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Self-help books: are they helping us to help ourselves?

Maybe you’re tired of being told there is a new and seismic management theory in town which will ‘revolutionise’ the way you operate.

You may be hugely disappointed by the endless stream of ‘initiatives’ and ‘paradigm shifts’ and re-packaging of old ideas which have done little to affect your performance at ground level.

And it’s possible that you are searching for some simple truth that confirms what you already know to be true: ‘the answer to your success lies within’.

There are hundreds of self-help books, thousands even, sitting on shelves or piled up

in hyperspace, and all of them claiming to change your life or provide some blinding new insight that will transform you from a state of mediocrity to overwhelming success in 30 days (or less).

They’re hard to avoid and we’ve probably all read at least one of them, or could bluff our way through intelligent dinner party conversation about some of the biggest sellers.

I count myself as one of those fascinated, hungry readers who is always on the lookout for some new and revolutionary concept or practical approach with a 100% guarantee attached. It’s as if I can’t help myself!

The question I’m increasingly asking myself is “Why?”

In the many years I’ve invested working closely with managers and employees in a variety of organisations the one thing that I’ve learned is that, basically, most people are okay. Alright, some people are more okay than others and everyone needs a pick-me-up from time to time, but generally, deep down, we know what we should be doing and need to do.

So, why don’t we do it? Why do we repeatedly turn to the ‘quick-fix’, ‘easy-answer’, ‘big secret’, ‘life-changing promises’ that are the essence of so much personal development literature?

I had the misfortune to spend (not invest) time with someone who had become addicted to the euphoria generated by motivational ‘personal empowerment’ conferences held in large convention centres around the world. It’s possible to view some of these events as the middle class equivalent of a rave: long and endless days of mass hysteria, losing yourself in some altered reality.

This person proudly claimed that the first event he attended had changed his life. But the change was obviously very short lived because he then became a wandering soul, travelling the globe looking for more ‘fixes’ and ‘top ups’. The only change that had occurred was the realisation that he liked to be hysterical.  There was no substance to the change which meant he had to keep coming back for more.

Our dependence or interest in ideas and literature that can help us make sense of our lives, relationships, work, events, motivations, preferences and achievements isn’t a new thing. But it is perhaps growing to fill a void left by big social changes taking place across the world.

  1. We now live in a global community that is as secular as it is religious, and perhaps this means we are more puzzled and less certain than we once were.

  2. Our concept of family and friendship has changed. Where once it might have been possible to sit around a fireside chewing the fat and philosophising with those we love and live alongside, now we communicate in bite-size chunks, remotely, with people we inappropriately refer to as ‘friends’ in sentences of 140 characters or less.

  3. As new economies emerge, the value of education is more and more recognised (and feared by some as a result). Our curiosity about the world we live in has been stimulated.

  4. Taboos are being challenged all the time: every decade we seem to go through a new period of enlightenment where the social mores of the past are questioned, tested, dismissed and replaced.

So our quest for understanding goes on.

I love education and learning. My whole life is fuelled by it. I never want to stop.

But the more we seem to learn and the more information we seem to acquire, we are in danger of becoming even more confused and even less sure of what we apparently know.

Is there a central, common set of precepts that underpin our existence? Are there certain ‘truths’ that we can all adopt as sensible and valuable? Can we embrace fundamental and shared values that determine our behaviour? Or must we search endlessly for the Holy Grail that is the meaning of life?

Our thirst for answers is laudable and makes for an exciting life. But when everything is

up for grabs it’s a really scary ride. That’s why we need to establish a base-camp of stability for ourselves. We need to remind ourselves of some simple truths that maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to forget. These truths might not be ‘the truth’ but they are stabilisers that keep our wheels on the ground and help us navigate our way through unfamiliar terrain.

Temporary blindness or sudden memory loss prevents us from acting in the way that we inwardly believe to be right. And, of course, a whole range of environmental and resource factors have an annoying habit of diverting our attention away from our primary course. It’s easy to lose sight of what and who we are, what we’ve achieved, and where we’re going when we are so consumed by the day-to-day demands of life.

So the next time I find myself loitering around the ‘Personal Development’ section at my local bookstore, or browsing on-line for ‘Self-Help’ guides; I’m going to stop and ask myself: “can I help myself?” Adding to the plethora of data and ideas can be extremely helpful, but maybe I should start using what I’ve already acquired.

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