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


Believe 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 three persistent problems:

  • Untested content. Doing literature reviews and scientific research is time-consuming and expensive. Many authors simply don’t bother. They don’t know — or don’t care — about the difference between scientific and anecdotal evidence.
  • 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.
  • Derivative content. Sean Blanda at 99u describes this perfectly in his post about the bullshit industrial complex. He calls out bloggers who reference the same old tips, strategies, and examples — all gleaned from second- and third-hand sources, all presented as original ideas.

Go to 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, their books for a general audience are often filled with clear and practical suggestions.

For starters, check out the work of these people:

I also recommend the work of David Allen and Tiago Forte. Their ideas are stated in testable form and supported by many carefully documented examples.

Who to avoid

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.

Ask these questions

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. Through his Tiny Habits program, he’s collected 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 instructions call on me to actually 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 instructions actually 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’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.

Do you want to write a book that will help people create positive new outcomes in their lives? Use this checklist to greatly increase your odds of doing that. And if you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a book, remember that I can help. Contact me for next steps.

Photo of Bruce Lee by Fervent Jan on Unsplash