First things first: Self-help books are the pits.
I have strong opinions about self-help books.
Of all the things I could write about, I’m going to start this whole adventure off with a rant about self-help books. I went through a period of about 5 years where I was helplessly addicted to self-help books. I read them day and night, bought all the books the authors recommended, followed their blogs and social profiles, and spiraled ever deeper down the self-help rabbit hole. The platitudes and motivational quotes were delicious, and every life-hack gave me a shot of adrenaline. I felt like the books were sustaining me and motivating me to work harder and live a better life.
The deeper I went, the less satisfying it became. Like eating a 5 gallon tub of ice-cream, at some point it lost all flavor and meaning. I became dissatisfied with my job, because I wasn’t “living my best life” as an artist or writer or vlogger. I didn’t have magical passive income sources, and never got the chance to travel the world. I became hyper-focused on accomplishing something truly amazing and wonderful with my life. In doing so, I became less and less grounded in reality.
I stopped noticing the good things in life. My wife remembers that I was miserable during this year. I constantly complained, constantly talked about changing careers, questioned all of my life choices, and was pretty seriously depressed. I failed to notice that I lived in a house, not an apartment. I payed less attention to my amazing wife, who has always been really supportive. My baby daughter became a source of anxiety instead of a source of joy. I considered quitting a great job with high pay and great health benefits because it didn’t fit the perfect ideal sold to me by all of my favorite books and blogs.
Then I read a book called “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport. That book was a refreshing slap in the face. At the core of the book, Cal says “find a valuable skill that you believe you can master, and become so good that they can’t ignore you.” That skill might be in waste management, construction, writing code, or many other places you wouldn’t expect. The goal is to find a skill that is valuable, uncommon, and with a path toward craftsmanship and expertise. These skills exist in niches and cracks that are rarely glamorous, but that are extremely rewarding.
I started to look back at the books I had been reading, and realized a depressing similarity. Most of them focused on one thing: escaping a boring job and following your passion. That advice is surprisingly destructive, and I found many examples of people who followed their passion right off a cliff into poverty. This advice demonizes most careers in which you could actually make money, instead pushing everyone to do artistic skills, with no regard for the actual value of that skill. Just look at Hollywood! A tiny percentage of all actors, artists or writers have any success, while the rest are forced to abandon their dreams and find a job that pays the bills. Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean it is valuable enough to become your full-time job.
I believe that the vast majority of self-help books are worthless. Why? Because the people writing them are as clueless as I am. Why should I value this particular author’s perspective on anything at all, let alone trust their life advice? Why should I try to follow in the footsteps of someone who has a full time job giving motivational speeches? Why should I abandon a well-paying career for a sliver of a chance that I might actually get paid to make art?
Here are the sources of inspiration and advice that I consider trustworthy:
The Bible and other scriptures such as The Book of Mormon, the Torah, etc. Most self help books pick and choose the most lighthearted passages from these books, while ignoring the truly deep and meaningful parts. Read the source material instead.
Most books by Cal Newport. His full time job is a Computer Science researcher, and that background in research does wonders for his writing and grounds his advice in reality. He emphasizes focus, deep work, and being so good they can’t ignore you.
Jordan Peterson. He psychoanalyzes myths and legends and draws applicable life lessons out of them. He takes deep stuff like the Bible and Norse Mythology and teases out the deeper principles these stories teach.
Mike Rowe. The guy who did Dirty Jobs. He’s down to earth and does incredible work in helping people get into trade schools and careers that can sustain a family for a lifetime.
I have strong opinions about self-help books. Now that’s off my chest, I can move on to writing about more meaningful topics like functional programming and my love/hate relationship with Linux.