A Little Exploration of Self-Help

I try to practice the tenets of self-help, but it doesn’t always work. Years ago, I had a coworker who was very patient when I needed help in some program I was using at the time. Not wanting to sound like I hadn’t tried, I would say, “I looked in ‘Help’ and couldn’t figure out…” What my colleague used to say in an understanding tone was: “Yeah, well, ‘Help’ never helps, you know?” This is essentially how I feel about self-help and self-improvement books. They don’t help. Instead, we read them to remind us of what we often already know. And the best writers can inject some new inspiration into our flagging resolutions (or intentions or whatever the cool kids are calling it nowadays) or help us crystalize our desires. However, the implementation is ultimately up to the individual.

Like most people I know, when I need ideas on how to fix some problem—major or minor—I start with some research (by which I mean random searching and general poking around online). Eventually, I read the advice that sounds plausible from the sources that appear trustworthy. While reading, I stumble across a lot of self-help books and literature meant to address various problems. While I certainly can’t and don’t want to read every type of self-help available (and there are a LOT), this has made me want to look at a little history of self-help.

A Little Self-Help History (Admittedly From a U.S. Perspective)

While the term self-help may have only been used in the last few hundred years, writing meant to improve the recipient is ancient. If you consider religious and philosophical teachings, then this would certainly goes back to the Ancient Egyptians, Greek philosophers, and Confucius. While moral tales and advice for living a righteous life are still relevant today, self-help or self-improvement of various new kinds have gained their own followings.

If we consider the U.S. as an example, self-help is an enormous business and undoubtedly makes some think of Benjamin Franklin (or Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book that seemed almost as famous as Ben for a while). Americans love the Founding Fathers and it’s no surprise that readers are still interested in Franklin’s writings. He wrote advice you would expect like how to improve one’s finances, but he also apparently gave some serious thought to how to choose a mistress. He had wide-ranging interests and while the latter advice is not something you probably need, it is an interesting read. I don’t begrudge Franklin his advice or his popularity today as he was a product of his time. What I do take issue with are more recent self-help books and literature that seem to be overwhelmingly written by and for men.

The Four Agreements

If you were alive and old enough to read in the late 1990s, you may remember Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, which Oprah apparently endorsed and a book that continues to enjoy interest almost 30 years later. If you don’t, like most things you can read a quick synopsis of it and see that Ruiz’s main points will be fairly familiar to most self-help readers.

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Brown People Are Not Magical

Then there are those who rely on other cultures they aren’t part of to validate their wisdom. I recently listened to a book by an author who shall remain nameless for tips on keeping one’s commitments. The advice was reasonable, but the author occasionally referred to “an old Native American” who told him the secrets he was passing on or supported his advice. Lest you think this was written years ago, it was published in 2008. This is the kind of thing that just needs to stop. If anyone is confused on this, send them my way. I can explain how people are not magically wiser or more spiritual because of their ethnic background or skin color.

Self-Help Readers Often Have Uteruses

You may have also noticed that while men write the majority of the self-help books (at least in the U.S.), women appear to be the majority of self-help readers—at least of those readers who will admit it. This leads to an odd sensation that many of us women experience at various times in our lives. It is still common to encounter things that do not take your needs into account at all or that treat you as if you are an outlier just because you are female. I can say from experience not only is this disorienting, but it is also deeply irritating.

For example, some pregnancy book authors write like every reader has a husband, a flexible job, and good maternity leave benefits. What about the ones who don’t? A quarter of American women return to work two weeks after having a child. That is NOTHING. And what about women who have wives or who are single parents or who are in any number of other circumstances? I guess you can tell I am still annoyed by the pregnancy books I read in the past. Of course this has changed some, but there is still a long way to go. Similarly, authors of self-help books should have different experiences to advise their readers with. Diverse self-help writers can reach readers who don’t fit into current norms or who don’t want to.

Self-Help That Also Helps Others

I recently listened to Everyday Ubuntu by Mungi Ngomane and found it to be a good reminder of some of the realities of life we so easily forget. Ngomane translates Ubuntu as “I am because you are.” All life is inherently interconnected but it is so easy to forget this in the day-to-day rush of our lives. I enjoyed the narration by Nontombi Naomi Tutu and found it a comforting read in many respects. There were a few passages where Ngomane could have used a bit more editing (for example the suggestions for how to get involved in the community are fairly obvious) but overall she was clear about what ubuntu is and how practicing it can improve our lives and the lives of those around us. There is also a nice introduction from Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Ngomane’s grandfather) and some entertaining anecdotes from his life.

Cover of How to Be a Bawse by Lilly SinghHow to Be a Big deal

I had never heard of Lilly Singh until How to be a Bawse came out. Before you ask, yes, I am old, and yes, I live under a rock. Honestly, I picked up Singh’s book because her picture on the cover caught my attention. I wish I woke up looking that good (I assume she wishes she did too). Although she is lovely, I did not need all the glossy author pictures included in the book, where each chapter begins with a stylized photo of her. I realize her fans might feel differently than I do. In any case, I enjoyed the presentation otherwise and much of the advice was a good reminder. I just wouldn’t always choose to use it in the same way as she does, but Singh is clear that you should adapt her suggestions in whatever ways help you.

Vision Boards Are Not My Thing

For example, I think vision boards are silly and don’t plan to do one any time soon. That is until I am 90, at which point I reserve the right to do everything silly in the world and to publicly contradict myself whenever I please. However even if I do not make one soon, Singh’s advice is still sound. Defining what success looks like for you—as opposed to others—is a solid way to use your one unique self to live a good (as defined by you) life. Whether that means parenting well, making money, or something else, Singh encourages you to cultivate the self-awareness to know which goals you truly want to pursue.

But Celebrities are Sometimes Cool

While I doubt any of Singh’s advice is unique in the history of self-help, I still enjoyed it. She tells you about getting in touch with people she admires and some of these make for entertaining reading. I mean M.I.A. (the rapper whose real name is Mathangi Arulpragasam) contacted Singh and asked her to collaborate with her. If M.I.A. asked me to work with her, I would assume I was being pranked. Then I would respond promptly to Ms. Arulpragasam and tell her I could arrange something at any time, well, whenever. Hopefully, it would not involve me rapping, but otherwise I’m flexible.

How to be Fine cover self-help that has been tested on the writersHow to be Fine

Of course, sometimes you just want to have someone else try the advice first and report back. The self-help history is nice and all, but it just doesn’t matter to you and your N of 1 unless it works. I get it. That’s why I’m looking forward to getting a copy of How to be Fine by Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer. After reading an interview with them, I thought they had the kind of honesty required. The advice may not be new, but I appreciate the usefulness of someone else trying it out first. I also like that their title sets up appropriate expectations. So many productivity books recommend delegating tasks in your life to others. I like to think that by writing their book, Greenberg and Meinzer are helping me to read more. And I have no complaints about that.