Are Inspirational Books Really Useful?

In my earlier blogpost- do self help books help – I was very critical of the self help books available in the market. Some thought I was a bit too harsh while sharing the uselessness of the majority of the self help books. I was thinking of writing a sequel, and this week’s Insdispire prompt provides the perfect opportunity.

Self help advice is available not only in the form of books but also in the form of motivational videos and blog posts. These days life changing motivational advice even come in tiny homeopathic doses in the form of instapoems.

Self help books and other contents abound because the genre sells. Its popularity may rival that of porn. Why not? Many of the self help books and videos are like porn. They give you a temporary high, but ultimately leave you high and dry.

Among the tons of self help trash there may be a few gems of exceptions. I don’t deny that. This is applicable even to the so called bestsellers.

In fact, ‘instant fund and fame seeking’ authors take to self help books because it is the bestselling genre. They read ten fifteen self help or other books, mix it with some mumbo jumbo and their book is ready. With a little help from the marketing experts the book may even top the charts somewhere to be branded a number one best sellers. These authors are not here to share any authentic experience of their own. Nor do they do any authentic in depth research. That is the reason many self help books feel good to read, but are not really helpful.

In my earlier blog posts I had given the example of Subrat Ray – the scion of Sahara family. While he was in jail for fraudulent financial activities his book – Success Mantra – was becoming a best seller. Fellow blogger Jitendra Mathur has given the example of Shiv Khera who wrote You Can Win. It is a best seller. He became famous because of this book and his motivational talks. Then he tried to lead the nation and change the nation by becoming a political leader. He lost miserably and did not persist to see his dream come true. It shows the efficacy of self help books on the authors themselves. Even the authors of self help books cannot utilise their own methods of success. They cannot walk their talks. How are their advices going to be useful for others?

Another fallacy I have noted is that many books written by American self help gurus are becoming best sellers in India. The cultural milieu plays a great role in personal achievement. Many of the so called insights that these american authors provide are based on the cultural milieu of America. Take for example the book ‘Four Hour Work Week’. I am surprised that this book continues to do well in countries like India. One of the premises of the book is that an American can outsource many of his work to a virtual assistant in India to reduce his time spent on routine and mundane activities. This is affordable even for an average American. As a middle class Indian where are you going to outsource your personal routine jobs?

Another thing worth noting is that the author worked eighteen hours a day to advise us how we can achieve whatever we want just working four hours a week.

Even after such glaring fallacies, the self help industry continues to produce books after books and dominates sale figures. When I tell you it is like porn, I say this from experience. There was a time long ago I too was addicted to self help books. It took me some time to recover from the addiction.

Why do self help books hook us? I think it is because they play upon our greed. They give us the feeling that by working less we can achieve more. They give us the feeling that it is possible to become a millionaire overnight just by following the easy tips they sell us.

Even without self help books we know from common sense that success needs hard work, focus, and dedication. It needs work to mend relationships. It needs integrity to be a leader of standing. Yet somewhere we fall prey to the fallacious short cuts these self help books peddle.

Many self help books advise outright dishonesty and treachery in sophisticated words. They ask you to smile when you don’t feel like it. They emphasise the outer at the cost of the inner. We know that no one achieves greatness by fake smiles. We know that history does not remember those orateor who are only skilled in good oratory without having anything worthwhile to say.

While some self help writers use the contents of other self help books in a modified form, some use the wisdom of ancient books in diluted form. You would see a number of writers using the ancient philosophies of stoics or other western philosophers. There could be some using the philosophies of the east. Some even take their inspiration from Bible or The Gita.

Each system of such ancient wisdom advocates a way of life. For implementing such life changing advice, one must know and understand the philosophy in depth. There is always a danger in trying to implement such systems of philosophy without in depth knowledge. Such ancient philosophies are not quick fixes. These philosophies give us wisdom and insights to see life in a certain way and they must be understood in their totality so as to be made useful for one’s life. How to manage your life is not the same as how to mend a flat tyre. For mending a flat tyre, a few ‘how to’ tips would work. For managing life such diluted versions of ‘how to’ do not work.

Same is the case with those self help authors who rely on the latest developments in psychology. First of all psychology itself is in a developing stage. Everything about mind is not yet discovered. So when someone takes psychological findings as absolute truth to base one’s advice, fallacies may abound.

One who is really serious about changing one’s life would do well to probe deeper into the ancient systems of knowledge than read the diluted versions in self help books.

Self help authors use stories and anecdotes to drive home their points. Stories and anecdotes are tools of persuasion, quite often devoid of any universal truth or principle. Stories and anecdotes have been used since time immemorial to motivate people to act in certain ways that suits the goals of the vested interests, not yours.

Some self help books analyse the actions of successful people and tell us that it was due to such and such factors the person achieved success. The fact is that success never happens in isolation. There are millions of factors that contribute to the success of an event or a person. Each person is a unique individual. Each person’s motivation is different, cultural background is different. But some self help books make it look simple by having us believe such and such person achieved his goal by doing such and such and you can also do the same things and achieve the result by doing what he did. If that were the case successful people would always be successful.

The fallacies in each of the best seller self help book could be discerned on closer examination. Let me take one book for example- The Four Hour Work Week. I have already mentioned that the author worked eighteen hours a day when he was writing this book. Another anomaly is that the book is written primarily for the American audience but is a best seller even in India.

First of all the title ‘Four Hour Work Week’ is a negative connotation. You would like to have a four hour work week when the work you do is a tedious one. If it is a tedious one why to do such work at all? Why not find work that is interesting? Why not find work which lets you forget how many hours you have worked. If Bill Gates had worked four hours a week on computer coding, such a book as the ‘Four Hour Work Week’ could be possible only in the next century.

The author of ‘Four Hour Work Week’ is also famous for suggesting ways to do and learn things fast. The author asks you not to learn anything until the need arises. It makes sense going by the philosophy of the author. Since you can learn any thing in no time what is the use of learning something until the D-day arrives?

I don’t think important things of life can be learnt quickly. Great poets are not made in a day. In depth knowledge in any thing needs time. Our mind is not like a computer where any amount of data can be downloaded and processed in a few hours. Mind needs time to mature and make sense of things. Only artificial things or petty tips like how to mend a punctured tyre can be learned from a how to do manual in a few minutes. A life in disarray is not something like a punctured tyre to be repaired after following a how to do manual for a few minutes.

In short, if you are really interested in leading a meaningless artificial life with a view to make a few quick bucks for short term benefits by using the short cuts, drifting from task to task, having an artificial sense of euphoria while reading such books with the fallacious belief that life can be changed or you would be successful in all areas of your life by following such cheap tips and tricks peddled by books like the Four Hour Work Week, please go ahead and indulge yourself in the plethora of self help books flooding the market.

All said and done I would not like to end this rant filled post with a bitter note. Let me share two of the books that I have found useful. There are many books I have found useful. But here I will share about two books. The first one is the Bhagavad Gita and the second one is ‘Outliers’. I would not give any diluted outline of these books. I would rather urge those who are interested to study these two books seriously and reflect upon the contents. Both the books are not devoid of flaws. But the wisdom of these two books would far outweigh their flaws.

Both these books highlight the role of dedicated, focussed hard work. One of the often quoted slokas of the Gita is – karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana – commit to the action without attachment to its fruit. In fact the ancient stoic philosophers held a similar view. They advised to take care of what is in control not be concerned with what is beyond one’s purview of control. You effort is under your control but not the outcome which is dependent upon many other factors. Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ talks about the ‘ten thousand hours rule’, which propounds that for excellence in any field you need at least ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. Of course the theory has been challenged recently. But the importance of dedicated work to achieve anything can never be challenged. Both the books I have recommended provide useful insights into the nature of our life and mind which I have found to be true. After all, the hallmark of any useful book is how near it is to truth.

In spite of our realisation that self help books provide a temporary high and ultimately leave us dry, the self help industry will continue to thrive in the years to come, as will be the porn industry. That is one more reason I have compared popular self help literature with porn.

(In response to Indispire #274 suggested by Vartika Goyal)

7 thoughts on “Are Inspirational Books Really Useful?

  1. I am not a fan of self help books either. But that said, books by Rhonda Byrne helped me in cultivating positivity and gratitude. I don’t consider Bhagvad Gita as a self help book. It’s a treasure with priceless wisdom from Krishna himself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All said and done there are many self help books that must have genuinely helped people in changing attitude. Rhonda Byrne’s books encourage to adopt positive attitudes. It is a good thing and many people have claimed to have been benefited from ehjr book and video.

      Bhagavat Gita was the source of inspiration for people like Gandhi, Gokhale, Vinoba Bhave, Henry David Thoreau, TS Eliot, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who in turn, have been the sources of inspirations for many.

      Thanks Shaloo ji for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have not read self help books, nor do I plan to. There is just too much of fiction to read, and the list keeps growing. Having said that, I feel and I agree with you 🙂 when you say this post is more rant than what the topic deserved, unlike your style of writing. The comparison with porn seems so apt, and Bhagavat Gita, now that I think about it, has been used like a self help book since ages.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A great post. No matter whatever the source of inspiration, if we take the cream and discard chaff we may be benefit. Essence of message is important. At the end of the day, whatever we learn if we cannot implement in our life, then all the inspiration goes waste.

    Liked by 1 person

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