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Self-Help: Therapy for the DIY Age


Self-HelpSelf-help wasn’t always a multi-million dollar industry. Its origins go way back to when the first caveman or cavewoman got up off the floor, brushed themselves down, and got back on with it.

So what is there to say about a Big Idea that’s been around forever and is almost certainly wired into our genes?

For me, it is the self-help industry that is the story. It’s a story of:

  • academic rigour and genuine solutions, alongside
  • mindless credulity and outright charlatanry

Why Do We Love Self-help?

On the face of it, you’d expect us to prefer going to someone else, who can help us get better or solve our problems. But, I guess the truth is, that means owning up to other people that we need help. And that, in turn, means truly acknowledging our own need, to ourselves.

Self-help, on the other hand, slips under the radar. No-one else needs to know our problems, and we can pretend they aren’t so bad.

The 50:50 Self-help Instinct

Much as we want to help ourselves, though, we’d also rather someone else could step in with a magic solution. But ideally, we wouldn’t have to admit to anyone – even the helper – that we need them.

Enter the self-help gurus. The growth of the self-help industry rose with the massive growth in the book trade that started with the coming of the paperback book.

Now, we can look to other people to help us to help ourselves.

Paperback Snake Oil

The problem is that any growth industry – paperback or otherwise – will attract opportunists. Perhaps the most devastating critique of ineffectual self-help is Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2000 book, ‘Smile or Die’ (US|UK), which dissects the way positive thinking experts mislead cancer patients – often leading them to place less reliance than is good for them, on advanced modern medicine.

Academic Superstars

On the other hand, the rise and rise of self-help has led many academics to take their new-found knowledge straight to the public. They know that if they wait for the journalists and self-help entrepreneurs to discover their published work and popularise it, it may be too long. It may never happen.

By writing their own self-help books, academics can:

  • speed their ideas into the public’s minds
  • ensure those ideas are represented the way they wish
  • make a financial return on the work they have put in

The challenge is that popular success can bring wealth and fame – but can also undermine perceptions of academic rigour.


Some of the best examples of academic self-help authors have featured in our articles:

Some non-academic self-help authors we have covered…

What is Self-help?

We’re so familiar with the idea of self-help – and the name seems to conjure such an obvious interpretation – that we are at risk of not having a clear definition. The one I like the best is from the UK’s National Health Service (NHS):

Self-help therapies are psychological therapies that you can do in your own time to help with problems like stress, anxiety and depression.

Self-help is improving your own condition in some way, following guidance from publicly available information and ideas. These are often in the form of:

  • books
  • magazine articles
  • web-based videos and courses
  • seminars, workshops, or conferences

Some would class coaching in the self-help category. Coaches help us to find our own answers. But they do help us. So, I’ll leave you to form your own opinion on that knotty, but ultimately irrelevant, distinction.

How to Help Yourself

I usually like to include a ‘how to’ section in these articles. But how to what? How to:

  • develop a régime
  • write a book
  • become a guru
  • or help yourself?

I think the only sensible answer is the last of these. And the way to help yourself is to seek out skilled help from someone who really does know their business. And then to comply with their recommendations diligently.

In the UK, for medical and psychiatric needs, your first call must be the NHS – and elsewhere, trained doctors are should be your starting point. But even the NHS recognises the value of self-help. It recommends websites where you can get self-help advice – including one with carefully selected self-help books. That seems to me to be a good place to start.

Self-help for Managers

It seems to me that you don’t have to be overweight, miserable, dysfunctional, angry, or addicted to take advantage of the benefits of self-help. Any good manager should be looking for self-help opportunities constantly.

Because the best way to help yourself professionally – for the long term – is to keep learning (do take a look at our article on the Growth Mindset). And for that, there are thousands of valuable books and articles. That’s the business I am in and that’s also the business that Management Pocketbooks is in.

So, to help yourself in your career:

Keep learning

What is Your experience of Self-help?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

Take a look at any of the hundred or more Management Pocketbooks. They are all full of tips, techniques, and tools to make you a better manager and more effective professional.

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