How To Read a Self-Help Book

Most of the self-help books that I personally read and recommend are what might be considered “golden oldies.” As I see it, some of the greats, such as The Power of Positive Thinking and Alcoholics Anonymous, contain most of the wisdom that underlies the overall self-help field.

As I’ve written previously, I distrust many of today’s cognitive studies on happiness, and the adjunct wave of bestsellers on “happiness science.” When reading such studies — versus the news coverage behind them — I find them questionably designed and overhyped. Moreover, I have a metaphysical perspective on life — I believe that thoughts are causative, a factor beyond the purview of most social scientists. In matters of personal philosophy, I embrace principles over data.

A request from a friend made me want to provide a few guidelines for getting the most out of classic self-help books. My close and longtime friend worked as a prosecutor in a large city, and asked for my help in broadening and expanding his vision of his job. As a principled law-enforcer, my friend was not content simply to “put away bad guys” (who were often poor and unable to afford good legal representation). He also wanted to address the iniquities of our justice system.

I urged him to read David J. Schwartz’s 1959 classic, The Magic of Thinking Big. I felt he could benefit from Schwartz’s message of expanding one’s sense of possibilities. But my friend had rarely considered, or taken seriously, New Thought or self-help literature – so I offered a few pointers to avoid his getting lost on the way. The four principles below can help anyone, newcomers or old timers, get the maximum benefit from literature of self-development.

1. Do not get distracted by hackneyed language. Many of the classics use gender stereotypes and predictably dated references. Most pioneers in New Thought and spiritual therapeutics were ardently liberal for their times; some were visionary social reformers. Nonetheless, these writers could also lean on now-dated vernacular and inferences of their era. You’ll occasionally stumble on a softly bigoted reference. Pay attention to the universal message, not the attitudes of past.

2. Never think “I get it.” When reading vintage self-help books you may encounter insights and ideas that seem familiar, or that provoke a been-there-done-that reaction in you. If you come across things like the Golden Rule or positive-mind aphorisms, don’t roll your eyes and start skimming. Rather, take it as an opportunity to revisit great and powerful truths that we might take for granted today. Often our biggest mistake in life is undervaluing the familiar.

3. Do the exercises. It’s always tempting to save the exercises “for later.” This often means never doing them at all. Even if you’ve tried something before (such as writing down a list of goals), or if a technique seems burdensome (such as a daily meditation practice), the rule is: DO IT ANYWAY. If you really want to get something out of a self-improvement program you must dedicate yourself to its details. There may be shortcuts in life – but they do not include skipping the exercises.

4. The secret to self-help. There is a “secret law” behind every self-help program. Without this law, nothing is possible. It is: Do the program as if your life depends on it. I mean it. If you proceed that way, things will happen. Almost any sound program works if you commit to it with absoluteness. Select your book or program – and then burn the fleet. Give yourself no way out. Throw yourself into it with passionate, obsessive intensity. Life rewards no mediocre efforts. Be starved for self-improvement. Passion delivers you.

And what happened to my friend who wanted to expand his work in law enforcement? He soon got a state-level job investigating fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians. His determination to be fair, principled, and dogged in pursuit of justice took him to a position of high responsibility.

The author with a statue of Norman Vincent Peale in New York City.

Mitch Horowitz is the PEN Award-winning author of Occult America and One Simple Idea. The Washington Post says Mitch “treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions.” He is also the voice of popular audio books including Alcoholics Anonymous and The Jefferson Bible, and host of the web series ORIGINS: SUPERSTITIONS. Mitch is vice president and executive editor at Tarcher Perigee, a division of Penguin Random House. Visit him at

This piece is adapted from an earlier article at

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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