Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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