Self Help Book Failure


Are those self-help books, magazines and plans helping or is self-help book failure taking place? In this post, information on Self Help and their effectiveness in achieving your goals.


What are Self Help Books

Many publications printed and digital can fall under the general heading of Self Help.  From dedicated books to individual articles online and in magazines you don’t need to look far. Some of this guidance is subtly or even heavily disguised.  Notice how one person’s story relates to you personally and a metaphor can be at work.  Where may you typically come across self-help information?

  • Self Help Books
  • Autobiographies
  • Diet Plans
  • Magazine Articles
  • Business Manuals
  • Training Plans


Style of Self Help Books

Self Help books mostly take one of two approaches, or form a Hybrid of the two:

Their Story, written in the first person.  The writer has overcome a struggle or had an epiphany before going on to achieve success; vast or crucially relevant.

How to Guide, written more as a manual of instructions. There are all kinds of manuals and guides out there.  Generally specialising in one area, perhaps a diet plan or confidence.  For this post I am going to use the phrase self-help books, I could also be referring to magazine articles, pull out supplements or other media sources.


How to Self Help Books

How to Self Help Books specialise, with titles like Supper Confidence, Positive Thinking for You or Step by Step Success.  The bolder titles could be based on whole life success.  The self-help market is huge.  Many people are looking to step up a gear; but is this the way?

In context, I do see the value in Self Help books out of context we get Self Help Book Failure.  There is something to be said for understanding what is happening, the cause rather than being given the ‘cure’.  Good self-help books provide background to why we operate the way we do and tips for engaging our resources.  These may be exercises and tasks designed to raise our awareness and give ideas for change.

Self-help book failure comes when you are given a distinct step by step guide.  This fails for the majority of people; we are all different.

In his book, Stand Firm – Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze (ISBN: 978-1-5095-1425-0), Svend Brinkman, Danish Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University questions the idea of ‘Navel Gazing’, a staple of many self-help guides.

Brinkman writes, “The more you gaze lovingly at your navel, the worse you will feel. Doctors call it the health paradox – the more help patients receive, the more they self-diagnose, the worse they feel. Most self-help gurus will urge you to base your decisions on gut feelings. Don’t. It’s not a good idea (especially after a vindaloo). Once a year is enough when it comes to self analysis. Summer holidays are a good time for it. To compound matters, this kind of soul-searching is often a tool for ‘finding yourself’. This will almost always end in disappointment, with you slumped on the sofa, munching Maltesers.”

I mostly like what Brinkman is saying here; general Navel Gazing has little chance of bringing you success; at least without an aim or goal.  Even when the book is based on a specific area the techniques take something of a scattergun approach; some parts will hit the target while a lot will provide excess detail for you to process.


My Story Self Help Books

In contrast the autobiographical style is less likely to offer these guides.  The trigger to buy these is often a little different; we buy the person.

Reading about how someone overcame their difficulties to lead a successful life is enlightening.  How this compares to your own situation, or more importantly the comparison you construct influences your ‘take away’.  Ask yourself why you chose this author’s story?

  • Did you sense an affinity?
  • Would you value their opinion?
  • Do you know their business?
  • Are you seeking instruction?
  • Is this just curiosity about a person?
  • Was it the title not the person?


We are very clever at drawing comparisons and hearing what we want to at times, this is part of Confirmation Bias.  As we move details around in our head to build affinity with the story the message weakens.  The story was not written specifically for you, chances are the story is not an entirely accurate portrayal of the writer; memory plays tricks on us all.  You may hit upon an author telling a story that is uncannily aligned with your situation; it would probably still follow the step below.


  • Author’s Situation
  • Epiphany for Change
  • Challenges that Presented
  • Solutions Found
  • Successes and Failures
  • A kick of Motivation
  • The breakthrough moment
  • The close – you can do it to

Sound familiar?  Truth is when you get your epiphany, it is your situation that will need to be worked with, not the one an author previously dealt with.


Tailored Self Help

Margaret Mead is quoted as having said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everybody else.”

This kind of insight opens the door to the idea of having tailored self-help.  Perhaps self-help books should work like the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series of books popular in the 1980’s.  At the end of each chapter, you make a choice which way the story would go and skip to the directed page.  A Self Help book could follow this format with continuous reassessment to be sure you were reading the appropriate section.

Without some form of filtering self-help books can demoralise, with every step followed to the letter an absence of success will not be good.  Is it me, am I just not good?  And this is assuming that you interpreted the instructions as intended and operated honestly for yourself.   Failure at this point turns some people into ‘Self Help Junkies’ as they bounce from one book to another seeking the silver bullet.  This is much the same as trailing many different diet plans.

Tailoring self-help should start with a target in mind, a goal.  If your goal is to be able to stand up and give a presentation then where the obvious path is to look for guides on confidence, you need help with public speaking.  Terms like Confidence and Anxiety are generic labels, they need context to have meaning and then they can be worked on.

In his book, ‘How to be Smart with your time’, Duncan Bannatyne, suggests asking yourself whether what you are doing or about to do is taking you towards or away from a goal.  These are wise words, time is precious and at stages when you need to be productive this can help.


The Missing chapter in Self Help Books

I first wrote an article on this subject some years ago.  At the time I called it ‘The Missing Chapter in Self Help Books’.

The basis was that most books lacked guidance for Implementation.  I considered that perhaps this would limit the range of books that could be written; with several looking the same.


Perhaps due to the intended broad appeal, and in the knowledge, we are all unique Implementation cannot be suitably addressed. Too often the closing lines read along the lines of, ‘That’s all I can tell you, now it’s your turn go do it.’ Really? I was looking for the Silver bullet.

Alternatively, I now think that a quality preface reminding us we are all different, followed by information and examples to be interpreted would serve us better.

Books like Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit’ is truly insightful; this text provides knowledge for your own sensible use.




In this post, we looked at some themes around self-help books and articles.  Took note that generic guides struggle to fully apply to everyone and that a lack of implementation can be disappointing.  Perhaps having us reach for the next book.

Before starting on any improvement I recommend checking your Human and Emotional Needs are being met.  Here is a link to view a post on the subject – Human and Emotional Needs.