Do you really need to read a self-help book for help?

Read this instead, and help yourself.

Considering how much I read in general and also how much I like to read nonfiction, I don’t actually read self-help books that much.  I do read a lot of reviews and criticism, and if you do, you will probably find, like me, that you can usually understand the author’s main points from those.  

The big secret I discovered about myself and self help books is this: I actually only read self help books when the writer is supporting an opinion that I pretty much already have. I’m really looking for reinforcement, or development, of my own opinion rather than looking for answers in a book.

 Could this be true of you too?  If so, read on.  I have a hack for you. 

Part 1: Figure out who is talking about your concern and what they say. 

1.     Use the Internet to get the information you need for free, but search books on Amazon rather than using Google, which will be too general.

2.     When you see a title that interests you, start with the book description that appears next to the thumbnail. 

3.     For more information, continue scrolling to read the reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and any similar periodicals (I’ve hyperlinked to the publications’ websites, but if they have done a review for the book, Amazon publishes them).  These publications exist to help librarians and booksellers decide what to order.  The key point is at the end of the review, where they will state the best audience for the book.  This information will give you an idea if it’s what you need.

4.     For more information, scroll down to the customer comments, but take these with a grain of salt. 

5.     After the publisher’s periodicals, the best way to get more information is to go to LitHub’s Bookmarks section.  This extremely helpful site gathers all reviews from key newspapers and magazines and includes ratings and blurbs, which will include summaries of the books. 

6.     If you want still more information, or perhaps you are a listener more than a readers, head over to Youtube.  Many of the people who write self-help books earn a large portion of their salary from personal appearances, so they tend to have a lot of videos that they have either posted themselves or were posted by organizations where they have appeared. 

 Note: make sure you check dates. For self-help books, always start with the latest edition of the author’s most recent book.  Older editions and/or titles may actually be factually incorrect do to new research in the field.  If you want more information, work chronologically backwards. There is a drop-down menu on the right of the search screen on Amazon; switch the order of results to publication date.

If you have been through just a few of these sources, you probably have a pretty good understanding of the author’s main points.  If the author has been reviewed by major periodicals or has appeared at venues you recognize (such as universities), then you also know who and what you need to know for general “cultural literacy”, which is good for you both professionally and personally. 

But you’re still seeking answers about yourself, right? 

Part 2: Creating your own self help book when you know nothing and can’t write


1.     Keep a list/spreadsheet/notebook of every self-help book you consider.  Keep track of the dates and use the following categories. Take notes as needed.

a.     Read: What self-help books have you read?  Each time you read one, add it to the list.

b.     Skimmed: What self-help books have you considered, but in the end either skimmed or made do with reading reviews or summaries online?

c.      Not read: What books failed to hold your interest? 

2.     When you are feeling like you need help, read your list.  Use the following questions to analyze it:

a.     What topics come up again and again?

b.     What types of books do you consistently pass over, and which ones have gotten your attention?

c.      Rather than thinking about the questions that may be on your mind, such as “How can I advance in my career?” or “How can I be happier?” …ask yourself what patterns you see in your list. 

What you should have here is an ongoing, up to date summary of what interests you and what works for you.  It also might remind you of previous conflicts in your life that have been resolved, which also might help you know what to do this time or at least feel empowered.

One day, you might even find one day that you have enough to write your own book, but even if you don’t, you will have written the best self help book in the world, for you, whom you know best.

Most importantly, don’t forget to follow up what you’ve learned with the advice from this video: action.



3 Different Self Help Books that I (mostly) Read

  1. Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world by David Epstein

See the event where I saw David Epstein at the 19th Annual Library of Congress Festival of the Book in August, 2019 on CSPAN’s Book TV.

Range appealed to me because my career for the past few years has taken me into an area where I find myself often thinking I’m a “jack of all trades and a master of none”, which feels strange.  I thought age, education, and experience should bring more specialization, but I feel like the opposite is true. 

Epstein isn’t exactly saying that there is no room for specialists; his point is that there is a need for generalists because there is just too much knowledge in too many specialties, which has created a need for people to bring all of that together.  That sounds like exactly what I’ve been doing.   

I also appreciate his assertion that we don’t really need to know where life is going to take us until we are there: as the old chestnut goes, “wherever you go, there you are”.   

Finally, Epstein is a reporter, so he knows how to tell a good story.  Sometimes his stories go on a little long, but for the most part, I enjoy them.  The most memorable part is the story about the Girl Scouts and how Frances Hesselbein revamped the national organization without ever having had a paying job.   

I’m at a point in my life where I’m not sure what it all has meant.  I’m pretty sure the next act is going to be my last act, and I want it to be good.  “Do not go gentle into that good night”, wrote Dylan Thomas.  If you will pardon the pun, words to live by.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg


I read this one a few years ago when it was published. Since the phrase “lean in” has entered the common vernacular, I’m glad I’m familiar with it.

I read it at a time when I wasn’t sure about my life choices both professionally and personally.

My priorities have always been, in this order, family responsibility, career and personal fulfillment, and finally friendships and romantic relationships (a romantic relationship becomes “family” if it’s committed/permanent). My questioning had to do the order of my priorities, but “Lean In” helped me realize that to be the best friend/romantic partner, I need to be the person that being fulfilled makes me.

Sandberg gives a lot of attention to the will to lead. I don’t struggle with having the will to lead as much as whether it’s what I want to do. My biggest professional struggle is not being scared to be out in front, but in choosing what is most important for me.  What I want to do with the time I have been given. 

Lean In reminded me that whatever happens, it’s important for me to do me. 

3. The Freak Factor: discovering uniqueness by flaunting weakness by David J. Rendall

This book is not in the mainstream as much as the other two I discussed, but I think it deserves some attention.  I actually came to know about it in an unusual way.  I was working at a school in Jordan (yes, the Hashemite Kingdom of…) and my boss came in one morning and told me that I needed to go to an event we having in about five minutes.  A request like this was very unusual, so I cancelled what I had scheduled, even though it was a commitment I usually considered sacrosanct, and went.  I’m glad I did because hearing David Rendall was enormously helpful. 

Rendall’s idea is that you look to your weaknesses to figure out what you’re really good at.  I have never thought of putting it quite so succinctly, but I had already noticed that I have been commended at work for the exact same traits that my family used to complain about when I was young.  So weird.  I had figured out that a curse can be a blessing. 

So instead of trying to correct your negative traits, which is what most of us do, Rendall says that the key is to find a mission life in which that trait is an asset.   

Now, we all have negative qualities that we need to at least learn to temper a little bit, if for no other reason that we care about those who love us and don’t want to offend them (too much), but it also stands to reason that we would both be happier and make other people happier when we have roles in life that cater to our strengths.  Rendall’s trick is to think about weaknesses as strengths.

Cover Photo