On Reading Self-Help Books

In the early 90’s (I think), my parents bought me and my brother a Nintendo. I don’t remember when, but I remember my brother pretty much immediately thereafter talking about the super Nintendo, so that should give you a time frame. Despite being a less than competent child, I played the very original Mario up till the first time you defeat Bowser in his castle.

It was a god damned endeavor just to do that much. I sunk more time into it than I would like to admit, and now that I am an adult who is fanatically obsessed with wasting time, I kind of wish I could have some of it back. However, after finally figured out to run under Bowser and get to that ax on the other side of the bridge whatever happiness I got from that success was undermined by my complete dissatisfaction with what came next.

The fuck you mean the princess is in another castle?

It was all very confusing. Partially, because I had no idea a princess was even involved in any of this. I was just moving to the right and trying to navigate the game, because, well, that’s just what you did! I had never agreed to any kind of rescuing. But the fact that after that first castle, you just seemingly start all over again in a harder mode was really disappointing. It dawned on me that there likely wasn’t any fucking princess in any castle, and this was all an exercise in Sisyphean futility. That was a lot to take in for a child who hadn’t yet completed 10 years, and so I stopped playing Mario to do something more productive, such as watching cartoons.

Ok, it turns out I was wrong about Mario. Ultimately, there is a princess in a fucking castle. But time and again in my life I have though to that moment when I realized that something isn’t going to do me any good. In 2012 after failing the first round of my Master’s thesis defense (for reasons I hold to this day were not my fault) and realizing that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life, I decided that answering some big theological question about greater meanings was a necessary first step towards life fulfillment. I came out of it wide eyed and terrified, now a true and true atheist and unsure how I came through the process without turning into a violent drug abuser. It was a two or three month period of almost complete solitude, reflection and studying, where I tackled book after book on religions, religious history, spirituality, spiritualism, ranging from every topic from deism to panentheism and panpsychism, each little book screaming to me ‘sorry, but the princess isn’t in this castle’. Ultimately, a book on epistemology looked me square in the face and said ‘why do you believe there is a princess at all?’

Flash forward to 2017. Some idiots I knew convinced me to leave China for the US, and to transition out of ESL. I was ready to leave China, but hadn’t thought much about leaving ESL. The pampered assurance was that in the US, or at least in the DC area, there would be lots of other jobs. They were right in that jobs existed here, but they were wrong about my chances of getting those jobs, which seemed to be pretty much non-existent. I then got hit by question after (useless) question about what I wanted to do, what my goals were, what my aspirations were, blah blah blah, and a whole lot of other shit that, frankly, wasn’t any fucking help what-so-ever.

And then, there were the self-help book. Ever asshole on two feet I knew was ready to tell me about this or that life changing book, and I slowly started to develop a collection of them. This actually started way back when I finished my Bachelor’s degree, but the rate of self-help book accumulation grew exponentially till around the time I was in China I figured I had read them all (an impossible task, as these books are conjured out of thin air as quickly as anyone can read them). I plowed through one after the other and have found them all to be uniquely worthless.

That’s the nicest thing I will say about self-help books. While they are all worthless, each is worthless in it’s own unique and special way.

(mumble mumble mumble, snowflake joke, mumble mumble mumble)

No one is going to believe me when I say this but I have actually read every self-help book ever given to me, cover to cover, without unwarranted initial skepticism. I will get accusations of either not having heeded their advice or not having taken them seriously. But the truth of the matter is that they don’t fucking help. And I am starting to figure out why.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s because the princess is in another fucking castle.

When I though about how to go about writing this post, the initial analogy was with cancer. There will never be a cure to cancer for the simple reason that cancer is not a disease, but an umbrella term for a classification of diseases that all have a slightly similar genesis. You can’t cure cancer for the same reason you cannot find a singular solution to fix every car in the world, be it a Fiat with a flat tire or a Hyundai without a steering wheel. If you were to have lung cancer, it would be unique from the lung cancer of the person three doors down, and thus a cure that worked for him may not work for you.

Your problems are probably pretty multi-faceted. Finding that one problem that you need to solve is akin to finding the one cigarette that gave you cancer. Its a pointless endeavor. But the majority of these self-help books treat you like you are just one solution away from a perfect life, and that is the common thread that seems to make all of them worthless. They are offering you a single point solution to a multi-point problem. Sorry, just believing in yourself isn’t cutting it.

I started writing this when I reached a frustration point with The Confidence Gap by Rus Harris. It’s actually not that bad a book as far as these things go, but I just isn’t  the problem that needs fixing right now. The author gives you exercises to do as you go along, and as I did them I just couldn’t shake the feeling that a lack of confidence just wasn’t my problem. Could I use more confidence? Yea, sure. I am human. But is that really what is keeping me down? I am not so sure.

I didn’t pick this book. It came as a recommendation. There are two anecdotes linked to this, the first of which comes from when me and a close friend were job hunting. We were just trolling Indeed for jobs and she had found a dozen or so to apply to and I had found pretty much none. Wanting to help, she stopped looking for herself and focused on my job search. She started pulling job after job for me, and while I was looking them over a conclusion came over me with each one –  I had no business applying for these jobs. Not only was there not one I was actually qualified to do by the description listed on the job ad, but I for the most part had no idea what these jobs were. If asked to describe what I would be doing at this jobs, I wouldn’t be able to answer. I tried to explain this to her, but she hemmed and hawed, try to tell me that no one is fully qualified for any job anymore, that HR puts the bar too high, and that I just needed confidence.

No. What she said about HR may be true, but the fact remained that I didn’t have the requisite skills. It wasn’t a confidence problem, it was a skill problem.

Anecdote number two is older by about two years. It was with a close friend at a bar after a pretty interesting an eventful night. We had just met a whole group of people and had had a good time with them, but they ultimately fucked off and we remained to close the bar out. At that point my friend turned to me and asked why I hadn’t tried it with so-and-so, one of the people we had met that night. “She was totally into you. You could have taken her home.”

I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about. I tried to get him to explain what evidence he had for this belief, and I was unable to get an answer (I actually do this any time something like this comes up, and no one is ever able to give me any kind of an answer, but that is a discourse for a different day). Said friend then proceeded to tell me that I could “take over the world, if only [I] had the confidence”, something that had become a mantra for him.

I am glad to have had a friend who thinks so highly of me, although he is wrong. I don’t know what happened that night with that girl. Maybe she was really into me, maybe she wasn’t. I have no idea. But if we assume that she was into me, my not doing something about it had nothing to do with a lack of confidence. I know this because I have in the past gotten an inkling from someone of the opposite gender and not done anything about it because of cowardice. I know what that sensation is like and this was not it. Instead, this had everything to do with a lack of cultural norms and behaviors that people of my generation perform during courtship rituals. This, again, is more a lack of skills than anything else (and things like this have happened to me repeatedly – enough so that I know very well why it keeps happening to me. But that too is a discourse for another day).

Both of those friends would later recommend the Confidence Gap to me, and the worst part about the whole story is that at some point I took up believing that they might be up to something, that maybe I did have a confidence problem. I entertained the idea up until I got towards the end of that book. Then it became very clear to me that no, this wasn’t really my problem at all. I could see Bowser hanging out at the bridge, I could see the shiny ax I had to reach to make him fall to his lava-y doom, and I could also see the little mushroom guy on the other side, ready to tell me that the princess is in another castle.

But maybe there isn’t any actual other fucking princess?

((( I am expecting someone to now tell me that I am wrong because they read XYZ’s self help book and it changed their life, so much so that just the very act of reading made their hair grow back on their head while getting off their back, straightened their teeth, lost 70 kgs for them, made their wives tits bigger while making their husband’s dick bigger, got them a whole harem of lovers, Terry Crews style pectorals, and an over-payed job as Mark Zuckerberg’s personal cup bearer. Sure, fine, whatever. A couple of point:

People talk to me about success rates with these things. Sometimes I wonder if these self-help books use the same metric Alcoholics Anonymous does to fluff up their numbers: if you aren’t drinking you re a success, and if you are drinking you aren’t following the method, and thus should be considered in the statistics. 100% success rate!

Sure, I guess these things do sometimes work, but I don’t find it all that impressive that they do. I guess there is that one person who is bound who just needed a confidence boost. But because it was helpful for you doesn’t mean it will be helpful for me. It also isn’t evidence of anything. And again, I don’t find it all that impressive. It’s like walking into a crowded auditorium and screaming “Hey John!” Statistically, your bound to find someone. You could even try “Hey John, husband of Margaret” and get someone if the auditorium is big enough. I’ll be impressed when you pull off “Hey John, husband of Margaret, who was born in the soviet union and now work as a tax consultant for the downtown firm with the broken microwave in the lunge and the terminally uncleaned bathrooms”. Find that person and I will be impressed.

Lastly and potentially most offensively, maybe if your problems really could be solved by reading one book from an overly tattooed ex-con former biker who just told you that you need to believe in yourself, maybe just maybe your problems weren’t all that deep to begin with. Maybe?)))

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Shit, man! You have that kind of time to read? I have never read or otherwise indulged in self help topics beyond a ‘life hack’ here or there. I always imagined them about as you describe.
    I heard a comment while I was in university that seems far more applicable than to the situation he was addressing: You can have all the knowledge in the world at your fingertips, but without any support, you’re screwed.
    Understanding that life is multi faceted, I find that self improvement is often a case of finding the right support for the areas we are struggling in.


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