Do We Need Self-Help Books or Knowledge?

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by Jayaram V

Source: This essay was originally published in the book “Think Success, Essays on Self-help” by Jayaram V under the title, “Why Self-development?" and reproduced with publisher's permission.

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Several years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a weeklong training program for senior managers organized by the company where I worked. During the training, one of the faculty members delivered a lecture on building effective teams by resolving emotional problems and inter-personal conflicts caused by irrational thinking. He also gave examples and suggestions about how to counter irra-ional arguments. Overall, it was an informative lecture, based on the speaker's own experience and observation. However, some managers in the group were not impressed.

During the lunch break, they kept saying that they heard nothing new, and what the speaker said was general knowledge and plain commonsense. Some even added with scorn that self-help and management subjects helped none but those who used their high connections to secure speaking deals. The people who engaged in that thought process were not well educated. They rose to the ranks mainly by sheer hard work, operating in the same niche markets for decades and establishing a good customer base. Most of them did not possess leadership skills and ran their offices like family units, disregarding the rules set by the company when it suited them, and acting more like parental figures rather than professional heads. They would have achieved more success, if they kept their minds open and showed readiness to learn and improve.

Is self-help knowledge helpful?

When it comes to self-development subjects, you will find many people who harbor skepticism and negative thoughts. Self-help is not an exact science. It does not enjoy the same status or respect as astrophysics or quantum mechanics. However, you cannot also dismiss it as a product of speculation or common sense.

Historically, self-help knowledge developed as an offshoot of spiritual wisdom, ethics, and philosophy, but with the development of modern psychology and behavioral sciences, it acquired a distinct status and credibility as a reliable and practical subject worthy of study and exploration. We now know that self-help knowledge is not just commonsense or a folk science. Using reason and commonsense you can surely resolve many problems in your life.

Today, self-help writers and experts derive their knowledge from various sources including human psychology, sociology, history, medicine, anthropology, spirituality, philosophy, literature, ethics, mortality, aesthetics, and religion. You may not be benefited by every self-development that has been published, but you can expect some good from most of them. Sometimes, self-help knowledge may not directly help you, but create in you a desire to understand your hidden potentials, talents and abilities and improve them through self-effort. It motivates you to become a better person.

However, whether you succeed in that effort or not depends a lot upon you only. To use self-help techniques effectively, you need a proper mindset, preparation, and training. It is also incorrect to assume that you can substitute self-help knowledge with pure commonsense.

Studies prove that people are not always guided by their common sense, reason, or intelligence, but by their fears, doubts, impulses, and expectations. While we are rational beings, our thinking and actions are not always guided by pure reason. We are frequently influenced by our desires, emotions, habits, beliefs, and prejudices rather than what is needed and suitable for the situation.

Even our perceptions and understanding are clouded by irrational thinking and unverified assumptions. The same pattern of behavior influences our thinking and actions in personal and professional matters. People are guided by various considerations, which are not necessarily rational or intelligent. They may read self-help books but may not derive much benefit from it due to mental blocks, wrong priorities, and reservations. Hence, it is not proper to pass a summary judgment against self-help knowledge and brush it aside as mere speculation or pure commonsense.

It is important to remember that in any effort to improve yourself or change your life you alone make the difference. The results depend largely upon your effort and involvement. The knowledge may help, but its value and importance depend upon your needs and problems and how relevant it is to your life and circumstances, rather than how great and experienced its author is.

It is not necessary that the same methods and techniques should work for everyone or apply to everyone. If a particular program does not work for you, it does not mean that it will not work for others, and vice versa. What matters most is whether it serves any purpose in your life and whether you find it useful, motivating and transformational. Personality factors, individual differences and attitudinal issues also play a vital role. If you do not believe in it or if you accept it with doubts and fears, you may not try enough or find it use. If the problems are too personal, intimate, or sensitive, you may have to even customize the knowledge using your own intelligence.

Hence, it is not proper or rational to brush aside any self-help theory, technique or suggestion as useless because it has not worked for you. Any problem that you may find with self-help theory and practice may not be because they are defective, but because they are not right for you or you have not tried hard enough. Even the best self-help experts in the world cannot guarantee 100% results in every situation or in case of every individual. A lot depends upon your own effort and involvement and how far you able to apply the knowledge to your situation.

Therefore, if self-help knowledge has not helped you, you must first look into yourself and see what went wrong. Based upon your findings and conclusions, you can search for alternatives.

Self-development topics show you the way to maximize your chances of success and achievement. They point to the possibilities of what you can accomplish with preparation and right knowledge and how you may overcome your limitations and weaknesses to create the life of your dreams. \

From them you will learn that while you are entirely responsible for your circumstances, you can train yourself to deal with them and create your own conditions and opportunities to become a better and capable human being, transcending your limitations and your self-destructive negativity.

It is difficult to tell whether a particular self-help theory, technique or principle is suitable or relevant for you. However, in a competitive world none can deny the importance of learning, growing, changing, adapting, and improving. Justification for self-help knowledge arises from the awareness that we are not born perfect and there is a lot in us that needs to be improved, transformed, or removed.

Our imperfections show up in many ways in our thinking and actions. They become self-evident when we measures ourselves against the ideals we cherish. We are not only imperfect, but we also live in an imperfect world, amidst a sea of imperfections. We are pitted against the most destructive forces of Nature, which show no mercy if we are weak, incapable, or negligent. Our imperfections and insecurities are sufficient reason why we need to focus upon change and personal growth. When we know that we can accomplish more and live a better life, it becomes our duty and responsibility to work for our betterment.

Understanding how self-help knowledge works

Self-help knowledge helped countless people in the past. Millions of people followed the methods and suggestions made by the experts and improved their lives and personalities. Many vouch its importance in overcoming their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, controlling their emotions and behavior, dealing with pain and suffering, resolving conflicts, improving communication, managing relationships, developing job skills, and so on. We know from experience shows that it is not easy to change human nature or behavior.

When you want to change any aspect of your personality, you will encounter a lot of inner resistance from your own mind and body and find it difficult to sustain your progress. Self-help knowledge helps you to deal with such problems by letting you know what others have done in similar circumstances and what alternatives you can follow. It is especially found effective in facilitating the following seven fundamental processes of change and growth.

1. Preventing those aspects of your behavior, which interfere with your ability to function normally and effectively.

2. Preserving and promoting what works for you, strengt-hens you and helps you to fulfill your aims and aspirations.

3. Creating conditions and qualities both within and without which improve your ability to resolve problems, overcome obstacles and achieve physical, mental and spiritual Wellbeing.

4. Destroying or removing what is undesirable and redundant in you so that you can overcome your imperfections and limitations and improve your character, personality, and behavior.

5. Promoting attitudes, qualities and traits, which contribute to your happiness and Wellbeing.

6. Adapting and adjusting to your environment and responding appropriately to the problems and situations, you face in your life with an open and flexible mind.

7. Making the best use of your resources and circumstances to maximize your chances of success, and secure peace and happiness.

As stated before, there is no guarantee that self-help books and information will help you. A lot depends upon your motivation and specific needs. Your age also plays an important role. As you grow older, your thinking, priorities and behavior change. You may also find that certain types of knowledge, solutions and techniques that were useful in the past are not useful anymore.

As you grow and adapt, you will develop certain likes and dislikes, habits and behavioral patterns that prevent you from being flexible, adaptable and open-minded. Whether you are young or old, your success with self-help techniques and suggestions rests upon the following four important factors.

1. Effort: Many people read self-help books but do not follow the suggestion sincerely or practice the prescribed exercises. Genuine and sincere effort is required for suc-cess in any field and self-development is not an exception. Your thoughts and desires must be matched with suitable, intelligent, efficient and goal oriented effort

2. Precision: Precision means following the methods strictly as planned without any variations. Self-help techni-ques work better if you are specific in your thinking, goals and approach. Your thoughts must be clear, goals must be measurable, and your actions must be pointed. Only then you can expect positive outcomes.

3. Timing: You must practice the suggestions within the timeframe as you originally planned. If the program demands daily practice, you must practice it daily. To set in motion proper chain of events, you must stick to the schedule as planned or intended and know what to do, and when. If you do the right thing at the right time in the prescribed manner, you will achieve the expected results in time.

4. Techniques: You may customize the solutions, but you have to practice certain techniques exactly as prescribed. Otherwise, it may result in negative consequences, unexpe-cted results, injury, or personal harm. For example, if you are required to practice certain techniques under the supervision of an experienced guide, you must follow advice sincerely and not take any liberties.

Qualities for success

Apart from the above, success in self-development effort depends upon certain important qualities such as the following.

1. Focus: Focus means the ability to remember your goals, priorities, and purpose. Failure is almost certain when you are distracted or loose focus. You can sustain your focus by constantly remembering your goals and implanting them firmly in your consciousness.

2. Perseverance: If focus is about attention, persevera-nce is about both focus and effort. It means you must sustain your effort in pursuing your goals and should not give up or lose your courage and conviction because of failures and setbacks. You must keep learning from them and keep trying until the end.

3. Faith: As stated before, without conviction you will not be able to use self-help knowledge effectively. To continue your effort, you must have faith in your goals, in yourself and in your actions and methods.

4. Commitment: Commitment depends upon how serious, motivated, focused, enthusiastic and hopeful you are about your goals and techniques. It comes from expe-rience, discretion, faith and correct knowledge. With com-mitment you can also sustain your focus and perseve-rance and earn the trust and goodwill of others.

5. Determination: Determination strengthens your desi-re to achieve your goals and deal with your problems and obstacles. If you have it, you will not be deterred or discou-raged by failures and setbacks. You will remain in control of the situation until you reach your goals.

The commonsense scientific approach

Self-help suggestions and techniques are meant to address specific problems and situations arising from your thinking, behavior or actions. You cannot generalize them or use the same solutions for everyone and every situation. However, most suggestions, solutions, theories, concepts, and techniques are formulated based upon a common approach involving the following four basic steps.

1. Define the problem: This is the first step, where the problem is identified, analyzed, understood, and defined. This is a crucial step because everything else depends upon how you frame the problem or relate to it.

2. Find the solutions: In this phase, you focus upon the alternatives, study the consequences, weigh your options, gather information from various sources, apply your knowledge and intelligence and formulate concrete methods and solutions to resolve the problem according to your circumstances, opportunities and resources.

3. Draw the program: In this phase, you determine your goals, techniques, action plans, precautions, and standards of performance to monitor your progress.

4. Use your methods: In this phase, you check your methods and techniques by acting upon them and subjecting them to reality check, and based upon your observation and conclusions, you will make necessary adjustments and improvements to make them more effective. You may also share your knowledge and experience with others.

Self-development is neither a mystical nor a magical process. It is based upon your perceptions, experience and behavior. It does not promise to resolve every problem you face, but offers possibilities and opportunities to change and improve your thinking and behavior so that you can reach certain goals in your life and experience fulfillment.

Since you cannot change every aspect of your personality and behavior, especially those that are genetically determined, you have to be realistic in your thinking and expectations, and know what you can and cannot accomplish with its help. Even in the areas where you can expect change and improvement, a lot depends upon your own commitment, conviction, involvement and belief.

As we discussed, in any self-development effort you are the one who makes the knowledge useful or useless. You are responsible for the actions your take and the change you want to bring in you. You become the subject, the object and the focal point of your actions.

In the end, what matter most are your thinking, attitude and effort. Others may come and join you, but ultimately the improvement or change that you desire must happen in you and with your willful participation. If self-development subjects create in you the desire to work for your improvement or transfor-mation, it means they have served their basic purpose.

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