A few years ago I bought into a lot of the self-help stuff. I read many books, and by the time I realized I was pretty much reading the same thing over and over again, I stopped. There were of course some esoteric Neuro-Linguistic-Programming Techniques I could try, but to me that seemed a lot like being a "cargo-cult" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult_programming) programmer--introducing behavior patterns that are meant to be a stand alone module when you don't know how they might interact the code that is already there (i.e. your current behavioral conditioning).
To me, I think that reading self-help can be a necessary and important stage in personal growth. Necessary and important, but intermediate. The moment you graduate from self-help, is the moment you start creating your own path for growth that is meaningful for you.
The same thing applies to HN. I used to swallow all of it whereas now I feel that most material here is repetitive. I catch myself thinking "Jesus, another blog entry on this topic that is obvious to everyone!". What has happened of course, is that HN has shaped and evolved my thinking in this particular area. I still love it but I am looking forward to discovering the book/forum/idea that will take me to the next level in my life.
Now, upvote me :) (reverse reverse psychology)
As a teacher I'm more interested in helping my students achieve a deeper learning - an awareness of how concepts are connected and how they link to the lives of my students.
If you happen to have access to an academic library, look at Visible Learning by John Hattie. Plenty of evidence (the book is an attempt to synthesize the findings of many hundreds of studies).
Having said that, getting teenagers to make a simple to do list and to allocate a little time per day to routine 'deliberate practice' is a good start. The Pomodoro Technique page went down quite well, especially when I brought in some kitchen timers...
Earlier this year I recommended Bargaining for Advantage to someone and they responded that they don't really read self-help books. There are a number of books like this that deal with particular topics inside of the broader self-help genre, many of them going to a much more useful level of depth.
In bookstores I regularly find very good books on particular areas of business mixed in with self-help in the more populist style.
Reading a number of these expert titles is very valuable. From the popular group often only one book is enough to cover the common sense side of things, for instance I recommend that all my friends read "how to Win friends and influence people".
Self-help to me means seeing life as an MMORPG with infinite possibility: levelling up your player character, meeting cool guild mates, acquiring lots of loot, exploring new areas, etc. Who the hell doesn't want that?
Then again, most people probably think of the most egregious examples of cheesy New Age stuff when they think about self-help. What I advocate is more like "muscular self-help", ie everything that levels up life and leads to more winning! (heh). I will read anything that gives me a shot at that.
I even founded a magazine because of my belief in muscular self help: http://www.interestingtimesmagazine.com (shameless plug, I know).
I can find out a lot of stuff on my own, but it never helps to read what someone else has figured out.
Analogy: I can figure out design patterns of programming on my own, but I can speed up the process if I read a book on it. Same with design patterns for happiness and success.
There are lots of things I consider possibilities now that were not even on my map before I read self-help books.
EDIT: s/never helps/never hurts/
Before I started reading self-help materials, I was intellectually gifted but I was a mess in terms of communication with others, emotional stability, self-limiting beliefs, knowledge of possibilities in life, luminosity aka self-insight, strategicness aka getting shit done with a plan, etc.
Studying self-help materials for the past 5 years is the most important thing I've done in my life (a quite dramatic statement perhaps, but that's how it feels to me).
That's why I get a bit upset and argumentative when people slam self-help: it's a bit like saying I shouldn't have wasted my time reading all those things, and instead should have just plodded on in darkness.
I just wish there were some good ways to quickly separate junk from good books.
Psychological and behavioral problems are highly individualistic and can be quite complex. Say you have a problem with procrastination. Maybe you have ADD? Maybe you are depressed? Maybe you are tired? Maybe you are afraid of failure? Maybe you hate your work? Maybe your mind is focused on other problems you need to address? Maybe your work is too difficult? Etc. We could go on listing hundreds of possible causes. Well, using a tomato timer or implementing GTD isn't going to fix any of those problems.
I think that the few well written and researched self-help books that are out there can give people useful strategies if they already have their shit together, but for most people they end up as a dud. That is if these people even finish the books to begin with.
The first kind is the in-your-face, "this book will change your life and teach you to be happy", it comes with a charming spokesman too, type of self help. This kind is often cheesy, not scientific, and is often more likely to be eventually seen as a disingenuous money making scam later on.
The second type is self-help that isn't marketed as self help. It's essentially a book on how to master a subject or art form. A book on Buddhism and Buddhist practices would qualify. Books on how to meditate fall into this too. They're teaching how to do something and they may talk about the positive effects they have but they're not the kind of things that we normally think of as lame self help.
Now that I'm thinking along these lines I think theres a third type. This type falls in between. You can spot it by its firm basis in scientific research. It's the kind of thing backed by science and it explains the subject by telling you about the research but at the same time also telling you how to specifically apply the research to help you improve some aspect of your life. The book "Feeling Good" co,es to mind in this category. The author studied the subject of depression and then takes the findings and applies them to helping people with depression. It's a book widely held to be actually useful the majority of the time. It's not a "hey, I'll teach you to be happy" book nor is it just a narrative explaining experiments and the results.
I think what I'm talking about speaks directly to your point about people that lump the books into one genre. So when we talk about self help most immediately think of the cheesy kind. If we broadened out definition of self help to include types 2 and 3 that I mentioned then maybe people wouldn't feel such disdain for the genre and be more apt to read more helpful books. It's a shame that often times the wrong people get into writing self help and spoil the genre for everyone.
Some of y'all might like it, some probably won't. Take it for what it is: my somewhat sound defense of my overly costly self-help habit :)
It's the first article in this pdf: http://interestingtimesmagazine.com/archive/IT07.pdf
What this means is that self-help books are useful, but also that each hour of self-help learning must be followed by 10 hours (or whatever ratio works for you) of practicing and gaining experience. I think most people who are burned by self-help are simply not turning into action what they read about, and hence not deriving whatever important lessons or conclusions they could be making based on what's in those books.
At the end of the day you don't have to agree with what any self-help text teaches you, but by trying it out in practice you'll at least figure out if it works for you or not.
Anybody can sound authoritative and true. Anybody can invent ad-hoc reasons for why their advice will work. That doesn't mean that what they're saying is true. Just because the advice seems to work for you, doesn't mean it's actually causing the progress.
You are a human being. You have cognitive bias. You have selective memory. You are fallible.
This is why we need to conduct psychological research on self-help advice. There are books that draws on the research done by psychologists over several decades. Use them. Don't simply listen to self-help gurus that got rich simply by writing self-help books.
Yes, application of self-help advice is going to be a problem, but it does you no good if you're applying BS self-help advice.
The generic, feel-good ones, sure, those are trash that usually doesn't work (they still might work given the specific situation).
The well researched, written by scientists and psychologists - I found a few that I love. In fact I'm going to buy ten pieces of one book for this Christmas because I have found it crucial.
These are the three well researched books I've read in the past 18 months that turned my life around for the better and that I heartily recommend:
 The Promise of Sleep
 Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development
 Learned Optimism (that's the one I'm buying ten times for this year's Christmas)
The one recommended in the article, 59 Seconds, is waiting on a pile of books (not exclusively from the self-help category, with The Algorithm Design Manual, Street Smarts, Architecture of Open Source Applications, Learn You a Haskell etc.) to be read soon.
Let's read, think and become better people.
But somehow I am not sure if the post is a clever way to sell the promoted book ...
I think self help comes down to willingness to learn and willingness to change. Simple, but hard to do consistently.
One thing that will massively improve one's chances is getting a Mastermind Group (which is a concept from Think and grow rich, IIRC).
I feel like i owe a lot to self-help. Coming from a place where i was operating at 0-5% efficiency, it's a miracle i was able to make any progress in my career
SH REALLY helped me debunk some limiting beliefs i imposed on myself and ultimately find a happier state of being although that took a lot of hard work.
to me, SH was not a quick solution, but a slow progress, where each year i'd get a little bit better with seemingly not noticeable differences, but multiply that over 5 years, and the difference is huge.
not to say that one could not figure all of this stuff out on their own, if they only stopped to think every day about how to get where they want to go. Unfortunately most people don't think about such things.. and as Brian Tracy put it, most people throw themselves at life like a dog chasing a car :)
Anyways, over the time, i slowly transitioned my energy into doing productive things vs reading about doing productive things.. but form time to time i stil re-read some of the old classics and usually get those "oh yeah! i forgot about this" moments because there really is a sea of great advice buried in SH genre.
I am currently reading the 59 seconds book because I found it in a lesswrong article. It is OK, but it doesn't solve all problems (it only covers some techniques). The human psyche is a complex thing, "just get to work" is simply not going to be enough for everyone.
(By "good" I mean: so far as I can tell the science Wiseman reports is correct; the material is interesting; I haven't tried enough of the concrete advice to have strong anecdotal opinions about how well it works; the quality of the writing is perfectly decent. If you are in the market for either reasonably-scholarly popular psychology or self-help, you should probably get it.)
 We see here a concrete example of one reason why self-help books generally don't work.
As for Kindle, the book design was sufficiently plain that I would have no concerns.
I'm reminded of a guy who I almost worked for to build a website for his self help career. He told me he didn't have a degree in psychology but was a college grad. He would get his hands on real scientific research by real psychologists and then translate it into layman's terms and sell the results in the form of blog subscriptions, seminars, and ebooks. He pretty much told me point blank that he and many others were full of BS and doing what anyone who can read at a high school or college level can do. He also said that for him and his colleagues it was all about the money. It really upset me.
I'm totally sure what my point is but I do know that just because a ton of people get burned by self help it doesn't mean none of it works. And I've seen some BS self help books actually help people too. The post is right on for the most part but I'm not sure why. There seem to be some variable we're missing.
Okay, so what is the proper way to live then? To be miserable, not try to transcend one's limitations, never seek to improve oneself, etc?
It may seem like I'm arguing against a strawman here, but I am genuinely curious to hear your POV :)
Some (very) old school answers in:
"The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus":
About the book (including some pithy quotations):
Get it here free, in a variety of formats:
Also here (Long's translation):
My comment wasn't for or against self help. Well, it was a little against it but all in all, the way I see it, you just go out and try something and hopefully you find so,etching that works before you get tired of beig burned by bad self help.
I think the first thing all of us should do, especially if we need help, is admit that we know nothing and that theres a good chance there are no answers to your questions in any book, blog, or seminar.
And it works both ways - if you believe you can change in a meaningful way, you will.
See my post elsewhere in this discussion with two books on optimism and self-theories.