How do you define a ‘self-help’ book?

I define it pretty loosely as “books designed to make an okay life even better”. For the purposes of this blog I generally exclude books that address serious issues like addiction, abuse, mental illness, etc.

What do your categories mean?

I break down the books I review into categories by the topic that they address. Often a book could fit into more than one category, but I try to stick with the topic that I perceive as the central theme. These categories are:

  • Communication: Present, negotiate, persuade, listen, or ask questions more skillfully
  • Confidence: Improve your self-esteem and believe in your ability to do great things
  • Creativity: Innovate and think up new ideas
  • Job Satisfaction: Find a job, look good and do well in the workplace, and deal with a bad boss or other office hazards
  • Leadership: Manage and lead effectively
  • Productivity: Get organized, schedule and plan your time, and get more accomplished in the same amount of time
  • Purpose: Figure out “what you’re meant to be doing”
  • Success: Start pursuing your life purpose, or get even better at achieving your goals

Note: The Success category is technically an amalgam of the Productivity and Purpose categories, but there are so many books that try to address both that I need a specific category for them. It makes sense when you think about it – productivity is about doing things more efficiently while purpose is about knowing the right things to do. Doing more of the right thing is the ideal of success, right?

Wow, you really love self-help books, huh?

Yes and no.

Despite reading self-help books frequently enough to start an entire blog about them, I have some serious reservations about the genre as a whole. Ones that I will, eventually, get around to writing about.

What things do you look for in a self-help book? What are your pet peeves or things you dislike?

I like: Engaging writing and a clear authorial voice; structured suggestions or exercises that encourage you to find the right answers for yourself; applicable research or study results that are well-cited to support the author’s point.

I dislike: Inflexible, prescriptive rules and systems; a heavy focus on certain roles or types of people (what if I’m not a commissioned sales rep or an entrepreneur starting my fifth business in ten years, huh?); bald assertions of fact that are not backed up by proof; research being cited to “prove” an at-best-tenuously-related point; authorial congratulatory smugness; a heavily implied “Most people suck, you don’t want to be like them, right?” message; a lot of talk about God or ineffable spiritual forces; a lot of weight loss talk, usually as an example of the goals the reader could (read: should) set.

Why do you hate God talk?

I’m not religious or spiritual, personally. Tons of discussion about God’s plan or the infallibility of the Law of Attraction or whatever just makes me feel like the book isn’t meant for me.

Put another way: Have you ever read a personal development book that was supposedly meant for everyone, but spent 90% of its time talking about following up on leads and handling your book of business as if everyone in the world is a salesperson? I have. Lots of God talk gives me the same impression – the book isn’t necessarily bad, but I’m not the target audience.

Okay, so why do you hate weight loss talk?

This one is a bit more complicated.

I am a fat woman. I am perfectly happy with my weight. But our culture constantly tells fat people that we will never be successful or confident unless we become skinny. I (and all fat people) constantly hear societal messages telling me I am a lesser being because I’m fat. Moreover, I have to challenge the assumption that I’m lazy, undisciplined and self-deluding if I don’t spend all my time trying to become not-fat.

The constant use of weight loss as the goal du jour in certain self-help books reinforces the cultural idea that losing weight MUST be priority #1 for all fat people.

It’s also important to keep in mind that manipulating your body size/shape/weight is a lot more complicated than, say, setting up a functional filing system. The human body is incredibly complex, and research suggests that it has various systems designed to resist long-term weight loss (hence why almost everyone who tries to lose weight ends up gaining it back).

Finally, most self-help book authors do not seem to have any particular expertise in health or weight. At best, their facile “understanding” of the issue leads them to make oversimplified statements about what you should do to lose weight. At worst, they have downright troubling suggestions. I read one book where the author casually presented an example of a weight loss plan which included a diet of 1200 calories per day (along with exercising six days a week). That’s a pretty extreme commitment to make without even consulting your doctor.

While I am fine with an occasional mention, I side-eye books that consistently beat the “for example, you could lose ten pounds!” drum.