I can be vulnerable to reading pop-science books and articles. This is against my better judgment. The cynic in me pretty much imagines a good writer or mediocre social scientist latching on to some tidy conclusion and building a career as quickly as they can on it. Authors know there is a first-mover advantage in ideas. Lodge grit, growth mindset, or ten thousand hours into people minds and they’ll:
a) ignore the deluge of counterevidence that follows it.
b) pattern-match this satisfying knowledge to everything they see.
It’s a race to get on as many podcasts as possible before Alexey Guzey stamps your work with the “doesn’t replicate” disclaimer. It’s not that these things are definitely disproven so much as they are believed in unjustifiable proportion to their evidence thanks to a persuasive advocate. I tend to be more sanguine about the grifting. After all, the authors are as susceptible to confirmation bias as the audience and I prefer to be charitable in my perceptions unless proven otherwise. I can hear some of you murmuring that a real scientist should be actively trying to minimize their confirmation bias. Look, I’m just rationalizing my infotainment, cut me some slack.
Alright, so we all agree airport nonfiction is Chinese food. Eat a salty meal, wash it down with a fortune cookie insight. Well, I came across a convincing post that gave me a free pass to indulge self-help without the indigestion.
From TJCX comes How To Read Self-Help (Link)
I urge you to read it, it’s pretty entertaining and calls out books you have definitely read. My own takeaways and thoughts below.
Self-help as wisdom
From Paul Graham’s definition of wisdom : “But this is a hallmark of wisdom: it’s trivial to read but nearly impossible to put into practice”.
Good self-help is actually wisdom. Wisdom is general. The author writes:
We’re embarrassed by self-help because (at its best) it’s full of banal platitudes—but these are platitudes because they’re so general. Specific rules like “if your boss likes golf and you want a raise, ask for it while taking her golfing” are too specific to be wisdom.
The reason business books often sound like self-help is that the conceptual demands of business often require us to recruit wisdom not specific knowledge.
…“business” has so much conceptual real estate that solving “business” problems requires tools that are closer to wisdom than to knowledge—no business book can predict what sorts of situations (businesses, market conditions, etc.) the reader will encounter, so instead it offers general, obvious-sounding rules.
Rules for reading self-help
- Read self-help that makes sense
A good rule of thumb is that arcane wisdom is rarely right. A good corollary here is that old self-help tends to be better, because:
1. Pseudoknowledge is eventually exposed
2. Wisdom tends to be stable over time
This reveals an important point secondary point. It means real wisdom is actually commoditized and value is in the communicator. This is why I’m a fan of people writing even about well-trodden material. It’s not such an exaggeration to believe the best self-help is ancient Greek philosophers reformatted to make maximal impact on a glossy page. Not everybody wants to read Plato. I write about options and finance crap that is covered everywhere. But if you get 1% of your quilt of understanding from 100% of my effort it still makes a difference.
Your work is content + voice and if we are certain about anything it’s that how you say is often more important than what you say.
- Specific advice is probably overfit
Anecdotes and examples make the lessons stick. But they should not be confused for proofs of the lesson. A friend once recommended me a self-help book in spite of the anecdotes which he found to undermine the strength of the case. You could say he’s so inoculated against charlatans’ techniques that his skeptical white blood cells reject any anecdote-shaped intruder.
- Don’t be embarrassed
We (the cognoscenti) are terrified of sounding trite, of repeating obvious truths, of saying things that have been said for millennia—so we laugh nervously at phrases like “accept yourself,” or we utter them with a certain ironic distance—but the reason these sayings sound trite is that understanding them s trivial, it is easy and available to anyone, regardless of social circle or education. But practicing these things is incredibly hard.
- Be patient
Self-help is hard…Reading wisdom is the easiest part of becoming wise…we read a lot of self-help because we need to. As I’ve already mentioned, we need lots of examples to drive this wisdom home. We should be more forgiving of self-help (the genre) and more forgiving of ourselves.