Why Self-help Books Are Useless (and How to Make Progress Nevertheless)

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Self-help or other non-fiction books seem helpful. But in reality, they don't have a practical impact. People read them, get inspired a little, then the feeling wears off and they move to read another one. It seems that people chase pain killers instead of finding the root cause of the problem and dealing with it once and for all.
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Self-help or other non-fiction books seem helpful. But in reality, they don't have a practical impact. People read them, get inspired a little, then the feeling wears off and they move to read another one. It seems that people chase pain killers instead of finding the root cause of the problem and dealing with it once and for all.

Solving a problem vs. Alleviating the pain

Finding the root of the problem is, of course, requires extraordinary efforts. It is much easier to kill the symptoms until they appear again. It is an infinite cycle, though. Inspiration alleviates the symptom because positive emotions in the momentum are stronger than the negative ones. When the inspiration wears off, you feel worse again. Procrastination is back, self-confidence is still down, and depression is still there. These are, of course, problems that might require help from other people, but it is not impossible to solve them by yourself.

Is There a Way?

Reading is one of the worst means of learning. The retention rate is around 10% making it the second worse after listening. No wonder that in general, it is difficult to recall the main ideas from a book. Another problem is that readers do not implement the gained knowledge in their lives. They don't take action. So why people keep reading if the retention rate is super low and the ideas from the books don't see the light? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, books contain valuable knowledge. It is just one of the best ways to convey it. Nobody said it is the best way to absorb it. Second, self-help books give an alleviating feeling that everything's fine and you'll be fine too. And lastly, people think that reading a book will automatically make them smarter and solve problems. Very few take the insights and apply them in real life. Let's see how we can fix it make the learning a bit harder but much more rewarding.

How to Make It All Work

Some books can be a little more efficient in retaining knowledge. I don't speak about textbooks because they contain exercises that involve active learning. Some books include things like summary (spaced repetition), call to action exercises (active learning), and questions to ponder. Still, very few people extract the knowledge and apply it in real life.

Make the Most out of the Knowledge

Let's say you had an insight while reading a book. For instance, the last one I had was an idea from Creativity Inc. book that if you want to solve major problems in your company you should ask the employees. They made a huge workshop in Pixar called Notes Day where people would discuss all the issues they were bothered by and find solutions to them. Excellent. Normally, I would remember about it for a few more days but eventually, it would be gone unless I write it down somewhere. In my Knowledge database, I have a page for building a company. While reading the book, I often open it to jot insights and cool ideas that I'd like to implement someday. It is always there. Whenever I want, I can quickly open and find the relevant info. Additionally, the notes from that book are in the Knowledge database as well, but in the Books section. Everything's together. If you don't implement the newly acquired knowledge, then perhaps you didn't really need it. However, later when you do, you can always find it. It can come in handy even if I want to write about it. See, I spend a bit of time to save it in the place I know than waste hours later to find it in the book.

Build a System

A well-working system of goals has an underlying concept and mechanism. Let's say you read a book and learned that changing your environment in the right way can help to build or break a habit. Since you already have a system, you can easily modify it with the new knowledge and, thus, improve efficiency. If there is no system, you simply forget about it. It came and it left. Even if you made a note and wrote it down, you would probably forget about it unless it becomes a part of your life. That's why I believe that building a framework or a system will let you adjust it to implement the changes you learn.

But what is a system? I think the system is a guide to help align your life with the life you want to achieve. The guide can consist of routines, knowledge, tasks, and what's not. The problem is it's hard to keep everything in your mind. For instance, my morning routine consists of answering certain questions, writing down my sleep and weight data, checking the day's tasks to complete, and so on. Imagine how difficult and time-consuming it would be to keep all this information in my head and perform the same routine. Diaries used to be the place to collect thoughts and information about things people experienced and learned. Today, it evolved into a much more complex system that can help in every aspect of your life. The reason is not to empty your memory but to make space for more important knowledge and thinking.

Form a Habit

Make a habit of starting. One of the biggest mistakes I made was always postponing the things I knew were important. All I needed is to start small. Ambitions are good, but if there's not enough solid foundation, then it just breaks your hopes and belief in yourself. Starting small brings you in shape. When I feel lazy about exercising in the morning, I only do the smallest step in the habit: warming and stretching up. However, I end up doing the whole set of exercises. The reason is that the hardest part is the preparation. Once you are in the process, it is easier to continue.

Your belief that you can accomplish your goals increases. It will be much easier to continue to make progress. I like comparing it to a snowball. However, it can take a lot of time to start snowballing. James Clear, in his Atomic Habits book, introduced the concept of Valley of Disappointment. I can imagine that everyone felt a lack of progress or rewards. It happens that the progress is not linear but rather exponential. When we feel the lack of reward, we are at the beginning of the exponential curve where it is flat. That's why on this part of the journey we feel that we are going nowhere. However, very few people reach the point where their progress skyrockets.

The Plateau of Latent Potential - maray.ai

Final thoughts

The secret is to make the knowledge actionable. Even if you don't need it now and might it need it later, make it future-actionable. Once you find insight, try to implement it in your life to see a real change. Chase your the root of your issues, not the pain-killing feelings that some books and training give you. Building a system that helps my life to move forward has proved super helpful. Try yourself and see if it makes a difference.