Hi, my name’s Nicole, and I’m a reformed non-fiction, self-help book hater.
Previous blogs may make it seem like I hate non-fiction, especially of the self-help variety. It’s not that I hate it, it’s that it’s not what gets me fired up when choosing books. At least it wasn’t until last year.
What broke my stubborn streak? Once I started reading more, I wanted to add a wider variety of books – including those for personal and professional development. Upping my reading habit coincided with a new mental health diagnosis and the start of a new job. Since I had a lot of novel things to figure out, I thought I might as well add some self-help into the mix.
I learned that while there’s a lot of fluff out there, there’s also a lot of good advice that my stubborn ass was finally open to taking in. Here’s what I’ve found separates the worthwhile ones from the junk.
If you’re trying to convince me an idea works, you need to give me the proof. Any book that comes in with reputable studies and pertinent real-life examples to back up its claims is already far and ahead of some of the “best” self-help books I’ve read.
There are two ways these books fail at this first step. The first is the quality of the studies they use. Self-help books love using pop culture science – pop psychology being the worst offender. The moment that authors start sharing debunked research, like the Stanford Prison experiment, I no longer trust them. If they can’t take the extra minute to Google whether it’s true that showing willpower as a child sets you out for later career success or that the average person only uses 10% of their brain, then I find it hard to trust the rest. Just in case you’re wondering, neither of these are true.
The second, are the real-world examples used to illustrate the effectiveness of the advice. Some famous individuals have become a staple in self-help literature: Steve Jobs, Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein. These paragons of excellence have entered the pantheon of “most-successful-people-who’ve-ever-succeeded”. It weakens the argument when every example I’m reading are the usual suspects. On the other hand, if your only examples are average Joes with generic names who would be difficult to track down if needed, doubts start to creep in, wondering if these people exist. Being selective, specific, and critical with examples goes a long way in building trust.
Who does this well? The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How To Make The Most Of Them Now by Meg Jay Ph.D. + Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams by Matthew Walker Ph.D.
You don’t need a Ph.D. to write a book, but it shows when you do. Both of these books nail it when it comes to backing up their advice with facts.
If you’re still in your twenties, I recommend The Defining Decade. An easy read that covers why you should start laying the foundation for the life you’d want to live already in your 20s, even if you’re also figuring things out. Meg Jay uses real-life examples from therapy sessions they’ve conducted, with some pretty convincing evidence as to why waiting until your 30s to set a good foundation isn’t ideal.
Reading Why We Sleep gave me many sleepless nights where I reevaluated how little I’d prioritized sleep in my life. At the time of reading it, I was working a hectic job that made having a consistent sleep schedule impossible. This book forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that this was unsustainable. The evidence that Matthew Walker provides is hard-hitting and makes it a must-read for anyone still not convinced that getting enough sleep at night matters.
To the point
The majority of self-help books I’ve read are quite short to start with (under 250 pages), and often half the book is unnecessary. The culprit behind this disaster? I’m blaming an abundance of long-winded examples and anecdotes, paired with a heavy hand of repetition.
Remember that thing about good examples mattering? This is why. One well-chosen example can outweigh 5 mediocre ones. This also goes for personal anecdotes that sidetrack more than illustrating the point.
I get it. Repeating something helps it stick. Repeating something helps it stick. R̸̡̝̫̫͈̆ẽ̸͎͎̹̖̬̽͛̈́̚p̵̬͔̓̚e̵̡̪͇͔̾ͅa̶̱̽̀͝t̴̯̻͈̝̂͛͘i̵̛̟̬̮͒͛̈́͂n̷͕̍͆̏g̶͕͖̫̮͔̎ ̸̻̘̯͝ş̶͝ơ̷̗̬͊̉̇̈́m̸͕̤͆̐͘e̴̛̟͔̓͌̊̿t̶̡̪̂͜͝ͅĥ̸̨͎̝̮͓̀̎̈́i̵̩͝ṅ̴̨͍̞̣͖̍̽̋̔g̵̥̜̳̣̅͜͝ ̵̘̔́̄͑ḫ̸̟̔è̶̖ḷ̶̝̗̲͌͐p̵̡̣̭͚̗̎̚͠s̴̪͜͝ ̸̠̇̒̀͑i̷̗̮͙͌̈́͠t̶̠͙̣̮̓̓̐ ̴̘͔̳̩̔͠s̴̙͍͉̦̘̒̏̅̚t̵̡̙̖͍͑͝ͅi̶̼͈̭̺̫̒̆͝ć̴̨̥̯̄̏̓ḱ̵͙̃. But there’s a finite amount of times this can be done until it becomes condescending, even when it’s done with a wink and a nudge. When heavy-handed, the tendency to repeat statements can come across as the author thinking you’re too thick to remember the point if it’s not repeated two thousand times.
I’m not reading your book for style but content, so please, just say what you’ve got to say without underestimating the reader and get out.
Who does this well? Deep Work by Cal Newport
As someone who finds it difficult to pay attention to…anything, I came into this book skeptical. A book about how deeply focusing on one task is better than pinging back and forth? Well, that’s not only impossible, but it can’t make that much of a difference.
Still, it’d been recommended so often, why not give it a go? Well, I’m happy I did, because Cal Newport puts together a convincing book about the benefits of deep work and how to integrate the practice in your life.
While never overstaying its welcome.
Specific and actionable, yet flexible
Some people read self-help non-fiction to be inspired.
I am not one of these people.
I’m not interested in vague sentences about believing in yourself. I read self-help non-fiction to learn how to do things better. I don’t want the author to just share their philosophy with me, but for them to also share how to best put it into effect. Only telling people what to do, without providing them the ways how to do it, isn’t just useless. It can come across as gatekeeping at best, and like you don’t actually understand your ideas as much as you think you do, at worst. Once again, being specific helps in creating credibility. Even if the only point of reference is how the author did it, as long as that’s recognized, it goes a long way in building trust.
Very few of the self-help non-fiction books I’ve come across allow for adaptability in their advice. If the author also recognizes that human beings can differ in the way they live their lives, their resources, and their ways of thinking, I’m sold. Stepping away from the one-size-fits-all mentality shows an effort to think about the solution being provided from more than one angle.
If you can’t tell me what to do with your advice and are incapable of giving options or seeing more than one way to implement it, I’m left doubting its use. General tips like “be more organized” or “learn to prioritize” don’t do anything for me, unless you can give the specifics.
Who does this well? A classic: How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
At this point, How To Win Friends and Influence People is infamous. If you haven’t read it, you’ve most likely already heard about it. I wasn’t keen on reading it, at first. I thought this book was going to be an amalgamation of nebulous motivational confidence boosters. Or, it was going to be the handbook to manipulate other people to bend to your will. Neither of these sounded interesting to me.
But then my partner pushed me to read it because he found it useful. And since this was in the beginning stages of the relationship where you’re still trying hard to impress each other, so you follow through on their recommendations, I read it. And he was right. It is useful.
I am a human who gets sweaty at even the thought of interacting with other humans. Dale Carnegie’s tips have helped me be a little bit less sweaty. Which I’m qualifying as a win.
Doesn’t only exist to sell the author
I understand that authors of self-help books have to sell themselves a little. We don’t want to take advice from someone who isn’t successful or happy or an expert in whatever they’re vouching. We want to learn from the best. Unless they’re already a worldwide famous figure, they will need to bring in their credentials to convince us they are worth taking advice from.
But more often than not, from the first few pages, you can tell that a book was written to sell the author and his services more than it was to help you. If I read one more marketing book where the author says they were doing something unrelated to marketing but “I’m just so weird and quirky that this completely non-marketing thing reminded me of something marketing-related” in an effort to convince you of their expertise, I will throw myself – or them – into an active printing press.
This flaw becomes particularly egregious when the author’s wrapped up in an inspirational spiel with little substance, while also aggrandizing their own accomplishments. If the conclusion to your story is “it worked so well for me because I’m so smart and I’ll tell you how you could be too, but at a price“, then I’ll stick to not making deals with the devil and moving on to another book that will give me the information I want in one go.
You can have your actions speak louder than words, even when relying only on words. I promise.
Who does this well? On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
This one almost feels like cheating. Considering Stephen King’s reputation and what he specializes in, he more than proves himself as a master of his craft without having to explicitly shove it in your face.
On Writing gives useful writing tips in the context of Stephen King’s own experiences as an author. He takes you on his journey from amateur writer to bestselling author, sharing best practices along the way, without ever feeling like he’s bragging or boasting or trying to sell you his latest book.
It’s not about avoiding talking about yourself, it’s about not putting yourself on a pedestal in an attempt to gain the respect of your reader. Have some trust in your reader and let them decide first, before grabbing them by the shoulders and yelling out your accolades in their face.
I wish I’d told the contrarian in me to shut up and just give the genre a try earlier than I did. Instead, I’ve spent years flip-flopping between either believing I was too capable to do things on my own or believing that I was so different and broken I was beyond help. Getting outside my comfort zone and reading more helpful non-fiction hasn’t changed my life, but I’ve gained some useful tips, tricks, and tidbits along the way that have come in handy.
Simply put: self-help non-fiction can be a great tool to further your understanding of yourself and increase your knowledge about the things that matter to you.
Even though sometimes it’s still more fun to figure things out yourself, not caring if you end up falling on your face.