Most Self-Help Books Are Wastes of Time

Back in the starting days of my self-improvement journey, I devoured self-help books. I began to notice these books that I find so motivational and engaging that I couldn’t stop reading. However, after I have finished one, I felt empty and learned nothing from it. Soon they all become “Oh yeah, I have read that” type of books. Sadly, most books from the self-help genre, including some top-selling titles, are just like that.

In this article, I break down why these books are wasting your time, how to identify them, and what I consider worth reading.

3 Common Traits of a Bad Self-Help Book

Note: my definition of a good self-improvement book is one that actually teaches you to become a better person. If you are looking for a fun read, a different perspective, or motivational materials, these books might be good reads.

So, here are the 3 most common issues to look out for when selecting your next read.

Offers Unproven Advice

Imagine this: the author is trying to teach you a trick to make anyone like you instantly; after a brief description, she went on to tell you a story of how her popular celebrity friend uses this trick to win everyone’s heart at a high-profile party. Sounds familiar? This is a classic example of using pseudo-evidence to support an argument. Her friend’s popularity might be a result of multiple factors, and it is likely that many of these stories are made up.

A good book uses meaningful evidence to support its points. It would cite scientific research and explain how the conclusion is made from the research findings. In cases where the advice is from the author’s personal experience, a good book can use convincing and clear logic to show its points.

Anecdotes are most suited to explain instead of proving a concept. They can often make books more fun to read. But if a book is filled with these stories with nothing to back it up, you can start to question whether it is offering sound information.

Offers Conventional Wisdom

Another infamous category includes books that state the obvious. They usually frame it differently, but the main points are what you have heard a hundred times from your mom in grade school. For example, a book offers you the number one “secret” of successful people after interviewing 120 CEOs and celebrities — be proactive. Well, I know that already.

Conventional wisdom plus compelling stories (see the above section) make a book a good sell. They can be worth reading as motivational materials, especially for a younger audience. A rebellious teenager may be moved by a book to realize that life is hard and he has to work for it. However, if you are someone already with a growth mindset and wishing to find new ways to improve, reading these books does not help.

Offers Non-Actionable Suggestions

With well-grounded findings to supports its advice, a book may still be not helpful if what it recommends is not actionable. For example, simply telling you that working hard is the basic ingredient for success is not enough. A good book should also offer exercise or incremental steps that you can do to maintain a longer and more efficient work schedule.

Offering no action items is sometimes not a concern. I usually can come up with my own “implementation plan” to form a habit or apply a piece of knowledge. But I always prefer books offer a plan of action to help the readers achieve what is recommended.

Finding Your Next Read

If you are like me and looking for meaningful changes from reading a self-help book, consider these three points before picking your next read. I usually look at a book’s summary and reviews to make sure that:

  • The author uses sound arguments and evidence to show her points.
  • The advice offered is new.
  • The advice offered is relevant and actionable.

I am ending this article with an example of a great self-help book. I recommend “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker because:

  • The author presents evidence from various scientific research and clearly explains how the conclusions are derived from the evidence.
  • The author shed new light on the topic of sleep and challenged some widely accepted myths.
  • The book offers action items for achieving better sleep and the reasoning behind them.

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Kayden Sung

Learner, Minimalist, Software Engineer. Writes about personal development.