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How to become successful

By Rebecca Richard

Self-help books: follow these simple steps and your life will improve. Probably.

In the depths of the 2020 lockdowns, I’m sure many of us can recall the period of pressured self-growth imposed on us on social media. My timeline definitely held a narrative that I should be using the time at home to develop myself, get fit and be productive.

Naturally, when I heard Adele say one particular self-help book helped to turn her life around mentally as a woman, parent and human living through a pandemic (describing it on social media as “ProBloodyFound!!”), I had to get involved. Glennon Doyle’s 2020 novel Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living is a cross between self-help and personal memoir, discussing what can happen to us when we start living for ourselves, as opposed to abiding by strict societal expectations placed on us. Doyle discusses her experience of realising she was attracted to women, whilst married to a man whom she had children with. Doyle opens up about making the difficult move to divorce her partner and explore her attraction to women, leading to her current happy, healthy relationship with her wife.

While reading about Doyle’s life changes, I was undoubtedly inspired to consider my own life – what parts were serving me well and others less so. Following this woman as she embarked on her journey to freedom in her relationships and career was inspirational at first, encouraging me to reflect on what I genuinely enjoyed, and where I could seek true happiness. The book also had some great one-liners I deemed worthy of a pastel highlight, such as “Feel It All” and “I will not stay, not ever again – in a room or conversation or relationship or institution that requires me to abandon myself.”

I genuinely enjoyed Untamed, and I love some punchy language that suggests unpacking insecurities and learned behaviours is as simple as repeating one sentence to myself. But as I turned each page, the inspiration slowly shifted to a sense of guilt. Every paragraph of well-meaning advice became a reminder of something I was doing wrong or another problem I now felt pressure to fix. And another. And another. There’s something about self-help books that can make us feel incredibly inadequate (although I’m sure there’s an author out there with some literary remedy that will fix this feeling right up).

Self-help books generally follow the pattern of the authors’ own struggles, sharing anecdotes and experiences, and (usually) how this has led them to their brilliant life now. And we, the reader, simply have to follow these steps and it will work for us. Probably.

As well as this, I struggle to enact self-help mantras into my daily life. Once I’ve closed the book and clicked the lid onto my highlighter, it’s as if the advice melts away the second I re-enter the world outside of books. So, I’ve to “love myself” … but how? I should “feel” every emotion… What does that actually entail? Unfortunately, we can’t all simply quit jobs making us unhappy, cut out toxic people or magically produce some spare time to journal our deepest feelings every day. Self-help books can sometimes be guilty of hitting buzzwords, rather than concrete suggestions for making long-term changes.

I don’t think anyone should open a book called “How to Become Successful” and wholeheartedly believe this is the answer to their problems. Perhaps we should instead conclude that self-help books are what you make of them. If you’re looking for brief moments of self-reflection, to have a second of relatability and think “that’s so me”, then I think they’ve served their purpose, even if the advice doesn’t leave your evening reading bubble. This is because in reality, there is no blueprint for success, happiness or self-love. Self-help books might work for you, or maybe your journey to inner peace is a bit more trial-and-error. Both are just as valid.


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