Self-Help Books

Topic for discussing self-help.

You can begin by replying to these questions:

Have you read any self-help books (recently enough to remember them)?

If yes, say some titles and whether each of those books helped.

If you haven’t read any that you remember, why not?

I was thinking about self-help books partly because I get too many fans who think they’re really smart and who want to talk about clever, sophisticated philosophy stuff instead of do self-improvement. This is problematic because self-improvement is one of the main points and also prerequisites of the philosophy stuff. I thought that asking people if they read self-help books might be a good way to filter people and talk to ones who are actually trying to improve themselves.

Also, I think self-help books have some decent knowledge in them (and some bad ideas too). And being decent at some of the stuff they explain is actually one of the prerequisites for learning advanced philosophy. To learn advanced stuff, it really helps to get your life figured out decently, including regarding self-help topics like emotions (such as anger, hostility, anxiety, sadness, upsetness, tilt, frustration, not being calm), bias, scheduling, productivity, procrastination, sleep, eating, exercise, habits, practical problem-solving, learning new things, doing new things, and communication.

One thing self-help books do is try to help people clean up their messy life to get to the point that they could actually tackle a big project.

I used an activity book last year called “How to Be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad)”. I was sad about going back to school and wanted to give up before I started. A friend recommended the book to me.

It was fun cuz I got to write about my emotions and it was something I don’t think a lot of. Even though the book didn’t ask me about feelings, I didn’t care; I kept writing about stuff I think of in public. I didn’t follow through the end though. I only got like 5 activities in.


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When I was in K-12 school I had problems with bullies & other peer social type stuff. I looked for self-help books on that subject at the time and didn’t find any. But my sources were limited to the school library and public library near my house - this was very pre-internet and at the time I had no money for book stores. Turns out simply not being in K-12 school fixed this enough that it was no longer a big concern (college was fine for me in this particular regard). I’d guess that if I looked now I’d find stuff though.

The self-help books I do remember reading were mainly about money and business-adjacent topics. I think the reason I sought such books out was that money seemed like one of my parents’ biggest ongoing unsolved problems and I wanted to make sure I didn’t live that way.

Books I remember reading & them helping (with the main idea(s) I remember getting):
Think & Grow Rich - The idea of money as a product of thinking instead of just capital and labor.
The Millionaire Next Door - Rich people often don’t look rich, and people who look rich often aren’t. How to manage your income & expenses to get in a positive wealth accumulation cycle.
The Roaring 2000s - Optimistic economic outlook - most of the news was negative so this was a good balance / kept me from being too afraid to try stuff.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street - Most stock price fluctuations are random from an investment perspective.
How to Invest Wisely - Long term low cost investing before widespread availability of index ETFs.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad - How to analyze your personal financial situation like a business, the importance of assets that deliver cash flow, introduction to the Kiyosaki ecosystem.
Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant - More detail on analyzing personal finance like a business.
Rich Dad’s Guide to Investing - How to think as an investor (like a professional) instead of just someone who happens to invest. WARNING: Some info in this book is very dangerous and misleading. Not for uncritical readers or those without significant pre-existing investment knowledge.
Rich Dad Advisors: Real Estate Loopholes - How to exploit specific tax benefits of real estate investment. The idea of joining a group of Real Estate investors in my local area.
The 4 Hour Work Week - The idea that you could earn a full time income without working full time.

Books I remember reading but not helping (with my guess about why):
How to Win Friends and Influence People - Too salesy.
I Dare You - Vague and reliant on self-inflicting the kind of social pressures I’d decided try not to let influence me.
As a Man Thinketh - Too much religion.
The Magic of Thinking Big - Too vague.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - I don’t remember much about this other than I read at least some of it.
Who Needs the Bank - Too simple & too much incorrect or misleading info.
Forever Cash - Too simple for me by the time I read it.

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I don’t actually know very clearly what boundaries people put on “self-help”. I wasn’t really thinking of personal finance as being in that category. I’m not sure how many people do or don’t, or what their reasoning is.

Seems worth looking up more.

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A New Earth at Amazon

Helps readers learn how to turn their suffering into peace.

You Are a Badass at Target

What sets this self-help book apart from the others are the engaging end-of-chapter exercises.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens at Amazon

The author breaks up the text with cartoons, quotes, brainstorming ideas, and stories from real teens to bring the book together.

What Are You Hungry For? at Amazon

This book offers a lot of intention-setting tips to help readers determine the motives behind their goals.

Declutter Your Mind at Amazon

This book offers hands-on exercises that engage your mindset and helps you turn negative thoughts into positive ones.

Big Magic at Walmart

The author’s honest, conversational, no-BS tone will light a fire in your soul and help you be upfront with yourself.

The Wisdom of Sundays at Amazon

The book has 240 pages full of snippets from what Oprah refers to as ‘life-changing insights.’

No personal finance and also, at a glance, I’d be kinda skeptical of these books.

A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. The books take their name from Self-Help, an 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles, but are also known and classified under “self-improvement”, a term that is a modernized version of self-help.

That’s fairly vague.

Self-help books often focus on popular psychology such as romantic relationships, or aspects of the mind and human behavior which believers in self-help feel can be controlled with effort. Self-help books typically advertise themselves as being able to increase self-awareness and performance, including satisfaction with one’s life. They often say that they can help you achieve this more quickly than with conventional therapies.

That’s a bit clearer and roughly what I expected.

Many celebrities have marketed self-help books including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Fitzmaurice, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Cher.

I’d be pretty skeptical of celeb self-help books from people who were already celebs before the book. If someone got famous due to their self-help stuff that’s different though. I think this sentence is wrong to group these together.

I think of self-help books in terms of intended purpose/audience rather than topic. Something like: self-help books are books intended to help people solve their own problems. As opposed to books intended for fun/entertainment, or books intended to impart the knowledge needed to solve someone else’s problems, or books intended for people who find a topic abstractly interesting or need to pass a test on the topic.

So for example if I had digestion problems I didn’t think doctors could/would be much help with I might go looking for self-help books about things I could do on my own to help with digestion. As opposed to books about digestion intended for doctors in training or people with an abstract interest in how digestion works.

That could be because large numbers of people have and care about problems with topics like the ones mentioned and find it hard for various reasons to get good help from others. So there’s more demand for self-help books on those topics than on other topics.

Or it could be that my conception of self-help books being defined by purpose/audience type is unusual.

I read The Courage to Be Disliked.

I liked Night 1 (part 1 of 5). The other 4 parts were only OK. I agreed with some ideas and disagreed with others.

The book is primarily about Adlerian psychology and has some philosophical elements. It’s presented as a dialog between a philosopher and a youth.

Part 1 introduced some important concepts such as how people manufacture emotions, such as anger, to achieve goals they have. Instead of focusing on “What caused this emotion?” people should think more about “What purpose does this emotion serve (now)?” That also works for behaviors and some other things besides emotions, and it works for thinking about other people not just yourself. This is focusing more on teleology (purposes) instead of etiology (causes). It relates to the book’s claim that our problem isn’t past trauma. We do stuff because it has a purpose in our life now, not because we’re damaged by past trauma. And understanding what went wrong in the past is not generally the right way to try to fix things; understanding the current situation is better.

I hoped that parts 2-5 would go into more detail to explain the claims in part 1, which I thought were introduced in a reasonable way, with a few examples, but not very rigorously explained or argued. But they didn’t. Instead, parts 2-5 introduced new more advanced concepts (some of which I think are wrong). The level of rigor didn’t go up. The parts 2-5 ideas were reasonably interesting and gave some summary of Adler stuff, and a few parts could be useful to people which is decent (if you expected most of the ideas to be useful to your life, you have unrealistically high expectations).

The part 1 stuff that I liked wasn’t new to me but it was a new presentation of it and I think it could help people.

One of the problems people have with self-help books is you can’t just pick one book or author as a single source of truth and listen to whatever they say. That won’t work well. Instead, you have to look at many sources and use judgment about how to use (and sometimes combine) ideas from multiple places. That’s kinda hard and the books don’t teach you to do it. It’s not just a problem with self-help books. It’s the same with e.g. math textbooks – no single book is very good, but if you read a bunch of books you can piece some knowledge together by finding useful bits here and there. But doing that requires some initiative, judgment, organizational skills, etc.

Why doesn’t using a single book work well?

  • the book gets some things right and some wrong
  • you only understand some of what the book said
  • the book can’t be fully one-size-fits-all. it can overlap with your situation/context but it won’t match it

Acting on parts you don’t understand well, even if they’re right, won’t work out. You need to read multiple books to try to find ideas that are right, that you understand, and which fit your context well.

Atomic Habits by James Clear says:

The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”

I was suspicious enough to look this up in eight sources. It’s wrong according to every source. Identity comes from the Latin word “idem”, which means “same”. Example source.

The full details of the etymology are unknown and there’s more than one theory about it. Parts of what Clear says is mentioned in some sources. It’s not made up from nothing but it’s not a reasonable statement of the etymology. He was biased to make an etymological claim that would fit the stuff he was saying in the book about identity. He correctly saw that his etymology claim would resonate with some readers. This misinformation has now been spread online in several places.

The closest thing I found to a source that agrees with Clear, from eight sources, is from American Heritage 4 dictionary’s entry for “identity”:

[French identité, from Old French identite, from Late Latin identitās, from Latin idem, the same (influenced by Late Latin essentitās, being , and identidem, repeatedly ), from id, it . See i- in [Indo-European Roots](x-dictionary:d:Indo-European Roots).]

This mentions both essentitās and identidem, like Clear does. However, it still says that identity comes from idem=same (which I think is uncontroversial), so Clear is wrong to omit that – he left out the primary etymology. AH4 gives essentitās + identidem (repeated being) as merely an influence on how the main thing happened (going from idem=same to identity).

OED mentions identidem as one possible influence that some scholars have thought but others have not agreed with and doesn’t mention essentitās at all. The majority of sources I saw didn’t mention identidem or essentitās.


After writing the above, I found more information in the book. Although there’s no source or footnote for this (at least in my ebook, which does have footnotes for other text), I text searched the whole book and found chapter 2 notes at the end which say:

Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness”: Technically, identidem is a word belonging to the Late Latin language. Also, thanks to Tamar Shippony, a reader of jamesclear.com, who originally told me about the etymology of the word identity, which she looked up in the American Heritage Dictionary.

So Clear is just wrong. I’d successfully found his source by finding the best match out of 8 sources I checked. The note weirdly makes it sound like he might not have looked it up himself, which would be terrible. If he did read AH himself, he’s either terrible at reading or so biased that his ability to read was defeated by bias.

The newest edition of AH is the 5th which is free online American Heritage Dictionary Entry: identity And it says the same thing as the 4th edition electronic copy I have.

There’s no reasonable, honest way to read that dictionary entry and think the text in the book is acceptable. Besides damning Clear, this also damns his publisher (Penguin Random House) and their standards, editors and fact checkers.

Also, now that I realize the publisher is Random House, I’ll share what their own dictionary says…

[1560-70; < LL identitas, equiv. to L ident ( idem ) repeatedly, again and again, earlier * idem et idem ( idem neut. of idem the same + et and) + -itas -ITY]

Note first that “essentitas” isn’t mentioned as part of the etymology at all and second that idem=same is given as an earlier latin root than identitas=repeatedly which is also not the identidem=repeatedly that Clear said. These people actually make a dictionary that disagrees with Clear and they don’t notice that (nor do they notice that the rival dictionary he cites also disagrees with Clear).

I finished reading Atomic Habits. Overall, it’s a lot better than what most people currently do or think.

Here’s a paragraph that particularly overlaps with CF and Oism:

HABITS CREATE THE FOUNDATION FOR MASTERY. In chess, it is only after the basic movements of the pieces have become automatic that a player can focus on the next level of the game. Each chunk of information that is memorized opens up the mental space for more effortful thinking. This is true for any endeavor. When you know the simple movements so well that you can perform them without thinking, you are free to pay attention to more advanced details. In this way, habits are the backbone of any pursuit of excellence.

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