Self-Help Books Are Bad for Your Business

Personal improvement literature isn't just hurting your psyche ... it's hurting your productivity, too.

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Self-Help Books Are Bad for Your Business
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VIP Contributor
Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
6 min read
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The hashtag #wellness has been used on Instagram over 31 million times. That’s fewer times than #entrepreneur (57 million) but considerably more than #selfhelp (a mere 2.2 million).

Considering they are social media hashtags, these figures shouldn’t be given too much weight, but they are, to a degree, a window into what people are interested in these days. Rather than self-help, which sounds like a treatment for a malady, people want wellness, which is aspirational and holistic. Where self-help instructs you on how to achieve someone else’s idea of betterment, wellness is a process of living more successfully on your terms.

Not to downplay the self-improvement industry — self-help literature continues to be an $800 million market that grows about 6 percent annually. And for entrepreneurs, there’s no shortage of new titles on personal optimization. It forces a person to constantly question whether they should dabble in the latest method for becoming smarter, more productive, more creative and so on.

But perhaps entrepreneurs should reconsider self-help books and instead focus on wellness. Because, as it turns out, all that self-improvement literature might be doing more harm than good — to you and your business. Much of the advice is misleading, and some of it is just plain wrong.

As the CEO of my own company, I make an effort to resist the calls of the latest self-help fads and instead achieve my own version of personal and professional development — or, as I like to call it, “entrepreneurial wellness.” Here’s why.

Related: How to Create a Health and Wellness Program to Reduce Stress

Self-help is less helpful than we think.

I’m no stranger to the high of purchasing a self-improvement book or downloading a revolutionary productivity app. Once you cross that threshold, half the work is already done. All that’s left is putting those new tools and techniques to good use.

But when I step back and consider the time I spent searching and purchasing or downloading, I realize those were precious hours that would have been better spent doing the actual work. You may even try to improve things that never needed improving to begin with.

As Mark Twain so perfectly stated, “comparison is the death of joy.” There will always be someone faster, smarter and more experienced. Making a habit of comparing ourselves to others will result in perpetual disappointment.

Additionally, too much focus on personal improvement can start toeing the line toward self-absorption, to the detriment of our relationships. No one can attest to this better than Andre Spicer, the co-author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement, a book in which he and Carl Cederström embarked on the quixotic quest of spending a year testing all of the latest techniques of self-optimization.

Toward the end, Spicer realizes that during his 12 months focusing on himself, he ignored everyone else in his life, including his wife and children. His marriage was not at its best, and he says didn’t feel like a better version of himself anyway. The book makes for an interesting, albeit hyperbolic, example of the perils of too much self-help.

Related: Eight Strategies to Improve Workplace Wellness

Try wellness on your terms instead.

To be clear, self-improvement isn’t inherently bad. But it can end up negatively impacting your relationships and potentially even your success. That’s why I recommend approaching personal improvement with a “wellness” mentality.

According to the National Wellness Institute, wellness is “a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential” that is “multidimensional and holistic, encompassing lifestyle, mental and spiritual well-being, and the environment.” 

For entrepreneurs, wellness means reaching your career potential while maintaining a sense of balance, whatever that means to you.

For me, it means growing my business but still spending plenty of time with my family and squeezing in a workout every morning. For others, it might include finally running a marathon, meditating daily or cultivating friendships.

Whatever your goals, here are some tips for reaching them without abandoning your path to wellness:

1. Stop comparing yourself.

Everyone has personal bests and worsts. So comparing yourself to others, likely based on what you see in the media or on social platforms, has little value because you probably aren’t getting the full picture of that person or their performance. Instead, focus on your personal goals, track your progress and learn from your mistakes and successes.

2. Be realistic about your goals.

Each of us has different resources at our disposal and experiences under our belts. Keep in mind your unique circumstances when setting your goals — it will prevent you from being unrealistic and ending up disappointed.

Also, as Harvard Business Review recommends, once you’ve begun to execute your goal, “focus on what’s rewarding and fun about the activity itself, but de-emphasize the outcome.”

Let’s say you aspire to run a marathon. Instead of focusing on the final race, think about how energized you feel after each morning run while you train. This will help you stick with the behaviors that help you progress — and enjoy the process, too.

3. Remember that progress is gradual.

The myth of overnight success persists, especially in the startup world — stories of unicorn companies that went from zero to billion-dollar valuations in the blink of an eye.

Exciting as that sounds, for virtually all founders I’ve met, progress is gradual. Whatever your goal, don’t be discouraged if it takes time to achieve. And recognize that there is value in making progress without burning out.

In the words of Arianna Huffington, "If your workplace still believes in the myth of burnout, you have to take steps to turn that around — so that those who take care of themselves are the ones celebrated, congratulated and promoted."

Rewarding those who prioritize some self-care might not be catchy enough for a self-help title. But it fits my ideal for entrepreneurial wellness.

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