Why Self-help Books Fail To Help

Don't blame yourself for all the practices you didn't do.

You may have watched 100 self-help videos, read 20 self-help books, followed 10 self-help gurus, and taken 5 self-help courses.

But still, here you are, packed with practices to take, changes to make, and habits to break. Nothing really changed much.

How the hell is it like this?

Here are the three crisp clear reasons behind it.

Reason 1: The self-help industry is full of noise and BS.

This makes your very first step more difficult – finding quality content.

Which means most of what you have read could be junk.

Don’t blame yourself for using self-help books as mind porn that offers a moment of motivation but you don’t actually do any of the practices. That’s of course the reason why you don’t change much, but we need to dig deeper and figure out why you didn’t do the practices. My point here is, that your teachers are not good enough.

People seek self-help because they have bad mindsets originating from trauma, such as anxiety, worrying, overthinking, perfectionism, black-white thinking, and high expectation. These bad mindsets prevent us from living happier life.

To change these bad mindsets, we need to deal with three problems:

  1. Why: Why do we have a certain bad mindset
  2. What: What to do with it
  3. How: How to systematically change our mindsets

Based on the ability to figure out these three problems, there are 4 levels of self-help content creators:

  • Level 1: Not even really know the Why. 80%
  • Level 2: Know some Why and some What. 15%
  • Level 3: Know Why, What, and some How. 4%
  • Level 4: Know Why, What and How. 1%
4 Levels of Self-help Content Creators
The percentages are not research-based, just my rough estimation

Creators of these four levels could range from my uncle who just likes to give “life advice” to world-famous gurus with bestseller books.

And which level they are at depends on The Master Triangle, in which I said that the quality of learning depends on three things:

  • The quality and quantity of the input information.
  • The quality of information processing.
  • The quality of information internalization.

First, input. This is where the bullshit part comes in. Believe me, there are tons of them. Junk in, junk out. But if you learn from the best in the self-help industry, the quality of your output will be undoubtedly better.

Second, processing. This depends on the mental models the creator is equipped with. Mental models decide how we process the information fed into our brains, and what result we get. Better thinkers get better insights.

Third, internalization. This is the most important part. There are two ways to internalize new knowledge: output and experience, and experience is the core of it. This means if the self-help content creators have their own experiences in what they talk about or not. As I said in The Firsthand Learning Rule, you could learn from the best on any subject, but real knowledge is always learned by firsthand experiences, not what others say.

In self-help, it means you have to go through the dark times and suffer for yourself to really know what you are talking about. The pain paves the path.

Level 1: Not even really know the Why. 80%

To start with, 80% of the people who talk about self-help never went through the hard dark times for themselves, and they did not read enough quality content and have enough thinking.

As a result, they just say what most people say without really knowing what they are talking about, except sounds smart and motivating. Their self-help knowledge level is about my grandma’s sports knowledge level. “Everybody knows how basketball works! You just put the ball into the basket, what’s so hard about that? By the way, Lebron rocks and Curry sucks.” (I did not say this).

“Life is an adventure, when it beats you down, you get up and keep trying.”

“Depressed? Good! That means you are on the right path!”

“You can do this! You are the best! Never give up!”

You listen to them and think “huh, this sounds motivating. But kinda empty”. Then you scroll to the next video.

Level 2: Know some Why and some What. 15%

Creators at this level read some books, watched some videos, googled (or ChatGPTed) some concepts, and learned some Why and some What, here and there, such as

“you are anxious because you are afraid of something bad will happen in the future.”

“try meditation and grateful dairy, they changed my life”

You hear them say a lot of “Don’ts”, but fewer “Dos”.

You listen to them and think “hmm, seems legit, maybe I should try out these practices”. But you gave up after trying for two days.

Because as you started trying, you realize that they did not point out the root cause of your mindset problems, and they didn’t tell you how these practices are related to solving these problems. So you lost motivation, then gave up.

Level 3: Know the Why, What, and some How. 4%

These people know the root cause of EACH of your mindset problems, they know basically all the bad mindsets, and good mindsets, such as

“live in the now”

“let it go”

“be grateful”

“expectation low”

“accept all”

“love yourself”

“don’t care about what others say”

“be yourself”

“be assertive”


And they also know some How, aka the common tools that you can deal with these problems. Eg, meditation, breath work, mindful practice, grateful dairy, introspection, fear setting, the 5-second rule……

They say fewer “Don’ts”, and more “Dos”.

You listen to them and think “wow, finally someone really figured it out and hits home” “list me all your practice, I am doing it right facking now!”

Until you didn’t.

Because they figured out the mindset problems INDIVIDUALLY, but not SYSTEMATICALLY. This means they don’t know how these mindsets are related, and as a result, they don’t know what problem should be solved first. As they can’t see the whole picture, every piece of advice they give you is just a fraction, a cut in the middle of your problem.

“Man, you gotta try the gratitude journal, it’s amazing!”. Is he wrong? Absolutely not. But the problem is you are deep in depression now, and can’t even get out of bed, it’s far from the being grateful stage yet.

So you need someone who can see the whole picture.

Level 4: Know the Why, What and How. 1%

These people really know how to change your mindset, self-helply. They know the correlation and priority of your mindset problems.

They talk less but listen more. Because they know everyone’s situation is different.

I don’t know one yet, but I’ll try to give my own shot at this in the following posts.

Because I have no shame under my thick skin.

And you may find the ultimate answer to this question a bit disappointing.

Ok, this is the first reason, which is hard to find quality self-help resources.

Reason 2: Hard to make progress in the self-help industry.

To quote Mark Manson, “what the self-help industry does is basically repackaging, there is nothing new”. (not word to word).

Well, I wouldn’t say there is nothing new, because a lot of thinkers do find new insights, created new thinking models, or generated new practices or tools. We are making progress. But what Mark said is still mostly true. Let’s take a look at the Why, What and How again.

First, 50% of the Why and What is already written in ancient philosophy, such as stoicism, and Buddhism. Guys who came up with this wisdom are so ancient that we don’t even have a picture of them, only statues. They are the Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus mainly.

Ancient philosophy also covers most of What, and some How. Mindsets like “live in the now” “let it go” “be grateful” “love yourself” “know yourself” are all their ideas. Tools like meditation, gratitude and mindful practice are also theirs.

It’s easy to understand, just remember that living a happy life has nothing to do with technological advancement, all human beings have been thinking about this since day one.

Second, modern psychology completed another 40% of the puzzle. Psychology figured out a lot of how our brain works and all our cognitive biases and almost completes the Why and What. But only almost. We still don’t know what’s the real cause of a lot of the mindset problems such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Finally, self-help gurus and others. They repackage old wines and spread what the previous two have already figured out, plus occasionally offer some new insights. But hey, they are very important, and they do generate a lot of value.

So, it’s hard to generate new ideas for problems that everyone has trying to figure out for thousands of years.

Reason 3: Changing people’s minds is difficult by default.

Changing people’s minds is hard.

Changing people’s emotions is harder.

Self-help is not only trying to change people’s minds but also trying to change people’s emotions, which is the hell mode of the life game.

I wrote this in the Wild Pyramid of Life, in which I said there are four levels to problem-solving, they are:

Knowledge → Method → Thinking → Mindset.

Mindset is the most important, but also the most difficult to change.

Why emotion? Because All our bad mindsets are rooted in one thing – insecurity. Insecurity is a kind of fear, and fear is irrational, it’s emotional.

It’s difficult, but not impossible, I have changed most of my bad mindsets.

And I know you can do it too.


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Do you have the problem of reading a lot but doing little? Or do you find this helpful? Leave a comment below.

The Master Triangle: