On Self-Improvement Literature

Self-improvement, or as it is put in the Kaospilot semester guides,  building character is one of the building blocks that students are introduced to in order to deepen their sense of direction for becoming better leaders. Makes sense, as a leader ultimately is an individual who´s self has an undeniable effect on whatever process or project they might be leading.

So in theory I should not have been surprised when I, a couple of months ago while opening my first semester reading list, found a line with the self-improvement book “Getting things done – the art of stress free productivity” by productivity guru David Allen. The reality however, was a loud red alarm bell in my head that, while looking at Allen´s Colgate smile on the book´s cover, was screaming “Self-help! Use with caution!”

Don´t get me wrong, I am actually an avid self-help book (self-improvement is just a modern way to say the same thing) client. You can be sure to find such classics as “The Power of Now” by Eckhardt Tolle (thank you Oprah), “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahnemann, among many others on my bookshelf. Moreover, I am an expert consultant on ways to read a self-help book while concealing the cover of the book on the train to Copenhagen. Still, I believe this red bell reaction is rather good to have. I find it smart being a skeptic and believer at the same time.

The category is absurdly broad and has no common categorisation. Like fiction, one finds the self-help shelf in a bookstore categorised with headings, but like pshychology, business, relationships, etc. The absurdity of this lies in the fact that once one of these categories are in fact sub-categories of the self-help category then many of the books can suddenly be placed almost anywhere. This is because ultimately the books deal with life that accommodates all of the before mentioned. And on the other hand it is absurd that books that vary so much in their credibility fall into the same shelf. In my dream bookshop, the shelf is built like this: self-improvement books are just placed in one single continuum that states how credible they are scientifically. And then one can choose, according to one´s mood on the day, how spiritual one wants to be.

Moreover, there are gems, but it this category especially is a money making machine. Self-improvement has become a multibillion dollar industry and while arguably the content provided has undergone a change from a more hokus pokus take toward being more science based, it still fluctuates heavily somewhere between fact and fiction. You have to apply loads of grains of salt to differentiate the gems that the category offers. (read this excellent Independent article on the subject here)

Self-analysing is good but also bad. A strong common denominator within the self-help field is analysing yourself. Getting too deep into self-analysing can however, get your fingers burned. “In an accelerating culture, we are supposed to do more, do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing. Self development has become an end in itself. And everything resolves around the self,” psychologist Svend Brinkmann provides his negativist take on self-improvement in his book “Stå Fast” (eng. Stay Firm). He further parallels the self-improvement craze with addictions contributing to the depression epidemic and elaborates that self-realisation (the goal of self-improvement) is no longer a liberating concept, but it rather involves you accepting the idea of an inner self that you must develop, and capitalize on, in ways that are designed to your place of work. So, stating the obvious, it makes sense to have balance – work vs. personal life, reading non-fiction vs. reading fiction.

Returning to David with the Colgate smile, and to the contents of his book – these points in mind  allowed me to read it and still feel like I could pass as a critical thinker . To pick what I thought would work for me – and it has. Even though in the process I had to come up with creative ways of concealing the cover while reading in the train.

So be aware of what you read, be critical, be explorative. “Where is the help-others bookshelf next to the self-help one?” Lasse quotes Simon Sinek in the video above, where I interview a couple of Kaospilots on their thoughts on the subject. Maybe it´s the nearness of Christmas, but I really feel like ending on this thought.

Oh – one last thing. Den Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen is coincidentally staging Brinkmann´s “Stå Fast” in the beginning of 2018 (check it out here)!

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