The Promise of Self Help

I’m gonna be honest with you for a minute, I’m a bit of a sucker.

In the constant (albeit sometimes rocky) quest to better myself, I can get drawn in by the promise offered in a shiny new gadget or meditation technique or book recommendation.

It’s one such book recommendation that I’d like to discuss today.

While browsing a website looking for a little help using Ableton Live, I came across a recommendation for a book called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. I immediately took a bit of issue with the title, which I assume is a play on the title of the famous book by Sun Tzu but I let that go acknowledging that it is a brilliant way to elevate this book above the myriads of other similar works that address the struggle of making art.

I decided to purchase the audiobook version and immediately began listening.

I enjoyed the basic idea put forth in the book, that we all face some sort of resistance that keeps us from pursuing our real goals in life. But it wasn’t long before the author began to make claims that I couldn’t let go by, and is something I’ve noticed as a pattern with self-help books that has made me wary of the genre in general. Among these claims:

– Hitler found it easier to start WWII than to pursue his true desire, being an artist

– If everyone overcame whatever is resisting them to pursue their dreams, no one would drink, have meaningless sex, or find themselves in prison

– Bad things happen to other people as a way to keep you from truly bettering yourself

– ADHD, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and Social Anxiety Disorder are made up by marketing departments and drug companies to make money and get in the way of your true goals

It was this last claim that finally helped me overcome my resistance to turning off this condescending drivel. As someone who truly suffers from ADHD and social anxiety disorder, and is in some way already pursuing a fulfilling artistic endeavor, it’s obvious the author wrote this book in a single bout of explosive diarrhea of the pen (or word processor, typewriter, or other writing conveyance let’s not get pedantic now) and never bothered to re-read or even research his claims. Be honest… does the claim that successful prolific artists are happy well adjusted people make any sense to you? This fundamental issue is one I couldn’t make it past.

Now to be fair, this is far from the only book of this kind to make outlandish claims in order to get noticed in a sea of similar works. It may even be a bit unfair of me to single it out, but I think the important thing to realize is that none of these books can really do anything for you that you can’t do for yourself. Yes, they can serve as an aggregator for “tips and tricks”, but everyone is different. To act like there’s a one size fits all strategy that could make everyone’s life better if they could only follow these simple instructions is at best unfair. At worst, it can cause someone to wonder what’s wrong with them that they can’t seem to find the success promised by the author.

But hey, at least it pushes them back to the self help section.