How to Read Self-Help Books: Tips To Become a Better Reader
I remember my first time. The first time I bought a self-help book. It felt weird. No one around me was reading such literature and the whole genre whispered fake. Bold titles promising wealth and fame flooded the shelves but I choose something else. A book about chakras (Yes, I know!). I didn’t know much about awakening your third eye but I always thought that change in oneself can only happen from within. The cult-like text and the occult methods in this specific book were certainly not my thing, but the experience thought me valuable things about reading literature.
It feels embarrassing to admit that you’re reading self-help books. In a way, it means that you’re an incomplete person secretly looking for help. A fraud, an impostor, a semi-good businessman, or a socially damaged person incapable of navigating when around others.
Let’s say a friend of yours, who is not interested, at all, in the self-help genre, visits your house and sees the book in your place. What do you think he will think? Probably that you’re 1) trying to persuade him for doing something he’s not interested in and 2) you don’t have other friends.
Of course, this is (probably) not true. People who read the book know why it’s good and why everyone should read it – even folks who are capable of making friends. People who haven’t, think it’s a preachy title full of cheesy quotes, the type we see around social media. And, dedicated for nerds who are mentally damaged, uncool, too weird to have friends by simply being themselves.
While both stories are true – I mean, there really are some quite irritating sounding sections, not the other part – the importance of reading self-help literature remains.
But there is something else…
Even among the cohorts of book lovers who adore reading about personal growth, there are representatives who state that most of the titles are bogus. Why is that? Why avid readers who flood their homes with hardcovers are writing 10-section long reviews on GoodReads explaining why a certain book is full of sh*t. Aren’t they supposed to protect such types of books, praise them and share them with the other group of people who find books insultingly unimportant for their time?
I now understand why even bookworms who secretly hope to solve all of their problems by devouring words printed on papers are trolling authors on platforms like GoodReads.
And no, it’s not necessarily because a particular book is bad, it has to do with something else – the inability of the person reading to get the most of the book he is holding.
Why Self-Help Books are Considered Bad?
A lot of people don’t adore the self-help section because they are convinced that such books are full of corny-sounding, get-rich-quick schemes that are for desperate folks. Or, simply people don’t want to admit that they have a problem, think they know everything, or they bumped into a crappy cliche book in the past and are now convinced that all literature is the same.
But say you don’t have a problem with it. You know how powerful these books might be and you are constantly looking to add new additions to your library. There are still some issues related to this genre. Fiction doesn’t have this problem because fantasy books are supposed to be, well, fantasy. No one will blame the author for exaggerating, for not adding enough examples or for not researching the topic thoroughly.
Self-help and nonfiction in general, are mocked because of the following 3 things:
Lack of reasoning and examples.
Not able to implement the book.
Not able to understand the book.
Let’s observe these statements one by one:
Lack of reasoning and examples: This first rule means that the book was either written badly, too general, or the point the author was trying to prove wasn’t successfully delivered. Or in other words, you’re holding a poor book. While I, personally, find gems in badly written books, there are some books that are simply unworthy of your attention. If this is the case, reading the premise or a summary of the book is usually enough to understand the key message.
Not able to implement the book: Reading self-help book is about, after all, helping you. If you’re unable to implement the methods mentioned by the author in your life, however, it’s not his fault. It’s yours.
Not able to understand the book: When I read Thinking Fast and Slow a couple of years ago I gave it 3 stars out of 5. I was confused, irritated by the long complicated sentences and I felt that it’s the author’s fault that I’m not able to understand half of the words he’s using. Looking at this in hindsight, I realize how wrong, and stupid, I was for poorly evaluating the book based on my own limitations.
What’s the conclusion based on the 3 arguments made above?
Every self-help book comes with pre-packaged information that can potentially help you. Still, it’s up to you, the reader, to find the valuable insights in the book you’re holding. It’s up to you to understand the facts and implement them in your life. The obligation of the author ends when the book is in your hands. If you decided to read the book, is entirely up to you to take advantage of the text inside.
And even if a certain book is bad, it’s again up to you to figure out why this is so and find what can be improved. After all, pointing a finger at the book and flagging it bad won’t help you much. To get something out of any read, you can at least figure out the weak points and think of ways to make them better.
Why Reading Self-Help is Good?
Or should we say, “Why is reading self-help necessary?”
Books, good books, can help you stretch your mind. But’s that’s only part of the goodies you get while sitting on a couch and immersing yourself in good literature.
The main benefits of reading are as follows:
You’re exposed to a different point of view.
You’re introduced to problems and ways to solve them.
If you’re reading correctly, your mind is alive and growing.
Let’s discuss each of these points separately:
You’re exposed to a different point of view: Even fiction can give you a new perspective and introduce you to new ways of thinking about a problem you might be experiencing in the real world. The issue here is that the solution is buried beneath dungeons, spells, and often other imaginary worlds. You have to think deeply to find an application in real life. In contrast, the author of a nonfiction book thought a lot about a particular problem in the real world already. This dedication allowed him to understand the topic better so he can later offer us a 360 view of the situation.
You’re introduced to problems and ways to solve them: Every self-help books is trying to solve a particular problem. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, two problems are obvious right from the title. You don’t even have to read the blurb. This book is trying to 1) help you win friends if you’re a shy and awkward guy and 2) show you how to persuade people. The text then describes ways to solve these problems.
If you’re reading correctly, your mind is alive and growing: Reading is often perceived as a passive activity where you sit and read. Nothing happens while you read, you just consume words and hope some of them will stick till you’re facing a similar situation in the future. But this approach is utterly bad. It’s like the old adage, “throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.” Reading, when done properly, will, and should, help you find solutions to your problems. It also should trigger a discussion in your head and motivate you to engage with the topic even outside the scope of the book itself.
When I first started reading nonfiction, I was just reading. After one book was finished, I moved on to the next book.
Isn’t this the right way to read?
If you want to get the most out of a book, any book, you need to engage with the content and implement it in your life.
How to Properly Read Self-Help
The main problem people have after reading self-help literature is their inability to later apply the advice mentioned inside the book. This is so mainly because the hints suggested are too general.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport states that you need to uninstall all of your social media apps on your phone to finally find comfort and unplug from the busy online life. This is so obvious. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with this. Yet, how many people implement the advice? Probably a small fraction of the readers. But these exact same people are later angry at the author. “I’ve read the book and I’m still not a digital minimalist. What the hell?”
When the advice is too general it’s usually hard to implement because your personality was not taken into consideration when the book was written. Which is normal after all. The author is trying to reach a wider audience, not help a few individuals.
But the problem is not in the general suggestion. The main issue is the inability of the reader to find implementation on his own.
Reading books is falsely perceived as a passive activity where you’re allowed to chat with friends between paragraphs. If you are unable to concentrate and fully immerse yourself in the topic, you are just wasting your time with the book.
Reading to understand requires effort. We are not talking about moving a pile of rocks from here to there kind of effort. We’re talking about thinking about the text in different contexts and asking questions while you go through the content.
In the book How to Read a Book, the authors write: “If you have the habit of asking a book questions as you read, you are a better reader than if you do not. But, as we have indicated, merely asking questions is not enough. You have to try to answer them.”
Why asking questions is important?
For one, they keep you conscious while you read. You’re no longer passively scanning the words. You’re entering the text with certain goals in mind – looking for answers for your predefined set of questions. This makes you more alert when you go through any book.
For two, answering questions while you read helps you really get the text. You understand on a deeper level the problems the author is trying to solve. You’re not simply consuming words.
There are several questions presented in How to Read a Book that you can use when reading any self-help book:
What is the book about as a whole?
What is being said in detail, and how?
Is the book true, in whole or part?
What of it?
And while these questions can be of assistance on their own, I personally use the following format when I’m reading:
What is the book about?
What’s the main problem the author is trying to solve in the book?
What are the proposed solutions?
Are there any specific tactics proposed?
While I ask these questions for the book as a whole, I also ask these questions when I enter a new chapter. Of course, the word book is then replaced with a chapter or the specific theme of the section.
For example, in the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, in one of the sections the author talks about the varieties of bullshit jobs. Naturally, the questions proposed above will be transformed and will look like this:
What varieties of bullshit jobs exist?
What’s the main problem with each one?
What are the proposed solutions?
Are there any specific tactics proposed?
Or in other words, if there are 10 chapters, I’ll ask the set of questions mentioned above at least 11 times – one time for the book as a whole and one time for each individual chapter. I’m saying at least, because there are usually other interesting facts that require further understanding (questioning).
Directly copying and pasting sections (inside an app) from the book to answer the question is a good way to start, but always try to add a few words on your own. This will clarify your thinking and help you explain the text in your own words.
2. Think of Ways to Implement the Text
Self-help, is, after all, about helping you make some sort of progress in your life. If you’re reading a book without ever trying what was proposed inside, you’re not taking advantage of the work of the author in full.
Sadly, this is quite common. People pick books that promise to change their lives but do little after that make adjustments to their daily schedule.
Again, why is that?
Simple, the implementation is something you, the reader, need to discover on your own. As said above, the advice of the author will usually be too general to fit your own life and personality. That’s why you need to find a solution based on your own experience. Go beyond the proposed explanation in the book to find what works for you best.
Let’s consider again what I mentioned above about Digital Minimalism.
Probably you can’t uninstall social media because your work involves using these platforms to grow your business. Or, because you have friends in different continents and you just can’t not engage with them. Well, in this case, you can probably unfollow everyone else. Curate your feed and leave only the folks you want to see – or something else.
Whatever advice is mentioned in the book, you need to do some work to find the right approach for you. The solution is not going to be directly mentioned – do A and you’ll reach B without a hassle.
This doesn’t work. There is always work to be done on your end. After all, with the risk of being boring, I must yet again say that self-help is about you, helping yourself.
3. Tackle books that are beyond you
There are a couple of aspects that make a book a national best-seller:
Easy to understand copy.
And while there are a lot of great popular books that are on top of all Most Sold online charts, the real gems are rarely mentioned anywhere.
Because they lack the points mentioned above.
They cover topics that are not trendy. The text inside is usually hard to understand. The marketing is absent because the author is usually someone highly educated who’s primarily interested in doing the work and sharing his idea, not so much in getting rich or becoming famous on social media.
The point that I’m trying to make is this: Find hard to read books. They’ll usually include difficult to pronounce words. Half of what’s written inside won’t make sense, at first, but it will be worth it. The more you dive into the topic, the better you’ll become. The authors of the book How To Read a Book said it best:
If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler
How to find such books?
An easy way is to simply check the notes section (or bibliography) of a popular book.
Inside this rarely-read section, the authors reference the sources they have used in the creation of their own book. They usually exploit foundational books that are the first of their kind to build their own case.
4. Ask Yourself This Question Before Buying a Book
Before anything else. Before entering a library or going online eager to buy wrapped pieces of paper to update your library, ask yourself this question:
What do I want to learn?
Getting a book before first figuring out what you want to learn is a wrong approach. It’s like driving without a direction. You’ll get somewhere, but the endpoint won’t be the place you truly want to be.
It’s of key importance to first define what you want to learn and only then, search for books that will supposedly answer your questions/solve your problems.
This was a mistake I made earlier in my life. I bought books that sounded cool without giving too much thought about what I wanted to learn and why. While the books I consumed weren’t bad per se, they didn’t help me get closer to where I wanted to go in that particular moment of my life. I read books just because they were trendy, not because they were going to solve my problem.
For example, if you want to start a business, getting the most talked-about book at the moment might seem like a good approach. And it’s probably is. Reading general business advice might help you clarify your idea. Yet, the first question you need to ask yourself is, “What kind of business I want to start?” Then, “In what stage of creating the business am I?”
If you want to start a subscription-based business, like me, it’s a good idea to start with Subscribed by Tien Tzuo. If you’re still unsure if you’re idea is any good, I’ll recommend reading The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. You won’t see these two books in any “most popular” chart online. But that doesn’t make them bad books. Quite the opposite. The main reason they are no so popular is because they are not general – like the rest of the business books. They are tackling specific questions.
Reading for entertainment is absent of any obligations. But reading to learn should first come with defining the topic you want to learn about.
But I started taking notes of the books I read long before this site existed. The reason here is simple – I didn’t want my efforts to be wasted.
Think about it for a moment, you read a book and only after a couple of days you don’t remember anything from the book. Yes, some facts about the topic probably stick with you for a little while but most of the text you consumed leaked. That’s normal, we’re not supercomputers after all. Our brains have limited capacity.
That’s why taking notes is so important!
Writing down what interests you in a book will help you remember the key lessons so you can easily recall information when you need it.
While the importance of taking notes is beyond the scope of this post – there’s a lot that needs to be said on the subject – focus on doing this: Primarily, you should do it for yourself. After all, you invest a lot of time reading, don’t let the information disappear shortly after the book is back on your shelf. Pick a note-taking app, or a journal, and start adding the facts you find interesting in the books you read.
Some Closing Thoughts
Look for the problems in the book. Find the proposed solutions by the author. Try to implement what was mentioned. Take note of everything that interests you. This should be your strategy when reading self-help literature in short.
Even if you found the content of the book mediocre (i.e. vague) there surely are some hidden gems somewhere in the text. It’s up to you to find them and make use of them.
Most importantly, when you’re reading, you should enter the text with some goals in mind. And, actively look for answers while you go through the pages. This simple activity won’t only make you more engaged when reading, it will also help you understand the point of the author better.