Deeply unsatisfied with my life in high school, I dedicated years of my life reading self-help books. I would hole-up in the coffee shop inside the bookstore and plucked one self-help book from the shelf every few days. I would drink coffee paid for by my parents and eat food-truck food paid for by my parents and read self-help books paid by the university bookstore for my comfort in hope of turning my life around, somehow.
I did it because I wanted to live a more productive life. Like many people, I could not understand why my life did not work out the way it did. Like many people, I had unfulfilled goals. I could not make the academic and musical achievements I had wanted, and I did not know how to talk to the girls I had liked. And, because my cultural surroundings seemed to have an obsession with self-help, I integrated that part of American identity into my own life. So, in an attempt to improve my life without fully understanding how to improve my life, I entered into the world of self-help.
When I got to college, my attitudes did not change. I took a course called Positive Psychology because I wanted to find a way to be happy. I was, after all, someone who was not happy. I continued to read self-help books in my spare time. Every other night, I would crack open a new book I bought from Amazon in the hopes of coming one step closer to addressing the unhappiness that has permeated through every aspect of my life. Those moments defined an integral portion of my freshman year. Me, alone in some library because I had been too afraid to return to my door, engrossed in my latest self-help book.
No surprise, my epiphany never came. The salvation to my sadness never crept out of those pages I religiously flipped through filled same vacant words. Like most reading habits, indulgence in self-help books took out a significant portion of my life. And for a time, I genuinely thought that these books have positively shaped my life through an intangible lens. After all, I could not observe every aspect of my development with clarity. I would read each book and have a temporary feeling of catharsis, almost as if I have validated the countless rejections I have faced in my life through reading vague, unnuanced tips on how to live a productive life.
It wasn’t until I got lunch with a political science professor did I realize that had been lying to myself all throughout my life. He had been the professor of my political economy of development course that examined current political and economic institutions relative to their historical context. Even when I had been taking the course, I understood that it had been one of the most insightful classes I have ever taken. Each lecture had changed my conceptualization of a specific region in the world. It was the class where I learned about the effects of colonialism, where I learned to become so contemptful towards western European countries for destroying the rest of the world in the name of capitalism.
During my lunch with him, I asked him about his opinions on self-help books. He seemed confused with the question, but he started to understand after I named a couple of self-help books to him. He chuckled and replied, “I think self-help books are for people who don’t really know how to help themselves. I don’t know. I’ve always thought of them as a waste of time.”
When I got back to my dorm, I tried to understand his wording, and I couldn’t really understand what he meant. Of course self-help books are for individuals who do now know how to help themselves; it’s defined within the genre itself. But then, I began to reflect on my own motivations in reading self-help books. Did I read self-help books because I wanted to help myself, or did I read them because I wanted to feel better about my shortcomings? Or, in other words, did I want to placate my feelings of inadequacy by convincing myself that I had an advantage in life over others because I read about some “life hacks” within a couple self-help books?
And so began my quest to be more honest with myself. My political science professor, a former chemical engineering student from India who graduated from one of the best political science doctorate programs in the United States because he thought that industry work had been unfulfilling, had told me that he thought self-help books were a waste of time. One of the most accomplished individuals that I have ever met in my life is giving me advice, and it’s not from a self-help book. Yet, there I was, with two contradictory set of advice: one from my political science professor and one from my the countless self-help books that I have read in my life until then.
I started to do research on the authors who wrote self-help books, only to find that the majority of them do not lives that are nearly as interesting as my political science professor. My disilluisonment rose to its final form when I was writing my final paper on the propagation of Buddhist ideas into western civilization in my introduction to Buddhism class taught by a former Buddhist monk. During my paper, I remember reading a book about mindfulness in the past and quickly searched the author’s name on the internet. A couple minute later, I found him, a middle-aged white man who apparently visited Thailand once in his life.
After reading countless scholarly articles and primary sources about mindfulness, I have developed a relatively holistic understanding of mindfulness in the context of its appropriation by western cultures. The mindfulness that I read in a self-help book all those years ago had been completely misguided relative to its original intention in Buddhism. Yet, another example of cultural hegemony. I realized that my understanding of mindfulness had come from a middle-aged white man who probably never bothered to truly understand mindfulness in the perspective of its religious tradition. He just wrote about it in the form of self-help to distill a feeling of false accomplishments in individuals like me.
And so, whenever I pick up a self-help book nowadays, I always do copious amounts of research on the author before I even bother to read it. Reading Grit by Angela Duckworth, one of the forefront names in positive psychology and applying consulting principles to educational reform, is very different from reading a misinterpreted version of mindfulness by Brad, a middle-aged man living in the midwest that has never read a primary source of Buddhism in his entire life. Because, while there exist some writers with something to say, there exist others who seek to make their living off of convincing their readers that they are living more productively than everyone else — not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.
I sometimes still can’t help myself but subscribe to the American ultra-capitalist ethos of living as productive of a life as possible. Sometimes, I can’t convince myself that living is more than making a contribution to GDP. But self-help books has never allowed me to come closer to that objective. All self-help books have ever done and ever will do is instill within me a false sense of progress in myself when my actual accomplishments do not live up to my expectations. All self-help books do is temporarily bridge the mental difference without making the necessary lifestyle sacrifices, not to mention the concept of taking ideas out of context and removing all nuance.
So no, I don’t have a favorable opinion on self-help books.