The “self-help” book has changed how we think, and many readers are OK with that. Here are some of my thoughts on why.
Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of popular non-fiction books, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend: many of these books incorporate some level of self-help writing. It doesn’t matter if the book is about neuroscience or running — they all seem to add in some type of life-affirming advice, a classic howto, or an inspirational (yet reductive) conclusion about the topic discussed.
Ever since I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s well-researched Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, I have been wary of the self-help and positive thinking movement. Ehrenreich’s book shows how the current positive thinking movement comes from an American history split between two ways of thinking, one being a Calvinist, “pull-up-your-bootstraps” practicality and the other a naive belief that if you think it up, you can do it. The most successful people, we believe, are able to do both of these things well, and they don’t give up in the process.
I am cynical about this way of thinking, especially after reading Ehrenreich’s expose of the positive thinking movement. There are a lot of gurus and experts out there trying to get me to spend money on things that may or may not help me perform better, get more productive, or succeed in life. There is always a danger that I’ll spend my time and money on these things and delay the work I could do on my own without experts guiding me.
Yet I still find myself drawn to these popular non-fiction titles. I read them because they confirm things I know about myself, or they help me see things I wouldn’t have seen on my own. It’s human nature to want someone in an authority position to confirm something we already know about ourselves. Sometimes, we need to feel like we’ve been given “permission” to move forward. That’s not always a bad thing.
You can be an introvert, too
For example, I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. In this book, Cain dives into the cultural and scientific reasons why some people are introverted and concludes that we undervalue introverts by honoring extroverts, and yet introverts are the ones changing the world. She begins her book with some convincing sociological studies that show an “introvert” is someone who gets energy from being alone, and in a society that honors outward appearances, many introverts get left behind.
I’m an introvert, so I found myself agreeing with almost everything she said throughout the book. But as I read through each chapter, the underlying theme became “yes you, the introvert, can be successful too!” And that’s when I started to realize something: this reads a lot like a self-help book. It might have scientific studies to back up the ideas, but it ends by giving advice to introverts who feel left out in today’s extroverted world.
After I read Cain’s book, it seemed like everyone I who had read it was suddenly an introvert. It was as if people who read the book were associating “I’m an introvert” with “I’m insecure about some part of myself” — two completely different things. Yet Cain seems to do this herself in the book: she sometimes uses “shy” and “by myself” to mean the same as introverted (whether intentionally or not). Here’s an example from one of the most highlighted passages in the book, according to kindle.amazon.com:
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.
This passage does a couple of interesting things: first, it confirms a belief that success comes from independence, not from groupthink (as in the “pull-up-your-bootstraps” ideal); second, it assures the reader that they’re OK (“most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” Cain writes, and therefore like you, the reader — the introvert).
Cain’s book is a great example of what I’m talking about because it was marketed as a psychology book. I started reading it because I thought it’d have some scientific studies to support the idea that introversion is a real thing. I got hooked and read to the end because Cain both confirmed and reassured me that I, the introvert, can be awesome too.
So where does all of this bring us? I guess I should go back to my original questions: have self-help books affected our view of success, and more importantly, have they affected the way we read? In general, are they changing the way we think?
The “tipping point”: Self-help is here to stay
This move toward self-help could be an effect of internet culture. Notice that these books have taken off in the past ten years, and writers like Malcolm Gladwell have pioneered the author-as-marketing-and-self-help-guru approach to non-fiction. Or, it could be a result of our changing economy: if you’re not portraying yourself as happy, successful, and productive, you won’t get noticed (or so we’re told), and as a result, you’ll be left behind.
In order to be successful, we are advised to give off the appearance of success. For example, writers are told to have a “platform” — a website, a social media strategy, a newsletter — in addition to churning out a series of bestselling novels. But in order to have the bestselling novel, it helps to write a lot, and that can only be done alone, away from the spotlight. (And writing is usually a gruelling process full of self-doubt, confusion, and depression, not to mention it’s incredibly anti-social.)
This model of the non-fiction book that is really a self-help book seems like it’s here to stay because it is incredibly successful. Even readers like me, who tend to be cynical and guarded — I went to journalism school, so I was taught the old mantra that “if your mother says she loves you, factcheck it” — find solace and comfort in a book that uplifts and confirms.
What I hope is that this approach to non-fiction won’t lead to intellectual laziness, sloppy writing, or reductive thinking. We already saw this happen to Jonah Lehrer, the young non-fiction writer and speaker who was caught self-plagiarizing and making up quotes.
I also hope it doesn’t lead to a group of 20- and 30-somethings who are too busy reading books and articles about how-to-be-that or the-science-of-this that they stop creating things that lead to the next revolution. That type of future is scarier to me than a future filled with padded non-fiction bestsellers.