TIB #10: Why self help books don’t work (4 convincing reasons)

Written by Arno Jansen

Books focussed on self improvement rarely deliver what the cover promises. This two-part series explores why self help books don’t work and often fail to make a dent in our lives.

Spoiler alert: It’s not just them, it’s you too 😉.

Whats wrong with ‘them’

It is estimated that ‘Self-help’ is a 10 billion dollar industry. So a lot of money can be made with a successful self-help book. Big marketing campaigns buy attention to build hype and get as much exposure as possible for the book. That does not mean it is an indicator of the quality of the book. By dismissing marketing as pure evil, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to get something good out of it. By buying into all the hype all the time, you are spending a lot of time and money with a low return on that investment.

Survivorship bias

Much of the self-help material is based on survivorship bias. Or at least it is presented that way.

Survivorship bias is a form of selection bias that can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because multiple failures are ignored


The author presents stories how he or she overcame seemingly impossible odds in life, by practising what is preached in the book. While (hopefully) not untrue, it is hardly the whole truth.

It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence (correlation “proves” causality).


Many books written based on personal experience, remove a lot of context and nuance to present a cookie-cutter solution. Followed by (extreme) examples told through gripping storytelling to validate the solution.

While a great way to make a statement, it also sets high expectations for the reader. If it looks too good to be true, the reader will dismiss the point the author tried to make.

For me, the more an author tries to convince me of a binary outcome, the less I am inclined to believe the author.

 I am allergic to this formula: "Do/Don't do this and you will never/always <insert result here>". 

The “I’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to” fallacy

It is a noble endeavor to share the mistakes and struggles an author overcame to prevent readers from making the same mistakes. Unfortunately, I do not believe life works that way.

For many years, my wife had this quote sitting on her desk:

Experience is what you get, just after you needed it most

My wife

Bulls-eye 🎯. We can read about many things on how to improve our lives. And some of it may work. But most things will only “click” after we have our own experience with it. That is because we have to learn our own lessons our own way. And takes time. Change is a process, remember?

Of the few things I’ve learned is that humans hardly ever learn from the experience of others. They learn – when they do, which isn’t often – on their own, the hard way.

Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer in “Time Enough For Love”

Many self-help books present a method, a system of sorts, and present us with conclusions for us to take action on. Unfortunately, these conclusions are not our own. Therefore, the message in the book may sound enticing and can resonate with the reader, but it rarely lets the reader come to their own conclusions. I think that is a big part of the answer why self help books don’t work.

One size does not fit all

There is a saying in marketing: “Speak to everyone and you speak to no one”. Or “niche down”. In other words: if you are too generic with your message, you will not be convincing anybody.

When policy makers, organisations or scientists apply a one-size fits all strategy to change behaviour, 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”

A good self-help book will urge you to think about how to apply what is presented in the book, to your life. It may even provide some guidance on how to find the way to apply the learnings to your life.

On the other hand, we should not defer the responsibility for our own change, to the author of any self-help book. It is our duty as readers to absorb what is presented, and experiment to find ways to apply it to our own lives.

Why self help books don’t work? Now you know why!

Now you know what is wrong with ‘them’. We have an answer to the question: “Why self help books don’t work?” End of story, right? Wrong of course.

You know better than to blame ‘them’ for failing to improve your life. Therefore, in the second part of this two-part series, we have a look at what you as a reader can do to increase the benefits you get from those books.

Looking to get more productive, focused, and resilient?

Join my free Focus Finder email course to transform yourself from deeply distracted to fully focused.

    Looking to get more productive, focused, and resilient?

    Join my free Focus Finder course and go from deeply distracted to fully focused.

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