There comes a point in life where we start to ask questions.
Perhaps our relationships aren’t going as well as we’d like them to. Perhaps we’d like to develop better habits and get lean. Or maybe we want to learn how to crush it at work.
And so, as people have done for thousands of years, we seek out teachers and often turn to the self-help section of our local bookstore.
There’s no doubting that many of these books are full of wisdom that can help us to stand on the shoulders of giants, and get closer to our goals much faster. It’s simply not possible to learn in a single lifetime through experience alone what thousands of people have learned and distilled into books for us.
But like most things in life, nay, all things, it is about striking a delicate balance.
Turning to a handful of self-help books to solve specific challenges or problems in your life is one thing, but getting too deep into the world of self-help can leave us forever feeling like we are not enough. At some point, we just need to get on with it.
And I was the archetype of the self-help junkie.
I read everything from the Stoics — Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, to Eastern Philosophy — Herman Hesse, Lao Tzu, and Thich Nhat Hanh, through to the 20th Century gurus — Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, and Napoleon Hill, and of course, modern-day motivators such as Tim Ferriss, Tony Robbins, and Seth Godin.
I read books on motivation, love and relationships, marketing, sales, philosophy, fitness, health, spirituality and mindfulness, habit formation, productivity….you name it. All in all, I’ve read well over 300 books that in some way, shape, or form, are construed as self-help.
But the inherent danger present in all of these books is that they fill our minds with ‘shoulds’.
Here’s how your romantic relationship should be.
Here’s how your business should run.
Here’s what you should eat.
And when we fill our minds with shoulds, every day becomes a struggle to live up to some idealized version of the world put forth by said authors, across a multitude of dimensions.
It can lead us to think that we should have a ‘better’ job, should have a ‘better’ romantic partner, that our business should be doing ‘better’, and that we, as individuals, are simply not enough.
On the back of my book, Time Rich, I’ve been delivering keynote talks on productivity, and I’ll never forget what one participant said after a talk I gave. “Great, more things I’m doing wrong”. My heart sank. Here I was trying to help people, but at the same time I was putting stuff in their heads that made them think less of themselves.
And I could relate to her plight. My overdosing on self-help books led me to look down on not only myself, but also on people around me who didn’t live up to said ideals, and that included friends and romantic partners.
Just look at this line from Thich Nhat Hanh’s How To Love.
‘True love includes a feeling of deep joy that we are alive. If we don’t feel this way when we feel love, then it is not true love.’
Do we always feel deep joy in our relationships?
It’s easy to read this, evaluate your relationship, conclude that it’s not true love, and either show up as a diminished version of yourself in said relationship or end it altogether. That’s the sense it gave me when I read it.
But the reality is that romantic relationships are hard work, period.
They’re not joy all the time. They are rollercoasters. Highs, lows, in-betweens mostly. Acknowledging that romantic relationships are tough work and require effort is far more liberating than thinking you should always be feeling a sense of deep joy.
Reading far too many self-help books diminished my compassion for the struggle and suffering that people face on a daily basis to just show up, and made me, in some respects, less relatable.
Yes, there is value in striving to get better at things that are important to you, at things that are important to people you care about. But there is a fine line between improving yourself, and becoming a judgmental piece of sh!t who is never satisfied with their own efforts or the efforts of people around them.
In life, a great deal of happiness comes from accepting what is, rather than forever fighting for what should be. And perhaps, striking this delicate balance comes from simply being — accepting what is, while working slowly towards becoming something ‘greater’ or ‘better’.
This requires that we fully accept where we and others are on our respective journeys.
Only then can we use self-help books to guide us forward to becoming the people we want to be.
As for me, I’ve read more than my fair share of self-help books. It’s time to just live what I’ve learned, do my best, and accept what is.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.