If you’re going to read a self-help book, make it an old one

August 3rd, 2009

Behind every change in technology, social rules, and history are the same basic struggles that every human in the last 10,000 years has had to endure. And someone smarter than us saw that and wrote down the best way to make it through, by their own experiences and mistakes. They wanted, just like we want, for the children to have it easier.

In the company of the wise men and women were people who claimed to have that knowledge, or had ulterior motives, or just wanted to profit. It still happens today, and gives the self-help industry a bad name.

But because every new human goes through the same motions of life, collectively we catch on to when we’re being fed bad advice. And so we keep coming back to the books containing true wisdom. Smart publishers see this and keep those books in print. Silently, unconsciously, we weed out the filler.

If you need a written guide to life, read something that’s old and still has an audience.

Any rule on how old is arbitrary, but if it helps I suggest reading books written earlier than 200 years ago. If you need further help, here are two books I suggest:

  1. The Way to Wealth by Benjamin Franklin
  2. The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián

One advantage of old books is that you can find them free online (like here and here).

I picked those two books because I place great value on brevity and because they keep religious matters to a minimum.

But book wisdom isn’t as useful as that passed on by a living breathing human with personal experience. That’s why I’m only telling you where you might find advice, as I am lacking the requisite experience and wisdom. Think of these books as catch-up, for those of us not lucky enough to have a mentor early in life*.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a mentor now at whatever stage of life you’ve reached.

*I was a lucky, though squandered it some. One of my role models growing up was a scoutmaster who got involved because of his son but stayed to help other boys learn how to free-thinking, motivated adults. He was a successful businessman who always carried himself with dignity and authenticity. The biggest lesson he taught was how he taught: he led his life the way he wanted us to lead our lives: with honesty, compassion for others, and an eye on the next foothold (it also helped that we had the Scout’s Law**). And this is where I mention that I’m an Eagle Scout, and damn proud of it.

**Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

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