Life

A Self-Help Guide To Self-Help Guides

I ran through tons of self-help material so you don’t have to.
November 5, 2020, 6:42am
Self Help
Photo: Shubi Arun

From making friends to making decisions, a five-step bullet point process exists for everything we do. But while there is a lot of authentic and well-intentioned content out there, it has become increasingly challenging to distinguish the good from the bad.

Packaged in the form of a podcast, blog or book, it is often marketed as the key to unlocking your potential. This is especially true for self-help books. The most important thing I’ve realised is that self-help books can give a false sense of achievement. So, for example, you can read extensively about making good decisions, but unless you actually put it into practice, your newly acquired knowledge is futile. The fault isn’t always the reader’s. Authors freely throw around words like “goal oriented”, “clear minded” and “purpose”—words that look good on paper, but serve no other purpose. A good book is one that can be acted upon.

One of the best books I’ve read in this genre is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. It’s a book that’s disarmingly straightforward but had a profound impact on the way I look at and shape my immediate surroundings. My room can very clearly be divided into pre-Marie Kondo and post-Marie Kondo era. Sometimes the best self-help books are the ones that teach you something as simple as the right way to fold a T-shirt.

I’ve adopted a prolonged reading style with self-help books to fully juice their contents. It becomes too much to take in otherwise and I’ve noticed I become receptive to the message with time. It’s a reading style I stumbled upon by accident.

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a book I appreciated only in hindsight. I found the suggested strategies quite interesting but had very mixed results on the implementation. For example, I followed Clear’s advice to create separate environments for the habits you want to imbibe and started to write exclusively in my apartment guest room. The first day I did this, I wrote more than I had written in the past month. But within a week, the writer's block tracked me down. By the time I reached the midway point in the book, I was fed up. Just seeing the word “habit” irked me. I couldn’t get myself to read on.

Funnily, I continued practising Clear’s methodology—I continued to write only in the guest room. With time, the results became more consistent and each productive day validated the claims made in the book.I realised how stupid I'd been to dismiss it because I didn't get instant results. Being a bad reader will serve you well in this genre. 

My biggest gripe with self-help books and this whole content sphere in general, is the name itself. They don’t provide help as much as they just dole out advice. The thing is, help comes from a place of compassion, while advice usually comes from a pedestal.

It’s at the intersection of these blurred lines that the life gurus of the Internet sit. You know the type I’m talking about. The ones whose second-person motivational quotes and videos fill up our feeds. The ones who sell us an idyllic version of ourselves. The Good Life peddlers.

My foray into the online wellness and living realm started with two podcasts: On Purpose with Jay Shetty and The Ranveer Show by Ranveer Allahbadia. I was completely blown away by the depth of the conversation because I’d never encountered intimacy in a podcast. I was a big fan of The Ranveer Show in particular—in a country that’s perfected masking its emotions, a show that encourages such an open discussion about relationships, mental health and wellness felt revolutionary. 

But, their activity on social media curbed some of my enthusiasm; it was scattered with pedestals. From personal finance to reading habits to physical health, they hopped across pedestals dishing out stale un-actionable advice.

When the middle man tries to become the producer, the product is often inferior. I began avoiding the solo episodes on both these podcasts. With time, I’ve noticed that even on the episodes featuring guests, I’ve begun to tune out the interviewer. Each of these life coaches and influencers have a story of spiritual and personal discovery that is a key part of their branding. But this endless harvestation of their lives tends to blunt the message they are trying to convey.

Too often, the artist becomes the art.

Most self-help gurus focus on changing and propagating mindsets. But a mindset can’t be adopted; it is something that is cultivated over years and shaped by personal experiences. It’s why I’d recommend consuming the content of people who focus on optimisation, and make self-improvement a tangible entity that anyone can incorporate into their life. 

Tim Ferriss is one such example. On his podcast, he won’t ask his guests what vision they see for the world in 2050. He’ll ask them what their note-taking strategies are, how they go about planning their day, or what websites they most frequent. His self-produced content follows a similar theme; he reviews and recommends apps and softwares that have boosted his productivity.

The self-improvement world is a tricky one. Most self-help gurus and coaches start off with the right intentions but they get easily sucked into the commodification of their message. I’ve found the best way to approach this realm is to treat it like a buffet. Be picky and take only what you need in the right quantity.

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