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


Self-help books are plagued with a bad reputation. Dwight Garner — a critic for the New York Times Book Reviewsaid it well after forcing himself to consume a stack of them:

These books are padded. The vital information in all three, about 900 pages combined, could be edited down and tattooed on my palm. They’re jargony and slogany. None made me laugh, or even smile.

In this delightful video, philosopher Alain de Botton agrees:

There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Intellectually-minded people universally scorn the idea of them. Self-help books don’t appear on reading lists at any prestigious university, they’re not reviewed by highbrow journals and it’s inconceivable that a major literary prize could ever be awarded to one of their authors.

The above 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.

It’s true that many self-help books are trashy. And yet a precious minority of them are filled with ideas that can make a profound and positive difference in our lives. The trick is to find them.

Start by learning to spot common signs of self-help bullshit — red flags that trigger any intelligent reader’s crap detector. With these in mind, you can eliminate the duds and make a straight path to authors you can trust.

Knowing what to avoid

The worst self-help books are written ego-driven authors. Their work is not research-based. You won’t find references to rigorously-designed studies or tested psychological theory.

This commonly leads to some serious problems:

Harmful content

One egregious example is Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret. It presents the “law of attraction” — you can get what you want by simply thinking about it. Byrne quotes a woman who claims that she healed herself from breast cancer by believing that she was healthy.

The logical implication here is that if you develop a disease such as such cancer, it’s your fault: You just didn’t think positively enough.

Worse yet, if you decide to forego medical treatment and depend on the law of attraction instead, you could seriously harm yourself.

Fortunately The Secret has been widely parodied. This includes the famous Saturday Night Live skit where Oprah and Byrne chastise a starving man in Darfur for his negative thinking.

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.

In short, what you get from ego-driven authors are random mash-ups of personal stories and uninformed opinion. Often the result is a vanity piece — a thinly-disguised memoir with no relevance to you.

And yet 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.

Knowing who to trust

To avoid self-help bullshit, go to data-driven authors — researchers who write books for the general public. These authors typically do original research and publish in peer-reviewed journals.

Many data-driven authors 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 Reynolds, David Allen, and Tiago Forte. Their ideas are stated in testable form and supported by many carefully documented examples.

Ask these questions

When you read any book with instructions for changing your behavior, ask:

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.

Thinking critically and creatively about self-help

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.

For inspiration, remember the words of two great teachers:

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

In this blog, I reflect on my experience with books for behavior change. I alert you to ideas that excite me, confuse me, or alarm me. Begin with the following posts:

Also go to the following trustworthy sources:

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 help in choosing your next step.