Self-help plays a key role in our personal development. It empowers us. Enables us to sus out our own needs. And to tailor our development to these needs. In doing this we find much of the knowledge. And build many of the skills we need to flourish.
As Marcel Proust explains: “We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us”.
Let’s resolve to take his advice. And give self-help top priority in our lives. And reap the benefits of it.
The first self-help book was Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was published in 1841. Emerson saw self-help as a creative, conscious response to the world. He argued that our lives should reflect this response rather than be shaped by the prevailing culture. In his view the self-reliant individual should be able to live in the world. To improve it and not be just another product of it.
In 1859 Emerson’st book was followed by Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. The same year as Darwin’s Origin of the Species and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Smiles was a highly respected railway boss and author. He records all the people who achieved amazing things by will and persistence. He believed that, “since it was about human nature, self-help would remain valid”. And how right he was.
For today self-help still plays a key role. As Martin Seligman confirms in his best selling book Authentic Happiness. In it he shows how keeping a daily record of things they were grateful for. Helped almost all the severely depressed people who took part in his study. To make a measurable improvement. This finding clearly shows how we can use self-help to solve personal problems of a very serious nature.
The essentials of self-help
Self-help is now a modern form of Self-Managed Development. We need it to keep up with the rate of change in our lives. We need to use all our energy and creativity to cope with the technical, social and political challenges of life. We need to take responsibility for our own development. Reflect now and then on our life objectives. Develop a sense of what we wish to achieve. The type of opportunities we wish to pursue. And the kind of life we wish to live.
We need to be open to opportunities for learning. From structured and unstructured sources. And to get out of our comfort zone to take risks that put us at risk. Actively seek the support and guidance we need for our own development. Create a support group with whom we can safely review what we learn. Openly declare our needs and get help to pursue the goals we set ourselves.
Use self-help to manage change
Self-help is about managing change. About spotting habits that are past their sell-by-date. And replacing them with more effective ones. Don’t be put off by those who claim that habit change is very difficult and people who attempt it usually fail.
This is a myth from the 1960s. When a study reported that 86% of people being helped to stop smoking resumed doing so. Stanley Schachter, the eminent Columbia Professor exposed this myth for what it was. He argued successfully that the conclusions drawn from the research were invalid because the sample was not representative of the population at large. But consisted only of hard cases who had sought help for their addiction.
He went on to produce his own research showing a 63% success rate in the self-cure of smoking and obesity. A finding that was independently confirmed by formal research on weight loss. Thanks to his insight we no longer have to worry about our ability to change our habits. Of course it takes time and effort and you will meet setbacks along the way but it is perfectly feasible. If you begin to doubt this remember Seligman’s research showing that severely depressed people were able to achieve measurable improvements. The did this by keeping a regular gratitude diary which is far from being a difficult thing to do.
Butler-Bowdon, T. (2003) 50 Self-help Classics, London: Nicholas Breadley Publishing.
Coopey et al (1990) Develop Your Management Potential – A self-help guide. London: Kogan Page Limited.
De Botton, A. (1998) How Proust can change your life. New York: Random House.