live with a little more wisdom and compassion.

I’ll alert you to ideas that excite me, confuse me, or alarm me. I invite you to stick around for the ride and join me in the conversation.

Photo: Max Ostrozhinskiy, Unsplash.com