The Validity of Self-Help: Literature Like any Other

November, 2020
Louis Butt, Blog Correspondent

This is my fifth attempt at writing this piece. I tried various times over the past two weeks and in various spots. In bed, at my mum’s, on the train (to my mum’s), and outside with pen and paper.  My last noteworthy attempt was my first draft. My writing was flowing steadily for two hours, but as I read it over the next day, I realised I had taken the topic down a rabbit hole too detached from the original subject of the text. My subsequent attempts at this write-up were plagued by aspects my high-school teachers often critiqued in my writing: wordiness, shaky syntax, and a clear desire to sound intellectual and philosophical. The harder I was trying, the poorer the result. 

Toward the end of a several-day hiatus from writing, I visited a bookstore for the sole purpose of perusing. I was shocked to see that “self-help” had become a section of its own, donning a few eight-foot high columns. Authors promoted anything from traditional Buddhist concepts to successful wall-street financial maneuvers to better the reader’s everyday life. I picked up and flipped through The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, whom I was already somewhat familiar with, when it dawned on me. I just need to write this piece. I don’t need to actually give a “F*ck”. Motivated by a Nike-esque “just do it” mentality, I embraced the ethos of the self-help genre.

My foray into self-help occurred earlier this year. I was on a train to the airport, beginning a week-long escape from the winter cold, when I started Mark Manson’s Models: Attracting Women Through Honesty. Cringey, I know. Manson, who runs a blog and is a ‘professional’ advice-giver, was an arrogant misogynist to me before I even began reading his work. The title said enough, I had decided. But a friend had sent it to me and, semi-jokingly, wanted a summary of it, so I was down for the challenge. By the time I got to the airport, about twenty pages deep in Models, I found myself hooked by the simple, shallow and, frankly, unskilled writing that filled the pages. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the content was something I had honestly never experienced outside of a newspaper. Its simple prose, void of flair, was somehow reaching and establishing valuable connections with my thoughts and experiences. Manson’s words were getting through to me in the same way that a deep, drunken conversation with a friend would.

The parts of Models I found impactful weren’t even about women or dating, but about the self and what one projects to the world. Using such language to describe the contents of a book aimed at turning shy guys into fashionable, extraverted studs might be giving too much credit to Manson, but he is helped in this context by the main advantage of self-help books – the fact that they are works entirely dedicated to bettering the reader. Yes, they are written by other flawed human beings and, in turn, may inherently promote a one-sided approach to a situation, but they have the power of putting the reader, unfiltered, at the centre of everything they contain. From then on, it’s up to whoever holds the book to accept the “self-help” or not; naturally, either is acceptable.

This isn’t to say self-help books all contain small written gems that will better us as human beings. Anyone with an adequate amount of common sense and life experiences would tell you to live according to your own truths and happiness, not by a self-proclaimed life coach or guru’s mantra. But the reader who is already doing that will naturally filter out the bullshit from the beneficial, because the former doesn’t connect with who they are as a person. Therein lies another layer of irony: it takes a decent amount of self-awareness to be able to extract “help” from a self-help book. Its prerequisites are the acceptance that every individual is deeply imperfect and the open-mindedness to different perspectives and methods. I’d even go as far as to say that there’s altruism involved in picking up a self-help book. The desire to become better, happier, or healthier is inextricable from the role that one plays in society which will, naturally, mimic those advancements. Last month, The Guardian published an article titled “Why I’m addicted to self-help books” in which the author writes “I find nothing more exciting than discovering that I’ve been massively wrong in some aspect of my thinking,” which is, if anything else than a masochistic love for self-consciousness, a brilliant form of humility.

There aren’t any clear-cut recipes to becoming better, just vague guidelines. Those who follow them will naturally want more insight, resulting in more self-analysis, but so will those who desire that precise “I’m telling you what to do” rulebook to become themselves. While scrolling through Manson’s website, I came across his article “5 Problems with the Self-Help Industry”, in which he wrote, “Self-improvement is quite literal in its meaning — it’s used to enhance oneself, not to replace it.” People who lack understanding of themselves, and get too caught up in the concepts they come across, will not truly be able to ‘self-help’. At the same time, thinking all individuals go through the process of attempting to better themselves (as I used to think) is wrong. Narcissism, closed-mindedness, and sycophancy are inevitable handicaps of human nature, each perpetuating the belief that one is innately ideal as they are. Interesting studies on open- and closed-mindedness show that open-minded people’s desires for new experiences might result in increased happiness. So, is picking up self-help a step in that direction, or an indication of already having that slant? The fact that reading self-help is self-imposed consumption might indicate the latter. In the end, it’s a bit like those optional review tutorials before finals – most students who go probably don’t need them.

If any reader remains unconvinced, trust me, so am I. Part of me still believes self-help is corny, mostly due to my condescending belief that the credentials of life-coach and guru often sported by its authors are extraneous, and entirely subjective. I’ve not enough interest in the genre to recommend a specific book, nor would I advocate for it over any other type of literature, especially considering that the self-help writing I’ve been exposed to has been underwhelming. Snubbing the genre doesn’t make one the modern-day Narcissus, nor does devouring it turn them into a Buddhist monk. Self-help just needs to be approached as what it is – as literature. The same way a reader could extract ideas from a novel, they could get tangible insight from a self-help book.

The fact that literally anyone can give life advice becomes the genre’s gift and curse. As an outsider of the self-help realm, I can only hope bad advice isn’t lingering in the minds of its consumers. Then again, 12 Rules for Life sold 3 million copies. Do what you will with that information. Personally, I’m just happy to have finished this article.

Therein lies another layer of irony: it takes a decent amount of self-awareness to be able to extract “help” from a self-help book.

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