A Passionate Argument Against Self-Help Books

By Jonathan Goodman | Follow Him on Twitter

People who read self-help books are often being damaged by the very books that they bought with the intention of helping them.

At any given time, the two most common books atop the top 10 list are self-help and fitness. In this article I question why these two genres, in which there have been very few advancements in knowledge in recent history, continues to achieve bestseller status.

The “self-help” term is vague but in this case, I’m referring to motivational self-help. Books written to teach a skill aren’t included.

The books that I’m referring to are those that sell the dream of abundance. While abundance is viewed as the goal in a happy life, it’s been well-documented1 that the people who have the most financially are almost never the most happy. Other self-help books recognize that financial abundance isn’t the key to happiness and attempt to capture it. An example is The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma.2

Still though, and this is anecdotal, if you ask most why they are reading a self-help book they will tell you that they want to figure out how to make more money.

What these books sell is a dream. A dream about making millions; a dream about being a better person to love more; or a dream about getting a six pack. That dream is much more enjoyable than the months and years of work it takes to achieve either.

The thinking, or rational part of our brain, is called the neocortex. Evolutionarily speaking, it grew out of our emotional brain millions of years later in evolution. In Daniel Coleman’s words, “there was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one.”3

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain known as the “feel good hormone” that gets released from the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex (among others) as a reward.4 Eagerness and directed purpose promote dopamine production. It’s also released in the presence of stimulants like methamphetamine (meth) and cocaine.

Another region of the brain called the amygdala dictates memories. The more intense the arousal, the stronger the memory. The amygdala evolved over millions of years and, as a byproduct of rapid recent development, it sometimes acts as a faulty guide leading us astray more often than it helps us.

So where do self-help books factor into this argument and why am I so adamantly against them?

It is because a self-help book creates a physiological dependency on dreaming and acts against the actual doing of the activity, which takes time. Even if we have the time, the long arduous road provides little reward that we’ve become addicted to — a feel good hormone named dopamine — and so we rush out to get a fix the only way that we know how: by buying another self-help book.

It’s cyclical. Our dependency increases the more books we read.

Procrastination is the biggest enemy and while most self-help books do cover it and possibly even provide strategies to help beat it, they are most often adding to a procrastinators problem instead of solving it.

I’ve stated before that procrastination is opportunities natural assassin.5 By nature, it stops us from doing the things we want to do in preference to do those things that provide us with an immediate return on investment.

To beat procrastination is simple in theory but difficult in practice. Here are the steps:

  1. Dream a big dream and work backwards. The brain can only make sense of something that it already believes is a reality.
  2. Talk to at least 3 friends as if your dream has already been accomplished. You must convince your brain that the dream is already a reality. If possible, record these conversations and get them transcribed (transcription can be done easily and cheaply online).6
  3. Break your dream up to at least 4 large chunks. These are broad categories if the project is something like a book, goals along the way if it’s a fitness goal, or 4 points along a timeline for many other projects.
  4. Break down each category into tiny chunks. These must be able to be finished in one session or sitting. When I tackle a big writing project, they are 300-600 word chunks.
  5. Build in a reward for finishing each tiny chunk.

Until the activity becomes a reward in itself (which may or may not happen), you must design in something to trigger a dopamine response after each tiny chunk. While this could be a reward in the conventional sense like a candy bar, it doesn’t have to be. Below are examples of rewards that I use:

  • Use a workout tracker. Fitocracy gives you points for every rep of an exercise and over time (quickly at first) you level up.7 Incremental goal progress, like seeing a bar near completion, is effective.
  • Post a note on Facebook. After completing each chunk, post a quick note on Facebook with 1 or 2 lines celebrating your achievement. Multiple studies have shown that people who view their own Facebook accounts more8and share more on social media achieve the same response.9, 10
  • Cue cards. Put your entire task on a series of cue cards. Each cue card is one chunk meant to be done in no more than one sitting. Place all cue cards in one spot and have a “discard” pile. Place the finished cue card face down in the discard pile to create a real life progress bar.
  • Have a friend to call. 30-40% of what we say is done to convince others of our subjective experiences. Sharing information with others is pleasureful.11
fitocracy status bar

The Fitocracy status bar. Just over 7,000 points to go!

If your goal is a six pack (real or metaphorical) and you have a long way to go, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ve got a long hard path ahead of you. Despite what a savvy marketer might make you believe, there are no magic pills, potions, or powders. It takes time to get results and along the way you’ll want to quit.

Until the activity becomes its own reward (which for many will never happen with exercise) there must be a small reward built into the process at every step of the way.

What I’m saying is that the more self-help books that you read, the less likely, by your physiological nature, you are to take action.

Pick one great book, James Altucher’s Choose Yourself12 is the one recommend, and take action because, in the words of Haruki Murakami, “here, too, a brand-new day is beginning. It could be a day like all the others, or it could be a day remarkable enough in many ways to remain in memory. In either case, for now, for most people, it is a blank sheet of paper.”13


1 – Kahnamen, D., Deaton, A. (2010) High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. PNAS. Retrieved at http://wws.princeton.edu/news/Income_Happiness/Happiness_Money_Report.pdf

2 – The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari – Robin Sharma

3 – Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Coleman

4 – Björklund A, Dunnett SB (2007). “Dopamine neuron systems in the brain: an update”. Trends Neurosci. 30 (5): 194–202. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2007.03.006

5 – Procrastination is Opportunities Natural Assassin – Jonathan Goodman

6 – http://speechtotextservice.com/ (Transcription service. There are tons out there. This is $0.80/minute.

7 – Fitocracy

8 – Gonzales, A., Hancock, J. (2011) Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 14 (1-2): 79-86. doi:10.1089/cyber.2009.0411

9 – Eva Buechel, Jonah Berger (Under Review), Facebook Therapy? Why Do People Share Self-Relevant Content Online?. Retrieved from https://marketing.wharton.upenn.edu/profile/311/research on Nov 11, 2013.

10 – The powerful and mysterious brain circuitry that makes us love Google, Twitter, and texting. – Emily Yoffee published in Slate (2009). Retrieved on Nov 11, 2013 from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2009/08/seeking.html

11 – Tamir, D., Mitchell, J. (2012) Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. PNAS. 109 (21) 8038-8043. Retrieved from http://wjh.harvard.edu/~dtamir/Tamir-PNAS-2012.pdf

12 – Choose Yourself – James Altucher

13 – After Dark – Haruki Murakami