The self-help project, part one

In Uncategorized on September 17, 2011 at 7:20 pm

The first self-help book I read, why I look down on them, and why I’ve decided to read more.

When I was at university I bought a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People from a second-hand bookshop in Norwich. The book was written in 1936, and is, I think, pretty much the first self-help book. It’s still at number 143 on’s bestseller list. And it’s the only self-help book I’ve read.
It’s been a long time since I used to dip into that book at university. And I didn’t do so very deferentially. I kept a copy by the loo, and I had bought it with a student’s sense of irony. I felt I could get away with reading this particular self-help book without betraying my loathing of the genre, since it was the original.

Some of it made sense. Somewhat earnest common sense, but sense nonetheless. I can remember two pieces of advice from it: One was that the word a person most wants to hear is their own name. The other was that if you want to engage with someone, find something about them that you truly admire. For example, says Carnegie, he was in the post office queue, and told the man in front of him that he had a fine head of hair.

I see where the author was going with that advice, and I’ve seen it put to use later. Whenever I meet someone and tell them my name and I hear them repeat, “Hello Austyn,” as they shake my hand, I suspect they are working on a variation of Carnegie’s rule. And I knew a girl who was an extra in a film with Billy Connolly once. As she stood outside to smoke a cigarette, the comedian came over, looked her up and down and told her she had the finest knees he’d ever seen.

Generally, though, if you follow Carnegie’s advice, you’ll look a bit creepy and anachronistic. Like a Mad Men character escaped to the real world.

It’s my opinion that self-help books are written by people with an inflated sense of self worth for other people with an inflated sense of self worth. Or at least with a desire to have one.

While Carnegie’s book was amusing in parts, there was little humour in it. I doubt it is possible to write a self-deprecating self-help book. They are written by the earnest for the earnest. And I’m not earnest. Not in that sense. Self-help books aren’t for me.


I’ve decided to try and read more, and see where they will take me. I’m going into this project – if it becomes a project and doesn’t die on its feet – aware of the prejudices I’m taking with me. I suspect that I will spend a lot of time mocking the more earnest passages, while trying to act on some of the common-sense good ideas that actually make the books popular. Learning while jeering my tutor.

I’ve started reading Getting things Done by Dave Allen. Mainly because it was sitting there invitingly on my Kindle. I’ll write more about the book soon, but basically it involves working out what you need to do, and what the next step is for achieving each of those goals. Then you write them down in a list. Then you do them.

I’ve had to-do lists for a while. And they are often quite practical. So I don’t think the process is too far from what I do anyway (self-help seems to be common sense written down a lot of the time). So it seemed a good place to start.

“Begin self-help blog” was one of the things on my to-do list. And now I’ve done it. As for the other pressing concerns I aimed to address over this weekend, if only “procrastinate” and “nap” had been on that list too.

Help me, Dave Allen! Help me. Perhaps when I’ve got more than 25% through the book I’ll do better.


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