Why Self-Help Books Don’t Help

From: L. Michael Hall
2021 Neurons #67
October 11, 2021


That was the question Geraldine asked. “Why is it that self-help books don’t help?” “You mean ‘a lot of people’” I added to clarify the question. “Yes, for a lot of people it doesn’t seem to help very much or at all. Why is that?” I was busy reading at our favor coffee shop and so I answered her briefly, “They don’t know how to read and they read too fast.” But, as usual, my brief answer did not satisfy her so she re-engaged me and we continued the conversation. At the end, she said, “You ought to write an article about this!” And I knew what that meant!

Here’s the thing. The process of actually reading any book and using it for significant and effective learning and development involves a set of skills that the majority of people have simply not learned. That means that they actually do not know how to read a non-fiction book to mine it for its riches and transfer that wealth into themselves.

For the first thing, most people read too fast, too passively, and too shallowly. The shallow part goes to a person’s intention. Most people read in order to get a general idea about something. Many are looking for something specific and so as they read, they filter out anything and everything that doesn’t fit. Many read a non-fiction book the same way they read fiction. They skim through the paragraphs. They’re looking for the story.

Non-fiction books are, for the most part, not written to convey a story. They are written to present an understanding, a concept, and a procedure. In Executive Learning I recommended applying the seven dimensions to your learning in order that your learning be active and dynamic.
Get in the right state, establish how to record (represent) the information you gather in your mind, sort out the background information you already have about the material that helps and that may hinder, encode the higher level concepts as the knowledge to be constructed, identify the meta-level principles of learning the specific subject, make the information experiential, and then identify pragmatic steps for incorporating it.

The problem for most people is that their learning is passive. They “cover the material.” They “finish the chapter.” They follow the line of thinking or reasoning and they then conclude that they “know” the material. In all likelihood, they do not. This is one of the great illusions about learning. By following what someone is saying or writing, you assume that you thereby know it. If so, then let’s test it. A good way to test it is to explain what you read, or heard, to someone who doesn’t know it. That will test to see if you actually know it. The bottom line: If you can’t explain it to another, you don’t really know it.

This is also why most people read too fast. They try to read a book in the same manner that they read a newspaper or magazine. They need to slow down and see if they can summarize a paragraph or a page in their own words. For years, my habit of reading is that at the end of each page, I stop and write one to four words at the top of the page that identifies the subject of that page. Even better, write a summary of one sentence on a blank sheet of paper that succinctly sums up that page. That will make you think! Which is what most people are actually not doing when they’re reading. They are not thinking. They are just mentally following along. There’s no real mental work, just a passive following. But to truly think is to consider, to question, to explore, to doubt (see Executive Thinking, 2018).

It is in getting yourself to actually digest the ideas in the text that begins the process of actually beginning to learn it. Next comes the process of integration wherein you make it yours. This means making the material, the ideas, experiential. Plant this question in your mind as you read: “Given that I am reading, or listening to this, how specifically will I make it part of my inner and outer experience?” If you think that reading or listening is just a mental activity, you have cut off half of the learning process. Learning is inevitably experiential.
∙ So, what are you experiencing? What actions will occur?
∙ After all, you are reading for a purpose, are you not? What is that purpose?
∙ What difference will reading X make in your life?
∙ How will it change you— your person, your skills, your relationships, etc.?

If you don’t know, stop and establish a learning intention. Self-help books could help, but to help you have to take an active stance. You can’t read for entertainment. Instead, read for transformation. Identify the change that you want. Then, using the seven dimensions of learning, use that structure to organize your learning experience.

For more, check out: Executive Learning (2021) on www.neurosemantics.com