Thursday, March 14, 2013

There is no One Recipe for Success

I was never really one for self-help books but in troubled times in my youth I dipped into these (parenting books for oneself?) occasionally looking for a solution. I never really found anything. I found ideas surely but they never "fixed" anything.

When I got my MBA many, many moons ago, I read lots of business books. Good to Great, Effective Habits, Women in Business. I couldn't get enough for years. And then I stopped.

Last year I read a lot of parenting books. It was Munchkin year one completion. I wanted to know about sleeping, eating, development, motor skills, language - you name it.This year I have read no parenting books to date.

What has changed? I had a revelation this week, as I find myself now reading a business/self-help book, breaking the long respite I had from them. I have to say, it is painful, teeth-gritting progress. In particular because it is a business book and for some reason all business books have to be at least 50% self-grandiosity. It must be in the contract when they get the book deal. Or maybe it's because the writers have unconsciously a kernel of doubt and by repeatedly expounding on how fantastic they are and their concept is, they think they will browbeat the reader into believing it too. Or maybe it's because if there weren't all the self-flattery and they stuck strictly to writing about their actual theory, most business books would (a) be exactly the same and (b) be 10 pages long.

I have read more business books than self-help but my feeling is that they share these traits. Parenting books as well, to a lesser extent, but with parenting books you can also get a lot of filler from general statistics and science since there is a lot of research into how humans grow that is uniformly true. What all these books have in common is that the writer had a problem, they had an idea on how to solve their problem, and now they have written a book about it. The thing I realized that was annoying me, was the unspoken or blatant assumption on the part of the writer that the idea that solved the problem for them will solve the problem for everyone.

Let's be fair, we are as humans pretty much the same in many ways. We flatter ourselves to think we are more unique than we really are. But we are indeed unique. And what works for one person will not work for the next. The traits, the experiences, the strengths and weaknesses that make you you are not the traits, experiences, and strengths and weaknesses of the writer of the book. They were living in a different place and time then you when the idea that solved their problem worked for them, even if it's only a block down the street and a week ago. What irritates me is that we want to read these books and find the panacea for all our problems. We want to believe it will work for us. When it doesn't, we always blame ourselves. What's wrong with us? It worked for that person and now there is a book so CLEARLY it is tested and true for all humans. Why aren't my kids behaving if I follow the parenting book? Why aren't I fabulously happy and rich when I follow the business book? Why do I still feel unhappy when I've read the self-help book? Because guess what - it worked for one person. That's all the confirmation you get. Maybe it worked for some other people. There is no guarantee it will work for you.

This is not to say that these books are useless. Exchanges of ideas are good. Hopefully, you will come across something that works for you as well. But I get angry when a book gets seized on like a new religion in our societies, the solution to everyone's problems. Relax - maybe it'll work for you, probably it work, most likely you'll get one or two ideas out of it.


Josh said...

I have somehow managed to never read a business book - well, except for the one my employer forced me to read. I believe it was about cheese.

I have an acute allergy to most things popular and faddish in the business world. I have observed first hand the utterly inept management that comes from those who are steeped in the culture spawned by this 'literature'. There is no stronger disproof of its efficacy.

For baby books, there is some value - for example "What to expect when you are expecting" did indeed teach me what to expect, I really didn't know. But perhaps this book is an exception, as we also read a lot of other material that taught us to expect things that did not come to pass. Where I think they start to go off the rails is when they tell you what to *do*.

I'd welcome the advent of the Alexis baby book. Irreverent, lacking much direct advice, but funny and thought provoking. Sorry though, I won't read your business book unless forced by an employer.

Josh said...

Not that your business book wouldn't be good - I just can't bring myself to read the genre.

While employed as a useless corporate drone, I penned about 30 pages of an anti-business book. Basically presenting my own work environment as an example of what not to do. Then I realized quitting was a better path than publishing.

Bernice said...

I, too, am happy if I glean one or two ideas from a book.

Ale said...

ok... i see what the problem is. First we're going to put you on some anti-depressants... then some uppers and a little shot of a tranquilizer...

I agree however 100% the amount of SELF stroking this guys does is nauseating (and the rest of business book writers).

what about that 'program' i had you on????? hmmmmmmm now you CAN'T say that didn't work!!!!!!!!!!! :) :) :) I'm on chapter 3....

"the happiest baby on the block" was GOLD for me- worked like a charm. I guess the point of these books is to draw on the concepts but customize to yourself.

alexis said...

Ale, it's GREAT when you find something that clicks. What gets to me is when people are disappointed because it doesn't work for them. Of course it's not going to work for you as a default. Some things will fit and some won't. See - your program worked a charm, and well done for finally getting around to writing the book!

Josh I think you don't need to fear me writing a baby or a business book. I think a lot of the logic is the same for both though, lol.

Dad said...

Having written a couple of business books (well booklet and book) and having been exposed to what it takes to be successful as an author, I have pretty strong opinions on this subject.

Basically a book is a good think to introduce you to something. However, for most of us change requires a steady application of the new knowledge over an extended period. Most of us need reminders, guidance, correction, reapplication of lessons. This is why good consultants and coaches are worth their money (I said good ones).

Books are not good for this. You may be excited by a book and initially motivated by them but they are not good tools for long term change facilitation and management.

Lauren said...

I don't read much 'help' literature - self-help, business, baby, etc. I do participate in a number of Mom/parenting groups, where we toss around ideas/experiences. Sure, every household is different, but it helps to say, "hey, this worked for us, give it a try, might help you". I watch lots of cooking shows for new ideas, recipes and techniques, I guess those are in the 'help' categories.

Rob said...

Alexis is going to write two books... a baby book for business people, and a business book for parents.

Lakeview Coffee Joe said...

I don't like to read...I just wait for the movie. If they don't make a movie about it, it's probably not worth knowing!

alexis said...

Joe - name one self-help book turned movie!

Lauren, I disagree. At least, in my mind, parenting groups and trolling through cooking shoes for ideas are different. My beef is really with the way specifically self-help books, and not other media, are all written as if they are THE solution for everyone. By definition they're not. I think my dad's point about acting on advice in books is a good point as well.