Historical map of Milan, Italy.

Need Directions: Why Self Help Books Fail

Self help books are written in a way that is seldom really helpful.  They are often written with too specific a plan or they’re just too vague.  As a coach I sometimes get clients that are very clear about what they want to go.  A cliche definition of coaching is helping clients get from point A to point B.  While I don’t appreciate the oversimplification of my life’s work, that definition is fairly accurate (but trust me it’s more complex!) As coaches we help clients navigate their challenge through some direction and lots of support which is an art, but the ultimate goal is helping direct a client through the obstacles to reaching a goal.

Marshal Goldsmith was my first model of a great executive coach and arguably the leading executive coach in the world and author of numerous best sellers.  One of my favorites books is titled “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There.”  It’s a great book, but I don’t like the title.  I believe in coaching their is an important rule to remember; what got you there won’t necessarily get me there.  Think of the millionaire guru who promises to teach you how to make millions.  The trouble is, he made his millions in an internet start up, or another who made it selling bad loans during the housing boom.  The opportunities that some made their fortune in is gone or not as simple as when they were new.  Were is the next gold rush?  The number of “info-preneurs” (information entrepreneurs) may be a clue.  Where else can people who made money in one industry that’s dried up make money?

There was a time when a college degree meant a pretty good job.  There was a time when investing in start up internet company was a great idea. There was a time when real estate was a great investment. As we all know there are no sure-fire steps to success in this world.  Beware of those who direct you through a process that worked for them.  Sometimes modeling success is not a path to get what you want.  Many self help books are written in this format.  They can be dangerous.  Self help should never offer a one-size-fits-all solution but unfortunately that is what is often preached.

If I want to go to the Santa Monica there is a list of directions I need to follow to get there.  I need to know how to get from point A to point B.  Some self help books are written from the perspective of how to get to point B without knowing where your are starting!  You can’t give me directions if you don’t know where I’m at!  We all heard it before; you cannot get to where you are going if you don’t know where you are at.  If you can’t tell north from south, east from west, then finding where to go is impossible.  It’s not all bad and books written from this perspective might get you moving in the right direction, but often, in my experince, they do more to discourage than get you closer to your goal. 

Then there are those books written to explain the mechanical functions (for lack of a better term) to help you reach your goal. I want to get to Santa Monica, can you tell me how a car works?  Do I need to know how a car functions to get to Santa Monica?  I have to know how to drive, but do I need to know how it functions?  Do I need to understand how a combustible engine or braking system works?  Or What about the suspension? Do I need to know about the different vehicles that exist?  I want to get to Santa Monica would I take a car, some people have a convertible.  Some people take the bus, some people go on a motorcycle, some even walk!  This is all interesting information but this information doesn’t get me closer to my destination.  Yet hundreds of books think if they tell me how the brain or the body functions in relation to thoughts, emotions, and behavior will help me get from point A to B.  It’s interesting stuff but it doesn’t get me closer to Santa Monica.  If my car doesn’t work I don’t open the hood and start messing with it… I’m not a mechanic!  I’ve learned over the years of painful trial and error, I’m my mind is not functioning, if I am paralyzed by my thoughts or emotions than I seek professional help; not a book.

I love the notion of simplicity.  “If you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand…” as Albert Einstein said.  If I want to go from A to B, I’m asking for direction.  Sometimes just taking a step in the right direction should be the goal for any book that claims to help people.  But, for those who hope to reach their destination, take my advice and ASK for direction.  Get support and be led by those who will be with you in your journey and not someone who wants you to go on their journey.  I’m not saying that experience counts for nothing.  I ask the advice of others who reached their goals for their advice.  After all, all wisdom comes from experience.  But wisdom is not direction, and those brave enough to follow their own path are often the wisest.