Opinion: How useful are business self-help books?

Despite extravagant claims, business guides can be a source of inspiration to consumers

The business world can be a difficult place to navigate — while some people are lucky to have their destination mapped out, others face a slow burn to find the right path to a business goal. In particular, we tend to seek guidance when various paths may be viable but each is laced with different degrees of uncertainty.

When friends and mentors fall short, a world of experience awaits on bookshelves — both physical and digital — with self-help books. The self-help industry was valued in the US at almost $10 billion USD in 2016.

While the focus for self-help titles cover almost every minutiae of daily life, considering how important a successful career is viewed in society, helping people navigate their way through their professional lives comprises a significant genre within self-help books.

Empty promises

The goal of the self-help guru, or the self-help books they write, is to be applicable and approachable to as many readers as possible. This increases the likelihood of the book being a financial success. The need to stand out from the competition and be noticed by the consumer is a reason why these works may reach to make claims and use hopeful language to attract buyers.

Among Amazon’s best-selling business titles are works such as The 10X Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure, The 48 Laws of Power, The Laws of Human Nature, and Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence-and How You Can, Too.

These are enticing titles that confidently proclaim the secrets their pages hold, with promises of wealth and power. These false hopes and unrealized promises are what the business self-help industry is notorious for.

Self-help books can be analogous to, and as ubiquitous as, dietary fads. New information is quickly seized upon as the ‘next big thing’ with little evidence to support the claims made. Often, anecdotal tales are used to support certain behaviours and prescribed as the right methods that should be followed to achieve certain outcomes. Furthermore, each reader is likely to judge the relevance of information differently, interpret advice differently, or weigh the same sets of rules differently, based on personal factors.

A guidebook, not a bible

The issue with business self-help books is that there is no follow-up on the effectiveness of the particular methods preached. The people who succeed might retroactively misattribute the reasons for their success to a particular self-help method, while the blame for failure is burdened onto the individual.

Yet proponents of self-help books argue that keeping an open mind and applying the lessons described can be useful. After all, the literature in this category is not meant to be a sure-fire method to the top but rather a mixture of learned processes and opinions from ostensibly successful individuals. Rather than follow the advice to the word, consumers should use the available information to better educate themselves.

Not perfect, but valuable nonetheless

If you are interested in self-improvement through reading, billionaire and business magnate Warren Buffett recommends titles such as The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success and The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns.

Business self-help books can come in the form of a guide for self-improvement, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. They can also be well-researched works that try to explain the causation of success and question common misconceptions, such as Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by ‎Steven D. Levitt‎ and ‎Stephen J. Dubner.

Business self-help books can be great sources of foundational information and potential sources of advice, but the application of said advice should be at the reader’s careful discretion.

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