Books: The Problem — And Solution to — All of Life’s Problems (Part II)

You are 100% right…”

People read, and then onto the next.” – Sol Orwell.

Self-help books are bullshit.

You have this problem that you need to solve, so you pick up a book on [blank], hoping that by the conclusion your problem will be a thing of the past. You finished the book, which feels like an achievement, and you have this invigorating aura about you as your synapses surge with electricity and hope.

It feels like an accomplishment.

Another badge of honor to pin to your lapel, another trophy for the bookshelf.

You feel like, this time, things will be different, because now you know what must be done to change your life.

And then a few days pass.

The feeling is still there, but it feels far away. The ideas feel stale and begin to fade as new, more immediate priorities surface. That fleeting dopamine rush you felt from the surge of ideas, tactics, and strategies has flat-lined. You need another fix, another dose of inspiration, another promise that your life is about to change.

And you pick up another book.

Reading a book leaves you filled with wishful thinking; “feel-good” platitudes that create the illusion that change happens magically. Positive thinking is great (The Secret sold how many millions of copies?) and coupled with the intention of action, only then can you evoke change in your life and bridge this treacherous gap between inspiration and action.

Activationists, you remember from this post, are people who DO things, not think happy thoughts in their happy safe place.

This is a cycle I’ve experienced many, many times. Maybe you have too. In fact, if I’m not careful, books can be a kind of coping mechanism when the thought of taking action is just too hard or scary. Rather than doing things or interacting with the real world, my default has historically been to retreat and bury myself in knowledge; merely spinning my wheels like a hamster in a cage, indulging in a kind of mental masturbation.

This is an excerpt from The Road to Character by David Brooks:

Your willpower is not strong enough to successfully police your desires.  If you really did have that kind of power, then New Year’s resolutions would work.  Diets would work.  The bookstore wouldn’t be full of self-help books.”

You’d need just one and that would do the trick.”  

You’d follow [the book’s] advice, solve the problems of living, and the rest of the genre would become obsolete.”

“The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.”

This is a crude chart, but it gives you a pretty clear indication that the market for self-help books is vast.

 Books containing the phrase
Books containing the phrase “self-help” over the years.

Brooks was right: we’ve become a society that produces more and more books on helping ourselves, but how many people actually heed the advice they are given?

How many people actually make the leap and bridge the gap between inspiration and action?

The Gap

Everyone knows about the gap.  It’s the gap between inspiration and action.  We read and we get inspired.  New ideas and promises illuminate our consciousness, and for the first time in forever we have hope. We believe this time will be different.  But instead of using what we just learned, we let time pass, and we move on to the next book.

Yes, while the impediment to action advances action, says Marcus Aurelius, I think in many cases books are simply an impediment to action.  

Full stop.

I love reading, and there are few things I treasure as much as my personal library, but it’s important that you take a moment and consider why you’re reading in the first place.  Or if it is truly the time for new knowledge, or if it’s time to finally use the knowledge you already possess.

Do you just want to enjoy a novel and be entertained? Do you want to learn for the sake of learning?  Do you read because you want people to think you’re smart? Cultured? Erudite?  Or maybe reading is just a coping mechanism to avoid taking action, like I’ve often done.

This gap is characterized by two closely-related, yet critically distinct ideas about learning:

First, you have Passive Learning.  Example: Reading a book about how to do a backflip.

Then,  you have Active Learning.  Example: Going outside and trying to do a backflip.

Put the two together and you have a recipe for growth and improvement.

In his newest book, Born For This, Chris Guillebeau uses this flow chart on the learning process involved in taking action, making progress, and becoming successful:

If we make one modification and incorporate a stage of passive learning (reading), the chart would look like this:

If you remove the action component, you’re left with a broken model with a glaring gap between where you are and what you want to accomplish. You have the road map (pure knowledge), but don’t know how to drive the car (action).

Reading is great, and reading simply to learn something new is still a big reason why I read, but when it comes down to it, books are tools. These days, before I buy a book, I try to ask myself: “what problem is this book going to help me solve right now?”

Or, using the tool analogy: “How can I use this tool to make me more effective at the action I am about to take?”

Read books. Learn from them, set forth and do things with what you learn, but your first instinct should always be action.

Always keep moving.

For it was not so much that by means of words I came to a complete understanding of things, as that from things I somehow had an experience which enabled me to follow the meaning of words.” — Plutarch