Monday, May 05, 2008

Self Help

This column by Oliver Burkeman at Guardian is a succinct summary of what ails the bulk of self-help books. The few times I've picked up one, I've felt more distressed than helped or as Burkeman notes felt "kicked" rather than "nudged" to fix what's broken in my life. The one thing about advice of any kind is that it is credible and inspiring only when the advisor has done in their life exactly as they preach and has found it effective.

This is not unlike a parent teaching their child right and wrong. You can make the best speech and the most convincing argument for your case but if you haven't walked the talk, chances are the child will tune you out. The problem with the self-help genre is two-fold. The nudges outweigh the kicks so vast swathes of the population cannot relate . They drown the reader in platitudes as they prescribe their one size fits all cure-all. An
article in Salon describes the self-help industry as follows :

...the self-help industry is a modern boondoggle and annoyance -- more disturbing than, but akin to, that damn noise the kids call music these days. It's a waste of money, it saps folks of their gumption, and no one can prove it works

The most fundamental flaw in the rationale of the self-help genre is that for a few dollars anyone could get a genie in a bottle who could magically make everything right for them. This is like expecting to graduate Med school only by reviewing a set of CliffNotes.

Ms M, my mentor from high school days swore by the power of biographies. She believed it was the best source of inspiration and guidance for our own lives - these were companion volumes to the unfolding story of your own life. You read them over and over again and learned new things each time. These books were like maps you took on a road trip but they were not teleportation devices that whisked you to your destination effortlessly.

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