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Do Self-Help Books Actually…Help?

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer's new book seems, uh, highly relevant to our current National Moment.
Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer's new book seems, uh, highly relevant to our current National Moment.

How do we make ourselves better? And what does better even mean? Those can be expensive questions to answer.

One 2016 estimate valued the self-help industry at close to $10 billion.

Frommodern crazes likeMarie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” toclassics likeDale Carnegie’s“How to Win Friends and Influence People,” people have been turning to self-help books for a long time. 

But not every strategy is created equal. Which ones will actually make you the morning-loving, meditating, bed-making best self you could be? Or are these books only promoting a fantasy?  

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are dedicated to finding answers to those questions. They are the authors of “How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books” and the hosts ofthe “By the Book,” a podcast in which they both follow therules of one self-help book for two weeks.  

We talked with Greenberg and Meinzer about how to help us help ourselves. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

On the aspirational nature of self-help books and their authors

Meinzer: A lot of these books are setting themselves up, or setting the authors up to be who we should aspire to be. We should be as exciting, as entrepreneurial, as organized, as worldly as this person selling dietary supplements and living in a McMansion.

Maybe some of us don’t want that. Maybe there are a lot of other ways we can be, and we can all be very content living what works for us.

And unfortunately, a lot of the self help books we’ve lived by do somehow create a world view that this is the one single way to be.

And you should measure yourself against all others, you should look at the ways you’re failing , you should chastise yourself for it first and admit you’ve hit rock bottom, and then eventually you can work your way up to being a level 10 person, is as Elrod says of Miracle Morning. Or a self-actualized genius as other authors say.

They all have different language about who we should aspire to be. And maybe we should love ourselves more and beat ourselves up a little bit less.

On why members of marginalized groups might turn to self-help

Greenberg: [Self-help books] are one of the only places a lot of marginalized people can go to to feel seen and have their more unique questions answered. But there’s also less regulation, so who knows what answers you’re actually getting.

On the limits of self-help

Meinzer: We love the idea that if we just work harder and be better, then we can be anything we want to be. So I understand the appeal of these books. It really is about the American ethos but, obviously, we all know that that’s a lie because there are other circumstances that come into play. It’s not just if you work hard, you’ll be successful. What about structural inequalities? What about racism? What about sexism? What about the fact that some people aren’t born with generational wealth?

A study by Goodreads found that approximately two-thirds of self help books are written by men, and two-thirds of the readers are women. And Jolenta and I found that most of them are well to do white men. And they’re saying “if I can do it, anyone can.” But if you’re pulling on third base and you’re saying anyone can hit a home run, and I’m still in the dugout, that’s not a fair comparison.


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Michelle Harven