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Stop with the Self-Help Books Already!

Asking questions, a Google search, and a few books may be all you need.

For a quarter century now, I've hosted a radio show and written for major media outlets, mainly about career issues. As a result, publishers have sent me literally thousands of self-help books. I have scanned, skimmed, or read most of them.

Publishers keep publishing them even though they rarely say much that's new and important. Instead, usually:

  • Their recommendations are mainly just common sense or common knowledge.
  • They're filled with examples that often feel concocted, too pat.
  • They propose models that oversimplify reality. For example, organizations or people don't usefully distill into just a few types.
  • Their recommendations are often out of touch with what works in the real world. For example, the sort of person with the intelligence, drive, and marketing ability to write a book, get a major publisher to publish it, and then get it to sell well is too different from the typical reader, who is much less self-efficacious. Yet these books often are based on the author's assumption: "If it worked for me and my fellow elites, it will work for you." Too often not.
  • These books are often heavily padded: a handful of ideas embedded in 200 pages of an introduction that rationalizes the need for yet another book on the topic, interspersals of author self-promotion plus the aforementioned too pat examples, anecdotes, and models.
  • Besides, because of the long lead time--a year is common--between when an author writes a book manuscript and when you're likely to buy it, time-sensitive content is obsolete. While most career how-to advice has a long half-life, technological advances, new laws, and the workplace fads du jour do change. Books can't keep up with those.

So what's a person to do?

So what's my recommendation to people who want to grow professionally and/or personally?
1. Start with Hey-Joe School. Whatever questions you have, ask "Joe,:" someone in your workplace or a friend. That yields you just-in-time learning, with answers provided by someone who knows you and/or can answer in light of the specific context. Plus, it's free.

2. Google your question du jour. The top-listed search results are the most often linked-to and thus have been proven useful to many people. Odds are that one or more of the top three search results will give you the information you need—usually in an article and, unlike a book, it's more likely up-to-date. And it too is free.

3. I'm certainly not anti-book but believe that reading just these eight classic how-to books will give you the biggest bang for your self-development time:

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
The Millionaire Next Door

How to Win Friends and Influence People
The Feeling Good Handbook
What Color is Your Parachute?
Good to Great
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
And if I may be allowed the hubris of recommending one of my books:
The Best of Marty Nemko, 3rd edition.

I also encourage you to look for books on your specific career. Often particularly useful is a book that consists of a chapter written by a different practitioner in the field. For example, The Call of Nursing: Stories from the Front Lines of Health Care, consists of 23 varied nurses' candid self-reports of what their career is like.

4. Beyond those books, which most people will find worth reading cover-to-cover, I recommend reading the Amazon reader reviews of any other books that strike you as potentially interesting. Those reviews are listed in order: from most to least helpful to other readers. Usually, a book's major ideas are presented in the first few reviews. If reading those reviews makes you lust for more, then, good, buy that book. But before you decide to read it cover-to-cover, start by reading the summary chapter. It's usually the first or last one. That often is all that's time-effective to read. Still want more? Then skim one or more other chapters. Still want more? Then, of course, read those chapters or even the entire book.

5. Finally, outside the self-help genre, if you enjoy reading, a biography can be both instructive and inspiring. Here are some modern classics:
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Last Lion by William Manchester
Autobiography by Moandas Gandhi
Eleanor Roosevelt by J. William Youngs
Wrapped in Rainbows by Lisa Boyd
Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham.
I.M Pei by Jill Rubulcaba
John Adams by David McCullough
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at