by Mike Shea on 26 May 2011
There's no doubt in my mind that David Allen built a multi-million dollar company selling a book about a system that most people never actually use. That doesn't mean the system doesn't work, though. Those that follow GTD can actually become more relaxed and feel more in control of their life. Most people will get nothing out of it, though. It's just like diet books. Fat people buy a lot of diet books.
All the books on creativity, from King's On Writing to Tharp's Creative Habit, state that success comes from hard consistent work. Even if you don't become a thin person with a clear action list, maybe reading those books was better than surfing Youtube. We might not ever institute our own Evil Plan, but sometimes its nice to dream.
That doesn't mean I need to keep spreading this crap, though. Maybe it's time I shut up and offer help only when it's asked for.
I can't say exactly where it started but probably somewhere around the time I got into Getting Things Done, I started to really enjoy books on personal organization, writing, creativity, lifestyle engineering, and better business books. I've read Godin and Gladwell and Collins and Tharp and Fried and MacLeod. I eat these books up. I find myself quoting them all the time, recommending them to friends, using them as examples when situations come up in my own life. And I think people notice it. It's like bad BO. If I can start to smell it myself, that must mean it's really bad. It's probably driving my wife insane and my friends probably dread a conversation about the Flywheel and the Doomloop.
I am writing this mainly to get my own hands around this addiction, to see if all these self-help books really help me or if I'm just wasting my time, filling me with false hope, and alienating my friends. As Merlin Mann puts it (another self help pontificator whether he wants to be called that or not), there comes a point where productivity porn is just wasting the time you should be spending doing things.
Fat people buy a lot of books about dieting yet dieting still has an extremely low success rate in actually making people healthy. The rest of the self help book industry, I would expect, follows much of the same path.
Did Jonathan Coulton read Seth Godin's books before becoming one of the biggest independent internet musicians? Did he study anything at all about this or did he just do it on his own? Did Steve Jobs read a bunch of books about how to manage a tech company or was his leadership built into his intellectual DNA? One of the things that often bothers me about self help books are the examples. How many self help books reference Tiger Woods? How many self help books did Tiger Woods actually read? I'd guess not many.
Successful people don't read books about success, they're successful because they succeed. They do stuff. They write a lot. They play a lot of golf. They do whatever it is that makes them successful a lot.
I doubt many big success stories follow the advice of any book but that doesn't mean it hurts to read them, does it?
Where self help books can get dangerous are when they actively get in the way from actually doing things. There has to be some sort of irony in referencing a self help book on the topic but in Stephen Pressfield's The War of Art, he speaks of the Resistance or anything that gets in the way of you actually making whatever sort of art you want to make. His very book (and maybe this very article) might be counted in the resistance if someone ever used it to say "you know, I should read this book before I start writing my novel." That's resistance. I think it was this very idea, that a productivity site might get in the way of productivity that transformed Merlin Mann from the nerdy Hipster PDA guy into the much more silent "get out there and do shit" guy that he has become.
I like to think that I gain some valuable insights from all these books I read. Sometimes they are huge life-changing things like getting better control over all of my projects with Getting Things Done or just picking up a single idea from a book like the War of Art. I have to wonder, however, if I'm blind to the fact that they aren't really helping or if they just make me more and more intolerable in conversations with friends and loved-ones. Has this become my evangelical religion?
I try to think these tips and ideas actually help but how would I tell if I'm simply being tricked into thinking they do?
Sometimes, however, we can read these books just for fun. I like Seth Godin's stuff. I think it helped me guide Sly Flourish into a site and a "brand" that I'm really proud of. I like what he says and I repeat it often when talking to people about it. Yeah, you might waste a lot of time and money reading his stuff if you think it's going to teach you how to be Jonathan Coulton but what the hell else are you going to do with your time, play Farmville?
I read the War of Art and I hated about 60% of it read little I hadn't already known in the other 40% but there was one thing that got me thinking, that The Resistance isn't always something easy to see. Sometimes the thing that keeps you from making something is perfectly reasonable, perfectly rational, and very difficult to argue against. You might be going through a horrible divorce or have a job that demands 60 hours a week or have five kids or have pancreatic cancer but you can still make stuff if you really want to. The resistance isn't always a clear dysfunction that keeps you from making something. Sometimes it's as rational and reasonable as everything else in your life. That was the only thing I got out of reading the book but it was enough. I wasn't surfing Slashdot for the five hours it took me to read that book. I still got a lot done when I was reading it. That book wasn't my resistance, it just gave me an idea about what the resistance really is.
I don't know where this leaves me. I guess reading a book can never hurt. Learning how to do something a little differently to make your life enjoyable can't be that bad. Preaching it might need to stop. Coaching might be the better path (there's lots of self help books on coaching - jesus, I can't stop myself!).
In the end, who can really say, but happiness is always a good goal so why not focus on that?