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  • Jin Kang

Self-help – the modern day cocaine?

In the late 19th century, cocaine use was almost ubiquitous. It was a key ingredient in eye drops, lozenges, and was even found in local anaesthetic for its numbing properties in medical and dental procedures. In addition, its involvement in certain sodas was notoriously exemplified by Coca-Cola. Taking its user to all new euphoric heights, it was hailed as a miracle drug that also helped to enhance one’s work capacity and self-control.

Fast forward to today, cocaine is widely regarded as one of the most harmful and addictive drugs of all time. It has shackled 21 million people to addiction in the past 10 years and takes the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year. It’s safe to say that everyone knows of its devastating side effects these days, so it isn’t surprising that this one do-it-all drug is outlawed in many countries, or at least very tightly restricted.

In modern times however, there appears to be somewhat of a new “successor” to this wonder drug, one that is quite unsuspecting and so well blended into our lives that one could hardly fathom it to be equivocally harmful. As stated in the title, we’re talking about the self-help industry (and also the culture it creates in our modern society). Admittedly, labelling self-help as a destructive opioid is no doubt a stretch. After all, how harmful can something that was invented to help us improve our way of life actually be?

It is important to understand what exactly is referred to as self-help in this article because admittedly, this term can be quite broad. To say that ALL self-help materials are equally pointless would of course be quite an invalid point. For simplicity’s sake, this article will mainly refer to self-help books in particular, but most of these can be extrapolated to videos, Instagram posts, You Tube and Tik Tok videos because their content usually stems from these books.

The specific type of self-help books in mind spew advice, principles, “rules” or frameworks for the purpose of generally “improving your life” and are based on loose, intangible substantiation in a vaguely defined domain. Content that mentions “mindsets” / “rules” for life, positive thinking/ manifesting or spiritual woo-woo definitely fall under these categories. Here is a list of various common titles that have gained substantial traction over the years:

  • Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

  • The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

It’s important to distinguish these from content that teach you actual technical or actionable skills regarding a clearly defined domain or niche such as finance, entrepreneurship, productivity, investing etc. Those self-help books that come from a biographical (or autobiographical) perspective are also not part of the list, because it seems that these books seek to share perspectives from somebody’s life experiences as their main focus rather than generating cookie-cutter life advice like those above. So what similarities does a benign book have in common with a malignant drug?

Here's the thing: hard drugs, such as cocaine, elicit powerful feelings of pleasure and ecstasy (pun in mind) and everyone knows that these gratifying feelings aren’t permanent. These drugs allow the user to feel a surge of positive emotions, be it an increased level of joy, productivity or self-esteem, but absolutely nothing in the user’s objective external circumstances have changed.

In parallel, when someone picks up a self-help book, watches a video about “how to live your best life”, or follows some Instagram account that teaches people how to hustle after their “passion” so that they can quit their 9 to 5 – all these content seemingly just makes the consumer feel good or inspired in the short run, but how often are such advice translated into action? If it’s simply for the sake of a feel-good moment and hardly any objective improvements are made, then isn’t it comparable to a drug just like cocaine?

Well, no, because some would say that drugs have lethal health consequences whereas consuming self-help doesn’t. That’s not incorrect, but to say that engaging in this type of content is 100% benign would be misleading as well. Two underlying characteristics among all self-help content is that they are hopeful and empowering to the reader. It shouldn’t be surprising that since the self-help industry is largely unregulated, authors do tend to exaggerate their claims – sometimes to a dangerous extent. Psychologist Ad Bergsma mentions in his study that this is rather unethical by the American Psychology Association (APA) standards. In addition, he also references Albert Ellis’ article on self-help materials which claims that the hopeful or self-empowering advice may only fuel the reader’s fantasy of one day achieving positive change, but hardly do much to spur them to take action.

“The self-help message that the wisdom of an author guarantees heaven on earth may inspire daydreaming, but not hard work and perseverance”.

Some may say that the “mindset shift” or the level of optimism induced after consuming self-help content is all that matters, but funnily enough that’s what a drug addict would say as well. After sobering up, the junkie is still right where they were before they inhaled, snorted, or injected the substance – physically, socially, economically, or character-wise. They may or may not have accomplished some productive tasks while stoned, but that motivation didn’t come intrinsically – the drug was just a temporary crutch and after a while they would find themselves back at square one again. That doesn’t seem too innocuous does it?

Life changing tips. Following them will make you feel healthier, happier, walk on water, read minds and snap people you dislike out of existence. Be the change you want to see.

UW Psychology Professor Robert Kohlenberg found in his clinically-tested self-help book that only 20% of his subjects read the entire book and a measly 2-4% applied all the teachings. This means to say that a good majority of people do not even apply what they learn in such books. Of course, the research on the efficacy or effectiveness of self-help books / advice is extremely scarce, so maybe take these findings with a grain of salt. Instead, one can draw from their own personal experience or those of their acquaintances: ask them to honestly reflect just how much positive objective change has that particular book or video brought about, and whether they are still living every day by the principles they have gleaned from those sources. Chances are that the answer is – not much.

Back to the list of books mentioned above – why are they under scrutiny? The simplified answer is that this industry is severely oversaturated and in my opinion, quite overrated. For starters, the self-help industry is huge: currently worth over USD 10 billion (in the USA alone), and is projected to hit 14 billion in 3 years time. With so many books out there, that must mean that there is so much we mere mortals have to do to improve ourselves, right?

Fact of the matter is that many, if not most of these books seem to be rehashing, recycling, and reiterating the content from each other. Of course different authors would repackage the content in different creative ways – some through the cover of their book and some through the types of analogies they bring up. But essentially after a certain amount of time, any self-help junkie should know that they are encountering the same content over and over again. From my past encounters coming across self-help content (and some help from the internet as well), the bulk of self-help books can have their key takeaways summarised as:

You can become or achieve anything you want. You just have to learn from successful people, think positively, work harder than everyone else and have faith in yourself. Just make sure to follow your passions, take care of your health and relationships and don't be afraid to make mistakes.

I’m fairly confident any book picked up from a self-help section would contain one of these points. It’s like beating a dead horse: such content is ubiquitous to the extent it is almost tiresome to see them being repeated and reinforced by not only books but on social media platforms as well (sometimes preached by influencers). If this advice is life-changing, why are so many books needed to reinforce the same points?

But here’s a quick disclaimer: this isn’t meant to construe a strawman argument, ostensibly the self-help industry doesn’t just cover the aforementioned content. It just so happens that these happen to be the same themes that pop up time and again in this oversaturated industry

The question one should ask is whether these principles, rules, frameworks that are preached are always effective in achieving whatever self-help goal they intend to seek. If one can get past the warm fuzzy feelings of hope and encouragement that a self-help book gives them, try to objectively evaluate the advice given. Some might say if the advice given works most of the time that’s good enough. But no one knows just how effective these “tips” are unless you yourself, as the reader, try it for yourself and implement it in your life. And that’s the part which most self-help authors don’t acknowledge – under what circumstances will their advice be effective? Or under which conditions will their guidance be completely obsolete?

This book will empower you to be yourself. That’s why you should show up 4 hours late everyday for your future job and only check emails on Saturday 3.27 A.M. because #dontworrytheycantjudgeyou

There is rarely any empirical science quoted in most of these books (not all), so how can the author be so confident in pushing out such recommendations? Usually, the author would point out several analogies to support their self-help point as well, but I suspect there is quite a serious case of cherry-picking going on.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, with over 30 million copies sold since 1937. For the uninitiated, the gist of this book is self-explanatory by looking at the title. One particular section of the book is labelled “Ways to Make People Like You” and in it, Carnegie proceeds to touch on 6 rules or principles on making the reader more likeable to people who they meet for the first time, and one of the principles was to always have a genuine smile.

Carnegie used the example of how Charles Schwab charmed his way into people’s hearts and radiated charisma wherever he went, and he attributed these to Schwab’s beautiful smile. He even goes on to state how Schwab’s smile was a core contributor to his immense success. The reason being: smiling communicates to people that you are happy to see them – which is exactly why people love dogs, because in most instances, dogs are happy to see people.

Don’t be mistaken, there’s nothing wrong with Carnegie’s proposition – it makes perfect sense and no one can deny its effectiveness to a certain extent. However, the main issue lies in the fact that he layers more and more examples that show the importance of a smile in getting people to like you, but paints it in such a way that it is almost a water-tight “principle”. In fact, this goes the same for the other principles listed above. He doesn’t mention when smiling will be ineffective, nor the extent to which it will be effective.

Right off the top of your head, I’m sure one can think of certain circumstances when even though someone had the brightest smile they had on their face, they still ultimately didn’t manage to come off as very likeable. In fact, one could think of numerous instances where certain people didn’t smile (much), and yet they were some of the most likeable and charismatic people that could exist. So then it raises the question – to what extent is Carnegie’s advice valid? Of course, this is only a singular example, but if one has dabbled enough in the self-help industry they’d see that this is a recurring pattern.

So why then is this particular book so popular, or well liked? It’s just a theory, but I believe most people, if not everybody, wants to be well-liked and adept in social situations, and this book lays out several principles to allow the reader to achieve such a goal, backed by real-life examples. Of course, if Carnegie hadn’t laid out these principles in such a water-tight fashion, people would be less convinced by their effectiveness as described. People wouldn’t buy into it that quickly if he had put disclaimers after every single point about the limited applicability of his principles because as human beings we usually value simplicity. As a result, cherry picking of examples is the norm in such content otherwise the authors’ advice won’t seem all that appealing to the reader.

Another good example that adds to this point are those books that talk about positive thinking or “manifesting” desirable outcomes. The number of such books are countless – it’s difficult to narrow down on any particular one, but these books essentially boil down to asserting how thinking positive thoughts will make you feel better, and thus you are more likely to obtain what you want in life. However, these books hardly, if ever, mention when and how positive thinking doesn’t work, or how in certain scenarios thinking negatively can even be advantageous. No need to delve into empirical data to back this up – one can easily think of a time when they were utterly jubilant or feeling good about themselves (there’s the positive thinking part), but then out of nowhere life just catches them off guard and disaster strikes (there’s the not so positive part). It could be expecting good grades for a test and turns out it was a downer. Or one could be having the time of their lives in a vibrant social situation and the next day it turns out they caught a very prominent respiratory infection. In these situations, what is the use of the preceding positive thought then?

There are also numerous instances where people can vouch that negative thinking actually did them a favour – they might have circumvented negative events because they harped on the negative thoughts.

The same applies for the entire “manifesting” trend – people only think manifesting is a real thing because of selection bias. They are more likely to remember the times when they successfully “manifested” a positive outcome (even though it’s just sheer coincidence or an outcome that is bound to happen), and conveniently forget the times when they failed to do so. So where then, is the reliability or validity of the benefits extolled by these self-help books if the opposite of what they teach can have the same outcome?

Now one might say, perhaps it's true that these books do succumb to a sort of survivorship bias when presenting its points, but what really matters is that it somewhat betters the reader’s life, but is this really the case? The very existence of people known as self-help junkies serves to prove a point, which is that there can never be enough self-help for them to say, “That’s enough self-help for now, my life is good enough.” The fact that they continue consuming these books means either these people simply are not learning, or the stuff they learn from these books just aren’t that feasible to apply in life for the long term or they just don’t work. Self-help junkies consume the most of such content, so by right they should be more “perfect” than the rest of us mere mortals, logically speaking, but obviously this isn’t the case.

A quick glance at some of the most successful people in the world across different sectors: Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Jack Ma, Floyd Mayweather (this is just a random list of big names but nonetheless everyone knows they are successful people). Buffett is known for reading a lot, but he doesn’t just read self-improvement books; ultimately these people aren’t self-help junkies – they are people who had put in the work to build something over many, many years, which leads them to where they are today.

They actually did something rather than just passively consume life advice, which might be a major weakness of most people who consume self-help content – they rarely ever put the principles into practice in the long run. It just feels good to know that after reading the content, the reader knows they have the means to improve their life, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll apply it – and just knowing that they have this ability is enough to feel nice and hopeful as if something good has already happened. And it won’t be surprising when they find themselves seeking more of such self-help content in order to feel even more “hope” and “bliss” in the grand scheme of improving their life even more. It feels good, yet nothing in the reader’s physical life has actually changed – now what kind of vices does this remind you of?

If the advice in self-help books were really that effective and life changing, wouldn’t it be mandatorily implemented into our education systems and serve as our textbooks in schools? It also seems like the world has yet to see a graduation or Oscar speech dedicated to specific self-help books which led these people to be where they are today.

The last problematic issue I’ll touch on is that these books usually paint the illusion of control to the reader. They make the reader think that everything that happens in their life is within their control – implying that good things will happen to you if you work hard, and nothing bad shall happen to you if you don’t will it into existence. Of course, that is the only way to effectively promote whatever principles that are in their self-improvement book, isn’t it? it wouldn’t be very encouraging to mention in your self-help book about how life’s events occur in a stochastic pattern and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just won’t succeed. It’s most likely the case that no such book is going to make such money, but the truth is that that is simply how life works.

Sometimes no amount of positive thinking, positive reaffirmation or visualisation is going to manifest a million dollars in your bank or get you that anticipated promotion. It might never happen, or in your pursuit of your goal something negative might happen for no reason at all and that’s something that self-help books will rarely acknowledge. Referring back to the list of successful people – it would be ignorant to assume that it is just hard work that led them to where they are today.

No doubt these people are incredibly talented, but I dare say they wouldn’t be where they are today without luck: getting the right opportunities at the right time. Once again, self-help books won’t really tell the reader this. These books imply that if the reader follows the book’s teachings, their lives can significantly improve, largely discounting external, unpredictable variables or even luck in life. And because they only fixate the reader to the “positive” side of reality, it feeds them with temporary hope and bliss – similar positive feelings that are similarly ascribed to doing cocaine.

So… is self-help bad?/

Where does the parallel between self-help and cocaine end? One may argue that at least for the former it doesn’t destroy your health and may even amount to a net positive result for its consumer. Well, yes, that is the case and also any parent would prefer their kid being a self-help junkie over a powdered-covered-nose one. The bulk of this article has been pretty negative so far, but I don’t think self-help is all bad – there definitely is a place for it.

Obviously, it is not to say that the books mentioned above and the advice have zero value, I would say that they would certainly be the most effective if one is truly in a dark place and just needs some positive content in their lives, or they are just a budding adult and really need some perspective on being a better human being. Afterall, cherry-picked examples or not, they do have some educational value to them. Certainly, there are numerous good sources out there that avoid the shortcomings described in the preceding paragraphs – those that rely on a bedrock of empirical backings in established fields such as neuroscience, psychology, sociology or even finance. Hard and fast rules aside, the best kind of self-help advice is the one that works consistently for you.

Hence for the common folk, I would say don’t be discouraged from consuming self-help content, but I would suggest taking the advice with a pinch of salt and most importantly, put into practice what the books / videos/ social media posts have preached. Afterward, objectively evaluate 3-4 months down the road and see if your life has changed significantly for the better. If it doesn't work for you in the sense that it doesn't add up significantly to your overall wellbeing, just throw it away – don't continue to preach it to your friends or over glorify it. Needless to say, when you can put an arms length away from the self-help movement and see it for what it truly is: simple advice that may or may not work for you, it’ll be easier for you to walk away when you realise that some of this advice just aren’t that great, instead of seeking more of such content.

And by doing that, you can be certain you aren't being a mindless cocaine addict.

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