I decided I hated self-help books before I’d even read one. I was always (and still am) too cynical to believe that a 200 page book promising to CHANGE MY LIFE could actually do it. But somewhere between writing my last book and pitching my next book I became a self-help author. At first by accident, and then on purpose.
The Art of Getting Started was never supposed to be a self-help book, I never planned for it to be anyway. But that’s exactly what it ended up being, it’s in the self-help section of most book shops that stock it. My next book will definitely be a self-help book, and this time I’ve planned it. Because I always hated self-help books I was a bit worried about writing one of my own. But I realised that if I’ve accidentally written one self-help book already which isn’t bullshit, and am planning to write another one on purpose, there’s a good chance other people have written self-help books which aren't bullshit too.
So in the last year or so I started trying to find those books. And amongst the millions of books in the bullshit self-help category, I found a few in the bullshit free category too. Below are 5 of the best that I’ve found so far, if you’ve read any others please let me know.
The Antidote - Oliver Burkeman
I got my first book deal with Penguin in 2012 and I knew I was happy about it, but I didn’t really feel happy about it. If that makes sense? To be fair I hadn’t been happy for a while, on and off, and I was constantly trying to work out why. But a book deal was always on my list of things that I was certain would make me feel really really happy. It’ didn’t. So while I was writing that book I read a lot of articles, blog posts, and books, telling me how I could be happy. I tried to be optimistic, positive, and upbeat (which are 3 words I’d never used before 2012) as advised, and I became even less happy.
I could write a whole other post about just how unhappy I became while being optimistic, positive, and upbeat. But for now let’s cut to the part where I read The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. I blitzed through this book in a couple of days and I related to so many things in it that I can’t even begin to list them all. It reminded me exactly how I was before I started trying so hard to be happy, and more importantly it reminded me that I was OK like that. I was actually happy sometimes, and being happy sometimes is a much more realistic and sane goal than trying to be happy continuously and forever. This book is interesting, helpful, and really funny. I’d recommend reading it even if you love positive thinking.
I got to meet up with Oliver a few months ago for a drink in Brooklyn. We talked a lot about happiness, how strong American craft beer is, and the little niche of self-help that is being written by people who aren’t nut-cases and/or liars. Books that might actually help people a bit. I’m hoping my next book becomes part of that niche too.
What’s Stopping You? - Robert Kelsey
I bought this book on impulse from WHSmith because of the subtitle — Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential, and How You Can. The fact that I was in WHSmith because I’d been running to get my train, then tripped over my own feet causing me to miss that train was beside the point. I was still pretty sure I was smart. The main reason I hate self-help books is that there’s often little nuggets of wisdom in them which could actually help. But they’re always dressed up in layers of shit and attached to grandiose promises, rather than just saying this might help. The more I think about it, the more This Might Help A Bit seems like a great title for a self-help book.
Robert Kelsey has basically read a lot of self-help books, stripped away all the bullshit and life-changing promises, then combined what’s left with his thoughts in this book. It was reading this book that first made me realise I have a fear of failure. I still have that fear of failure, it’ll never go away, but now I’m much better at accepting it and not letting it hold me back. I’m going to hit “publish” on this post despite the fact that I’m constantly thinking “is this shit?” as I’m typing it. Even though this is a no-bullshit book it still has a very self-help feel to it. But it feels like a book that was written because it might help you a bit, not because it will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
Mindfulness - Mark Williams and Danny Penman
Full disclosure, I can’t meditate. I’m terrible at it. This whole book is basically about not judging yourself for that and sticking with it regardless. Apparently you can’t be bad at meditation so you shouldn’t judge yourself as such. But I AM bad at it and I know it, I tried Mindfulness Meditation for 3 full weeks and I still couldn’t do it. But putting that aside I found a lot of this book helpful.
You should read it even if you hate the idea of meditation and think that simply “noticing more” won’t change anything. Just reading about the ideas behind Mindfulness (and trying my best at meditation) really helped me take a step back from the thoughts constantly swirling around my brain. I always knew I was a day-dreamer and that I spent a lot of my days lost in thought. But before I read this book I didn’t actually notice how many of those thoughts were essentially just me shouting “haha you are so shit” at myself over and over. These days I’m much better at noticing when those thoughts appear and stopping them before I become convinced that I really am shit.
I think that means that I’m probably doing Mindfulness right actually, even though there is no “right” when it comes to Mindfulness, of course.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big - Scott Adams
I haven’t finished this book yet, so it feels weird to recommend it. But from what I’ve read so far (half of it) I’m sure it belongs in this post. I’m not really interested in the “winning big” part of the title, but I’m always looking for new perspectives on failure. For a long time I didn’t do anything at all just in case I failed, which is a pretty stupid way to live. I’m constantly learning how important failure is and how important accepting it is too. If I happen to Win Big in the process, I guess I won’t complain.
Naïve. Super - Erlend Loe
Ok, so this is actually a novel and not a self help book. But this is the book that’s “helped” me the most in my life, besides The Antidote. I don’t often re-read books, but I’ve read this one probably 20 times. It’s the story of a guy who hits 25 and realises he’s lost interest in life. So he sets out to find some meaning in everything. If you don’t relate to that then you are better at being human than me.
I read this book whenever I’m feeling down, or lost, or meaningless, or important. I’m on my 5th copy so far, because I keep giving my copy away to friends who are feeling down, or lost, or meaningless, or important. I’m pretty sure I’ve told every single person I know to read this book on more than one occasion, and now I’m telling you to read it. Seriously, make this the next book you read.
I’ve realised recently that I know exactly what I want from life, and that I’ve known all along deep down. It’s pretty much the same thing that the unnamed narrator of Naïve. Super wants.
“I don't want all that much. But I want to be fine. I want to live a simple life with many good moments and a lot of fun.”
I’d guess that’s the same thing a lot of other people want too, and I don’t think it’s as hard as we allow ourselves to believe it is. These books might not hold all the secrets to living that life. But they might actually help, a bit.