Self-Help Books

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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Big Magic at Walmart

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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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Would you recommend to people who currently have messy life to use self help books to clean up their messy life? Or improving the skills required to become to learn philosophy and become better at philosophy a better way to go about cleaning up your messy life? A lot of people assume that if they become better a philosophy they will be able to think through things better and make better decisions and learn things faster which will help them clean the mess in their life as well.

I haven’t read many self help books but I watched interviews and talks authors gave (podcasts and YouTube) about the books I thought I might like. Some names I can remember off the top of my head:

The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane to deal with social awkwardness
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. It’s on psychedelics. The most interesting thing being advertised there to me was the ability to have a transformative experience and have a drastic change to my emotional life for the better by having a breakthrough experience with psychedelics.
I’ll put Waking Up by Sam Harris in the same category as Michael Pollan. Sam also talks about psychedelics but his main focus is meditation. He talks about the ability to transcend the self and by doing that you get to experience the deepest form of well being that is possible. Once you learn how to do this you have this ability, you’re golden. You can deal with any emotional problem by using this ability.
Discipline Equals Freedom by Jocko Willink talks about how by being disciplined like waking up early and starting the day by collecting small wins as you go along the day helps you accomplish more and ends up giving you free time to do more
Jordan Peterson: watched too much of his video lectures online and clips even more times. Didn’t help though I think if I had done a better job at applying his stuff it could’ve led to positive results.

Meditation stuff by Sam Harris actually helped me with emotions. Of the ones you mentioned anger, hostility, tilt, not being calm are the ones I think I got somewhat good at managing.
anxiety, sadness, upsetness, frustration are the harder ones. This encourages me to try the meditation technique at these emotions as well. I’m confused as to why I didn’t try this technique on these emotions. These emotions have caused me considerable amount of problems. If I’m able to handle these emotions better using meditation it would be great for me.

Do you have any books in mind that you would recommend for bias, scheduling, productivity, procrastination, habits, practical problem-solving, learning new things, doing new things, and communication.

For sleep, eating, exercise I would recommend Discipline Equals Freedom. It will mostly teach you how to get the discipline down for doing these things consistently. It doesn’t talk about things like how many hours you should sleep or what routine should you follow before going to bed or what’s a good diet or which exercises to do.
I don’t know if the book is anti CR because it is somewhat coercive. (I don’t understand coercion well so what I’m saying here could be very wrong.) The book asks you to do the right thing even if it doesn’t feel right. The right thing to do (according to the author) is early to bed and rising early and not eating doughnuts for breakfast but something more nutritious and exercising 3 to 5 times a week. I presume that like me most other readers will also explicit agree that these are the right things to do. So even if you don’t feel like doing these things you do them anyways and after sometime you will start enjoying doing them. You’ll enjoy a nutritious meal and feel better throughout the day and even at that moment for making the right decision after you start doing it consistently. You won’t crave the instant gratification of eating a doughnut and actually feel bad about wanting a doughnut.

EDIT: I guess for procrastination and productivity Atomic Habits is a good one. I haven’t read it or watched youtube/podcast interviews but I know some things about it and from that I guess that the book is about those two things among other things. Deep Work by Cal Newport is another book that I know about which is about productivity.

Edit

A wrong press of some button led to me posting an incomplete message. I was not able to delete it so I just changed the message to “Edit” thinking I would edit that message later and post the complete message there. The site says it has been too long so now I’m not able to edit the previous message. I thought I should explain what happened because above message doesn’t make sense. Below is the complete message that I wanted to write.

Jordan Peterson says that life is hard and suffering is a part of it. You should expect suffering. This is a conventional idea and he’s sharing it as self help advice. For example to get a college degree there are certain requirements. The conventional idea says that even if you find completing those requirements painful you should just go through the pain because getting the degree is important. I think this is an example of asking someone to be ok with coercion which is I think wrong.

This is the kind of idea I would’ve accepted earlier in life. I would accepted that one has to go through pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are inevitable part of life. After learning some DD like Ideas like problems are soluble and that emotions are ideas as well I gained a new perspective. I learned that if your emotions and your explicit goals are in conflict then there’s a problem here and because problems are soluble this problem can be solved as well.

Self help ideas like accepting that suffering is a part of life are saying that if your emotions are in conflict with your explicit goals you should disregard your emotions. I think such self help ideas are wrong. I think that actual improvement could only happen if I became better at reasoning. Which is why I don’t try self help stuff. Another problem that I’m pretty sure of is that I’m making many mistakes in applying CF ideas to my life. I think following my bad understanding of CF to clean up my messy life is also wrong.

If self help is wrong and my understanding of CF is poor what should I do? The best solution I think is getting a better, more correct understanding of CF and apply that to clean up my messy life. But what should I do till I develop a better understanding of CF? Should I follow the conventional ideas and make the irrational mistakes that conventional ideas ask you to make or should I pause my life and first get better at philosophy and then go on to other goals?

Take this for example. Here you recommend how to philosophically approach the lack of will power problem. You say that instead to trying to learn how to control emotions better you recommend trying to instead figure out the lack of skills because of which these emotions arise and become better at those skills. According to my understanding this philosophical way of solving the problem is better rather than going the self help route. There is a lot of self help stuff (Jocko Willink is one I know) on how to develop more will power.

Take this situation: I prefer wasting time by watching TikTok reels instead of studying. Is self help methodology way of building more will power so that you can spend more time studying even if you don’t enjoy it better or or going the philosophy way better?

A related problem which I talked about here also is that learning skills the philosophical way and building will power the self help way both feel like effort. But philosophical way is clear that you shouldn’t expect revolutionary changes but evolutionary changes instead. Whereas self help says that once you build will power and you start doing the right thing you will enjoy it. And even if you don’t enjoy it you know the reward will be bigger like getting good grades on your degree which will mean better job higher pay etc. So it is kind of advertising revolutionary changes.

Also in the philosophical way I’m not clear about the goals. How to evaluate goals within the path towards the final goal which is me becoming better at problem solving. Even if I become better at underlying skills what happens next? As you said

What sorts of something elses or underlying causes could be relevant? Here are a few but you could brainstorm many others.

It could be the case that there are many other something elses apart from these. This seems worrisome to me because it could be the case that I could be stuck at this level forever of improving at willpower forever and end up not making any progress towards my final goal. Is this right? That if one follows the philosophy way one could end up spending a lot time developing basic skills and take a long time to get around to making any progress towards cleaning up the mess in their life?

Whereas self help says that once you build will power and you start doing the right thing you will enjoy it.

Self help isn’t one thing. Some resources have good things to say re willpower and other resources give bad advice. Success can require looking at many self help resources, trying a variety of things, and using critical thinking to form opinions about which work and which are errors.


You can’t plan everything in advance. You have to try stuff and see if it works. If not you can try to fix it. If that doesn’t work you can try something else. I’ve tried to advise people on reasonable things to try.

If you can just directly do philosophy study, great, do it. Most people can’t. People who think they can are mostly fooling themselves. People generally need to work on prerequisite skills such as reading and text analysis. They usually misunderstand what they read/hear too much.

Many people can’t immediately work on grammar and reading stuff either. They need some other prerequisites such as to be calmer (meditation or emotions self help stuff can help) or to manage their habits/schedule better (some self help can help with that). Or they need less of a “get rich quick” mindset and more ability to work on a project over time – otherwise e.g. they would not be able to read novels in order to get more into reading in order to later read non-fiction (that project would seem too long and slow, and they’d quit before reaching the goal).

re grammar stuff, you should shift your perspective to see it as impressive. for example, Steven Pinker can’t do it. I have a long, upcoming video analyzing a paragraph he wrote. One thing you may takeaway from the video is that he hasn’t done the kind of study I’m advocating and his writing is suffering due to him lacking those skills. So in other words, if you can get the grammar stuff right and start doing stuff with it like text analysis, writing critiques, and avoiding those errors in your own writing, then you’d already be (in a significant way) doing better than most famous intellectuals.

I discussed a self help idea in the meditation thread. It was related to meditation so I posted it there. It’s relevant here as well so I’m linking it to this thread.

Agree with everything. I’m part of those people who can’t just directly do philosophy study.

I’m having this big confusion, if you clear out the confusion for me it would be really helpful. I don’t think you’ve ever said this but I drew the implication from your essay Dialog: Non-Consumption of Philosophy and from the short viewpoint for discussion of it that you posted here that philosophy comes first. Getting better at philosophy is important because any other project that you work on use philosophy in some important way or has some philosophical assumptions underlying it. When you start failing at your chosen project it could be because of errors due to bad philosophy. As your project becomes more and more sophisticated it is gonna become mostly about knowledge. And then good philosophy of knowledge is required otherwise good environment for knowledge creation won’t be present.

If this implication I’m guessing from the article is correct then won’t this problem occur when applying self help ideas to improve life? Or is it the case that self help ideas can be implemented in life without great philosophy as well because of some reason? Or maybe self help ideas can be applied to improve life and not being great at philosophy is not gonna be catastrophic to the project of applying self help to improve life?

If that is the case are there other stuff as well that one should also get good at in life where being bad at philosophy is not gonna be catastrophic? I know you mentioned learning to read and write and understand better as one of those things. It make sense to me that one can get decently good at these skills and after learning philosophy they’ll be able to catch even more systematic errors and thus become even better at these skills. But I’m wondering what should one do in the following example (this is personal to me) - going through college and getting a decent paying job (120K+ USD)? I could characterize this as a prerequisite for philosophy as well in the following way - you need a decent paying job so that you’re able to live comfortably and be able to take out time so that you have the time to learn philosophy. Does it make sense to clean up the mess in their life by getting a job first before getting better at philosophy?

Thanks for pointing this out. This changed how I viewing the project of improving writing and getting better at expressing.

This is also an error I tend to make. Thanks for pointing it out.

Here’s another one like that by ET

I forgot about this article. I had read it a long time ago. I didn’t remember most of its content. I reread it now. I agree with it. I don’t think it’s precisely relevant to my problem/ what I’m talking about. This thread made me realize that self help is a prerequisite for learning philosophy.

Elliot says that people in all fields are bad at reasoning due to bad philosophy. If you decide to work in the physics field you should expect to not make progress because of bad philosophy. Elliot recommends that the way to deal with this situation is that you should look to become good at philosophy so that you don’t make the errors that people in the physics field are making due to bad philosophy. Then you have a chance to make progress in physics.

Similarly aren’t people in self help field of ideas bad at reasoning as well? Shouldn’t we (edited. forgot to put the word we) be wary of following their ideas. Elliot says that you can follow ideas from self help people and you can deal with the problem of bad ideas in that field due to bad philosophy by using your own capacity to reason. You can try ideas and and try to improve them if you find problems with them or try something other ideas from that field if the idea you’re currently trying doesn’t help you. Isn’t that somewhat contradictory? Why this difference of opinion? I think this difference of opinion exists because physics is more complex field. Elliot said someplace that you don’t need to be (edited. forgot to put the word be) good at philosophy to be a good car mechanic. So maybe that’s why the difference of opinion. If you were somehow magically better at philosophy then yes you would do a better job with applying self help ideas to your life as well but it’s not required. So because self help stuff is perhaps easier and it is required to take on a big challenge like learning philosophy you can follow self help even in your current situation.

And that brings me to my main question. Can going to college be a prerequisite as well? Just like using self help ideas to improve oneself is really useful can college be useful as well? Self help is useful because it can help 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. Similarly I think college can be helpful because it gives you a degree and provides you with a network and make it easier for you to get a higher paying job if your degree is in STEM fields. Does it make sense to go to college even if there are some bad things about college including the problems caused due to bad philosophy?

You can learn physics and get a job and do useful tasks without great philosophy. Some people fail at that but plenty succeed.

You need great philosophy if you want to be a physics genius and make breakthroughs. Or you can be really lucky to come up with a particular idea that turns out great. Or you can be like 1 in 100,000,000 people and that could work out too, though as far as I know there are zero top tier physicists currently.

It’s similar with self-help. You can learn about it and do OK with it and have a decent chance at that as a normal person with mediocre philosophy skills. But if you want to innovate in the field, then you need something special such as great philosophy or extraordinary luck or being one of a tiny fraction of people who somehow manage to be really effective in some other way.

Physics is actually kinda easier to learn to a medium level than self help. If you’re pretty good at math (top 10%?) and then do university classes and care enough to put in the work, then you have a good chance to get to medium level at physics (competent to do physics work but not very creative). We have no training with similar reliability for self-help topics.

So are self help books any good when most of the experts are mediocre and bad at innovating? Some are. Why? A few people manage to do above average for some reason. Most attempts at innovation are bad. But a lot of people give pretty unoriginal advice. They copy a lot of the best prior work. So then their advice is OK. So some of the popular books are either from someone particularly good or, more commonly, they borrow/share/repeat a lot of the ideas from such a person. Often they add a bit of spin on previous ideas. This spin often makes things worse without ruining them. Sometimes it makes it a little better in some non-fundamental way, like being better at communicating with modern audiences, or being better at communicating with a particular niche group.