The different selves of self help

Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 4:23pm

NOSELL

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I, like many other steadfast fiction readers, generally would not touch a non-fiction book with a ten-foot pole, preferring stories that offer an escape from my own mundane life. Once in a blue moon, I grudgingly venture into the world of non-fiction, feeling like I need to expand my repertoire of books, only to mentally check out after the first few pages. Why would I read about real life when imagination can conjure up scenarios that are so much more interesting? However, this year marked a surprising change for me. I entered the world of non-fiction books, and this time, I stuck around.

This adjustment came amid a time of extraordinary change, namely the emergence of COVID-19. During the long months of quarantine, many, inspired by online blogs or extreme boredom, decided to make use of their isolation by embarking on self-improvement journeys. As COVID-19 spread through the country and people were forced to remain home, online yoga, meditation and mental health resources started popping up on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. I watched as my friends began undertaking self-improvement journeys, posting about their morning quarantine yoga flows, mediation sessions and Chloe Ting workout challenges. 

Unfortunately, I was not one of the productive quarantine types. Besides reading and baking a lot, I did not respond to complete social isolation with increased motivation like some others, who seemed to be checking off every life goal during quarantine (starting a podcast, really?). Nonetheless, I surprisingly ended up participating in the aforementioned self-help trend. This summer I took a roadtrip across the country, and eight hours into the third day I was getting stir crazy from the boredom and monotony of the drive. Desperate for some entertainment, I looked for free audiobooks on Spotify. The only book I could find was Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck”. Having nothing else to do, I started listening and found myself immediately engrossed in the author’s philosophy on life. Five hours later, I had listened to the whole book, and it was through this experience that I stumbled onto a new genre of reading: self-help books.

After Manson’s book, I read two other self-help books in quick succession, “Daring Greatly” by Brenée Brown and “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. What I found most interesting about these three books was how different each author’s message was. I found myself wondering, how do I know who to believe? Some ideas resonated more deeply with me than others, and I tended to lean toward the books that had practical applicability in my life or related to the issues I was currently facing. 

Each author approaches giving advice differently. Manson talks about his failures bluntly, and explains the experiences that led him to his current philosophy on life. His personal style is straightforward, unsparing and often raunchy. Rather than telling readers to ‘be positive’ and ‘look on the bright side’ like I had expected from self-help books, he speaks frankly about what he thinks is wrong with people nowadays, and how they can fix themselves. Manson does not have a background in psychology or experience studying his ideas in practice, he simply explains his theory on having a fulfilling life and acknowledges his openness to being wrong and having more to learn.

Brenée Brown, on the other hand, has a somewhat different personal style from Manson; she is understanding, relatable and funny. I felt like I was having a conversation with a friend, as she took me through her own experiences with vulnerability and opening up. Brown also has a strong background in research and the study of human emotion, vulnerability, shame and leadership. She is therefore able to base all of her ideas on years of meticulous research, and grounds her recommendations in facts and studies. This came through in her book, as she references study after study that support her suggestions. I found myself trusting her due to the enormous amount of research that she presented as evidence, as well as her approachable and genuine personal voice. 

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie diverged the most from the two other books. Carnegie suggests psychology-based techniques for becoming a more likeable and charismatic person, proposing tips on ways to make people like you, win people to agree with your way of thinking and change people without arousing resentment. I felt mildly embarrassed to be reading this book, feeling like I was being given insider information on how to trick people into liking me. 

In every book, I noticed the author’s experiences and background subtly intertwining themselves with their recommendation for how others could transform their lives. They viewed the world through the lenses of their own lives, and as a result, their conclusions included ideas that might not work for everyone. For example, Brenée Brown spoke a lot about her perfectionistic tendencies and how to mitigate them. Personally, I am not a perfectionist, so this portion of the book went entirely over my head. Manson, meanwhile, recounted his experiences dropping everything to travel the world, something I have always dreamed of doing. His findings were extremely interesting and clearly life-altering for him; however, his methods  may not be the most suitable for everyone. Carnegie gave advice based on psychological techniques on how to make others like you. For me this did not resonate, as some of the strategies that Carnegie suggested seemed manipulative and underhanded to me. 

Reading these three wildly different books helped me understand that self-help books are not one-size-fits-all. Each book was a bestseller and incredibly popular among readers, and yet I had extremely different reactions to each one. I ended up picking and choosing the ideas that fit my own life and disregarding the rest. My struggles may not be the same as the authors’, and so it only makes sense that some of the techniques that helped them may not be as beneficial to my own life. Therefore the biggest suggestion I have for others looking to read self-help books is to take everything you read with a grain of salt, and read a variety of different books to find ideas that resonate with your own life. 

I am surprised to find myself seeking out these non-fiction books now. But there is something to be learned from hearing an outside perspective on how to successfully go through life. Reading these books took me out of my own life briefly, and exposed me to the findings of people who had undergone journeys of self-improvement. Though by no means a quick fix to anything, I did appreciate the push these books gave me to examine my own life and how I might adjust to live in a happier and more purposeful way. I hope I have convinced at least a few of the other hardcore fiction readers out there to try something a little out of your comfort zone.