Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Self-Help Industry

This blog is adapted from an article I wrote recently for a close friend, who asked me to examine the self-help industry and recommend whether to write a self-help book.


"The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one".
Christopher Buckley (1998). God Is My Broker, A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7 1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth.

Let’s start off with a question. What will affect you more, the first movement of Mozart’s Requiem or a newly published self-help book about how to improve your wealth and health in 7 revolutionary steps?

It’s Mozart, for all sorts of reasons. However, the main reason is that Mozart was composing the Requiem on his deathbed.  The last few months of his life demonstrated an extraordinary flurry of his creative genius as he tried to pour out all the incredible melodies inside his head. He knew he was dying when he composed it (according to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus, it was mysteriously commissioned and Mozart came to believe he was the writing the requiem mass for his funeral) and yet it was still his finest hour. Music such as Lacrimosa is unparalleled in its sheer beauty and can easily bring you to tears.

On the other hand the self-help book is a well marketed gimmick, promising a clever, radical, fix-all solution. If you were deciding whether to purchase this book on a Kindle, the first review would undoubtedly read something like this:

***** Brilliant read! Really made me think and has helped me so much from word go. My life has moved in a powerful, positive direction as a result of reading this. I am no stranger to the self- help industry and have read so many books that promise the earth. However, finally, at last, a book that genuinely delivers! I can’t recommend it highly enough. Mrs S, Stratford

I made up that cliché ridden review but I have read numerous reviews just like it. You get the idea. The review will either be a plant, false, taken out of context, edited or actually genuine but misguided. At any rate, if Mrs S does exist, the book certainly won’t solve her problems and she’ll soon be back to spend more of her hard earned bucks chasing Nirvana.

The criticisms of the self-help industry are well known and I’ll explore them further below. However, my conclusion after reading numerous self-help publications and titles are that, although many of them are simplistic, formulated, repetitive and sometimes downright disingenuous, they can, nevertheless be of value to the general populace and – if you can tap in to and/or deliver this value – you will a) make the world a slightly better place b) make yourself a good deal of money and ironically c) obtain a considerable amount of respect and admiration in the process.

Let’s look into the subject a bit deeper.

The Self-Help Industry: A Quick Overview

This is the Wikipedia definition of Self-Help (citations deleted):

Self-help, or self-improvement, is a self-guided improvement —economically, intellectually, or emotionally—often with a substantial psychological basis. Many different self-help groupings exist and each has its own focus, techniques, associated beliefs, proponents and in some cases, leaders. Self-help culture, particularly Twelve-Step culture, has provided some of our most robust new language: recovery, dysfunctional families, and co-dependency.

Self-help often utilizes publicly available information or support groups, on the Internet as well as in person, where people in similar situations join together. From early examples in self-driven legal practice and home-spun advice, the connotations of the word have spread and often apply particularly to education, business, psychology and psychotherapy, commonly distributed through the popular genre of self-help books. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, potential benefits of self-help groups that professionals may not be able to provide include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging.

This is all quite interesting and correct but if you scroll down the Wikipedia article on Self-help, you find these statistics (citations deleted):

At the start of the 21st century, the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, was said to constitute a 2.48-billion dollars-a-year industry in the United States alone. By 2006, research firm Marketdata estimated the "self-improvement" market in the U.S. as worth more than $9 billion — including infomercials, mail-order catalogues holistic institutes, books, audio cassettes, motivation-speaker seminars, and the personal coaching market, weight-loss and stress-management programs. Marketdata projected that the total market size would grow to over $11 billion by 2008. In 2012 Laura Vanderkam wrote of a turnover of 12 billion dollars.In 2013 Kathryn Schulz examined "an $11 billion industry".

OK, thanks, Wikipedia. Now, let’s think about this. Firstly, how big do you think the porn (or adult market) business is in America? Interestingly, the most recent and accurate statistics, according to Forbes is that it’s less than $4bn and shrinking.

Self-help is a huge and expanding industry but why exactly is this? I think there are some answers that are very obvious – and others, less so.

Let’s look at the obvious reason, first. Life is tough, really tough, sometimes. It has formidable obstacles. Even when you think you’re coasting along and doing OK, life has the habit of suddenly hitting you with something adverse from left field. This can result in loss, frustration, anxiety, depression and confusion. At the greater extremes, it can result in self-destruction, hospitalisation and suicide.  People frequently need help of all types and the self-help industry promises a quick and available fix.

Other people just feel generally bewildered and unsatisfied. They ask why we are here, on this planet, at this time, with this body, these people? We never asked to be here. Yet we are and we have to make do. Biologically, we are programmed to survive and only the most incredible amount of pain (physical and/or mental) can override the animal instinct to stay alive. Are we created as part of a Divine plan or simply the result of a collision of an infinite number of sub-atomic particles? Do you just live, and then die? Is that it? Who are we? Where are we going? Why is there so much suffering? And why can’t Arsenal win more trophies?

This is absolutely not an article about the meaning of life. However, I would say people who are more prone to depression, think about the nature of reality and the Big Questions more frequently. Again, the self-help industry promises some or all of the answers.

Even if life is going quite well, or even very well, many people want to know how to capitalise on success, rectify shortcomings and generally improve their health, finances, relationships, careers and so forth. Yet again, the self-help industry promises to steer you in the correct directions.

After thinking about these things for many years, my view is that people fundamentally seek three things: companionship, guidance and protection.  If a self-help book, course or strategy can successfully address these needs, it will help people and make plenty of money for its author.

The self-industry is strongest in America. This is because there is an overwhelming desire for self-improvement which is stamped into the culture. In fact, it’s even written into their Declaration:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; ...

The key phrase here is “the pursuit of happiness”. Simply defined, this also includes the ability to better oneself and underpins the American belief that anyone can make something great out of their life. There will always be an overwhelming hunger in America for tools that help you on the road to success and many Americans look to the self-help industry for these tools.

The Problem with the Self-Help Industry

This is a true story. Ten years ago, I was earning a good basic salary (with no commission) at a medium sized firm in Middlesex. I was the number 11 partner out of 16, billing well, liked my colleagues and the door to door commute to work was only 10 minutes. However, I wasn't particularly happy. I felt I should be earning more money and I didn't like the head of my department.

Nevertheless, I was wary about moving. Every time I had left a firm, it had been very bruising and I was usually forced to instruct lawyers to deal with the aftermath. I was then approached, out the blue, by my wife’s cousin, on behalf of a firm in North London. I wasn't hugely interested in them but I went for an interview, anyway. Consequently, I was offered a partnership, a huge salary increase and a 10% commission on all matters I introduced. I was also promised a fast track to senior partnership with its promise of untold riches.

The offer seemed to be too good to true and I felt uncomfortable about it. I went to see the partners three more times, examined their accounts, discussed their client base, negotiated a minimum notice period of 3 months and then accepted the position. I started with them a few weeks later.

Before starting, I repeatedly read and memorised the “International Bestseller”, The Rules of Work by Richard Templar . I was determined to make the move a success and this book promised “the 100 tenets of a happy, successful and fulfilling life at work.”  When I read it, it seemed to be brimming with common sense gems and I used every opportunity, at my new firm, to implement its recommendations.

Five weeks later I was summoned to the board room and fired. The Senior Partner said that because they had invested so much money in me and the financial penalty (for them) for letting me go was so severe, they had considered every possible reason for keeping me on. However, I was so incompetent that they had no alternative but to dismiss me immediately. 

I was utterly shocked and went into a severe depression, lasting weeks. My self-esteem was shattered and it took me 2 months to find another job and almost 5 years to get back to partnership status and the same earning power again.

At this point, I realised something that was reinforced numerous times over the next 10 years. Self-help books are not completely useless but they are of strictly limited value. In fact, there were numerous reasons why I failed at the North London firm but one thing was clear - a self-help book was never going to make that much of a difference.

Let’s examine why.

According to our friend, Wikipedia (citations deleted):

Scholars have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect. In 2005 Steve Salerno portrayed the American self-help movement—he uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement—not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful. Salerno says that 80 percent of self-help and motivational customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back 'whether the program worked for them or not'. Others similarly point out that with self-help books "supply increases the demand... The more people read them, the more they think they need them... more like an addiction than an alliance."

Self-help writers have been described as working "in the area of the ideological, the imagined, the narrativized.... although a veneer of scientism permeates their work, there is also an underlying armature of moralizing."

The most recent psychological studies state that 60% of the way you are is down to hard wiring, 30% of you can be changed (for better or for worse) and 10% is down to life’s circumstances. Now, actually, 30% is still quite a considerable percentage but the reality is, for most people, change is very difficult. Lifelong habits and ways of thinking are hard to alter and it’s naïve to suggest (as many self-help books do) that you can suddenly change your ways of behaviour and keep to those changes. It’s not that simple. To effectively do this you need to a) repeat and internalise lessons for a lengthy period and b) work very hard and persistently. There are no short-cuts.

The Paradox of the Self-Help Industry

The American journalist, Kathryn Shultz states it quite eloquently: "the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence".

In other words, if self-help actually worked, you wouldn’t need the self-help industry. The fact that it doesn't work allows it to generate more and more books saying (let’s face it) pretty much the same thing. For example, diet regimes. If one of them actually worked (and not just for a short term fix), you wouldn’t need any more diet regimes and that would be the end of a multi-billion dollar industry (except for the person who had devised the one diet regime that had actually worked!) In fact, virtually every new regime is described as a “breakthrough”.

The truth, of course, is that there is no Holy Grail because life is too complex and multi-faceted. It always has been and always will be. You cannot take loss away from life. There will be always be death, bereavement, heartbreak and disappointment – just as there always will be times of beauty, elevation, passion, joy, achievement and wonder. You cannot “solve” life with a book or a series of books. However, to wholly dismiss the self-help industry as a waste of time is a mistake, instead you have to first acknowledge its serious limitations and then move forward.

The Value of Self-Help

After losing my job, I obviously took a break from self-help and then returned to it a couple of years later. However, this was less from the perspective of trying to help myself and more from the perspective of trying to understand the industry and the growing and insatiable desire for its products.

My view is now somewhat more refined. I believe everything you do is a learning process and you keep learning and developing until you die. Self-help books can be part of that learning process provided – as I say – you accept its limitations.

A self-help book is not tailored for an individual but for the general populace. You, the individual, have to decide whether what it says is a) true b) accurate c) relevant d) useful and e) practical. For example, many of the self-help books bang out the same old hackneyed message about goal setting and changing your “mindset” but in practise their message is not specific enough and too difficult to implement (certainly, in the long term) to assist you in your particular circumstances.

However, one line in a dreary and repetitive self-help book may actually strike a real chord and push you in another direction that could actually change your life. Similarly, a book that introduces a new concept, or challenges you to revisit an old concept in a different way, may alleviate considerable unhappiness and frustration.

If a book, or a CD, or a course changes your life in a positive direction, even if it’s only in a small way, then it has value. Furthermore, I would say that if you can successfully do this en masse and/or to a larger extent then you are doing a good thing and deserve to make money. You are effectively imparting your wisdom for the benefit of others.

How to go forward

OK, so the self-help industry is of limited value but can still be useful. So what?

Well, actually, then there’s huge potential to write a book in that sector because in some respects the industry is quite unique and it’s not particularly difficult to locate a niche, assist people and make money in the process.

There are different types of self-help books (with frequent overlaps) but very basically, they fall into two categories. This list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive:

1. Narrow sector/micro managing.  This deals with a particular issue and is extremely common. Examples include: how to deal with anxiety, depression, relationships, bereavement, addiction (psychological) how to blog, manage, win, sell, present, market, recruit, write a CV, deal with difficult people, increase client base, change career, start a business, compose a business plan, play the stock market, invest in property (business) write a novel, play, script, self-help book, children’s book, how to paint, draw, sculpt, act (creative) how to diet, lose weight, gain weight, gain muscle, attract women (physical) how to be the life and soul of the party, increase charisma, influence people, gain power (social) how to be a better footballer, golfer, swimmer (sports)

2. Wide sector/macro managing.  This holistic approach encompasses your whole lifestyle. How to be a better person, live a more fulfilled life, be more spiritual, find your true path (in 5 steps, 7 steps, 10 steps, 12 steps)

These books are either by self-confessed “experts” in their fields or people you've never heard of claiming that they mastered the particular aspect/s of their lives that they are writing and pontificating about.

There are so many examples of the first type, that I’ll only give two – one old and one new.

1. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Dr Stephen Covey

2. The Chimp Paradox – Dr Steve Peters

An example of the second type is The Rules series by Richard Templar which are hugely popular (see above, where I mentioned The Rules of Work). Nobody knows who Richard Templar is. He’s a pseudonym who claims to be extremely wealthy and who made his money and developed his rules purely by observing people very carefully over many years.

Self-help books vary. Some are very well written and researched – especially some of the Business Guides. Others just bang out the same old nonsense and promise you the earth. However, there is no doubt that there remains a huge demand for guidance.

My feeling is that if you wish to aim for the business sector you need to differentiate your product somehow from all the other Business Guides out there, many of which are very good. An individual mentoring scheme is probably the best way forward as it can be much more specific than the numerous general guides available.

In terms of individual self-help books, I think there is a niche.

Self-helps books are always serious, self-reverential publications with “a dash of humour” in some of the better ones. Yet it has always been my belief that if you want to positively connect with someone, the best way forward is through humour. Now let’s be clear here, as King Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. Every idea has been done before but I am yet to see a really good self-help guide with the correct blend of humour, satire and wisdom.

I believe that it is possible to write a very funny self-help book that is still profoundly serious. My ideal book would make someone laugh – and then think. 

Kabbalistic literature in Judaism teaches that to deal with anxiety conditions, you have to separate someone from their ego so they can get a true grasp of the magnitude of the problem. One way of doing this is by pricking someone’s vanity through the use of humour. I believe using humour to cure (or take a different perspective on) problems can be very effective.


I believe anyone intelligent has enough wisdom to write a good self-help book provided they can be honest.  

Self-help books basically follow the same structure. They establish the problem, set out goals and suggest a way forward. If you adopt this structure with originality, wisdom and humour, you can't really go too far wrong.

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