The Delusional Scam of the Self-Help Book Industry

Ed Zitron 4 min read

Washington Post reporter Gene Park today quote-tweeted a truly exhausting thread of people’s business self-help books:

These books are adjacent to the world of personal branding, usually promising to provide an illuminating 100-300 pages of tips that will totally change your life. A commenter added an important addition to the thread that these books usually make vast assumptions about what things a person can actually change in their life, describing them as “the actual start point of an echo chamber,” and she’s totally right - these books are written for and geared toward a very specific audience of privileged individuals who have their life decisions affirmed and their failures explained away. The specific assumption they make is that everybody comes from the same sort of background - that they communicate in the same way, that they grow up the same way, and that, much like the world of advice articles and hustle culture, your failure to succeed is only a result of you not working hard enough.

Having written two of them (specifically focused on PR) and read many more, I’ve realized that there is an entire book industry that is focused on the premise that you are merely one good idea away from the future. While there are instructional books that are well worth your time, many of these books teach an idealized version of the world combined with a quasi-sociopathic suggestion that you must make changes to who you are to succeed. How To Win Friends and Influence People is the most famous example - a book that tells you stuff like “remember people’s names” and “make them feel important,” which seems benign, but should only seem surprising to a child, and should not be something you have to unnaturally force your body to do.

These books are based on an industrial level of delusion, praying on people’s desperation and misery, offering them the chance to change their lives just by reading one more thing. They are a form of branding in and of themselves - people read these books and share that they’ve read these books as a form of extremely long-winded success meme, showing that they’re thinking very deeply about stuff, which is very impressive to somebody, I think.

They also share the delusion that things like “timeless lessons on wealth, greed and happiness” are actually moral tales, or instructional in any way, when in many cases the stories from these books are A) old and B) extremely subjective. Following the life and times of the rich and famous and trying to learn from their lives is a delusional and naive way to view the world, when most big successes come from some combination of happenstance and privilege.

Sidenote: It’s totally fine to read these books for some form of pleasure. There’re a few I’ve read that are fun - Alexis Ohanian’s Without Their Permission, Spy The Lie by Don Tennant, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero is good fun but also very much a “this is how all humans work” book, and so on. It’s more the promise of these books that bothers me - the idea that they will “fix” something. There are some books on there - Bill Bryson, for example - that aren’t necessarily self help, too.

These books also make the promise, similar to the Dave Ramseys of the world, that it is your mental failings that have brought you to misery - that you are not thinking about or perceiving the world in the right way. Realistically, how many of these types of books do you think Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, or Travis Kalanick, or Evan Spiegel, or any other major tech founder has read? How many actually successful people are there that have consumed all of these books? They’ll likely say in interviews “oh yeah, I read Gorbis Farnsworth’s The Many Business Habits of Dracula, and it changed how I looked at business,” but the reality is that these books did not dramatically change nor contribute to nor alter the course of their lives.

The entire business-focused self-help industry is built on the fallacy that successful people read a lot of books. I’ve met some of the most colossally stupid idiots who claim to have read 50 business books a year, and conversely know many very smart people that don’t read any non-fiction books of any kind.

These books are part of a comfortable dream that becoming a rich, successful person is an equation that can be solved, and that people are similarly inputs and outputs. These books rarely acknowledge how one’s privilege, how one grew up, where one grew up, the reader’s skin color, their gender, their religion, and many, many other variables vastly change the way in which they’re perceived, especially in the world of business, and use broad strokes - which means that they very really deliver anything of value. In many cases, any book written by someone who is already a success is likely to be based on dated, empty information, and fail to acknowledge the random chances that created their success or how the lottery of when and to whom you’re born to changes everything.

It’s frustrating, because these books are inherently manipulative. Their most crucial failure is the make-believe positivity of the world - even when they frame life as difficult or challenging, they couch that framing with the idea that it is just hard work that will make you succeed. Agents and publishers likely don’t want to put books on the stands that give advice that basically says “if you didn’t grow up with some form of wealth or privilege, you are going to have a 1000% harder time doing anything this book says.” Framing the world correctly - as oppressive and depressing to most people - isn’t the encouragement that people are looking for, and would be considered “cynical” or “polarizing.”

The reality is so much more depressing, and realistically nullifies most self-help books. People that are successful in some cases did work hard, but their successes were not  predicated on the quality of the person they are or the work they performed. Many won and lost business deals are based on gut and intuition, on warm introductions and the perceptions people have of the world around them, and those that have succeeded have likely done so by smashing their head into a wall repeatedly to break through, and even then they probably just got lucky on the 123rd try. The most depressing part is even those that repeatedly try and break through often fail - Freakanomics, ironically, is one example I can think of where they successfully frame the impossibility of success using drug dealers and quarterbacks, which is still a roundabout way of saying it.

Perhaps I’m just expecting something different from this industry. Perhaps they’re only meant to provide vague tidbits that could theoretically work at some point in your life. Perhaps they’re not actually meant to be seen as solutions, but as platitudes and tales that you can imprint yourself onto and aspire to. In any case, I don’t feel like that’s how they’re framed publicly, and how they’re going to keep being sold.

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