The promise of self-help

What are the benefits of self-help books? Can they be a substitute for coaching or therapy? Here are my thoughts.

The tweet below from organizational psychologist Adam Grant has got people talking. Before you read on for my thoughts, take a moment to note your initial reaction to it…

Tweet by @AdamMGrant on self-help books

It has received over 500 replies. Many seem to broadly agree with the statement however there are plenty who disagree. The main points presented by those challenging it are that:

  • you could say the same for coaching and therapy, and
  • for the majority of people coaching or therapy isn’t affordable whereas books are

I had to read it a few times to get my head around it. The issue I see is that he’s conflating multiple ideas. So let’s break it down:

If self-help books delivered on their promises, the genre would eventually put itself out of business.

People will always have problems they need help solving. The issue we’re facing today will be replaced by something different next month or next year. They may get the support they need from self-help books, from a coach/therapist, or from both. I can’t see a future where either one will be put out of business because they’ve helped people to solve all their problems.

I don’t think the fact that self-help books don’t deliver is a conspiracy to keep the industry afloat. There are many reasons they may not live up to their promises. One reason I can think of is that they often offer one-size-fits-all solutions. We might pick up a broad strategy to help us approach changing a behaviour but we have to adapt that to fit our own personal context.

Perhaps there’s also something in what we’re really hoping self-help books will do for us. If you’re expecting a lightning bolt and for all your problems to be solved just from reading them, then obviously you’re going to be disappointed. But if you go in looking to gain some perspective on the issue at hand and identify some possible solutions then you’ll be in a better position to start making some changes in your life.

Books are ideal for learning and reflecting, but behaviour change is tough without feedback and support.

If you separate out these two points it’s difficult to disagree with either of them. For example, when I wanted to change my eating habits (and ultimately lose weight) I got myself a book that helped me to understand what changes I needed to make as well as providing meal plans and recipes. I also enlisted the help of my partner to keep me accountable. I lost 1.5 stones (~10kg) and I couldn’t have done that without both the book and the personal support.

Reading isn’t a substitute for coaching or therapy.

Of course reading isn’t a substitute for coaching or therapy, but that’s not to say that we can’t affect change from it if we’re motivated to do so.

There are always going to be situations however when we can’t make changes on our own and we need support to make them happen. Just look back to my example of losing weight above. And that support may come from our nearest and dearest, or from a professional coach or therapist.

How does my interpretation fit with your initial response to the tweet or your views on self-help books?

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