I read an article on a website recently. It was essentially about spreading brotherly love and all that wonderful sounding stuff. Very noble sentiments, to be sure, but it sounded a lot like something from one of those personality development books that are proliferating these days. That got me thinking. Do these self help books really help?
I am not referring to management books which form part of an MBA curriculum, but the so-called instruction manuals for us common folk. When I was growing up, there was Dale Carnegie and a few others, but now there seem to be a plethora of them. They cover every conceivable topic, from how to become a millionaire to how to build a dog house. If all the hype is to be believed, every average Joe can – properly instructed – transform himself onto a well-rounded intellectual giant. You’ll pardon me if I’m skeptical.
OK! Maybe the dog house manual does contain some handy hints, but I’m not so sure about the others – particularly the ones that claim to “make you a better person.” Sure, books are an important source of knowledge and information, but whether you can change your personality just from reading a manual is open to question. For a vast majority of human beings, their personality and behaviour is shaped by their life experiences and the environment they were brought up and live in. You can read the books and listen to the tapes; and maybe they will help you to act acceptably in “polite” society; but in stressful situations, when the chips are down, I believe your inbuilt temperament – your inner self, if you will – will inevitably surface. I am not saying that it is impossible for a person to better himself – mentally and spiritually – but it takes character: it has to come from within himself. Books can, at best, be a panacea.
Since many of these books and tapes sell in the tens of thousands, doubtless a lot of people find them of some benefit. A lot of the sales are the result of hype, of course. The author appears on Oprah or David Lettermen, utters platitudes that most of the audience find “intellectual”, but very few actually understand; and suddenly the book starts selling like hot cakes. A lot has to do with peer pressure. If some of the ladies who lunch mentioned they have bought “the” book, the rest will scamper to buy it, so as not to appear stupid or “less enlightened.” It is debatable if many of the persons who buy such books seriously read them – at least, all the way through.
I must confess to some amusement when I watch folks plugged into one of those “relaxation” tapes or CDs. Listening to the waterfalls, or birds cooing, or whatever, they make such an effort to appear “blissful” that it sort of defeats the original intention. The plain fact is that – unless you have really trained yourself to master meditational techniques – you cannot stop your thoughts coursing through a carousel in your mind.
In short then, the best these aids can do is stimulate you to think for yourself. They are a guide, not a solution. There is no free lunch; or instant wealth; or instant nirvana.