If self help works, why are they still writing books?

Self help and I have never really been friends. About ten years ago, I read an absolutely delicious fiction called “Happiness (Trademark)”. An ordinary cynical dude is working in publishing. He’s got a massive crush on his imperfect colleague with red crayola lips and a sassy personality. His life is seriously changed one day when he signs a self-help writer who manages to solve everyone’s problems.

You’d think he’d be happy with his publishing success, but he isn’t. Because the imperfect colleague with the red crayola coloured lips is one of the many things that is ‘fixed’ the book’s central character adores. While society around him change to perfection, he realises he needs to find the self-help author, reverse the effects of his book and get the woman he loves back.

It was so good a book, I lent it to someone and it never came back.

Clearly, the book has stuck with me. Not simply for the idea that the hero of the piece needs to make everything less bliss-filled to enjoy reality and get the girl.

It’s that blindingly obvious premise beneath the fictional disguise. If self help worked, why are they still writing the books?

Self help and your 5 point plan to success

Photo by Amanda Jones via Unsplash

You see it all the time- the blogs that herald the 5 points you need to undertake to get to your goal. Or the most fashionable headline of late “the one thing successful entrepreneurs do”.

We’re looking at these highly successful, rich and famous people and wondering what the magic code is. We want to emulate them to grow what they have.

But this is sheer fantasy. It’s neglectful. And it reduces our heroes into bullet points that don’t match what they did, who they are and what they may have endured.

Yes, maybe successful people don’t read email in the morning. Or they walk for half an hour clockwise around duck ponds at alarmingly high frequencies. Maybe they drink coffee, eat vegan cheese and sit on sofas side-saddle on Wednesdays.

That doesn’t mean this “one thing” or the 5 points made their success.

By pulling out the easy answers and giving them more meaning than they are due, we create a false notion that if we could just be like so-and-so, we’d have it in the bag.

Frankly, from what I can tell, success is as random as it is planned. And what is successful for one person is usually an innovation to the rest of us. So how can copying a seemingly random act or an innovative act actually get us anywhere other than on the successful person’s email list?

The difference is what you do with the chance

It amazes me still when people are shocked when a movie star falls into addiction or having personal issues. It’s almost as if the gift of fame and money means the core of who we are simply disappears.

It doesn’t. Our personality is still our personality.

I’d argue that if you feel complete and confident in yourself and you get a brilliant opportunity, you’ll continue to feel complete and confident.

Similarly, if you’re low in self esteem and plagued with self doubt, even if you too are given the same opportunity, this won’t change how you feel about you.

And yet, it is much more than self esteem

The multi-billion dollar industry surrounding self help would love you to think that you won’t perform until you are happy with you. Or that it’s your self esteem that drives you to drink, smoke, take drugs and fail at business.

But this is categorically untrue.

The largest self esteem study ever taken by psychologists (15,000 studies worth in fact) has proven self esteem and interpersonal success are minimally related. In fact, with some subjects, while great results in school may have boosted self esteem levels, it wasn’t the original self esteem that got the results. The results gave the happiness, not the happiness giving the results.

So if raising your self esteem doesn’t boost your abilities when you work, what does?

Resilience, persistence and initiative

The whack you take today hurts you and the person next to you differently. But it’s also more than that.

If you can bounce back from things quicker, find more drive to conquer the problem and apply multiple ways of thinking through the problem, this makes you happy. This makes you better able to perform and to feel good about yourself overall. It makes you better able to deal with the next knock than someone who doesn’t enjoy the same level of resilience.

And building this kind of inner strength cannot come from reading someone else’s 5 point success plan or doing the one thing someone else does. It has to come from you.

Each of us has different things that knock the wind out of our sails. This is why it’s easier for you to get a friend in to help solve a problem than it is to tackle it alone. That and the fact the emotional distance a friend may have can give them clarity you lack.

But how do you keep clarity and build resilience so that you can persist when times are tough and creatively think around corners?

Building resilience

Building resilience comes from one place and one place alone- knowing who you are and what you need, and being able to apply that knowledge to self care.

From getting out of your head to being able to delegate, practicing acceptance and opening our minds up to possibilities, and learning to enjoy silence and being by ourselves, we know what we need. The healthy food, the proper sleep, the exercise and the friends who support instead of drag us down are all part of the resilience equation. It is self-care 101. And most of us suck at practicing it.

Somehow, it got lost along the way. It got dressed up in fancy packaging and smart book titles and was delivered to us by millionaires at convention centres who wear ear pieces and make money from upselling on our never ending misery. It became just add water philosophy.

And if you’ve ever worked out of some supposedly amazing seminar feeling like the blue smurf in the land of faeries because you couldn’t find something to whoop and holler about, you’re more aware of how different you are than your wallet gives you credit for.

Your foundation is different to someone else. So what worked for them or what they do isn’t going to make you fitter, happier and more productive unless that is what you need.

And you won’t know what you need when you are trying to be someone else.

So come to the place where your self-care is important and what your version of resilience can be discovered. Or at the very least teased out a little bit so you can help coax it out in private later.

What we need instead

Self help and the movement towards do what you love and always on culture is twisting us. It’s making us more pinched, poked and prodded than we should be. Belief in progress has been taken away and replaced with visibility. We’re seeking answers.

What we should be doing is developing patience and working towards making self-care a priority. We cannot pick it off the rack. We need to make mistakes, live and grow.

Life is never a ‘just add water’ mission. Life, work, love and health can be tough cookies to crack. We have to be prepared to have a realistic relationship with how we work, live, love and play.

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