Self-help is unfortunately low status

Arab Strap, Speed-Date:

The so-called Dr. Gray’s a billionaire because he’s got the sexes sussed
We’re a different race, we can’t communicate and mind-games are a must
But if you need a man, just buy the book and follow all “The Rules,”
There’s no-one quicker to splash out than vulnerable and desperate, lonely fools

Self-help books are low status. This seems unfortunate to me. I’m a fan of the self-help genre on the whole. But that’s like saying that I’m a fan of science fiction – 90% of everything is crap. But even if much of the genre is low quality, the idea that improvement is possible is a valuable one.

I didn’t start out with the belief that I could make improvements to the things that I wasn’t happy with. I was very unhappy as a teenager, and a large part of that came from feeling stuck and unable to improve anything about my situation. Until my mid-twenties I avoided self-help books, due in part to the poor reputation that they have, and this was clearly a mistake on my part. It was only when I read Kent Beck’s Test-Driven Development by Example that I started thinking seriously about techniques and systems that would lead to better results. And that led me on to reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

One of the things I learnt from reading self-help books is that you can get better at things that are important to you. Improvement is possible. This might sound obvious, but in the midst of depression that’s not how a person thinks.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to criticise the claims of self-help books. However, even if none of the rules in The Rules are helpful, it’s still valuable to understand the principle that there are things that you can do that will help you find a good partner and things that will hinder, and you can choose which of those you do. I read quite a few self-help books in my twenties, and part of what I was getting from that was that I was internalising an attitude that says that improvement is possible. And this was an antidote both to the learned helplessness of many years of depression, and to a group of friends who sometimes seemed like they’d rather go to the pub to complain about their situation than do anything to improve it.

The low status of self-help books was an obstacle that I had to get around (in my own head) before I could start learning that attitude.