Self help

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Samuel Smiles
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your mother

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Popping into your mind
If you’re reading it in a book, folks, it ain’t self-help. It’s help.
George Carlin
Not to be confused with legal self-help,Wikipedia which really is helping yourself.

Self help is the umbrella term given to a fairly large genre of self-guided instructional materials, particularly those centering around improving one's personal life. Self-help books, courses, and groups cover a vast amount of territory, including psychology, motivation, sex education, fad diets, law, and family issues. Ideas often flow between the self-help movement and other enthusiastic groups of people who like to confidently tell strangers how to live, such as the pick-up artist community, LessWrong, moralizing religions, or some practitioners of martial arts.[1] Most self-help doctrine is only peer-reviewed in the sense that sometimes authors talk to each other while using the urinals or stalls in the publisher's water closet.[note 1] Many self-help systems derive in fact from very dubious principles drawn more from pop spiritualism than from science. It has been suggested that the name is misleading because, as George Carlin put it, "If you're looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?"

Although the self-help movement has parallels in ancient philosophy and religious practice,[note 2] the modern form was born in the 19th and early-20th centuries with books like Samuel Smiles' Self-Help (1865)Wikipedia and Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936).Wikipedia Today, it is especially popular in the United States,[citation needed] due to that country's inculcation of individualismWikipedia and emphasis that virtue is rewarded. If one's society or culture is very unequal, and one's place in it largely depends on accidents (like who one's parents are, particularly in terms of class and race), then that would be too horrible to contemplate, so it must be wrong!

Self-help books have, through time and by design, consistently stood against social change by blaming the individual, rather than (for example) institutionalized racism or sexism, for not having enough will to advance in society.[2][note 3] This was exemplified in 2018 by Tony Robbins' public shaming of a sexual-abuse survivor and of the #MeToo movement in general.[2]

Instructional materials for other subjects — particularly the sort that might also be taught in school[note 4] — might reasonably be considered "self-help" as well,[note 5] though the term is not always used in those cases.

Any self-help system or theory will work just as well as any other — for a time. (The placebo effect may play a role here.) But given the nature of human nature, somehow each system needs continual reinforcement ("Buy the next book!" — "Come to our next church service!" — "Take the next course!") — or else the "seeker" moves on to the next self-help fad. Either outcome further fuels the vast and burgeoning self-help industry and its market.

All self-help systems peddle two different notions:

  1. People have the potential to be, have, or do anything they want.
  2. People should always be living at their full potential.

In other words, you are always supposed to be a god, and if you're not, you suck.

Some famous self-help books[edit]

Title Author(s) Published Comments
Freedom: Credos from the Road Barger, Ralph "Sonny" 2005 How you can achieve and excel by applying the immense wisdom of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club to your life.
The Courage to Heal Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis 1988 About child abuse and recovered memory; highly controversial and mostly rejected by the scientific community.
Games People Play Berne, Eric 1964 Book which popularized Transactional Analysis, an influential concept in 1950s and 1960s psychology which has since fallen out of vogue but remains influential within the self-help market.
Honoring the Self Branden, Nathaniel 1983 Branden turned to writing self-esteem books after his acrimonious split with Ayn Rand and the Objectivism movement
How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World Browne, Harry 1973 Self-help through anarcho-capitalism for societal dropouts. Browne later twice ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket.
Chicken Soup for the Soul Canfield, Jack, et al 1993 Plus a large series of books which followed. Generally filled with glurge[3] rather than pseudoscience.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff) Carlson, Richard 1997 Plus a large series of books which followed.
How to Win Friends and Influence People Carnegie, Dale 1936 It was targeted at people with social difficulties and anxieties.[note 6] Charles Manson used the book to recruit his merry band of murderers.[4][5][note 7]
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living Carnegie, Dale 1948
Shut up and stop whining: How to end your addiction to self help books Ctibor, Javiar 2024 Okay, not really, but he is thinking of writing it.
EST: Playing the Game the New Way (The Game of Life) Frederick, Carl 1974 Presents the concepts taught in Erhard Seminars Training in book form; the author was sued by Werner Erhard claiming it was an infringement on his intellectual property rights but the suit failed and the book became a best seller in 1975.
I'm OK, You're OK Harris, Thomas 1969 A classic presentation of Transactional Analysis, on the best seller lists for two years in the early 1970s.
We Are Not Afraid Hickam, Homer 2002 Some truly banal positive thinking 'n' go-get-em motivational talk wrapped in teh American flag and "we stand up to bullies after 9/11" BS here, written at about a 6th-grade reading level.[note 8]
Think and Grow Rich Hill, Napoleon 1937 Considered a classic on entrepreneurship written during the Great Depression; much of it is about good planning for the future and positive thinking, but it includes the pseudoscientific concept of tapping into "infinite intelligence" and a weird chapter on sexual sublimation.
Born to Win James, Muriel and Dorothy Jongeward 1971 More Transactional Analysis
Rich Dad, Poor Dad Kiyosaki, Robert and Sharon Lechter 1997 Financial self-help combined with The Secret.[6]
Psycho-Cybernetics Maltz, Maxwell 1960 Despite the esoteric name this is mostly basic goal-setting and developing one's social skills with some Christianity and self-hypnosis mixed in.
Let's Develop Newman, Fred 1994 An attempt to promote Newman's controversial Social Therapy to the self-help market.
The Power of Positive Thinking Peale, Norman Vincent 1952 A collection of veiled self-hypnosis techniques and difficult to substantiate anecdotes. Peale was the Trump family's pastor,[7] eventually showing some extremely negative aspects of purely 'positive thinking'.[8][note 9]
12 Rules for Life Peterson, Jordan B. 2018 Heavily guided towards young men seeking guidance. Filled with about what you would expect from JBP.
Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want Ray, James Arthur 2008 On the New York Times bestseller list in 2008. The author later made the news in October 2009 when 3 died and 19 were hospitalized after a 2 hour "sweat lodge" ceremony at a large group awareness training he was conducting in Sedona, Arizona.
Reader's Digest Do-It-Yourself Manual (The editors of Reader's Indigestion) 1965 A classic volume of professional tips and projects.
The Miracle of Psycho-Command Power Reed, Scott 1972 A poorly-conceived and frankly ridiculous ripoff of Psycho-Cybernetics and Think and Grow Rich mixed with pseudoscientific information on handwriting analysis and claims to teach you how to control others' actions by staring at them.[9]
Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! Robbins, Anthony ("Tony") 1992 Summed up to one sentence: "Get off your butt and do something." Recent motivational stuff includes such things as fire walking (seriously).[10]
Possibility Thinking Schuller, Robert 1967 A Christian televangelist's contributions to the self-help market.
Be Happy, You Are Loved Schuller, Robert 1986 Again, a Christian televangelist's contributions to the self-help market.
Passages Sheehy, Gail 1974 Very popular, reasonably "wise", but if the reader is not on the same "life track" as her chapters, it rapidly loses value.
Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct and Perseverence Smiles, Samuel 1859 Collection of stories praising those who improved their lives through hard work, thrift and education. Available online for free.[3]
In Tune With the Infinite Trine, Ralph Waldo 1897 "Send out your thought—thought is a force, and it has occult power of unknown proportions when rightly used and wisely directed—send out your thought that the right situation or the right work will come to you at the right time, in the right way, and that you will recognize it when it comes." Available online for free.[4]

Other books that purport to make your life better if you read them[edit]

  • Bach, Richard, Jonathan Livingston Seagullomnipotence through adrenaline junkiehood. Lots of bird photos to inspire the reader.
  • Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — Covey managed to parlay that book into an empire of personal organizers and inspirational material.[11]
  • Johnson, Spencer, Who Moved My Cheese? — a rodent parable.
  • Hubbard, L. Ron, Dianetics — later became the basis for a noxious cult.
  • Orr, Leonard and Ray, Sondra, Rebirthing in the New Age — Barely edges out The Miracle of Psycho-Command Power as the most ludicrous piece of shite ever to come out of the whole self-help/New Age mess. Claims you can achieve physical immortality.
  • Schwartz, David, The Magic of Thinking Big — popular among salespeople and business; Amway is fond of promoting this one too.
  • Redfield, James. The Celestine Prophecy - how to vibrate yourself off the planet.
  • Pirsig, Robert, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values — how to use spanners without getting your hands dirty.
  • Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret — a 2006 book/movie about the supposed power of wishful thinking.
  • Trump, Donald The Art of the Deal — 1987, an entirely ghostwritten "autobiography" of Donald Trump's. The book is an 11 step program for business success directly inspired by Norman Vincent Peale's works. The ties to Peale and Trump run deep; Trump went to Peale's church and Peale presided at his first wedding.

Some generic stuff that needs crystallising[edit]

  • Trudeau, Kevin — an ever-growing list of books "they" don't want you to read.

Skepticism for the whole damned movement[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. This would better be called "pee-review" — get it?
  2. One might confuse Benjamin Franklin's 18th-century adages and homespun advice with self-help, but Poe's law may apply.
  3. Granted, this "design" is as likely as not to be geared towards simply conning people on an individual scale to make money than actually maintaining the status quo at all costs, regardless of how unjust or dysfunctional it may be, in order to maintain one's privilege. The former may not be actively trying to make the world worse or uphold a system that sucks for everyone other than themselves — it's just a side effect of their selfishness and/or cluelessness. Either way, the end result of obfuscating social issues and hindering egalitarian ideologies is the same.
  4. Well, taught in a school with a properly-formulated curriculum, anyways — anything meddled with or (any benevolent entity that may or may not be out there help us all) outright run by followers of moronic ideologies, like creationism or anything on the far right, is almost certainly inadequate at producing people who can function in the real world…
  5. And unlike the kind of self-help we're talking about here, these instructions might actually be helpful — depending on the quality of the instructions, of course.
  6. Wikipedia: How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the first bestselling self-help books ever published. Written by Dale Carnegie and first published in 1936, it has sold 15 million copies globally. It was a New York Times best seller for 10 years.
  7. This adds an extra bit of irony to the The Dickies' song I'm OK, You're OK, which includes the lyric, "I'm in love with Squeaky Fromme."
  8. Seriously, the author of Rocket Boys (great book BTW) wrote this? It's enough to make one wonder which hack ghost writer wrote this and how did his publisher ever convince Hickam to allow his name on the cover? There is just no way the author of several great books on coal mining and amateur rocketry, and a West-By-God-Virginian to boot, also wrote this. The mind boggles.
  9. And so what does the Peal phenomenon mean? It means that an old, wrong answer to our new American problems is very popular and that we have a hard choice to make. We are a people accustomed to simplicity and success and unprepared for tragedy, suddenly thrust into mammoth responsibilities in a complex world and a tragic time. In the face of hard and unexpecteed facts we can rise to a new maturity, or we can turn instead to those who pat us on the head and say it isn't so at all, like the Reverend Doctor Norman Vincent Peale.
    —William Lee Miller[8]:24


  1. For example, see Steve Barnes' blog Dar Kush
  2. 2.0 2.1 Self-help gurus like Tony Robbins have often stood in the way of social change by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela & Christine B. Whelan (April 13, 2018 at 9:15 AM) The Washington Post.
  3. See TV Tropes or Snopes. [1] [2]
  4. Charles Manson's Turning Point: Dale Carnegie Classes By Diane Brady (July 22, 2013) Bloomberg Business.
  5. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guin (2013) Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1451645163.
  6. This Legal Dispute Says Everything About the Shadiness of Personal Finance Gurus by Helaine Olen (Feb 11, 20162:24 PM) Slate.
  7. How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself: The magnate’s biographer explains the spiritual guide behind his relentless self-confidence. by Gwenda Blair (October 06, 2015) Politico.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Some Negative Thinking About Norman Vincent Peale by William Lee Miller (January 13, 1955) The Reporter. Pages 19-24.
  9. If you remember the ads in comic books and supermarket tabloids during the 1970s and 1980s for a book telling you how to draw riches and lovers to you with your magnetic gaze, this was that infamous book. The hilarious illustrations and terminology the author invents are not to be missed! See it here
  11. FranklinCovey is not to be confused with Franklin Electronic Publishers.