The Paradox of Attitudinal Self-Help Books

Marketing author Seth Godin, who I respect a lot, recently published a new book. I want to point out a theme in his blog interviews (which he did instead of a media tour; I haven't read the book itself yet). With Gretchen Rubin there's this exchange:

Q: If you had to sum up in one sentence what you want a reader to understand from reading Linchpin [Seth's new book], what would it be?

Seth: The world wants you to be a faceless, replaceable cog in the vast machinery of production — but if you choose, and you work at it, you can become the sort of person we really need, an indispensable linchpin, a person who matters. The marketplace needs and embraces artists, creatives, initiators, challengers and movers. You have that skill, the challenge is unearthing it.

I.e.: Everyone is an artist, you just need to look within yourself and choose to be one.

With Chris Guillebeau there's this:

Q: According to Linchpin, how do I become an artist? (What if I don’t know what I’m really good at?)

Seth: You do art when you make change that matters, and do it via a connection with an individual. A great waitress or conductor or politician can make art. So can David, who cleans the tables at Dean and Deluca. Art isn’t the job, it’s the attitude you bring to the job and work you do when you’re there.

It's the attitude you bring to the job. The next question:

Q: Are we all really geniuses? If so, what do we do to stop choosing stability over genius?

Seth: Well, if a genius is someone who solves a problem in a new and original way, then sure, you’re a genius. And the first step to making that choice is to know it’s available.

You can't disagree: the first step to solving a problem is knowing you can solve the problem. Again, attitude.

But to actually solve a problem in a new and original way requires much more than just thinking you can do it. For example, to change the world, you need to become really fucking good at something. Yet, unlike Cal Newport's thorough analysis of deliberate practice, the best-selling self-help books don't analyze the research of becoming exceptionally good at something. They stick to attitude. Which is necessary but hardly sufficient.

Here's the paradox: the folks who really need an attitude improvement are probably not aware of alternative mindsets. They do not know they have a "problem," so they are not reading books and blogs about a solution to a problem they don't know they have. The folks who are reading books about how to "crush it" and become a linchpin, by the very fact that they're sought them out, are displaying initiative and spirit. What they need is not another attitudinal pep talk — they need help on step two and three and four.

So who is buying these books? Thesis: Already-motivated people who think just a tiny bit more motivation and inspiration will make the difference. But I'm not so sure it will.

29 comments on “The Paradox of Attitudinal Self-Help Books
  • Most self-help seems to be a lot of blowing smoke up the reader’s ass. Self-help that urges the reader to take a thorough, painful inventory of themselves is rare but the most helpful. Sure, in that inventory you also acknowledge the positive, but it’s important to be rigorously honest with oneself about the negative, too.

    Imagine telling yourself every day, “I’m a genius!” Seriously, would you want to hang out with that person?

  • The other interesting piece of this genre of self-help is the the strawman “world” that’s trying to stop you.

    To quote Seth: “The world wants you to be a faceless, replaceable cog in the vast machinery of production.”


    I would assume that most companies would love their workers to become world-changing geniuses. There’s whole industries built around helping companies seek out and hire these people.

    I guess it feels good to have the courage to thumb your nose at some ridiculous boogey-man trying to hold you down. But as Ben notes, after you’re done sticking it to the man, and adopting the right attitude, there’s still the difficult an non-obvious task of figuring out how to become “really fucking good.”

    I prefer Steve Martin’s more reductionist take on becoming famous: “Become so good they can’t ignore you.”

    The rest is just noise…

  • Great post, Ben. It’s often the case that there’s plenty of inspiration, but little advice on implementation.

    I would propose that a significant percentage of the people buying these books aren’t necessarily sure of their ability to “crush it” and that instead of needing just a little bit more motivation, they really need continual reinforcement of the fact that they can do it.

    I definitely agree with you Jackie- if you’re interested, I wrote a post about my issues with the often-dished-out advice to live with unshakable optimism:

  • Exactly! You can have the right attitude and read inspiring books all day long and never actually do anything. I’ve long wished for more discussion of steps 2-4.

  • Ben,
    Thanks for calling this out. I have been watching Godin’s interviews across the blogosphere, and wondering just how satisfied with their ‘art’ a Dean & DeLuca janitor is.

    Because I know some, and the answer is ‘not very.’

    You’ve gapped the difference between Godin’s rhetoric and reality: a skillset in which you excel. Nearly always, a skillset comes from doing – not reading, studying, thinking, or planning.

    It’s extremely competitive now to become an expert at one thing. But, I like Dilbert author Scott Adams’s advice:

    Be pretty good (top 25%) in two or more things.

    This strategy creates a reasonable goal, and also means that once you are an expert in the hybrid subject, it gives you a shot at becoming an expert in one or the other of the component parts of the hybrid.

  • Yeah I think part of the self-help genre takes advantage of this urge in go-getters to have the edge, to learn more and to find that missing piece to their entrepreneurial puzzle. Without having a skill or performing actions, it is a lot of fluff without substance.

    But this is why I like people like Larry Winget, and Gary Vee who say it how is…recognize that hard work is hard work and that most success takes more than just a leveraged talent. Larry for instance loves speaking, hates traveling…but he loves speaking more than he hates traveling so he puts up with it and gets paid a lot of money to do it.

    We all would love to have the most popular blogs, but we’re not willing to do the work that it takes to get there. We sure like reading about what it’d be like to do all the work to get us there though.

    I wrote a little review of my take after recently reading Godin’s Linchpin over at my Tumblr account. Basically the book made me think about inertia and in order to become a so-called “linchpin” you gotta overcome the inertia of some activity (ever hear of a thing called procrastination?)…once things are rolling talent and so forth can carry you through…and a lot of time the very process itself is what’s necessary for say Gladwell’s 10,000 hours or in this case becoming a “linchpin”.

  • Thanks for the link to Cal Newport – are there others that do go into steps two, three, four, …?

    I was going to ask what you thought of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers but I decided to grow up and search what you previously wrote and found your link (below) to Tyler Cowen. Thanks a lot.

    I also ran across your post (below) on declaring that you are an expert. Which goes along with your comments here on attitude but also extends beyond – though in a manner akin to an oracle.

    Interested in hearing more on follow on steps…

    Sorry about the linking:
    Tyler Cowen:
    Ben Casnocha & declaring yourself an expert:

  • Very insightful post, Ben. It reminds me of the difference between types of public speakers. Some are focused on leaving the audience entertained and inspired, while others want people to leave with concrete action steps that they can use to change their lives – even in just a small but meaningful way.

  • Not even gods have it easy it’s true.

    The folks who are reading books about how to “crush it” and become a linchpin are the ones who have a problem.

    The creatives are crushing it because they’re creating, not reading books about creating.

  • I have this take. The DIY syndrome is typical of a reader as opposed to the trier. It takes no inspiration to get moving, not even attitude. It’s an overwhelming sense of purpose, driven more by curiosity (than commitment which yields the attitude) that wear down the shoes. That generic trust in “movement” is what makes the difference. Even those self-help books that outline step 1,2,3 and 4 spread the illusion of “saying means doing” and that’s dangerous because the saying goes when all is said and done, much is said “than” done.

    The fault is not with DIY books. I think it lies with the reader that mistakes the promise of a cloud for fulfilment of rain. But does that make the genre dangerous? Not sure. it just calls for reader knowing the difference.

  • Ben,

    You’re completely right. As one of the posters said above, “..there’s plenty of inspiration, but little advice on implementation.”

    Getting people motivated and pumped up is very do-able (look at all the motivational speakers that have sprung up over the past 30 years).

    What people really need is the ability to execute.

  • Seth I think unintentionally himself has a problem with not having enough skills. Marketing is not enough to build a successful web application, which can be demonstrated by his past. Thus while I think his intentions are good, his books and advice are really not touting the right advice

  • Brilliant post Ben. It is akin to calling the emperor has no clothes. Seth has some good insights now and then and is a prolific blogger, but I have started to realize that his books are for the most part feel good, self-help genre and nothing more. However what he does have is a tribe of devoted followers that hang on to his every word. That takes mastery and Seth is an expert at building the follower tribes.

  • Self-help speakers and books can provide a brief boost of motivation and focus, which in perhaps a small number of instances can be the first step in a long path. But the hard part is sticking with it. Sticking with something long enough to become really good at it, or to keep the weight off, or to get rid of that bad habit. That’s the part of motivation that matters, but I haven’t seen too much about sustainable motivation.

  • I agree that the people who buy these books are already motivated, but it’s shortsighted that they’re just looking for a tiny bit more motivation and inspiration. What they’re looking for is IDEAS. Books like this and, say, Guy Kawasaki’s are good at making the abstract concrete. They don’t just say “get out there and make a difference.” They give specific examples of how others have made a difference in the past.

    I started my first business after reading an inspirational piece about how Motrorall and Hewlett Packard got started. Neither company’s founders set out to change the world. They set out to start companies.

    It was that simple realization — you don’t have to have a brilliant idea to start a company — that inspired me to stop worrying about whether I had what it takes and start focusing on doing the actual things you need to do to start a company.

    Yes, a lot of self-help is snake oil, but a lot of it is useful too. Reading Getting Things Done literally changed my life.

  • I think this paradox is solved by a long term diffusion of knowledge from the book into the public consciousness. That sounds a little pretentious, so I’ll break it down:

    An author pens an important attitudinal idea into a book bought largely by people who don’t need the help. Inevitably, some people with power who read this book will bring it into the media by the reflection of their attitudes. Once the idea becomes canon, the individuals who wouldn’t have bought the book are now exposed to it, and the idea might permeate into their consciousness.

    For example, I’ve never read The Power of Now/Full Engagement. As you can tell from how I wrote the title, I don’t even know what it is and who wrote it. But I do understand the idea, and I do make a conscious effort to live by it. On a social level, I think “full presence” has made its way into the collective consciousness.

  • Thinking about this further, this reminds me of two of your previous posts:

    This. Kind Of Advice. Reminds Me Of. Advice. From Leo Babauta:

    And reason as the steering wheel and emotion as the gas pedal:

    To continue the analogy in the above post, these books get you to give the car plenty of gas, but leave you without a map or directions to help you get to where you want to go.

    I also agree with what DaveJ said above- it’s very hard to keep your foot down on that gas pedal- especially when you’re in the inevitable long, hard slog- see

  • Great post! I always get a lot from your posts and your reader’s comments; in fact this is one of few blogs where I read the comments.

    Self-help and motivational books are like drinking several cups of coffee a day or relying on adrenaline to get things done. They create “spikes” on the journey rather than supporting a continual and steady progress.

    Sustainability, execution, discipline, and continuity are marks of great people and great organizations.

  • Great post! I’ve read a few self-help books and believe me, I have no problem in terms of attitude, of believing that I can do whatever. It’s how to do it, how to develop self-discipline where I come unstuck.
    I’ve now given up on reading self-help books as they give me no new advice / tips that I don’t already know.

  • So to answer Daniel’s question are there others than Cal who give a good framework for accomplishing this? I thought Covey’s 7 habits, and GTD are good for general productivity, but haven’t found anything comparable to Cal’s books for work related excellence, and would be curious about this, particularly in scientific/medical treatment related fields.

  • I think that the movers and shakers of the world are not sitting at home reading books on how to be motivated.
    I like Seth, but am not a fan of most motivational speakers. Too much of it is
    “pay and watch me speak, I’m rich, you are not…..”.

  • Hey Ben, disagree with on this one-

    I don’t think Godin is necessarily talking about changing the world through a skill/ invention/ achievement but the capacity that we, maybe unknowingly, have to impact our work and others around us. I think this what he means by “Linchpin.”

    The opportunity now is different than it was 25 years ago, which is why the books’ context/ texture is relevant to motivated folks.

    It is a pep talk, not a solution. But Godin is the best at it.

  • Godin inspires us, not to be our best self, but to be like everybody else. That’s not his intention, but that’s the unintended consequence.

    You see, when Godin fanboys read his books, they aspire to become what he suggest; the net effect is that they all end-up looking like each other. Moreover, this audience becomes his biggest customer base as well as his apologists because when Godin is criticized they, by association, are criticized; indeed, their very being is put into question, and that can’t happen. So, they perpetuate his mythic-status, not just to protect Godin, but to protect themselves.

    I’m just sayin’.

  • Ben, you wrote:

    Here’s the paradox: the folks who really need an attitude improvement are probably not aware of alternative mindsets. They do not know they have a “problem,” so they are not reading books and blogs about a solution to a problem they don’t know they have. The folks who are reading books about how to “crush it” and become a linchpin, by the very fact that they’re sought them out, are displaying initiative and spirit. What they need is not another attitudinal pep talk — they need help on step two and three and four.

    By God, that’s the most devastatingly straightforward and accurate criticism of Godin and (to date my own involvement with this type of self-help guru) Tony Robbins that I have ever read. Thanks.

  • You have assumed incorrectly Cal. Spend 6 months in a corporate setting (not corporate research, though you will find it to a large extent there too, I know I’ve been in both) and you will see that while companies may SAY they want stand out geniuses with world changing ideas, for the most part they really don’t.
    Businesses really like predictability and in order to have that they need a kind of replicability in people. They don’t want us to be soulless clones by any means, but they need to know that the business can continue without us without too much of a loss. Very often they will take chances with “individuals” in higher positions, but certainly not in most lower positions.
    This is not true of every company but in many (especially more old school large shops) it is.
    I love your blog, but I would probably do some interviews with some corporate types and you’ll quickly see that this is the case.
    Now as to Seth’s point, I don’t think it’s that much different than your approach of do liberal arts in combination with a series of advanced mathematics courses. This kind of unusual combination can make you really stand out. Having not actually read his book I can’t say if this is a really fair evaluation of his book or not.

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