Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?


14 thoughts on “Do you read self-help books?

  1. I was once required to read 7 Habits (it was part of a pd course I was taking) and I didn’t think much of it (I even found some of it irritating and/or silly). Banal, yes, would be a good descriptor for it. I enjoy my work, but I work to live, not live to work, and Covey’s habits didn’t dovetail well with mine. I would say that in a general way, this book probably isn’t a good cultural fit.
    Over the years I’ve done a lot of personal improvement courses, but none of them (singly) have really had a big impact, although there has likely been an aggregate effect.

  2. Jan Jasper

    I’ve read many self-help books over the decades. Probably the one that had the biggest positive effect was “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them” by Dr. Susan Forward. I was in a long relationship with an emotional abuser; this book saved my sanity and helped me escape.

      1. Jan Jasper

        …And I’ve had new recent insights about that relationship, triggered by my going through journals and papers from decades ago. It has been a real eye-opener, to now see how abusive this man was. Perhaps as I was only in my thirties, I didn’t understand it at the time. But upon re-reading my journals so many years later, it has been shocking. I am so grateful to Dr Forward”s book which helped me so much. That said, I think the self-help market is full of all kinds of dubious books and even garbage

      2. That’s the challenge — good ones are life-changing in the insights they offer and bad ones are…really bad.

        A book I think every woman MUST read is The Gift of Fear. Smart, practical and helpful ways to avoid becoming s victim of crime.

      3. Jan Jasper

        Caitlin, The Gift of Fear sounds familiar – I think you have mentioned it before. I’m definitely going to read it.

  3. Margaret

    I heard recently that the 7 Habits book is based on Mormon principles for living a good life. Apparently, Covey is a Mormon and he wanted to share his beliefs with the world. I found that interesting so thought I’d pass it on.

  4. I have read and found useful some self-help books about money management, including Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover.” A more general self-help book that I found useful was James Clear’s “Atomic Habits.” And a few years back I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and was pleasantly surprised! I had expected it to be smarmy or dated, but in fact, there are eternal truths in Carnegie’s work. Have not (yet) read Seven Habits, but perhaps I should.

  5. Not many, I’ll admit. Unless you count some of the stuff people like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle write, but I find most of that relaxing. I feel like a lot of what I learn in classes run by my workplace–effective communications, leadership qualities, etc.–are gleaned from self-help books, so that works for me.
    Other than that, I tend to avoid them. They’re just not my thing.

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