Are self-improvement books just fantasy for non-fiction readers?

Is reading self-improvement books healthy? It feels like escapism sometimes. How can we measure whether they are valuable or a waste of time and money?

Spider-man reading a self-improvement book

I read a book this year called “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work”. It’s been crazy at work.

I didn’t think it was; my wife let me know. You are constantly talking about work. Who knew? She knew.

The book reads like a fantasy novel of what work at a modern office could be like, should be like.

Current state of my work-life: all day meetings, sliced into 30 minute increments, double-booked all day, no time to think, instant message chats never stop.

Fantasy state from the book: no meetings; decisions are made more slowly, deliberately, asynchronously, instant message chats are rare.

No meetings? Do I even want a workplace with no meetings?

Oh God, I think I might. But why? Especially when I believe I bring value to my company by being personable, collaborative, communicative. I’m praised by my leadership and my teams for my ability to get groups working and focused. Why would I ever want less of a stage to shine on than constant meetings?

It’s about time. Literally – there isn’t enough time in the day to scale my ability to lead and grow my teams when I’m in consensus-based meetings. How many meetings have you been in that could have been an email? Most of them could have been an email.

If everything is urgent, nothing is

Current state of my work-life: Everything is urgent, top priority, interruptable by the next new, urgent, top priority thing.

Fantasy state from the book: We all realize there is no emergency, and that hot-new-top-priority can wait a short cycle.

It all sounds like a fantasy version of corporate America.

The book was written by the founders of 37Signals, which is an internet-age software company that makes its own rules, and employs less than 100 people. It’s known to be a lean, nimble operation. If I compared it to an animal, it’s a panther.

Whereas I work in a hippopatamous, by comparison. Sturdy, big, has teeth. Mostly, it’s a wonderful company but there are rules. Those rules preceded my employment and will live on long after I leave. At most, I have the ability to bend them a bit while I’m there.

Let’s move away from the office culture dream-book. This next one is true high fantasy, up there with Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’ve already set the table on why my work life (and probably your work life) is crushing – all meetings, all real-time communications, no time to think. So, why not read a book about a tenured professor blocks off several hours of his day without distraction to spend time thinking deeply?

Is reading books like this healthy? It feels like escapism sometimes. Saying I’ll block off three hours of my day to think and work deeply is like saying I’ll be home for dinner right after my day in space with Elon Musk. Willingly thinking about other people who can live their lives like this is my comparison trap.

Self-improvement books are my Facebook and Instagram.

These books are where I go to lust after other lives that I clearly want to lead, but just can’t afford to.

Normal person on Facebook/Instagram: Oh, look, Karen went to Santorini! Why can’t we go someplace better than Hot Springs? I don’t want another staycation I want to travel!

Me reading self-improvement books: If only I could find 3 hour blocks to think deeply like Cal Newport. What a fantasy!

But I keep buying and reading them, don’t I?

As a way of semi-public confession, here’s a short stack of the books I bought during the last Prime Day sale:

  1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  2. No Hard Feelings by Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy
  3. The Five Disfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  4. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  5. The Primes – How any Group Can Solve Any Problem by Chris McGoff
  6. The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier
  7. It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hanson
  8. I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sehti

Those are just the ones sitting near my on my desk as I write this.

I do indeed read these books. It’s not just me collecting them and then not ever consuming them (hello, old video game collection!).

But.

Am I really helping myself?

Is reading self-improvement books really worthwhile? Clearly, writing them is. Some of these folks are making big bucks re-telling classic principles wrapped in the shiny new of their voice and experience.

There’s no simple way to measure whether reading these books helps you. Every important measure you might have is a lagging indicator. Did the book on writing help me be a better writer? How on earth would I measure that? Word count, page views, comments left, email subscribers added? Which measurement is the right one?

How about No Hard Feelings, a book I purchased to help me better manage my stress and emotions at my job? How would I measure any increase in the sense of emotional control I am exerting at work?

The feedback loop on these topics is very long. I can identify some books in my reading history that have helped me improve. There are books I pass around to help people dealing with the things I struggled with.

For today, though, the only thing I can really look at is the leading indicator, the thing I can measure today, am I enjoying reading these books?

Update

Between drafting this post and editing it, I had a long feedback loop close. It was so satisfying I want to add it to this post. A team member I manage at work was reading a book on coaching as a growth exercise. This is a book that has helped me be a better manager, and one I recommend to others.

He said, “I can really see you in this book. I can tell that you believe when our team is successful, you are considered successful”. He gave several other examples of how my behavior as a manager was consistent with the principles of the book.

I read that book for the first time more than a decade ago, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to receive such specific feedback that I could tie back to a specific self-improvement book.

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