Why Self-Help Books Don’t Help

The self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and is expected to continue growing at double-digit rates annually. And books form a significant portion of the industry. January is always a good time to start on a personal development journey: In early January 2021, sales of books about mind, body, and spirit jumped 63% over the comparable week in 2020, and sales of self help books jumped by 30%. But do their teachings work? They promise much but, sadly for most of us, self-help books don't often help.

An influencer in certain coaching circles recently wrote that the reason why self-help books don't help is because people simply don't know how to read non-fiction books to extract the information they need. "They read too fast, too passively, and too shallowly." This may be true, but there are other, perhaps more compelling, reasons why self-help books often don't help:

  • Self-help books most often reflect the results obtained by one person, usually the writer. In science, we call this an n = 1. For the results of study to be generalizable to the general population, a subject pool of one is not enough. You need many more participants for that. You can, however, take the results as a case study but in that case, the results don’t generalize to the wider population. Will you obtain the same results if you follow their self-help advice? Maybe, maybe not.
  • Most self-help books are written by men. Yet, women are the largest consumers of self-help books. Perhaps the advice offered in these books doesn't reflect women's reality, priorities, or psychology.
  • Self-help books most often reflect hindsight: The person offering the advice looks back and identifies behaviours and mindsets that they believe helped them achieve their results. But the behaviours and mindsets they believe led to their success may not be the determining factors at all. Their success may have been due to something else entirely!
  • Which leads to the element of luck. I think we can all agree that success is the sum of talent, hard work, and luck. When many talented, hardworking people have to compete for success, the difference in quality between the best of the best is only minimal and a highly skilled participant experiencing a little bit of bad luck will lose to a slightly less skilled participant who is luckier.

In 2016, economist Robert H. Frank computed a person’s chance of NOT winning using different numbers of competitors in the pool: If 90% of the result is due to talent and hard work and 10% is due to luck, "in a pool of 1,000/10,000/100,000 participants, the best candidate will NOT win 69%/83.1%/92.3% of the time respectively." These are staggering odds against success!

Self-made men and women are largely a myth

Michiel de Hogg writes about Dr. Frank’s research in The Correspondent: “The best candidate only wins in a small number of cases. In a hyper-competitive economy, chance determines who wins more often than not, and more so than in the past … at the same time, the awareness of the role of chance or luck decreases. In other words: the belief in one’s own ability, in the self-made nature of achievement, that one owes success to oneself, increases.” “Success is partly determined by chance, and once you are successful, you will get opportunities to become more successful.” Chance could be being born into privilege, a chance meeting with an important person, or having your work seen by an influencer.

"Contemporary self-help teachings are attractive because they assure us that we are the makers of our own destiny. They preach that we have within us the power to change our lives for the better, even to make ourselves anew." Although this is true, "the focus on personal responsibility distracts us from structural inequities," such as unequal access to quality education, health care, etc.

These are just some ideas for why you shouldn't blame yourself if self-help books haven't helped. If you have additional ideas, please share them in the comments.


Milliot, Jim. January 14, 2021. Self-Improvement Boom Sets Book Sales Off on Fast Start in 2021. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/85316-book-sales-get-off-to-fast-start.html

Photo by Delano Ramdas on Unsplash

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  • Very interesting, and I found myself criticizing the industry more and more for having so many men write books that are being consumed by women. But also find it fascinating that women are not questioning their choices of authors.

  • I have just helped clear out the flat of a relative who has sadly died. She was never happy after her devorce over 30 years prior and took to herbalists, psychic readings and self help books to try to solve her problems. There were hundreds of self help books and tapes in the flat. I cannot prove it, but feel that a properly qualified therapist would have done far more good. I feel very angry that many people took large amounts of money from her for a lot of unproven quakery.

    • Sorry to hear about your relative, Trisha. Many people look for quick fixes, but the truth is there are no quick fixes.

  • Thank you, Irene. To be more specific the comment of Michael de Hogg about Dr. Frank’s research in the Correspondent. To be honest, I don’t know either of them, but – without having read the research itself, or having a background as a neuroscientist – I agree that the awareness of one’s own ability is increasing, and that success is partly determined by chance. I would add that throughout one’s life, starting in early childhood, one must make choices more than once. Those choices can have an impact on the direction of subsequent years. Usually in a cycle of 7 years and also affect “success”. Finally, the definition of this last word is influenced by the being that one is, involving both the spiritual, neuroplasticity of it’s brain, and the frame of reference of the person concerned.

    • It’s absolutely true, Cornelia, that our lifelong choices impact our future. But it’s more than choice, it’s also our starting point. That’s why equal access to education is so important.

  • I think self-help books do help. They offer insights, ideas and possibility. It’s true, there is no guarantee of success in certain efforts; however, this doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful. Take the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey for example. His one habit of “seek to understand; then to be understood” is a highly valuable insight and has helped me to do just that over the years versus making judgments and rash comments. I think “help” and “does it work?” need to be defined.

    • Thank you for your comment Lisa. Some self-help books are better than others. And some people, such as you, have been helped. But, many people buy self-help book after self-help book without finding the help they need.

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