Has the Self-Help Industry Sold Us a Pup?


English folklore tells of an old swindle.

A peasant goes to market to buy his family a piglet. Piglets are much cheaper than adult pigs, and they can be fed on scraps. Once grown and fattened, they are slaughtered to provide a source of food for the whole family through the lean winter months.

The peasant has saved every spare penny to buy this piglet. And when he gets to the market, he notices an extra special deal. There’s a trader selling piglets, already put into sacks, at a discount. With the money he saves from what the thought the piglet would cost, the peasant can buy himself a beer or two on his journey home.

Dizzy on beer, he’s in a jolly mood the whole walk home. In his hut, he opens the sack, his whole family gathered around to see this piglet, a small animal they will put all their hope in to help them survive the winter months.

The sack wiggles, the peasant shakes it, laughing with glee.

That is, until the piglet emerges. It’s not a piglet. It’s a scrawny little dog.

The children think it’s cute, but the peasant is furious. How will has family survive on this? They can’t eat a dog. He dare not even look his wife in the eye.

He’s been sold a pup.

I’ve read a lot of self-development and spiritual books and blogs in my life. Most of them were the equivalent of piglets for my soul, giving me mental and spiritual strength to sustain me and help me grow.

But some – and usually those that made the biggest claims about how they’d have a huge impact on my life – were pups.

The peasant in the folktale is unlikely to fall for the pup trick again. He’ll check what’s in the sack the next time he goes to buy a piglet.

As for me, I’m gradually learning to discern the values and claims embedded in self-help books. I’m learning to check what’s in the sack.

There’s an inherent conflict at the heart of the self-help industry. On the one hand, self-help books, blogs and videos promise they’ll help us change, for good. On the other hand, it’s in their interests to give us short bursts of success, but ultimately to make sure we fail so we keep coming back for more.

That’s why it’s so important to be discerning.

What does that mean in practice? It means to look beneath the surface of what self-help books promise. Ask yourself if it’s what you really want. Is what’s being promised really the kind of person you want to be?

For each person this process of discernment will be different.

For me, it means I’m skeptical of claims or promises such as the following:

  • unlimited financial wealth
  • set your own rules
  • work only four hours a week
  • take massive action
  • be remarkable

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Unlimited financial wealth. The first thing I notice is that this appeals to my desire for security and status. Those are both good things in themselves. But I can achieve both of these without unlimited wealth. What’s more, I’d prefer if the limited resources of the earth were shared fairly between all of its 7 billion inhabitants. I don’t like that some people go hungry so that others can be billionaires.

Set your own rules. I like to be my own boss. I work for myself, after all. But more than that, I like to be part of a bigger story. I like to be part of communities where people decide together what’s important. We live in an interdependent world. I want to be part of communities where we set the rules together.

Work a four hour week. I love going on vacation and not working for a full week! But ideally I want my work to be where I find meaning and purpose. I’d much rather I had a job I enjoy and feel good about than exploit others so my life can be a perpetual vacation.

Take massive action. I like the idea of massive action. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need to do – such as asking the love of your life if they will marry you. But I’ve found most times I try to take massive action are counter productive. I end up depleting my energy and failing. For me, it’s much better to take small steps.

Be remarkable. There’s nothing wrong with being remarkable! However, I think we are all remarkable, already. By telling us to “be remarkable”, self-help books can make us doubt the value of what we already have and who we already are. Additionally I think the ordinary, humble things of life, such as friends, family, good food and good conversation are what really matters.

When we’re pushed to pursue unrealistic dreams – as self-help books sometimes encourage us to do – we can fail to see the beauty we have already. Whatever is going on in your life right now, you have much you can treasure.

What have you found in the self-development movement that you’ve learned to treasure? Which aspects do you feel it’s important to be discerning about?

Photo by Simon Powell

30 thoughts on “Has the Self-Help Industry Sold Us a Pup?”

  1. Many of us want to believe that the answer to life is found in books and that it is a lack of secret knowledge that is holding us back. If you are of this mindset, these sorts of books are going to appeal to you.

    1. Thanks Josh. There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in books, but no book has all the answers. I remember being in a bookshop, then choosing to buy a candle, and I thought “I’ll get more out of sitting silently with this candle than i could out of any book in this shop”.

  2. Agreed! Self-help is about helping themselves to your money :)

    There is a better way tho not easily found since everyone is focusing on the mind and their thoughts instead of getting to the heart of the matter.

    Peace Be Still.

  3. I only buy self-help books when the book is “calling” me, twice a year maybe. Once one book literally fell into my basket, it was the Power of Now and totally changed my view.
    I think most people fail as they keep going on workshops, talks, keep reading books but don’t put it into practise.
    The only secret knowledge is to learn to love and accept yourself, drop the expectations, meditate and live in the moment.
    Nothing else matters.

    1. “The only secret knowledge is to learn to love and accept yourself, drop the expectations, meditate and live in the moment. Nothing else matters.” I really like that, Eva. Living in the moment is something I aspire to, and try to fall into (I know, trying to fall into something is a paradox).

  4. I think the real danger lies in buying anything hook, line and sinker….blindly and without question. I think people should always question, should always hold up ideas against their own beliefs and decide what is best for them. That is how we learn and grow. I believe the purpose of any self help book is to give us new perspectives, open us up to new ideas and adjust our worlds as is comfortable for us.

    If someone who is reading self help books feels “pushed” you can’t blame a book of ideas for that. It is the responsibility of the reader to use their own ability to reason and make decisions. Instead of being skeptical why not see what these new ideas generate in your own life or see what already held beliefs they strengthen for you.

    If you believe any book, guru is going to change your life or not change your life…either way you’re right but that is on you not the author.

    1. “If someone who is reading self help books feels “pushed” you can’t blame a book of ideas for that.”

      Blame is rarely healthy, but I do think writers of self-help books should take responsibility for the way they write and the claims they make. Books, like people, can be pushy.

      Some of us know our own minds/hearts, and are good at standing up to pushy books/people when we need to. Others of us are still learning and growing, we’re fragile, so it’s good to be gentle with us.

  5. I’ve found the Personal Development industry to be really useful as it has encouraged positive thinking and an open mind, for me personally. I used to think that everything was very limited but I don’t believe that’s true, I think the only limit is in our minds. I don’t like to think that there are unrealistic dreams as such – if people have big dreams or goals then good for them, they’re setting themselves high standards and expecting the best from themselves and why shouldn’t they.

    I do agree with you that life is about enjoying the humble things in life but I really don’t believe there are limited resources on this earth, We as humans are very resourcful and creative beings and we’re capable of creating a system where people can share these resources equally so that we can all live a high standard of life and so that people don’t starve or live in poor conditions.

  6. It’s all about learning. Over the years I have worked both sides – bought and sold and it is always about the decision to learn. There is a lesson from buying the sac – look before you leap and I know many people who got a HUGE benefit from programmes that for me were poor investments. But I also fired 3 tertiary education establishments for selling me information that was unusable.

    1. Yeah, the peasant isn’t going to fall for that scam again anytime soon. I try to avoid peeking ahead in novels, but it can be a good idea in self help books, especially if the first few pages are all promises and no ideas for action.

  7. Hi David – I love the parable of the piglet/pup (wow! that’s some alliteration!) to illustrate the experience many folks have with self-help. I think the challenge with self-help is that there are a lot of self-proclaimed gurus and folks seeking solutions may have the idea that the world of self-help is somehow kinder and gentler. Noble expectation, albeit gullible.

    There are lots of great experts in the self-help arena, and I have gained so much from some of the books and programs I have purchased. But a number of the “experts” are only out to make a profit from people who are desperately seeking solutions. In this way, the self-help industry is no different than any other industry. After all, the psychological tactics used by the ad men of Madison Ave are now available to anyone with a website.

    Definitely good advice to check things out and carefully consider claims!

    1. Thanks Stephanie. As I said in the article, I’ve gained a lot too from the books I’ve read (and the people I’ve worked with). Like you said, it’s about keeping a look out for books/websites that are all hype and no substance.

  8. I agree with the gist of your article David. Discernment is critical. I’ve read a few self help books over the years and have found that there are a lot of ‘pups’ out there.

    Some recurring themes that have been very useful however are as follows:

    1. Live as fully in the present moment as possible
    2. Make decisions often. Albeit small ones but make frequent decisions
    3. Once you’ve made a decision act decisively
    4. Cultivate a mindfulness practice into your life to live fully in the moment. Here’s my take on mindfulness : http://bit.ly/11pv4gj

  9. I’ve always told my clients I know I’ve been successful when they’ve outgrown their need for me. :)

    To see self-development as this one size fits all industry is like saying manufacturing is just about “building stuff.” It’s all about what you want, who has the expertise for your particular goal…even helping you clarify what your vision is.

    And in the same way there’s always more stuff to build, there are always new personal, interpersonal and spiritual frontiers to explore.

  10. For some a lot of these ideas are far too lofty.

    My friends with severe depression see these things and immediately call b.s. They do not believe they are remotely capable of achieving any of these. They compare themselves to people they believe did accomplish these things and it drags their self-esteem lower.

    I know because I was one of them.

    For some of my other friends a lot of these ideas are a symptom of their mania. They feel like they are going to achieve everything and have more wealth than anyone. Meanwhile they spend all of their money and take risks they should not.

    I believe a lot of the self-help doctrine is not entirely healthy. For the mentally ill.

    I have achieved amazing things in life. I went from suicidal ideation to a love of life. I skyrocketed my career from the depths of despair to leading a team.

    I did this with hard work and I did it one step at a time one moment at a time with the help of professionals and a lot of self-help.

    I really like your message. I will keep it in mind because I am starting a self-help blog which I hope will eventually teach people how to repeat what I did.

  11. Nice article, really fascinating how you deliver your message through the opening storyline. It really capture my attention to finish your great article. As you said, we have to learn appreciate what we have now before start pursuing something. Sometime we might overlook how lucky we are now and keep complaining on the current situation.

  12. Self-help books are a recount of the experience gone through by the writer. It may be that his experience may not be of any help to me due to my different temperament. However, I would not doubt the sincerity of the writer. It all shows the way. It is entirely for me to accept that way or not. I have to be discerning to be able to differentiate between a piglet and a pup.

  13. Denis Wailtey helped me discover that there are methods to do better in life. There are lot of self help gurus today but I think they are churning the same principles in different ways.I would still go back to Waitley, Peale,Nightingale, Ziglar…even then, they will show you a method or a way to achieve your potential, stay up etc…you still have to put in the effort. One thing always pops up in my mind when someone tells me he can turn stones into diamonds, “if it is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. Period.”

  14. Hi David, I think I agree with you, and that’s probably why I rarely rarely ever bought a self help book. The last one was probably the 7 Habits and before that How to Win Friends and Influence People, but these were really business books, are they?

    About the “be remarkable” part though, speaking from personal experience and nothing to do with self-help books, I’ve always wanted to be remarkable since a little girl, but in my first almost 30 years of life, working in finance, I felt being the opposite. Now I’ve found my calling as an artist, I know what “remarkable” really means and looks like.

  15. I think the self help industry isn’t selling us pups (at least not too many of them), they’re selling us ideas and concepts that we need to then apply to our own lives. You used the Work 4 Hours a week as an example – I’ve ready that book and think its fantastic. But at no point do I actually believe that this would apply to me; the idea in the book though does and if I were to apply it I could reduce my work week. Its the thinking and methodology – the sensationalist claims, well they’re there to get attention.

    At the end of day, we make our own decisions and choices and should never blindly apply anything without thinking about it and adjusting it to fit our personal situation.

  16. Hi David,
    thanks for the article!
    One thing that stands out for me here is that self-help writers, same as everyone else, are susceptible to fear that their income might run out. Sadly this can lead to a dependence on their customers/readers remaining dependent on them!
    It takes the bravest and truest writers, teachers and coaches to do everything they can to give their students true freedom, and there are some out there. These display a quiet confidence and amazing levels of generosity in terms of the information they share, and the result is usually a hugely loyal following who want to give back again and again.
    I think you’re right – the over-hyped special offers often hide a level of fear, and we should be cautious and critical of what is being given away.

  17. Whenever a stranger gives me advice – especially when that stranger represents a business – I try to ask myself “How might it benefit them if I follow this advice?” So much of marketing is focused on creating a problem and then solving it, one would do well to stay focused on what really matters. Thanks for sharing your excellent thoughts on the subject!

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