TIB #11: How to improve yourself using books

Written by Arno Jansen

There is a lot to be said about the way the self-help industry makes us feel. Although the intentions are probably good, it is also a 10 billion dollar a year money printing machine. I have elaborated on the issues with that in the previous post

These are reflections on my own behavior reading these books, and how I go about getting the most out of these books without feeling like a complete failure afterwards 😉.

Read past the first chapter

In “Awaken the giant within”, Tony Robbins encourages us to read the whole book. Sounds silly, but read me out! According to Tony, over 90% of people do not get past the first chapter. No wonder it does not have any effect. Imagine the doctor prescribing a course of medication and you only take the first pill. That is no way to improve yourself.

Just like we should not judge a book by its cover, we should not judge a book by its first chapter either. Sure, it can be difficult to get into it. I have a hard time reading the introductory chapters where the author presents him/herself as a hero that should have been the lead character in a Marvel movie. 

But still, it was my choice to pick up the book, and if I want to get anything good out of it, I should give it a proper chance to resonate with me.

…but (it’s ok to) skip the bloat

Consider skimming or skipping the examples. Not by default, but if you notice that voice in your head saying “yeah yeah, I get it”, move on. It is a way to keep reading and see what else is presented, as opposed to putting the book down entirely. Again, it you don’t read the book, it will not improve yourself.

Sure, the best way to get a point across is to start with a bit of theory, a model, or system. Then use examples to validate your point. But some authors just go overboard with the examples. There are several books on my shelf that have a title that says it all, followed by a few hundred pages of examples, hardly adding anything new. 

Personal recommendations > bestsellers

If someone you know, recommends a book (or movie, or anything else), you are much more likely to get something good out of it. That can be someone you know personally, but may also be an (online) hero of yours. 

Recommendations by people you know, like, and trust are a much better indication of whether something will resonate or not than any bestseller list could ever be. Whenever the same book or author starts showing up on all the podcasts and youtube channels, it is clear there is a promotional campaign going on. That is not a bad thing, but it means (almost) nobody has read that book yet. So, any recommendations for that book are a result of the marketing machine. 

Take action!

Reading is not enough. You have to take action. Without action, you cannot improve yourself. Apply it to your own life in your unique way. This quote was also in the previous post, but it is fitting very well here:

When policymakers, organizations or scientists apply a one-size fits all strategy to change behavior, the results were mixed, but when they began by asking what stood in the way of progress and then developed targeted strategies to change behavior the results were far better.

Katy Milkman in “How to change”

It is up to you to ask yourself what stands in the way of progress. Knowledge is not the same as experience. Apply what you learned. Get some experience. Then it becomes apparent what that knowledge means to you.

These books are here to help, but “one size does not fit all”. It is unfair to expect a clear-cut solution to exactly your problem from any book. 

Improve yourself, but don’t fix yourself

The term “self-help” is often expressed in a way that implies that a person is broken. Whenever I start reading a book with the hope or expectation that it will address a very specific issue I have, it rarely works. But when I read it out of curiosity there are often surprises that resonate with me and therefore tend to stick. That is a much more natural way to improve yourself, or it is for me at least.

Those surprises give words to situations, challenges, or emotions I experience, but have not put into words yet myself. That is what it feels like to me when something resonates. Those moments can ‘fix’ a problem I did not know I had until then. 

Ok, rant over. I hope this makes a little bit of sense. I do not mean to belittle any author or reader, but I am struggling to give words to my perspective and experience. 

Please tell me what book had a positive impact on you after reading it? I am always interested in personal recommendations. Tell me, what should I read next?

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