The great self help con


I am a sucker for self-help books.

I can’t help myself. I am in the bookstore idly browsing the bestsellers when I hear the siren call. It seems that just about every book and magazine is making seductive promises:

  • how to make money
  • succeed in business
  • be calm
  • be creative
  • lose weight
  • have a great body
  • have lots and lots of sex (in other words, have someone else’s great body)

Over the years I must have bought hundreds or even thousands of books and magazines making promises like this.

I even had a subscription to a magazine called Men’s Health. The cover invariably had a picture of some impossibly chiselled male model, with stories about how to get a six pack in five minutes a day, how to leave her panting for more, and how to get massive arms.

The answer, it seems, is to eat sensibly, go to the gym regularly and do the stuff she likes and not just the stuff that you like. That was the basic message of the magazine. Every single edition was just a different way of saying the same thing.

A couple of days ago I was in Gatwick Airport for a business meeting. I arrived early and found myself idly flicking through books, when I came across: “Clarity, Clear Mind, Better Performance, Bigger Results” by Jamie Smart.

The opening drew me in, like a fisherman luring a trout. The book promised a life with fewer distractions, focusing on what really mattered, getting rid of superstitious thinking. That sounded interesting, so the next day I bought a copy on Kindle.

Barely a third of the way through the book before I was almost angry enough to throw my Kindle across the room. The book may have been about clarity, but the writing was so dense and incomprehensible that it was almost impossible to read. And it was the same idea repeated over and over again. It’s all in your mind: declutter by ignoring the thoughts that don’t matter and focussing on the thoughts that are important.

That’s it. Oh, there was lots of talk about paradigms and principles and plenty of vaguely unrelated case stories, but frankly that was just filler.

I have been doing some research recently into get rich quick schemes and ebook scams. They operate on exactly the same principle. They make outrageous promises, and then they give you just enough information so that you can’t complain that you have been short-changed.

The classic get rich-quick scheme goes a little like this. You spot an advert – maybe in the local paper, in the small ads in a shop window, perhaps just a flyer on a lamp-post.

“Earn money working from home! No experience or qualifications needed! Send £10 to ….”

So you send your £10 to the address in the advert. After a while, you receive an envelope through the post. It contains a single sheet of paper:

“How to make money working from home: Print adverts offering to tell people how to make money working from home. When they pay you £10, send them a copy of this note.”

That sort of scam has been catching people out for millennia. Strictly speaking, the advert has fulfilled its promise – it has described a way to make money by working from home. And that method obviously works because you have handed over your £10.

I think it is time to explode these cons.

There is a single secret at the heart of all get rich quick schemes and all self-help books – indeed, behind most of capitalism. It is nothing more than this:

  • Find something that people want or need. It could be a product, a service or a secret
  • Put a price on it
  • The price should be
    • less than they think it is worth (so they think they are getting a bargain)
    • more than it costs you to provide.

The ideal product is something that costs less to make than you sell it for. But at the same time, the person receiving it thinks it is worth more than they have paid.

The self-help books and magazines work because they offer outcomes that are worth more to us than their cover price. Of course, we will pay £9.99 for a book which promises to make us more successful in business or to lose weight or to get more sex. Surely, that is easily worth £9.99 of anyone’s money.

The people producing these books win because it costs them less than £9.99 per book.

So everyone is happy, right? We get a better, happier life and the authors get paid. What’s not to like?

The problem is that there is something missing from the picture, and that is the hard work and focus that you need to bring to the party.

Here is the real truth about success. If we look at the most successful people in any field, we will generally find that they do one or two things that the rest of us don’t. They work hard and they focus on what is important to them. Just about every successful sports person, every multi-millionaire, every successful author, every politician – they have all had long periods in their life where they knuckled down and did the hard miles.

Winners learn the lessons, they acquire the skills, they do the work.

The self-help industry can show us the techniques that winners use. They can (and usually do) describe their inspirational journey from rags to riches. But the books and magazines very rarely show us the hard graft that they put in.

And this is where the self-help industry becomes part of the problem and not the solution. A self-help book offers us a short-cut. The hidden message is that if you buy this book you will get the success without needing to work hard. It’s the eat all you want diet.

That can lead us to flip-flop. Instead of focussing on our core goals, we are constantly bouncing from one new idea to the next. Many people who diet unsuccessfully will try many different diets. When their latest fad diet doesn’t work, they will switch to another.

Self-help books offer us a seductively easy way to change the way we think. Unfortunately, that makes us prone changing the way that we think. Instead of sticking at something and getting good at it, we flip-flop from one approach to another.

There is a better way. One day, I might write a book about it. For now I need to do some of that hard work stuff and get back to my latest novel.


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