Image: Emma Mathews on Unsplash

Why Self-Help Books Don’t Help The Average 20-Something-Year-Old

As a young adult who has an identity crisis every other business day, I’m no stranger to gorging myself with self-help books in order to quench my overwhelming feelings of constant ineptitude. Seemingly well-intentioned, self-help books are “any books written with the explicit intention of helping its readers change or improve some aspect of their personal or professional lives.”

I’ve been around the block with self-help literature, and while the premise of these books includes a mentor who will take your hand and guide you through every step you need to take to achieve greatness, I’ll always stop in the middle of our little stroll feeling like they’ve dropped me off in the middle of nowhere.

Don’t get me wrong here: there have been moments where I’ve been granted a great deal of guidance through self-help literature. It taught me about the importance of goal setting, time management, and the art of taking initiative, which is all excellent soft skills to implement into your professional career.

Self-help books have even helped on a personal level, for without some of their thoughtful encouragement, I don’t think I would’ve taken the leap to purchase a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia, created a website, or been able to abandon a toxic and emotionally-empty relationship.

Yet, the common theme of these recent occurrences was that they were things I had planned on doing and had already been floating around in my mind. I just needed someone to shake me out of my inaction and to tell me to jump aboard the ship each idea was on before the opportunity would fade out into the horizon.

The line between the potential toxicity and rosy cheers of encouragement is drawn very finely here at this intersection within the self-help realm. If you have a tangible outline of what you’d like to achieve — yet need a brazen and annoyingly persistent voice to manifest itself in your head and place you on a pedestal — a self-help guru might just do the trick for you. However, if you are looking for someone to tell you what to do as you simmer in your own existential dread, I’d implore you to not seek the answers within lines written by an individual who cannot possibly know this for you.

The self-help rhetoric is there to purposefully inflate your sense of confidence until you feel grossly superhuman. It guzzles you with phrases such as “you are capable of anything,” and “your thoughts are the most powerful things on Earth,” until you’re drooling all over yourself, drunk in your own recently realized potential manifestation power. The world is now seemingly yours for the taking.

You might think to yourself, “Alice! This sounds fantastic, perhaps if my thoughts really are this powerful, I can do whatever it is I want in life!” To which I reply, “That’s lovely. So, what is it going to be?”

There’s a renowned psychological experiment that highlights how being faced with too many options is a harmful mindset, and it involves an unexpected element: gourmet jam. On one day, shoppers saw a selection of 24 varieties of jam, drawing considerable interest from the grocery’s clientele. On another day, there were only six jams to potentially purchase, a significant drop in variety from the previous selection.

What psychologists Iyengar and Lepper uncovered was that when it came down to the time of purchase, individuals were actually ten times more likely to purchase from the smaller selection than the larger one, even if the larger selection generated significantly more attention.

Not only are they demotivated when faced with endless possibilities, but they also report higher rates of dissatisfaction with their final choice. If they feel any twinge of dissatisfaction with their ultimate selection, it is easy to believe they just didn’t select the right option. After all, there were so many to choose from! With every additional choice, the likelihood of a peaceful state of mind is steadily subtracted.

Now replace “gourmet jam” with “your future” and you can understand how toxic it might be to deliver grandiose statements meant to perpetuate the idea of unlimited potential. Sylvia Path perhaps described the side effects from this best:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

The message that you can personally craft your version of an idyllic future is certainly an enticing one. It’s a massive drive that continues to grow the self-improvement industry into an absolute beast. In fact, it is estimated that by 2022 the industry will be worth a whopping $13.2 billion.

In an ironic twist, however, the hardest part might not even be building this dream life: it’s choosing what on Earth you want it to resemble.

Here enters our familiar friend, the quarter-life crisis, readily available to wreak havoc on its favorite prey, the postgraduate student. Faced with a relatively worthless Communications degree (sound familiar?) and no true sense of purpose, the average Millennial is already so afraid of commitment that dedicating themselves to a career sends them into dizzying oblivion.

Seeking any sort of guidance, they turn to books with encouraging titles such as “You are a Badass” and “Everything Is Figureoutable” to provide them with a semblance of reassurance. They’re met with flamboyant claims pushing them to live past their fear and open their eyes to the infinite ocean of possibilities surrounding them.

Just start swimming towards the shore,” our success coaches shout from the land of triumph. Yet you ask yourself, “but I can’t see the land, so how do I know which way to go?”

This ocean metaphor was first introduced by one of psychologist Dr. Meg Jay’s patients in her novel, “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How To Make The Most of Them Now.” The patient, Ian, describes being plopped in the middle of the ocean without knowing how to get to shore.

Paralyzed by the idea of choosing the wrong path, he instead reverts to survival mode, and barely keeps his head above the water by holding on to flimsy pieces of wood disguised as a barista and retail jobs. Suspended through the animation of time, he idly relies on being saved by someone else’s decision making, such as that of a girlfriend or a group of pals. Ten years down the line, Ian realizes he’s washed up on the wrong part of the land, living a life that has nothing to do with might he would have truly wanted.

While this is a dramatized and anxiety-inducing conclusion to a scenario most postgraduates dread, the choice here is glaringly obvious: you’ve got to just pick a direction and go with it.

The past two decades of your life were not completely randomized; you carefully expressed your interest in select hobbies, skills, majors, and social circles. Through this curation, one can begin to understand their viable and relevant options.

This idea of being able to recall things about ourselves oftentimes forgotten in the hoopla of unlimited possibilities -the unthought known- was first introduced by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas.

Once you’re able to sit down with yourself and thoroughly investigate what you’re truly interested in and would be willing to sacrifice time to be an expert in, you’re able to narrow down your options considerably.

For me, this illustrated itself as writing, design, and digital marketing. Now that I have at least an outline of what to pursue, I’m starting to swim. And let me tell you, it’s considerably difficult. However, this is the price to pay when you rip off the illusion that you can survive forever floating in the river of infinite possibilities. Eventually, this river will pour itself out into the ocean of choice paralysis, and no amount manifestation mantras or self-help seminars can pull you out.

NYC content writer obsessed with all things consumer tech, digital marketing, and the future of work.

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