I remember something that happened back when I was young. Young enough that the memory is hazy, and I’m not entirely sure what age I was. My family went to a magic show in a large, dark auditorium, and the magician must have been pretty uninteresting to an ambiguously aged boy like me, because I don’t remember any of the magic. The only reason I remember the magic show at all was because it was one of my first big public failures.
Not that anyone noticed that I was a failure, but I knew - and that was enough.

 

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At the end of the show, the magician had the person in charge of the lights bring them up slightly, and the magician asked for child volunteers from the audience. I remember feeling simultaneously a strong desire to volunteer, and a throbbing terror at the very idea of being put on the spot in front of the large audience.

 

The terror won out and I didn’t raise my hand. A blonde boy in a striped shirt – undoubtedly one of those fearless types, who would grow up to be a president, or a car salesman – jumped onstage, and the magician did a trick where he pulled something out of somewhere or made doves appear or something.

 

The trick wasn’t the important part.

 

The important part was after the blonde confident über-success had finished being amazed, the magician handed him a big toy, packaged in that bubbled plastic –you know, that totally-not-frustration-free blister pack that is impossible to tear, cut, or cajole into opening – I couldn’t see exactly what it was, but I immediately assumed that it was some sort of magical Silly Putty mega pack, with Silly Putty that changed colors, and cleaned your room, magical Silly Putty that wasn’t sold in stores, and would be too expensive for people who weren’t highly famous magicians to buy anyway.

 

I felt incredibly embarrassed, and regretful. Why wasn’t I like that amazing, perky, confident blonde kid? Why didn’t I run up onstage and claim my Silly Putty Magical Mega Pack? It was the worst day of my life.

 

After this event, I did what I always did after having a terrible experience: I swore to change, to become a completely new person! I would be confident, and full of life, and I would never say “no” to any challenge, and my confidence would build more confidence, and soon I would be one of those towering figures who always know the right thing to do, and always are comfortable in their own skin.

 

Yeah, that never worked.

 

+ + +

 

I stumbled on non-fiction/self-help books by discovering my Dad’s library of relationship books. They were magical to me, because they seemed to be like secret manuals for life: they held amazing secrets about how life really worked. I ate them up. I didn’t want anyone to know I was reading them, so I stuffed them under my shirt and secretly smuggled them to the basement, one at a time.

 

They were great. They talked about sex, and how to get girls to like you. Or, at least, how to build a long-lasting marriage after you’ve already gotten the girl to like you. Reading through the books, I found practical advice: they told me what to do, instead of expecting me to figure it out for myself.

 

As I got older, I continued to read self-help, business, and other non-fiction books of all types. Some of them seriously changed the trajectory of my life. When I was 17, my Mom suggested that I (read: forced me to) go through Financial Peace University, a anti-debt financial course. I didn’t want to go, because I harbored the suspicion that going to the class might involve talking to people, or doing uncomfortable things, neither of which I liked very much. Besides, what teenager is excited about finances?

 

After the first class, I was totally won over. If self-help books were like instruction manuals, this class was like the secret owner's guide. It was incredible: I learned everything about staying out of debt, keeping expenses down, IRAs, mutual funds, credit card collection practices, the works: the class was in video format, but you also got CDs, and I ripped them, and put the Mp3s on my awesome Mp3 player. I would listen to the financial course over and over again, memorizing everything. I’ve always secretly wished that I was massively in debt with creditors calling me, just so I could blast an air horn into the phone when they violate federal law (as they do routinely).

 

The class I took really got under my skin: it seriously changed how I view the world. I chose a college that I didn’t have to get into debt to attend, I’ve never had a car payment, and – except for some medical bills and my wife’s student loans – never been in debt of any kind. Now, Sonia and I live really well while saving, paying off debt aggressively, and giving regularly. This all happened because of the impact that financial self-help has had on our lives.

 

+ + +

 

But most self-help is really embarrassingly bad.    

Everyone’s looking for the quick fix, They’ve had something bad happen to them, they’ve had a moment of awakening where they didn’t get the silly putty super pack, and they realize they aren’t who they want to be, and that without help they’ll never be the type of person who know famous magicians, who gets handed silly putty super packs on a regular basis, so they do what I did: they swear to change, and labor under the belief that – given the right material – they can fix themselves instantly.
There are so many people who think that the magic bullet exists, that they support a whole genre of terrible self-help literature.

 

All self-help self-proclaimed gurus are selling a product, and usually that product is themselves. I’ve heard certain “masters of success” claim that they hadn’t felt any stress for years. Another bombastic fellow claimed that we was perpetually in the moment, and experienced no suffering at all, and never thought about the past, or the future, because he was so, you know, present, dude. Many authors have propagated the common idea that if you simply think positive thoughts, money and happiness will land on your doorstep, without any other effort from you. Bosh. Malarky. Hogwash. These “masters of success” aren’t evidence that if you think about rainbows the universe will reward you: they’re prime examples of how far you can go just telling people what they want to hear while you grab at their wallets. Overstatement and grand, sweeping promises about your future are common; real, practical advice about living a real life that doesn’t involve becoming a best-selling super-salesman self-help guru extrovert is rare.

 

Don’t let the numerous agonizingly cheesy balls-of-charisma-and-not-much-else rob you of the benefits that can be had from reading the good stuff.

 

If you’ve never read non-fiction before, I suggest you start with these:

 

+ Dave Ramsey (financial)

 

Jon Acuff (career)

 

 

These guys are the real deal. Reading *good* self-help books is one of the most valuable activities that you can take part in. It won’t make your life perfect, it won’t allow you to attract a winning lottery ticket with the power of your mind, it won’t completely eliminate stress, allowing you to live in a blissful cloud of daisies and soft, warm puppies; it won’t turn you into a completely confident, blonde-headed kid who always gets the silly putty super pack. It will, however, make a measurable difference in your life, in time.

 

As it turns out, these books don’t function like an instruction manual, with the secrets to a life of success and perpetual happiness and wealth: they function for like a good friend, who pushes you to be a better person, and gives you some ideas on how to proceed from where you are.

 

We could all use another one of those, right?

 

Do you read self-help? Any examples of particularly good (or bad) books?