We were going to write about the personal development or Self-Help (SH) books which really inspired us this year, but we had a nagging sensation that there is just more to this. And there is.
Picking up a SH book is not going to help you on its own. There is no shortage of people telling you that they are pointless, misinformed or one-sided. But then we do meet that person who tells us their life changed after reading the 5am club or nonviolent communication.
So what's the deal? At NEO we are hugely passionate lifelong learners, and so we value all forms of professional development, but we equally recognise that there are strategies to everything which help you get the most out of something. Reading a crime novel has no real strategy; you read it, you finish it, or you don't. We don't have to do anything with the story, except perhaps to ruin the book for one of our friends after we accidentally (sort of) tell them the ending after a couple of sangrías.
Reading a SH book, or even choosing to read it, is really different and needs a bit of thought, so let's dig in shall we?
Ok, problems in the plural, let's be honest. We wrote a while back that some of these books are just badly written. The author has a great idea, but just over eggs it, or puts it into some clumsy narrative between two equally nauseating characters. That does not help.
But let's put that aside for now and assume that most of the bestsellers we might pick up have decent editors who can get the book into shape. PD books are often (certainly not always) read by people who are very keen to make a change in their lives. From becoming more assertive and organised to overcoming trauma or developing leadership skills, SH books have to get the big calls right. These people want advice they can put into action, and getting the wrong advice can often be harmful and make things worse.
Jessica Wildfire writes on Medium that with global warming, unemployment, rising prices and falling living standards, it is no wonder Millennials are picking up SH books looking for a cure.
Mark Manson, author of the Suble Art of not Giving a F*ck actually trashes most of his peers indirectly on his website. He says that most SH books do not present much evidence, but leave it up to us to figure out what is credible or not. They can create unrealistic expectations ("you are a money making machine! Go get 'em tiger!), and can actually be another form of just avoiding the issue; reading around the problem rather than addressing it. He also makes the point (and it made us laugh) that it's not really self-help if someone else is trying to give you the answers in your life.
This Forbes article talks of the placebo effect where nothing in the book itself does anything, but reading it does make us pay attention more to how we behave and think, and it is our own reflective process that changes things.
We could go on, but the point is made, and we all probably empathise with some of this. Some of these books are just not empirically tested, they are vague reinterpretations of old ideas with no practical way to implement, or just hot air. There is no getting around it.
After all that, you would be forgiven for thinking we are totally over the idea that self-help books carry any real substance or can help us in any meaningful way. That's not what we think at all, but we do think they need to be used with caution; especially when they are being used to support you in a time of acute need or dramatic development.
Firstly, we need to be mindful that, all the hype aside, the category of books that can actually change your life is a very narrow one. Tom Belskie, writing about the amazing book Atomic Habits said that "In my humble opinion, it’s so good that I would motion to file it under the elite category of books that can actually change your life. This is a motion that I do not at all take lightly."
So really doing your homework on the book itself is important. The cover looks great and the quotes on the back promise the earth, but some digging will reveal whether or not it is really worth your time. Quality over quantity of self-help books is a winner. Beyond that, the collective wisdom of those in the know suggest the following:
This is a habit that needs to be built, and there are skills that are built alongside it. In our world of education marketing and recruitment, most people we know get fairly regular CPD in their institutions, and a smaller (but not insignificant) number do their own learning. What we have found, however, is that while most are happy to share recommendations on the course they took on data analytics or video marketing, we are a bit less willing to share the more personal side of our personal development.
If you have recommendations for our community on books which changed your life, we would love to hear about them. We believe that we are all a work in progress, and embracing this is a strength. Bringing the emotional side into our work, sharing in our vulnerabilities and cheering each other on as we find our way forward to becoming better versions of ourselves; we are all for this. If you ever work with us, expect a hug instead of a handshake, and be ready to share some book recommendations.