The problem with reading too many “success” books

Alright, I’m done. I’m finished. I can no longer be positive about reading personal development books. They are, by and large, terrible. How many times can I put myself through reading the same pieces of information chopped up and regurgitated into endless lists, faux-ancient “laws”, and new age spirituality?

“Success” books are a fantastic way to get into some of the basic concepts of achieving goals, and I don’t want to take anything away from those who have come away from those book with more knowledge and insight.

Now you could argue that I’m simply burned out (in the past two months I’ve read 10 and reviewed eight), but I’ve been reading books about success for over a decade and guess what…

There ain’t nothing new

T-rex, success, reading, personal development
This guy actually wrote actually wrote a best seller called “Think and get food” Image Creidt: Wikipedia

The problem is that humanity has already solved any issue that you or I might have. All these books about wealth/personal development are saying the exact same thing.

Darren Hardy’s The Compound Effect and Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge are interchangeable, as are George Samuel Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon, and Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad

Even the holy grail of the success genre, Think and Grow Rich, is spouting the same stuff as James Allen’s seminal 1903 classic As a Man Thinketh (which is in the public domain, book here, audio here). Hell, even As a Man Thinketh is a Victorian version of Marcus Aurelius’s (yes the Roman Emperor) Meditations which came out in 170 AD!

Want to make more money? Educate yourself and get better at your job.

Want to save money? Stop buying things that you don’t need.

Want to be wealthy? Buy things that make you money.

Want to be good at something? Practice it a little bit everyday.

Want to be happy? Do things that make you happy.

There, I just saved you hundreds of hours in reading time.

It’s astonishingly unscientific

zoolander, reading, success

When I was younger my Dad would pay me to read success books and write one page summaries of each chapter. Even then I was taken aback by how many of these books we’re basically selling bullshit e.g Brain Tracy’s “the universal law of attraction”, Napoleon Hill’s “infinite intelligence”,  or anything written by Deepak Chopra.

Instead of doing any research into how the brain works, they use this mystical pseudo-scientific nonsense to justify things they believe. This is most clearly seen in Rhonda Bryne’s The Secret. The titular secret is that simply by constantly thinking about something you’ll magically attract it into your life. Really?

Rather then telling you how something works, they simply tell you that it does and you should trust them because it worked for them and the “thousands of others who’ve read this book“.

One of my favourite Einstein quotes is “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Instead of using the “universe,” “cosmic laws,” or “quantum physics” to explain why their theories work, a more useful message would be how their theories work so we, the readers, can increase our understanding of the world.

Save yourself the trouble and if you want to understand how the brain works read a book by a psychologist, or a neuroscientist.

How to read books that are actually useful

old book, reading, success
Thankfully, someone published a book that condensed all the knowledge contained by “success” books

Of the 10 books I’ve read in the past two months, only two made me go “Wow, this has made me smarter,” Michael Gerber’s The E Myth and Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. It’s taken me up to now to realise why… these books are technical manuals.

If you’re looking to become financially free stop reading “success” books, you’ve already read them a hundred times before and in a variety of guises. Start looking for things in yourself that you want to improve and read books about that.

Something we often forget is that if we’re getting information from somebody, we should really make sure that they know what they’re talking about. Instead of listening to Napoleon Hill talk about how the inner workings of the brain break the first law of thermodynamics, read a book about how habits are formed by a trained professional.

Even fiction is more useful than the majority of success books. One of the best ways to teach yourself something is to learn through narrative. When we learn through narratives, the lessons stick to our brain because we have an emotion attached to that lesson. Similarly because our brains are forced to figure out the lessons for itself, we develop our ability to think.

Case in point Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you two guesses to tell me what it’s key lessons are about. Jokes aside, great works of fiction are considered great because they show us a mirror of ourselves and teach us about the world we live in.

Pride and Prejudice isn’t just about the dangers listed in the title, it’s also about class, self-discovery, and why going against the grain can make you happy.

Fahrenheit 451

success, personal development, reading
Image Credit: Wikipedia

After reading two or three “success” books you should have a good grasp of what your goals are and how you’re going to achieve them. Exclusively reading personal development books is a waste of time because it tricks you into thinking that you’re actually doing some beneficial. “I’m reading books that’ll help me fix my problem” you reason with yourself, but unless you physically do what the book tells you to do you may as well just be pissing in the wind.

Instead of reading something that either; gives you knowledge that is literally 1,000 years old, or justifies it’s content with bad science, pick up something that shows you how to do something. Or better yet, choose one of your hobbies and read everything there is to know about it, and POW! You’ve just become a specialist in that field.

My Dad listens to so much success/motivation stuff in his car at times I refuse to go anywhere with him. It’s unnecessary! Just read two or three, and if you need a top up, re-read one.

Read about items that will make you think about the world you live in, read something that questions your beliefs, read something that makes you think.

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  1. Wow, Nate. That hit the spot. Explains and thoroughly summarizes the frustration I felt after reading many success books without actually doing anything, procrastinating and patting myself on the back for reading all. Like it was something solving all my problems and facing all the challenge for me on its own right (generously forgoing the fact that I wasn’t actually doing anything…).
    I now go and give a good read for this article again. 🙂

    • Yeah, there’s a real sense of catharsis when you’re reading a success book. One of the things I’ve started doing since writing this article is:
      – Reading a chapter of a success book
      – Put down the success book
      – Spend a week or two trying out the teachings in the chapter
      – Read the next chapter

      Sometimes the advice is great and sometimes the advice doesn’t work for me, but I learn more about myself in the process. Similarly, it’s much easier to integrate one chapter’s worth of advice into my life than a whole book!

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