OPINION: Why self-help books can’t compete with interpersonal connections

A book titled "The Key to Success" is face down on the desk. Surrounding it are post-it notes, a candle, a mug, glasses, a pencil and paper.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)


“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” “The Magic of Thinking Big.” “Master Your Emotions.” “The Millionaire Fastlane.” These flashy, eye-catching titles are indeed hard to resist. Imagine if you could obtain these skills just by reading these books. You would be able to reach your dreams and be successful.

‘Self-help’ is a non-fiction genre that intends to help people solve personal problems and achieve their goals without relying on others. These goals can be improved self-awareness, satisfaction with life, economic standing, or relationships, to name a few.

As a whole, the self-help industry is booming: Market Research forecasts the self-help market to be worth $11.3 billion in 2022, and forecasts 6 percent average annual growth to $14 billion by 2025. Within it, the self-help book market was valued at $800 million in 2018 and the self-help audiobooks have reached $769 million, contributing significantly to the growth and size of the industry.

While it is impressive to see people take initiatives to improve their lives, it’s a fair concern that an entire situation is a money-making machine built off of false promises. The problem is that many people don’t effectively carry out the changes they desire. While reading is a great way for us to learn new information, it is not the most effective for making significant changes to our lifestyles and old habits. Many self-help books understand that it is unreasonable to promise immediate change to their readers, but they still are implicitly making another unreasonable promise: a quick change in mindset.

This may be difficult for many self-help books to achieve because they give readers the wrong kind of reason. Imagine someone told you that they would give you a million dollars if you believed the sky is pink when you can clearly see it’s blue. You would probably conclude that it is good to believe that the sky is pink because you would earn a million dollars, but you would not be able to actually convince yourself that the sky is pink. Outwardly declaring that the sky was pink because you would get a million dollars would be the wrong kind of reason.

The same applies to many ideas taught in self-help books. For instance, the self-help book “The Magic of Thinking Big” encourages people to be more confident and ambitious because it comes with many benefits such as increased success and achievements. Just like the previous example, the readers are taught to be more confident on the basis that it brings many benefits, not based on more direct reasons, such as that people are versatile and have great potential.

Even if self-help books do provide the right kind of reason to adopt certain techniques and ideas, it still faces an additional limitation: just like how it takes time to physically learn a new skill such as a musical instrument or sport, acquiring a certain mindset also needs significant time and practice to make actionable change. Even if the messages within a book are very insightful, it will take time for our minds to learn and practice them. Persistence of practice will always be a challenge.

Instead of relying heavily on self-help books, begin by reflecting on all the major and minor positive changes that you made in your life. How did you do it? Which methods were the most effective for you? You might realize that many positive changes that have happened in your life are thanks to the people around you. Personally, learning from the people around me has been the driving force of the best changes I’ve made and am currently making in my life, whether that is through having conversations with, collaborating with or observing others.

Some may argue that self-help books can be better than seeking help from the people around you because the central purpose of these books is to provide advice from top experts that are otherwise inaccessible. While this is certainly true in many cases, the means to which these top experts transmit knowledge is limited: you cannot interact and have a conversation with a book, or ask them really personal questions about how to best integrate these practices into your life. A book cannot regularly check in with your progress and offer encouragement and emotional support when you are struggling. But people around you can. They may even help you improve multiple aspects of your life and become a reliable connection and friend. In short, the content of advice matters, but how it is conveyed is just as important.

The next time you want to develop or improve a skill or mindset, look no further than to those around you. Are there people around you that have that quality? If so, find a way to reach out to them and learn how they achieved it. 

Alexander Chao PO ’25 is from Taipei, Taiwan. He enjoys reading about nutrition, watching anime, and road cycling. 

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