Good Self-Help Is Self-Defeating

What Makes Good Self-Help?

Here's a proverb you've likely heard a variant of many times before: "Give a person a fish, feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, feed them for a lifetime."

Taken at face value, the proverb says that it's important to teach people self-sufficiency, rather than to give them one-time aid. Dive a little deeper, and there's also a discussion about local vs systemic solutions. In medicine, for example, it's popular to debate "curing the cause" versus "alleviating the symptoms." While such a dichotomy might arguably be mistaken for medicine, I think this is an apt framing for self-help. Indeed, the above proverb could be seen as about giving people advice such that they become self-sufficient.

I'm curious about what that process of becoming self-sufficient looks like. It's interesting because the process seems to have a self-defeating quality to it.

Here are some examples of what I'm pointing to:

  1. Using an abacus to do math so that you can eventually stop using the abacus and just use your mind for mental math.
  2. Reading a programming textbook so you can eventually stop referring to the book and write programs of your own.
  3. Using training wheels on your bike so you can eventually stop using them later on.

In all of the above examples, there's something of a crutch (i.e. abacus, textbook, training wheels) that we might rely on for a while, but the intent is to slowly wean ourselves off of the crutch. In the end, we should be able to go on our own.

Likewise, if we're trying to do self-help right, we want people to be able to move past the mental models we give them and figure out things on their own. In a way, it seems like we want to make ourselves obsolete. The quicker they stop relying on us, the better.

Why care about people coming up with their own brand of self-help rather than listening to another self-help guru? From the outside, following advice someone else gave you can look about the same as coming up with something similar on your own. But being the sort of person who can generate solutions independently is far more effective in the long run. And, as noted in Recognizing vs Generating, advice you come up with yourself will be much more convincing because you have access to all the rationale and experiences that justify it.

Self-Help vs Other Media

Okay, so far we've just said that the whole point of self-help is to help people help themselves. Not that controversial a viewpoint. The real issue comes in when we consider the way that self-help gets publicized and published.

First off, consider the incentives of media like newspapers, television, comics, or novels. Growing an audience is an explicit part of their goals; their profits are largely tied to their viewership. As a result, it makes a lot of sense for them to come out with constant content—it keeps the original crowd coming back for more, and it presents ample opportunities to draw in a new audience.

Self-help, as we've described above, ideally follows a different set of incentives. Entertainment is not your goal, so you don’t really want people binging on your content. It seems better for the reader if they take it slow, or even if they just read one good article, learn a lesson, and then move on. This means that some sort of constant, fluctuating, or even decreasing number of readers can actually be a sign that you’re doing things correctly.

This stark conflict between typical media incentives for publicity and the lofty goals of self-help hits at the heart of the issue. I think that most people in the self-improvement space have gone way off into the “maximize profits and publicity” direction instead of the “maximize beneficial impact of the content” direction.

For example, Tiago Forte, Tim Ferris, and Farnam Street are all big names in the productivity space, and they all follow a similar model of trying to sell a membership for access their content. They all have newsletters, podcasts, and forums. They feel more like content farms than genuine efforts. They feel like they want to be gurus.

Now, I'm not criticizing their ideas or their content. I'm sure readers who subscribe are getting some benefit. (It's arguable that most of the benefits you get from self-help are from having any mental model at all, rather than the right mental models, but that's for another time.) And producing that content isn't free; I sympathize with the claim that having paid memberships allows these creators to keep putting in time to write good stuff.

I just think the current monetization model for content creation doesn't provide the right incentives (for your readers) if you're in the self-help space. If you've ever been on a productivity coach's website, you know that it's very much a sales pitch. Every person seems to have written a book you can get for free, as long as you share your email, or they have some sort of online course you can purchase that's apparently steeply discounted.

To be clear: I'm definitely not accusing self-help writers of being evil masterminds who use the guise of self-improvement in order to make profits.

Even with wholly altruistic intentions, it seems possible to want to dabble in clickbait-style articles in order to bring in a larger audience. Recall none of this self-help stuff is happening in a vacuum. Battles for attention in the modern world are zero-sum, and the other side (i.e. all other media/content) is already optimizing the hell out of grabbing your attention.

So even if you think you have good insights to share, if you decide to participate in securing a readership, writers will just have to make certain decisions which trade off the direct benefit of content.

One obvious example is the choice in media format: Books are self-contained and seem to stand at one end of an axis which has Twitter tweets and Facebook posts on the other. For books, feedback from the reader is far less immediate (worse for the author), and the payoff to the reader is far less instant (worse for the reader). As you go from one end to the other, you’re trading off conceptual complexity for audience reach.

There are also subtler things. For example, consider these design choices:

  1. Removing infinite scroll on your blog.
  2. Removing suggested posts after one post is done.
  3. Batching notifications for comments.

These are all ways to reduce addictiveness on the web, which are probably in your readers’ best interests. At the same time, most of those choices will also reduce traffic on your site as a whole. In this situation, trying to optimize too hard for engagement metrics seems especially liable to fall prey to Goodhart's Law. It's not even clear, for example, that you want to be maximizing the amount of time that people spend on your site.

It’s not just media format or design choices or metrics. Ultimately, when you think you have good content, you’re going to want to share it to others. After all, the only way that self-help materials can help other people is if they read them in the first place.

Unfortunately, most ways to get more people interested and spread your content involve increasing the level of memetic stickiness and how much fun it is to read, both of which are orthogonal to the ability to benefit the reader and often even trade off against it.


The incentive structure for self-help is set up in such a way that the traditional ways of cultivating engagement don’t work well with it. At the very least, we don't want to give people new dependencies.

What, then, to do? I think there are a few obvious moves.

  1. Don't join in burning the commons: Given that the above tactics are bad for readers, my immediate recommendation is to not do it. I don't think we're deep enough in a race to the bottom such that failing to compete will mean game over. There's room, at least right now, for people who write articles intended for intentional consumption. I think that if you consistently put out high quality stuff while respecting the reader, people will come. Maybe not a lot of people, but those who do will likely enjoy what they see. Plus, the marginal readers who come because of clickbaity tactics also seem least likely to be the ones who'll benefit from your content. (There's a question about scale when you start looking at the Really Big Name self-help people, and I'm not sure what the right analysis is there. But for most people, the above probably applies.)

  2. Create a network of cooperators: If you know who's also not burning the commons, you can signal boost them. Having a blogroll is an easy way to link to others who have content you endorse. It's not fancy, but it gets the job done. It also potentially encourages the creation of better content. If it becomes known that you share Actually Good Content, this incentivizes more people to follow suit.

  3. Spread the memes, not the source: You might also find it plausible that as long as people learn through some method, ways to improve their productivity, this is good. It doesn't necessarily have to be you. If you don't care about the status sub-games (and this is hard because we often do), then you can probably do some more good by either telling your insights to the Really Big Name people so they share it, or by selling your advice to friends as One Weird Trick, instead of some packaged productivity product.

Last Updated: 2020-03-29 21:00
First Published: 2020-03-29 21:00