The Good and the Bad of the Self-Help Industry – (The Don’t Be Fooled Guide)

Today more than ever, the self-help industry exploded. Only in the US, this market was worth $10 billions in 2014, and it is growing at an exponential rate. We can expect this trend to continue in the future.

Self-taught pseudo-gurus teach us how to go from zero “to millionaire in one year.” Real estate magicians tell us how to make “sure money” by flipping properties. Renowned authors tell us the habits to develop to have “sure success.”

In this world of gurus and how-to-get-rich-in-ten-days schemes, determinism, planning and goal setting seem to be a must-do to be successful. How much of it is true? The objective of this article is to make you aware of what to avoid, but eventually, we’ll also make some recommendations.

The Science of Success Scheme

The Four-Week MBA has treated the theme of the “science of success.” On the other hand, we made it clear that the so-called habits to develop to be successful will not bring you success. Rather those are habits that allow you to go through tough times and persevere. On the other hand, no habit can guarantee you success. Why? Because of success – meant as wealth, and professional achievement – is something external. In other words, this is something, which is not in our control. Therefore, we recommend staying away from the sure success schemes, which are now extremely popular in the self-help industry. Another aspect of the self-help industry that is worrisome is the wrong belief that “success is a linear path.” Almost like a ball that is launched from point A to point B, the self-help scheme makes you believe that once you develop the right habit, you will become successful. The self-help scheme makes you believe that the only thing you have to do to become successful is to have a clear plan. Why is this reasoning flawed?

The Know Thyself Bias

 It is an unusually chilly day on Wall Street, in the middle of August. The adage “sell in May and go away” does not seem to apply. In fact, Mr. Splendido just signed the most important deal in the history of the financial district. Mr. Splendido felt like the British colonels that in the 17th century dismantled the wall, which at the time defended the city of New Amsterdam. Once the wall was conquered, the British founded what it would then become “New York’s Wall Street.” Mr. Splendido had created the greatest financial conglomerate in the world. Journalists hurried to the building where his new office was located to ask him the secret of his success. Mr. Splendido not surprised at all by that question, immediately shouts out, “Planning is the key to success.” He says how since he was a kid he had planned in minor details the takeover of Wall Street. He also adds how all the people he had known throughout his life even agreed with that statement. There is no doubt that Mr. Splendido truly believed in that. But why is this belief flawed?

The Autobiography Scheme, Also Known as Self-Selection Bias

The autobiographical industry has never been as successful as today. Everyone from Oprah to the President’s dog felt the need to let the world know about their lives; and what made them successful. A bunch of prophets and pundits tell you with Madoff’s presumption, about the secret of their lives’ success and how you too should be like them. There is one problem; that advice are worthless! Why?

Statistically speaking they carry no real meaning. In fact, in statistics, what makes an analysis thick is the selection of a sample, which has to be random. In other words, unlike Mr. Splendido, which believed to have understood the secret of success, by looking at the people in his circle, the statistical sample has to include a set of people that have to represent the “whole population.”

Also, the only fact that Mr. Splendido has been so successful in his life; it doesn’t make him wiser than an ordinary man. Why? We will never know how much of Mr. Splendido success is due to skills and how much is due to luck. In short, we have to be careful with the “survivorship bias.” Therefore, all autobiographical accounts should be read, just like you would read Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey.

Summary – Biases to Beware of

So far we saw how the self-help industry has grown exponentially and what biases it carries. The most common ones, are the flawed belief that success is linear, which we will call “deterministic bias.

The false belief that someone successful can tell you better than anyone else how to be successful, which is called “survivorship bias.

The fact that we know better than anyone else what made us successful, which we will call the “know thyself bias;” and the wrong belief that our personal experience has any statistical validity, which it isn’t necessarily true, due to the “self-selection bias.”

How to Navigate the Self-Help Industry

Most of the times self-help books are a great remedy when facing life’s adversities. The main reason, I believe, is because most self-help books reinforce our built-in biases. Therefore, they delude us, but also comfort us.

There is nothing terrible in looking for comfort in a book, as soon as we don’t allow that book to make us delusional, which in the long-term may affect our understanding of the world. In conclusion, this article gave you the tools to understand the most common biases, on which the self-help industry leverages to grow its revenues.

On the other hand, it is also essential to preserve a skeptical approach. Do not believe in anything you are told, naïvely.

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Gennaro Cuofano

Creator of | Head of Business Development at | International MBA

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