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Nobody's Going to Help You, and That's Awesome (codinghorror.com)
115 points by dylangs1030 on Nov 27, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

I used to read a lot of self-help but I don't anymore. It's not that many books don't provide good advice but that the advice is really just common sense. Read a list of proverbs and you've basically got what most self-help books and blogs say covered.

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 thing is, advice is common sense once you get it. I've read a lot of self help and I feel that it has helped me evolve in many ways. I am not attracted to the new-age stuff but for instance Tim Ferriss offers really actionable advice which I like.

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.

That's true. The best help you can get is a textbook which teaches you something formal and concrete. Fluff is not helpful - it sells remarkably well because you can pad hundreds of pages with it, but it really can be compressed into a page or two of simple, self-evident propositions and advice.

If you can only stomach scientifically proven self-help advice, then you might like this:




Now, upvote me :) (reverse reverse psychology)

That first link in particular is excellent. Thanks for posting it!

Yup, interesting page, but I have to say that I found the section on 'study methods' a little disappointing. That section reduces the idea of learning to memorising information.

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...

It seems to me that people that don't read self-help books lump a lot more books into the genre and that causes them to miss a number of books they should read.

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".

People who don't want to read self-help books boggle my mind.

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).

The point is: would you rather spend your time playing the game, or reading someone's stab in the dark on the mechanics of the game based on his/her personal experience and questionable expertise?

It's much easier to get the Sword of Awesomeness +10 when you follow the walkthrough.

I would rather do both, actually.

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/

Personally, I agree (although I haven't actually read any books yet, but I'm interested). But I would much rather spend 100% of my time playing the game and 0% learning mechanics than I would spend 50% of my time playing and 50% learning mechanics. I imagine the anti-self-help attitude comes from looking at the 50/50 (or more extreme) people.

Isn't that what most people do, though? And most people are not living the optimal version of their lives, or anywhere close (optimal being defined as the life one wishes one had).

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.

Got any good book recommendations?

What are your goals? Easier to recommend something if I know.

My guess about the people who don't want to read self-help books would be this - they read a few, the ones that they read, turn out to be useless (they pick the wrong ones). so they pretty much give up the entire genre. Trust me, for every good self-help book out there, there are dozens of insanely useless ones - it is not easy to pick the good ones on one's own. self-help books are a big industry - even those who never read anything in their life, would give a few minutes of their attention to self-help books, because ultimately, everyone wants to become better at something

I just wish there were some good ways to quickly separate junk from good books.

I think most peoples' distaste with the self-help genre is that the books often feel more like a distraction or a tease than a source of change and improvement. People read the books and start to feel productive and like the solution to their problems is within their grasp. Then when the book is finished, almost no change in behavior or thinking result and you quickly lose the "high" you had while consuming the book.

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.

I see what you're saying so maybe we should clarify things because there are essentially two types of self help out there from what I see.

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.

Shameless plug: I wrote an essay called "Tony Robbins über alles: or why I'm such a gigantic self-help junkie".

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

I think this is in part caused by the fact that we're really poor at remembering and learning anything without actually applying in practice first, analogously to how explaining a concept to someone actually helps you learn it considerably better.

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.

It's not about the application of self-help advice, but the fact that most self-help advice don't have any scientific basis and is mostly bullshit.

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.

Isn't it irrelevant if it is scientifically proven or not, as long as it actually works for you?

It depends on what you understand under "self-help books".

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:

[1] The Promise of Sleep

[2] Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development

[3] 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.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Promise-Sleep-Medicine-Connection-Happ...

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Self-theories-Motivation-Personality-D...

[3] http://www.amazon.com/Learned-Optimism-Change-Your-Mind/dp/1...

Self-help books are (very) often crap. But when they're good they really push your motivation. So you don't learn a lot because learning requires always doing and failing BUT usually you get some motivation and energy to try it again, start something over--better books know how to brain wash and reframe your mind for a few days. You get a very positive mindset and that's what you need to get out of your daily routine which wears you out. Some examples which gave me this motivation push: Poke the Box from Seth Godin, Millionaire's Upgrade, Ellen Cars Stop-smoking book and some more (the ratio of good to bad books ist as the OP said: 10 to 90 to even 5 to 95. And as I wrote the motivational push keeps usually a few days only but hey, that's often enough to start something new and get traction.

But somehow I am not sure if the post is a clever way to sell the promoted book ...

The post is a clever way to sell the Skeptics Stack Exchange site (and the referrer link in the Amazon link won't hurt either). Not that there's anything wrong with either of these things — the book sounds interesting and I wasn't aware of the Skeptics SE site so it's win/win for Atwood & I.

Its not that self-help books are bullshit, its that most people don't have the willpower to actually change their lifestyles. They're afraid of stepping outside of their comfort zone, because they're afraid of failing, being criticized, working hard, etc. The excuses vary. Self-help books possess a lot of great knowledge, but if people actually followed the advice they read, every self-help writer would be out of a job. I once read through a few books but never took initiative to change anything in my life. Then I stumbled upon "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill, and it was so effective at changing my attitude that I've never bothered to read any more self-help books or blogs afterwards.

I don't think it's willpower that really determines things. Willpower is the ability to resist a cookie or do your homework even though you don't want to. I don't have a lot of willpower myself :)

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).

ha.. i love this. being an ex self-help junkie myself, i did at some point come to a conclusion that while it helps to feel better, no actual work is getting done while improving "the system".

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.

Hm, self-help books don't work, except if they are good? Seriously?

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.

If you like 59 seconds I'd also recommend the Happiness Advantage. Also based on scientific results and studies:


I think this post was already on HN a couple of months back... is there a way to check for sure?

I assume you asked this to see if anybody would help you.


I guess HN should hire the StackOvorflow guys to help them with an algorithm to automatically find articles already submitted... ;)

I am surprised by your generosity given the title of the article (albeit the article basically says only science will help you).

First time I've seen this book anywhere, may check it out. I recommend the Happiness Hypothesis. Whether the theories in it are true or not, they're incredibly well developed arguments.

Has anyone read the Kindle edition of the 59 Seconds book linked to in the article? Trying to decide if it's worth buying.

I've read the paperback and it's good. I can't see why the Kindle edition would be much different: there's scarcely any fancy formatting or anything.

(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[1]; 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.)

[1] We see here a concrete example of one reason why self-help books generally don't work.

I've read the paperback version and came away slightly disappointed. The book is essentially a distillation of papers the author found interesting and applicable. The separate chapters felt completely disconnected from each other. There were a number of interesting points, but no cohesion.

As for Kindle, the book design was sufficiently plain that I would have no concerns.

I am not sure if it is only for this book or it is common - Looks like the entire book is there on amazon, for free, if you click on "look inside". Is it a bug, or is it common?

Self-help doesn't work for a lot of reasons. It's funny how one self help method or book will help one person but not another. I hate the pseudoscience crap that passes for self help but Im not sure if just having a basis in fact and researched science is enough. Sometimes people just feel better when they attend a bullshit lecture by a self help author because of their charisma.

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.

"Self-help doesn't work for a lot of reasons."

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 :)

> Okay, so what is the proper way to live then?

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):



I've read most of that book, and I do agree that having equanimity/unreactiveness is a worthy life goal.

I don't know. I'm going to have to disappoint you and just admit that I have no clue. I can take a guess though.

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.

The way I see it is the neurons in your head are going to do what they're wired to do. You can't change physical law, and any amount of success or failure won't change your brain structure. Your perception of the world is essentially constant. You don't need help being a person any more than a dog needs help being a dog. Just exist and do whatever.

MRI scans of accomplished meditators have shown significant changes in brain structure, as do players of certain video games. People do change--whether or not that's a matter of free will is a discussion you'll never reach the end of.

Although it changes it is still in the human range, close to your original personality, and the delta is negligible. Your brain is essentially the same.

I'm not a neuroscientist so I won't argue that point. I think as far as self-improvement and personal growth is concerned, however it seems that at least on a surface level that people can alter their behavior. Again, whether they are hard-wired to do so because of brain structure I don't know.

Your belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You won't change because you think it's not even worth trying.

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.

If you could change your perception of the world, what would you change it to?

Determinism is old old news. Quantum events are inherently random => non-deterministic universe. There is variability within everything, brain included.

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