Cross-post from blog.

[Self-help is supposed to get people to stop needing it. But typical incentives in any medium mean that it’s possible to get people hooked on your content instead. A musing on how the setup for writing self-help differs from typical content.]

Say you have a job as a Self-Help Guru. You spend your days giving out your worldly advice to those who seek guidance on their problems.

I claim that if you’re doing job as a Self-Help Guru right, then you should never have repeat customers.

That’s the gist behind the idea that the best self-help should be self-defeating.

Here are some analogies of things that I think are like self-help:

  • The point of taking antibiotics is so that you eventually stop taking them and feel better.

  • The point of wearing glasses is so that you can stop squinting and see more clearly.

  • The point of reading a programming textbook is so you can eventually start writing programs on your own.

My claim is that if you’re trying to do self-help right, you want people to be able to “graduate” from your ideas and figure out what actually works for them. In a sense, you want to catalyze people to find their own optimal solutions instead of consisting coming back to you for more help every time.

You want them to go off on their own adventures in life, confident that they have the ability to craft new tools when the ones you give them stop working.

Once again, the Recognize vs Generate dichotomy comes into play here. Following advice someone else gave you can look about the same as coming up with something similar on your own. But being the sort of person who can generate solutions independently is far more effective in the long run.

Basically I claim the whole point of self-help is to help people help themselves.

Not that controversial a viewpoint. The real problem, I think, comes in when we consider the way that self-help gets publicized and published.

First off, consider the incentives of many media like newspapers, television channels, novels, or vloggers. Growing an audience is an explicit part of their goals; after all, their profits are largely tied to their viewership. As a result, it makes a lot of sense for them to come out with constant content—it keeps the original crowd coming, and a constant presence means it can draw more people in.

But self-help is different. Arguably, the content isn’t even the real point; the real point is something about the self-help “attitude” which enables them to solve future problems. You want them to level up and then head off to do great things in the real world.

Entertainment isn’t the point, so you don’t really want people binging on your content. You want them to read the content, learn whatever lessons are useful for them, and then move on.

Which means that some sort of constant, fluctuating, or even decreasing number of readers can actually be a sign that you’re doing things correctly.

This stark conflict between typical media incentives for publicity and the lofty goals of self-help hits at the heart of the issue, I think. My claim is that basically everyone trying to do self-improvement has gone way off into the “maximize profits and publicity” direction rather than the “maximize beneficial impact of the content” direction.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: someone with genuinely altruistic motivations might want to first write some clickbait-type articles to bring in an audience, and then provide more real insights.

“I’ll just do the trashy stuff first, and then I’ll gradually transition to deeper stuff later,” they think.

And that’s fair; none of this self-help stuff is happening in a vacuum. Battles for attention in the modern world are zero-sum, and the other side (i.e. all other media) is already optimizing the hell out of “attention-grabbiness”.

But that’s perhaps too unrealistic. Basically no one is that calculating. I’m not explicitly accusing self-help writers of being evil masterminds who write addictive content under the guise of self-improvement in order to make profits.

Rather, I just think that throughout the normal course of writing self-help content, writers will just have to make certain decisions which trade off the direct benefit of content.

One obvious example is the choice in media format. Books are self-contained and seem to stand at one end of an axis which has Twitter tweets and Facebook posts on the other. For books, feedback from the reader is far less immediate (worse for the author), and the payoff to the reader is far less instant (worse for the reader). But if you go all the way to the other end, you’re trading off conceptual complexity, the ability to explain deeper ideas.

There are also subtler things. For example, there are certain design choices when making blogs to reduce binging, like removing infinite scroll, which are probably in your readers’ best interests. Most of those choices will also reduce traffic on your site as a whole.

It’s not even media format or design choices:

When you think you have good content, you’re going to want to share it to others. After all, the only way that self-help materials help others is if people read them in the first place.

And it’s just the case that most ways to get more people interested and spread your content involve increasing the level of “memetically stickiness” or “fun-to-read-ness”, both of which are orthogonal to “ability to level up the reader” and often trade off against it.

The incentive structure for self-help is unfortunately set up in such a way that the traditional ways of cultivating engagement don’t work well with it.

I think one of the worst things that can happen is for people to become a sort of “insight junkie”, where they’re always craving the next mental model or productivity hack, rather than staring down the obvious advice.

The tldr; here is that this is a potential trap for people (me included!) who think they have good content to share. Attempts to reach a wider audience and become more memetically sticky can backfire when you end up getting people hooked on insight-porn-esque longform essays, rather than going out into their lives and being more awesome.


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