Does Self-help Really Work?

Posted on July 16, 2013 by Robert Ringer


Over the years, the term self-help has been used in the publishing industry to refer to a wide variety of advice books, from diet and financial success to love relationships and the pursuit of peace and happiness.  But what, exactly, is self-help?  Does it really work?  In simple terms, self-help is about learning, or figuring out, how to help oneself, which, unfortunately, goes against the grain of today’s culture of dependency.

At the outset, I should point out that if self-help is about learning, or figuring out, how to help oneself, then, theoretically speaking, it is certainly possible to help yourself without reading anything at all.  In fact, that’s precisely what you do every time you learn through experience.  But some people are not as independently action-oriented as others, which is why really good self-help material can be invaluable.

As the author of four books in the self-help genre, I’ve devoted a lot of time, study, and energy to this topic over the years.  People have often asked me, “Can everyone benefit from a good self-help book, or are just certain individuals genetically wired to learn from the advice of others?”

Yes and no.  The reason some people benefit from self-help advice and others do not is usually because those that benefit are ready to receive the information that can help them make major changes in their lives, while those that do not benefit are usually not ready.

The key to benefiting from self-help books is for you, as the reader, to understand that it’s your responsibility to actually do the work that leads to improvement in one area or another of your life.  For example, a book on good nutrition and healthy eating habits may give you a great deal of information about foods that will improve your health and foods that are likely to be harmful to you.  But it’s your responsibility to follow through and, assuming you have faith in the author’s suggestions, employ the self-discipline to develop healthy eating habits.

I said “assuming you have faith in the author’s suggestions” because one of the biggest problems with self-help books — and self-help articles, CDs, courses, and seminars, as well — is that the advice they offer is often superficial, not written in a clear manner, illogical, lacking in empirical evidence, or, all too often, simply presented in a boring style.

With regard to the latter, as an example, one of the biggest-selling success/leadership books of all time is jam-packed with solid information, but it’s so dull that I have never known anyone who has been able to read through the whole book.  My feeling is that you shouldn’t have to struggle to make your way through a self-help book.  Your time is too valuable and, worse, you aren’t likely to follow through on the author’s suggestions if you aren’t motivated by his writing.

How could a mediocre or subpar book become a bestseller?  Anyone connected with the publishing industry is painfully aware of the answer to that question:  The sales and popularity of a book have little to do with its quality and everything to do with how it is marketed.   And the harsh reality is that publishers print and distribute books, but do virtually nothing to market them.

The phenomenon of shallow or poorly written books becoming bestsellers is usually the result of their authors having a high-profile platform with a built-in audience — such as TV and radio personalities and professional speakers.  It’s amazing how many really bad books written by high-profile people have become bestsellers.  This frustrates a lot of good writers whose books don’t sell very well, but, hey … who ever said life was supposed to be fair?

Conversely, some of the best and most helpful books I’ve ever read have been virtually unknown to the general public.  If you’re a serious reader, you’ve undoubtedly had the same experience.  I think of these books as hidden gems, because you have to dig deep to find them.

The late Oscar Dystel, former chairman of Bantam Books, who was often referred to as “the father of the paperback publishing industry,” once asked me, “Do you know what the best kept secret in the book publishing business is?”

“No, what is it?” I asked.

“Most people buy bestsellers just because everyone else is buying them — kind of like the lemming effect.  People love to say that they bought this or that bestseller, just because it’s in vogue.  And the second best-kept secret is that most people who buy best sellers never even bother to read them.”

What an eye opener that was for me.  It’s the reason that I normally base my book purchases on the recommendations of others whose opinions I respect.  Either that, or I make it a point to review a reasonable number of pages of a book (either online or at a bookstore) to get a good idea of the content and writing style of the author before I purchase it.

Notwithstanding the fact that most self-help books are pretty much worthless, on the positive side, I discovered, decades ago, that one great book can change your life.  The last thing in the world you want to do is go through life and miss “the book” — the book that could have helped you see the world in a whole different light and motivate you to take action to change your life for the better.

So, yes, well-thought-out, well-written self-help books — or self-help materials of any kind — can be helpful to just about anyone, but they are absolutely essential to those who are in need of a jump-start … an epiphany that opens their eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.

But it’s important to remember that a true self-help book is not a crutch.  It’s a teaching tool that guides you on the path to helping yourself.  And it accomplishes that by motivating you to take action.

With this in mind, you could make a good argument that self-help isn’t so much about self-improvement as self-discovery.  By that I mean everyone has natural talents that they aren’t fully exploiting.  So the key to benefiting from a self-help book, or any other kind of self-help vehicle, is possessing a desire to change your life for the better, because the stronger your desire to change, the more likely you are to benefit from the material.

And when you do find that one great self-help book you’ve been looking for, you don’t need to pound your chest and scream to the rafters, “I’m really on the right track now!”  Just calmly and quietly go about your business, using what you’ve learned to improve yourself a little more each day.

Above all, don’t go on a crusade to help others “see the light.”  Self-help is about learning how to help yourself.  Improving yourself is arguably the greatest contribution you can make to the rest of the world, because when you’re a successful, happy, well-adjusted individual, you aren’t a burden to the rest of society.

Just remember, the concept of self-help is real, but the same cannot be said of all self-help books, articles, CDs, courses, and seminars.  Thus, when it comes to self-help, your first challenge is to pick and choose carefully when it comes to feeding your brain.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

26 responses to “Does Self-help Really Work?”

  1. Larry Scott says:

    Robert, great perspective. I would be interested in learning some of your choices for less obvious, less popular but extremely beneficial self-help books. I am sure you have aroused curiosity in many of your readers.
    Thank you.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      A few that come quickly to mind are:

      Harry Browne's "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World"
      David Seabury's "The Art of Selfishness"
      Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy"
      Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer"
      Alain de Botton's "The Consolations of Philosophy"

  2. perspective says:

    Yes, I have realised. Thank you

  3. Tom says:

    It would be great to hear your recommendations of good self-help books. I have read all of your material Robert!!

  4. Arthur Hart says:

    Thank you for writing. Self-discovery. Sometimes I like to call it Un-covery. So many of us can be stuck on auto-pilot, and the bummer is that the plane is always racing toward a mountain. We walk through life (or scurry) always afraid we're going to crash. We often don't even know that these thoughts and feelings we have about life are just that – thoughts, which create feelings. But we can never seem to stop thinking long enough to find out there's a "me" inside that always flourishes – no matter what. The me I really always have wanted to be. We bury this me under all our fears and automatic, limiting thinking.
    When we uncover this part of us it is the most liberating endeavor! But it takes action that the fear never allows to happen. Until now. Until we say, "I'm giving something else a chance".
    A good guidance manual is one of the most helpful tools for such an undertaking. The work is not as difficult as it may appear. When we clear away what we think we are, what we truly are gently emerges. At this altitude the plane cruises freely! Sit back and enjoy the ride.

  5. Felipe says:

    I've been a faithful follower since my teens.
    Besides the books you've written, what have been your top 5 self-help books?
    Thank You.

  6. MapleGuitar says:

    "one great book can change your life"
    For me, Looking Our For #1.

  7. libertarianzen says:

    Unless, the individual cleans out the garbage that resides in the subconscious mind the information discovered in self-help books will be of limited value. Meditation is the most effective tool for releasing subconscious blocks and obstacle. I read Robert Ringer's great books in the late seventies and early eighties and I just recently reread them. Because of years of meditation, the value received from his books increase considerably this time around. Of course, life's experiences over the years also helped.

  8. John E. Gabor says:

    The best self-help book is still the #1 all-time best-seller: The King James Bible. And it comes with a guide, a helper: The Holy Spirit. Romans is probably the most important Book in The Bible and a good place to start.. But the Book of Proverbs is a book of wisdom – and there are 31 Proverbs – one available to read each day of the month. Yes, there's so much in there, it's a good idea to read them again and again – one Proverb each day. The Bible is presented in subject order, but is best read in chronological order. There are chronological order listings of the Books of The Bible available online, but I got my listing from Pastor John T. Yates of Louisiana.

  9. George George says:

    One of the best books I've read lately is "Winning through Intimidation" loved that book. Self-help. Yes, help you recognize what to do and what to avoid. Especially love the part about the different types of people. Funny.
    (No, no one paid me to say this)

  10. Robby Bonfire says:

    Nothing has helped me more, or at least help me better understand how the ~real world~ works, than "Winning Through Intimidation." It should be required reading in every high school curriculum.

  11. Chris McMorrow says:

    Robert Ringer is one of my self-help hero's. I love to read his vast treasury of materials, for they are practical tools providing valuable insights into how one may improve upon his God-given talents.

    But yesterday I read a quote from the Prince of Preachers… that Shakespeare of Protestantism… the late great Charles Spurgeon:

    "Morality may keep a man out of jail, but it takes the blood of Jesus to keep a man out of Hell."

    Yes, as invaluable as good self-help literature may be, still, all the virtue and character-building insights in the world (even if every one of them were programmed into a man's character and perfectly applied), cannot erase the stain of sin which we have all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We are all – every one of us – guilty creatures, and nothing but the blood of Jesus can save us from ourselves, or the guilt of sin – no, not even the very best of self-help literature.

  12. DGM says:

    Ringer refers to Napoleon Hill a few times in "Million Dollar Habits" and " Action". The 5 books he suggested above are not self-help per se but just books Ringer thinks are helpful in developing a libertarian worldview. The last 3 authors on the list are atheists. Don't know about the first 2. In the piece itself I think he was referring to Stephen Covey's "7 Habits" re: the unreadable best-selling self-help book.

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  14. dominic says:

    Of course, I believe that self-help does works. My opinion is everyone should practice to help themselves as we didn’t get friends and relatives to help all the time. I think it helps you to become an independent person. remove pop ups

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  22. George Macy says:

    Poor fundamentalist christians — hopeless cases. Please stop offering your mumbo-jumbo, christians.

    RJR: Can you delete all of the parasite "comments" that have appeared on this site?

    Thanks for everything through the years. Hurrah for atheism and realism!