Self-help: Comforting Chicken Soup or Cold Celery Soup?

By Zacchaeus Chok (18S03O)

Whenever I go to the bookstore, my go-to section is the self-help section. In particular, I often seek out advice from personal management and pop psychology books, a subgenre that incorporates simplified psychological concepts. This is not because I am in constant existential dread or that I am a hapless victim mired in a socio-emotional muddle. Rather, I find a peculiar comfort in flipping through the array of self-help books.

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Self-help – does it help? (Image source)

With titles such as How to Win Friends and Influence People, You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, and The Art of the Good Life, it seems as though self-help gurus have the antidote to curing life’s woes. These are just some of the titles that regularly make rounds on the bestseller lists, as overstretched Singaporeans turn to self-help for assistance. Globally, the self-help industry, despite its long history, still experienced a 15% growth in sales revenue in 2015.  Indeed, the growth of this genre, both locally and internationally, is a testament to how living is difficult.

Throughout history, people have sought to upgrade themselves, explaining the logical presence and role of the self-help genre. If we are to take a broad definition of self-help, we could even categorise ancient philosophical texts such as Meditations as self-help texts.

However, the self-help manuals that we are familiar with today only took its more accessible, commercial appearance in the last half a century. Experts have attributed this phenomenal growth to, firstly, capitalism, and secondly, the idea of self-fashioning. Self-fashioning refers to the social pressure to construct a public persona that conforms to social norms while weaving a coherent narrative of one’s life centred around personal philosophy. With more and more of our basic needs fulfilled today, we progress to the highest tier of needs – to achieve self-actualisation, thus paving the way for the trend of self-fashioning.

To that end, self-help books tackled nearly every conceivable personal development problem, setting standard ideals that people could aspire to achieve. To reach out to the largest audience possible, technical jargon was used more to create a facade of credibility, and theoretical backings were diluted to the point that some “substantiated” advice became pseudoscience.

In line with a desire for self improvement, self-help books took off with mass commercialisation. Today, self-appointed self-help gurus churn sequel after sequel, and addicted fans (yes, you can get addicted to self-help) make rounds of purchases to satiate their inner need for refinement. The genre has taken root in pop culture, with classics such as Think and Grow Rich and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People touted as essential reads in schools and workplaces.

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Self-help, often associated with endless positive rhetoric (Image source)

The opinion on self-help is polarised. On one hand, we know that many love self-help as a genre, whether because they see it as a legitimate source of guidance or because it is a guilty pleasure. Others believe that the only place self-help books belong to is in the trash bin, save for a few classics that are considered sufficiently distinct from the bunch.

Personally, I’m somewhere in between – I appreciate self-help not for what it advertises itself to be, but because of what it can be. But first, let us examine why people hate self-help.

Understandably, the genre is denounced and derided by many for multiple reasons – self-help books are often riddled with relentless psychobabble, saccharine language and hollow promises that prey on “gullible” people.  A simple run through of various self-help books will reveal the same buzzwords, phrases and “psychology experiments” that are repeated countless times. The notion of “positive thinking” as the key to life woes, or that “each day has 86400 seconds” to emphasise the importance of time management are some of the common pieces of advice that the well-versed self-help guru is more than familiar with.

Positive platitudes and motivational pep-talk narratives seep through the paragraphs of the typical self-help text, promising you that your current phase in life is not so bleak, or that with a trick or two, you can introduce a miraculous reorganisation of your life. Yet the fact that 80% of self-help books are purchased by previous readers simply suggests that no one self-help book can deliver on its promises, at least not entirely.

Perhaps much of the derision also owes to the image associated with self-help readers. Holding a copy of “Chicken Soup for the Teenager’s Soul” certainly doesn’t bode well with a tough persona, nor does holding “Getting Things Done” speak well of your personal management. And this is why many believe that self-help books are reserved to the bookshelf or as a wry gift to a friend.

Still, even while I consider myself a skeptic of the (empty) promises that the body of literature has to offer, I still continue to read self-help.

Personally, as a self-professed utilitarian, my affinity for self-help books came about because of an inherent mindset of wanting to derive tangible rewards from investing the time into reading books. Sure, a riveting journey into the universe of witches and golems offers great escapism, but that is rather fleeting. Self-help, on the other hand, creates an easy option that advertises real and lasting impact (albeit illusory at times).

My self-help experience began with a stash of old, oxidised Penguin books at a second-hand sale. Perhaps too easily influenced by appearance, I was sold at glance of the the vintage and somewhat nostalgic cover of Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono. The language was simple but effective, and the concept quirky but cool.

Essentially, Six Thinking Hats is a framework on approaching problems creatively with the use of coloured symbolic ‘thinking hats’. For instance, the yellow hat represents optimism, which can be interpreted as identifying the pros of a solution. It then follows that the black hat stands for pessimism.

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The Six Thinking Hats Framework (Image source)

From there, I branched out to the broader topic of personal management and organisation, which was something I felt was lacking. I wanted to learn how to increase my productivity and be better at time management amidst the growing pile of assignments. I scoured through articles and manuals and gleaned through the strategies suggested – ‘make a to-do list’, ‘find the root cause’ and ‘set quality measures’ among them. They were pretty much generic strategies, standardised and obvious. Ironically, reading self-help simply placed a strain on my time.

Indeed, as with the generic strategies in management literature, self-help is prone to producing pedestrian advice. The self-help genre is often criticised for oversimplifying reality based on the experience of an elite few, who claim that their proposed formulas guarantee results. Still, amidst the haystack of anecdotes and insights, it is fundamentally up to the reader to distill what truly is valuable.

In the various books and articles I have read, I have come across many nascent ideas. While some ideas were common sense, others were rather eye-opening. Personally, the 80/20 rule, one of the most famous principle in management literature, has been particularly useful in dissecting several situations pertaining to school-life balance. Also, when reading Practical Thinking by Edward de Bono, I found his proposed concept of “porridge words”, vague words without meaning that act as a springboard to ideation, particularly relevant to idea generation (especially in Project Work).

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The 80/20 rule, a common pattern in work-life dynamics (Image source)

Even amidst the repetitive and obvious advice of management books, there is some value in the consolidation of strategies they provide, be it in the form of a listicle or manual. They may not be life-changing ideas, but there is a sense of clarity evoked from the well-defined actions that could be undertaken. Listing the obvious may seem useless but this, at least, provides readers with some form of guidance and hope in overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even if this control is only an illusion. This calming psychological effect is often understated, perhaps not even realised.

Our attitude towards reading self-help books also determines what we gain from the book and whether it lives up to our expectations. Most certainly, if you believe that 59 Seconds: Change Your Life In Under a Minute will transform your life in said timing, then self-help will remain useless no matter how you peruse the book. In other words, it defeats the purpose to accuse self-help books of fraudulence, to continuously scoff at the cheesy titles and thus not extract gold from garbage (in some cases).

With a lower bar, it is then solely a matter of personal preference as to how one chooses to read – you could adhere strictly to the new-found axioms of life proposed or you could choose to perform a perfunctory scan of the book until a particular concept strikes you. Either way, some value is gained from the book.

Furthermore, the assumption that self-help books are unsubstantiated does not apply to all. Many books challenge this idea, providing scientific experiments and data in accessible forms that can be easily applied. Instead of searching for tidbits of incomprehensible pointers from scientific journals full of technical jargon, we can choose to read self-help books which condense the necessary information and lay them out in sequential fashion. Recent developments in the industry have seen the incorporation of elements from behavioural economics and neuroscience to prescribe credible advice and dispel falsehoods.

Of course, by then, the interspersal of empirical evidence blurs the line between genres. From a broader perspective, if we apply advice from the book into our daily lives, then maybe we can consider them as self-help irrespective of its genre. Regardless of whether a book is classified as self-help or not, if reading one paragraph can potentially improve oneself, then it is a good book. That is why when I pick up a self-help book, I find joy in the fact that potentially hidden in its content is advice that can improve myself and make tomorrow better. And that is comforting.

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