Can Self-Help Books Really Make a New You?

Their authors promise that your spirit will be improved, your ambition honed, and your finances maximized by their advice. Is the path to a shining 2015 so simple?


With every New Year comes a New Year’s resolution: a vow of self-improvement as we age, attendant promises to break bad habits, and, in my case, an inevitable failure to uphold said promises.

So this year I went for a more immersive approach to bettering myself: the self-help book, brimming with strategies to achieve personal goals, often packaged with an elusive promise of freedom (“emotional freedom,” “financial freedom,” “freedom from chemical dependency”).

Below, a selection of 2014’s most popular self-help books--and what to take away from them to make a new you for 2015.

Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom by Andrea Brandt

What it promises:

To help you harness your anger, transforming it into a productive expression or “release” of emotion

What it says:

Most of us have an unhealthy relationship with anger, writes author and psychologist Andrea Brandt. And most of us are either unaware of it or in denial.

That’s because anger is often symptomatic of deeper psychological issues. Brandt divides angry people into two categories: “dumpers” who vent their rage, blasting someone with either high-pitched verbal abuse or quiet but cruel criticism, and “withholders” who are so detached from the emotion that they don’t recognize it in themselves. Anger often manifests in withholders as another self-destructive but more socially acceptable feeling or behavior, like anxiety.

Brandt stresses that anger alone is a healthy emotion, but is stigmatized because of the destructive behaviors that frequently accompany it.

She suggests mindfulness exercises to help us process the emotion before it triggers a response. “Trace that triggering event to how it affected you. What part of you--what aspect of your sense of self--was harmed, threatened, or disrespected?”

The takeaway:

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Mindfulness can be effective, and I appreciate the meditation techniques Brandt offers in her book because they legitimize my completely irrational thoughts and behaviors.

For example: I was once so enraged with a friend that I fantasized about picking up a candle on our dinner table and throwing hot wax in his face.

Having read this book, I now understand that my elaborate wax-attack fantasy was an expression of mindful anger and commendable self-restraint. Turns out I don’t have anger issues. I just have myriad other issues.

Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down by Stephanie Brown Ph.D

What it promises:

A step-by-step plan to break from your various technology addictions.

What it says:

People today often express a desire to unplug--to disconnect from the Internet, turn off our smart phones, and escape to another world. But they’re sort of fibbing, writes clinical psychologist Stephanie Brown in Speed.

We may like the idea of unplugging, but we don’t actually want to go through with it because “we fret we will be perceived as unable or unwilling to keep pace.”

Brown, who specializes in addiction (she has written ten books on the subject) and is herself a recovering alcoholic, says our fast-paced culture is facilitating addictive behaviors, particularly our gadget dependency.

She recommends a 12-step, Alcoholics Anonymous-style recovery program to address our speed obsession--and to recognize our “limits.”

The takeaway:

Much like Mindful Anger, Brown’s book appeals to me because it legitimizes my weaknesses, in this case attributing them to a culture-wide problem.

According to Brown’s logic, my acute FOMO (fear of missing out) says less about me than it does about the world I live in. “ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] is just a euphemistic way of saying, ‘I have limits,’” Brown writes.

Well, that’s a rather generous way of looking at it. But I’m less inclined to let myself off so easily. I suffer from an acute case of FOMO primarily because I’m neurotic, not because of America’s speed epidemic.

And while too many numbers in self-help books can make them especially tedious, Speed would feel less like a professional’s hand-wringing if it cited a study or two.

I wanted something supporting Brown’s claims that “people are treating their stress disorders by turning to other addictions from an increasingly younger age.”

Studies are often flawed and should be met with skepticism, but if you’re going to make sweeping statements about an “alarming increase in stress-related disorders of all kinds for all ages,” you might want to back them up with a few numbers.

Otherwise I have no evidence that you aren’t making this stuff up, knowing well that desperate people like me will buy your book anyway.

How the World Sees You: Discover Your Highest Value Through The Science of Fascination by Sally Hogshead

What it promises:

To make you more confident by helping you see your value at work and in relationships

What it says:

Most of us--61 percent--think we’re less fascinating than the average person, according to a decade of research compiled from 250,000 initial participants for a study by author and marketing researcher Sally Hogshead.

We consider ourselves to be average, boring, blah, and as a result--we’ve all heard this before--others think so too. Hogshead says our only hope is identifying how we add value to the world, particularly in the workplace, whether by being creative, emotive, detail-oriented, confident, nurturing, trustworthy, or innovative.

Hogshead asks readers a series of specific questions in a multi-part test to illuminate your two “Fascination Advantages,” or your most natural and successful qualities--and how to use them to be your most valuable self.

“This process is not about changing who you are. It’s about seeing what you’re already doing right, so you can do it on purpose,” she writes. Along the way, you’ll come up with an “Anthem,” or a tagline for your personality, using two or three words to describe yourself.

“If BMW is ‘the ultimate driving machine,’ your Anthem is the ultimate differentiator,” writes Hogshead.

The takeaway:

I was skeptical of Hogshead’s prescription for identifying my “Fascination Advantages”. It all seemed slightly gimmicky (it’s a self-help book, after all), though apparently backed by science.

When reading about Hogshead’s seven Fascination Advantages (Innovation, Passion, Power, Prestige, Trust, Mystique, Alert), I quickly assigned them to people I knew. But I didn’t see myself in any of them.

Then I took the test and read Hogshead’s description of “me,” much of which was, I thought, unduly flattering. I was more impressed when she nailed a few less flattering character traits. “Sometimes delivering on time is more important than achieving the best results,” she writes, echoing every editor who has had the misfortune of working with me.

But is Hogshead’s personality test that much different than others? Aren’t they all designed to have outcomes that make us nod enthusiastically when a description rings true, as we do when we read horoscopes? Individuals are too complex, too nuanced to fit Hogshead’s personality archetypes--all 49 of them.

MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom by Tony Robbins

What it promises:

To make you a smarter investor and to help you achieve “financial freedom” by building a well-oiled, “money-making machine” (better known as an investment portfolio) that generates income long after you stop working.

What it says:

Before we dive into Money, some important background on the book’s author: Tony Robbins is the king of the self-help industry. He’s been a life-coach-cum-business-consultant for 38 years.

He’s sold millions of books, convinced Oprah Winfrey to walk on hot coals, and counseled dozens of influential people, from rock stars and famous athletes (Aerosmith, Andre Agassi) to billionaire hedge-fund managers and presidents (Paul Tudor Jones, Bill Clinton).

Oh, and Robbins himself is worth an estimated $480 million, which, some might argue, makes him sufficiently qualified to tell others how to manage their money.

In his latest self-help tome, Robbins serves up 624 pages of investing and saving strategies, advising readers to start saving at least 10 percent of their income now.

“Over time you’ll start living a life where your money works for you instead of you working for your money,” he writes, peppering such platitudes with market insights from investment industry gurus like Warren Buffett, Charles Schwab, and Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio.

Robbins also deconstructs several “truths” about the financial system, like the mutual fund manager’s promise that they’ll beat the market.

“An incredible 96 percent of actively managed mutual funds

fail to beat the market over any sustained period of time!” Robbins writes. As a result, investors end up paying managers big fees, even when they’re underperforming.

The takeaway:

I am not the most financially literate person (I would be hard-pressed to articulate the term “junk bond”). Nor am I particularly responsible with my personal finances. But I trusted Tony Robbins could sort me out on both fronts. (Perhaps that presumption was misguided, but more on that later.)

As a millennial who lives paycheck to paycheck, I was reassured to learn that one out of every three baby boomers has less than $1,000 saved away.

I was jarred by the numbers behind the “Latte Factor,” a phrase originally coined by financial expert David Bach, who notes that spending $4 a day on a foamy milk-espresso concoction will cost me $56,000 savings at 6 percent interest over 20 years.

The Latte Factor is simply a metaphor for how the little things add up, and I’d rather not calculate exactly how much money I wasted on cab rides this year. But 2015 will see me indulging in fewer “fair-trade” cappuccinos and $15 taxi trips across town, and I suppose Robbins deserves credit for that intention. (We’ll see how I’m coping in February.)

But I can’t say the investment strategies from the .001 percent resonated, since it would likely be unwise to mimic whatever it is Warren Buffett does with his money.

Were I more interested in all things financial, I might have known that Tony Robbins gave his devotees bad investment advice in 2010. It makes sense, then, that “many so-called experts--and even friends!--warned me I was nuts to try to bring the complex world of finance to a wide audience,” Robbins writes, without referencing his 2010 blunder. “Even my publisher begged me to write about anything else.”

I’d wager that last sentence would be more accurate if it began, “Especially my publisher…”