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.