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Help Yourself; Don’t Buy Self Help Books

Just as somebody once wittily quipped – ‘Friendly fire, isn’t’… self help books, don’t. I worked as a face to face salesman for a year in a job where I was knowledgeable about the product. The job included selling membership subscriptions for a British wildlife charity. Being an animal nerd I thought this would be easy. Unfortunately my bravado was very shortly lived. My colleague, who didn’t know his badgers from his barn owls, was somehow outselling me and everyone in my team. He knew precious little about the product we were selling (that’s being generous), but he had something I didn’t.

So, to compete, I embarked on a self help book rampage. Covering everything from salesmanship, leadership, business and back again. I probably got about 6 books deep into the rabbit hole before it hit me; unless you have been recently hit by a double decker bus, all of this advice was blindingly fucking obvious – even borderline insulting. Lets have a look at some of the books…

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie…

… will tell you to smile and, bafflingly, to use peoples names. The theme of this book was gleefully shredded by British comedy ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ in the below scene.

Normal person: ”Oh I see what’s going on here, you think you’re good with people”

People person: ‘Sorry?’

‘Normal Person: ‘it all makes sense, the fake matiness, the rapey arm touching. The way you keep using my name in a way that makes me feel oddly violated, as if you’ve just dipped your cock in my drink…”

Carnegie could be considered as the first self-help guru, an admittedly excellent salesman who toured the USA becoming rich by teaching people how to become rich. Much like Tony Robbins today.

“Actions speak louder than words. A smile says, ‘I like you. I am glad to see you.'”

– Dale Carnegie

Thanks, Dale. If you are visiting Earth from one of Saturn’s earth-like moons, you may find some use in this book.

Negotiation by Gavin Presman…

… will tell you how to be agreeable. This book has an overbearing ‘niceness’ theme throughout, which is so saccharine in tone its enough to give you diabetes. At one point, the book tells the reader that ‘we aren’t trying to manipulate people’. Yes we are. That’s why I bought the book! Ultimately, If you are in a position where you are negotiating high-end deals, you don’t need this book.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle…

… will tell you to sit in close proximity to your co-workers … Given the current pandemic, that’s not great advice. But, this is not a terrible book. It is less centred around self help and more about stories of successful groups. However, it does have an uncomfortable emphasis on being overtly honest and touchy-feely.

Hindsight has since shown that the book mis-stepped with a fawning chapter on the late billionaire playboy, Tony Hsieh. Hsieh’s start up city, the hipster fever-dream, ‘Downtown Project’ turned into an embarrassment and three of his team committed suicide – not an ideal subject for a book about team work.

Also it does make the assumption that everyone in a work team actually wants to be there…

Who Moved My Cheese By Dr Spencer Johnson…

… tells you to get over it if your company moves the goalposts. This book is the single most insulting book that a manager has ever recommended to me. It is a book for middle-middle managers who have never read a book. If you are ever recommended this book by your manager, take advantage of the free market, and leave your company immediately.

This book somehow sold a whopping 28 million copies, but don’t let that fool you. Everything from the corny animations, the 5 pages of positive reviews at the start of the book, the pathetic page count, the size 20 font, insults the reader. The story itself feels like a parody of capitalism, written by a post art school hipster who has just read Marx.

The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris

… tells you that Indian labour and auto replies can make you rich. Unfortunately the book neglects the part where you have to actually build up useful skills for years (as Ferris did) so you can get to the point of running a business remotely. This is quite a large vacuum in his clickbait book. Any business owner on earth could have written this book – it is simply a guide on how to delegate work (in this case to Indians and auto replies).

Read this book in your early 20s and you will get something out of it; but it won’t last long.

Can You Learn Anything From These Books?

Alright alright, some of the tips are OK in these books, the ‘golden silence’ is good for sales, using more open ended questions are also good, but did they really need to be written down so many times? I was taught these two things in my first month of doing sales.

Part of the problem with these books is that they are written by experts, that sounds dumb but hear me out. It’s like a professional boxer meticulously cataloguing each micro-adjustment they make during a fight, each shuffle of the foot, each feint, each combination for each situation. But, here is the rub, the boxer and the salesman are working on quick-wit and instinct, refined after 1000s of hours of practice.

The ultimate irony of these books is that, without practice in the field they are pointless, and with practice, you will learn the techniques anyway. That is why my colleague outsold me, he had 10 years of sales experience; which beats 10 books of experience.

What Could You Read Instead?

The best self-help books are not self-help books. Read how Napoleon marched from exile, in Elba, to Paris on his own to take back France single handily, in Andrew Neil’s Napoleon The Great. Read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, about how to find meaning to life in a concentration camp. Learn about rhetoric in, The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyt. Read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall (an arrogant but fun read) about how he would jump into situations knowing that he would be able to react to whatever happened next. 

Ultimately though, I found out that if you want to be a better salesman, start selling stuff.

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