The first self-help book I ever read was Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Without overstatement, this book changed my life. At the time of my first reading, I was in my early twenties trying to determine what I wanted to get out of my existence here on this planet. I’m still wrestling with that question, but Covey’s book used clear guidance, examples, and helped to provide a framework (that I didn’t know existed) as to how to get stuff done. Up to this point in my life, I knew that having goals were important, but I didn’t quite know the best way to go about setting, planning, and having accountability for achieving these goals. The structure and process that Covey provided was freeing and it provided a belief that no goal was too great. I read the book, listened to the audio version, attended a Franklin Covey seminar, and followed the planner religiously. And with that, my self-help journey had begun.
For the next 10 years, I became an avid reader of self-help books. I devoured material by Dale Carnegie, Rhonda Byrne, Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer, Tony Robbins, Malcolm Gladwell, Napoleon Hill, Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, Garry Keller, Benjamin Graham, Daniel Pink, Jim Collins, and a slew of others. Anyone who was willing to dish out knowledge, I was willing to lend them my ears (or my money for their book). I would guess that I have read nearly 100 books and countless podcasts with a focus on bettering my current situation. After immersing myself in this information, it is undeniable (in my opinion) that I am more versed in personal finance, marketing, real estate, mindfulness, health and nutrition, the stock market, and business development – many subjects I knew very little of before receiving this education. Is my life richer than before, yes. However, just like the Force, there’s a dark side to this quest for knowledge that should not be taken lightly.
Robert Kiyosaki’s, Rich Dad Poor Dad, is a book full of anecdotes, offering little applicable advice (though it did kick start an interest in personal finance and the concept of passive income for me). Later, it became known Kiyosaki fabricated the tale about having a Rich Dad (one who taught him business) and a Poor Dad (one who he wasn’t as fond of). Furthermore, Kiyosaki has been shown to provide very suspect advice, much that can be considered illegal. In fact, his training seminars are widely considered to be a scam. While it pains me to give credit to a shady businessman, his book did have a positive impact – I’m just thankful the only money I gave him was the $15 I paid for his book.
While there are numerous frauds, scammers, and unsavory individuals in the self-help industry, and it would probably serve you well to remain suspect of anyone who is trying to sell you advice, I think the bigger concern is falling victim to “guru worship.” Speaking from my own experience, early in my search for self-help, I found myself in awe of the perceived achievements, confidence, and guidance of others. I was a believer, wanting to believe every word Tony Robbins and Seth Godin uttered. At times, thinking someone with more experience knew better than me, I would have put their words over my own instincts or thoughts. Other than losing money investing in stocks (chasing bad advice and greed during the dot com boom) and buying some crappy books, I’ve been fortunate not to have been badly burned by any self-proclaimed “gurus.”
Looking back on this period of time, I think I can safely say I was addicted to self-help. There was a constant belief that if I wasn’t improving myself, I was wasting my time. Constant knowledge FOMO, if you will. Like any addict, the only way to satisfy my addiction was to get more. The problem with this approach is while my brain was being filled with information, my heart was empty of contentment. As a result of years of looking for more answers to; wealth creation, health tips, the latest mindfulness approach, etc., I obtained additional education, but also gained the side effect of feeling that this education wasn’t good enough.
Adding fuel to the fire, the self-help industry doesn’t actually want you to get the help you need – like the drug dealer slinging crack, they want you constantly coming back for more! Happy and content people are bad for their business. Therefore, the same authors I was looking to for answers, were also increasing my anxiety and feeling of “not being good enough” as their podcasts would reference other books “I HAD to read” or their seminars would push other seminars or trainings, “I would HAVE to attend.” While it’s exciting to have an endless amount of material to learn, constantly self-improving ones self can be exhausting.
I realized my addiction had reached its limit after spending a business roadtrip from Maryland to South Carolina listening non-stop to Tim Ferriss’ podcasts. For those of you counting at home, that’s 14 hours worth of Tim Ferriss talking. You’re probably thinking that I must have really gathered a lot of worthwhile information on the initial 7 hour trip to Myrtle Beach, to have listened to another 7 hours on the way back, right? Well, what I remember about that ultra-marathon listening session, was that during the podcasts, I felt as though I had a pretty good understanding as to when and why Tim would laugh nervously (he seems to struggle talking about his accolades, wanting to live up to his “4 hour image” while being modest at the same time), when he would try to impress his audience or guest (like name dropping previous interviews with Tony Robbins, Josh Waitskin, or Jamie Foxx) and when he would bring up his books in an obvious (but not too obvious) attempt to sell them.
Enough was enough! I wasn’t helping myself, I was helping Tim Ferriss uncover his insecurities over being a self-help podcaster! For better or worse, going deep into Tim Ferriss’ psyche showed me I had a problem.
After that episode, I went self-help cold turkey for a while, instead choosing to cleanse my mind by reading science fiction novels about flesh eating bacteria from alien planets (the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey) and listening to podcasts about near nuclear holocaust and World War II (Hardcore History by Dan Carlin). These sci-fi books and history podcasts didn’t add to my issues with FOMO, but they certainly f’ed up my brains in other ways.
In the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, there is a scene where Yoda destroys a sacred tree that housed ancient Jedi books of knowledge (if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m sorry for the reveal, but shame on you for not seeing it in the theaters!). Shocked, Luke looks on and pleads to his Master, “but the books!!!” Yoda, laughing his ass off, basically tells Luke you don’t need the books – the answers have been in front of your nose the entire time.
While I happen to believe in the Force, you don’t have to be a Jedi to see the lesson Master Yoda is trying to convey. Books, gurus, mentors, and The Google are all full of great self-help information, but it’s just that – information. In my opinion, no one can tell you how to live because no one else truly knows what it’s like to exist within the skin that surrounds YOU. True self-help only occurs when we take the information from books or podcasts, mix it with our own feelings, thoughts, and goals and apply it to our daily lives.
After a hiatus, I’m back reading and listening to self-help material. However, this time around, the reason is different. While there is always additional money or achievements to chase, the self-help I currently seek are reminders. Reminders to listen to others, but not to forget to listen to myself.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.