The problem with self-help books is they try to paint a picture of better. And the version of better they advocate might not be very helpful at all. It might be exactly the same as the one in our head, the one that’s always saying, “Just focus a little more next time. Be kinder. Have more patience. Work harder. Do better.”
I have friends who refuse to read self-help as a genre. They gag just thinking about it. I see where they’re coming from—of course a good fantasy novel is more stimulating, why read anything else? All that self-help crap is the same. It’s so general and self-evident and boring.
Here’s the thing. Harry Potter might be inspiring, and it might be fun to be part of that community. But it’s not entirely clear how to take Harry Potter and apply the lessons on a daily basis in our lives. What behaviors will you change as a result of the latest Avengers movie?
Bad self-help is entertaining at best, and equally unclear. But good self-help can be transformative. If the right words reach you in the right moment, the ideas might just stick. And things will start clicking into place, a little bit at a time. Life starts improving, more than you might have thought possible.
It’s absolutely magical how much wisdom exists in books. You can absorb in a day many years of labor. I sometimes forget how great books are. Perhaps one in twenty is a dissappointment, but my decision to read the next one usually seems like a coinflip. How silly and wasteful! It’s a no-brainer. Read another.
Recently, I’ve been hooked on Seth Godin. Today I finally picked up Steven Pressfield, whom Seth recommends highly. I shouldn’t have waited so long. The War Of Art is absolutely phenomenal, and a super quick read. The great thing about books is they wait around until we’re ready for them. Different people are ready (or not) at different times.
What I love about Pressfield and Godin is how specifically they address the concept of improvement. They teach how to be an artist and a professional. They demonstrate so clearly how to view the world with just the right dosages of ambition, love, patience, simplicity. They talk about the mechanics of better at the perfect level of abstraction and metaphor.
And so, they are encouragement incarnate.
Some people think smart folks get good grades and solve complicated math problems. I think smart is more comprehensive. It’s about seeing right and wrong, not only in academic and theoretical settings but also in the messy practicalities of the world. It’s about picking things apart and putting them back together. Quickly.
A smart person can detect nuances, can see multiple sides of subjective truths. A smart person can explain things, can turn the powers of judgment on and off at the right moments, can perceive emotion and context and hidden puzzle pieces. A smart person can navigate while helping others steer in the right direction too.
Pressfield and Godin are pretty damn smart. I love learning from their words. They don’t just say “Get better.” They say “Here’s how.” It’s delightful to drink in their perspectives. And it’s fun (in a challenging, fulfilling, long-term way) to try following their lead.