Philosophy done well is self-help.
Aristotle wrote about what it is like to live a good life. Aquinas asked what it takes to understand God and lead a life that honors the Divine. Nozick wrote on love and understanding the world around you.
And self-help done well should be philosophical, at its core.
That’s what makes the difference between quality personal development and fluffy crystals, affirmations, and essential oils personal development. Unfortunately, crystals, affirmations and essential oils sell, philosophy doesn’t (except to a small audience of nerds like myself).
But you know good personal development when you read it because it forces you to reframe how you think about important issues. It provides mental models and works from first principles thinking. It goes beyond the simple questions of “how do I get better” and asks, “what is better?” “how can I think about this better?” and “what are the concepts that I am working with here?”
If your personal development literature doesn’t do this, go find stuff that’s more inspired. Look to writers with backgrounds in psychology or finance or philosophy.
Or just go read philosophy.
Philosophy as Self-Help
I started as a philosophy student. I studied the Greeks and the Liberals and the Enlightenment and ended up going deep in moral psychology. This was where philosophy got really crunchy for me. Moral psychologists ask questions like, “what do our reactive states, our emotions, and our feelings mean? Where do they come from? What can they tell us?” they explore the structure of ideas and of belief and dig into not just the why but the how behind the relationship between concepts and normative action (i.e., what should you do?).
That actually led me into some personal development material. Yes – most of the stuff out there is bad. But most of the stuff in any category of literature is bad (including philosophy, unfortunately). With some digging, you quickly get into a place where quality writers explore similar ideas as those explored by Greek mythology, Jung, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Some more cerebrally-oriented writers echo concerns voiced by analytic philosophers in the 20th century.
Reading Takes Energy
Reading should take energy. Try reading a dense piece of writing, translated from another language, and from another era. You’ll move through it much more slowly than reading Harry Potter or the Secret.
This should be at least half of your reading. But sometimes people just want to read something easy – something conversational, something interesting, and something that doesn’t exhaust you after reading a few pages.
This doesn’t mean you have to read garbage. You can still read writing that challenges you and gives you tools for thinking about your life. This is the niche that quality self-help should fall into.
(This is what I try to do with my writing. If you check out the bibliography of my book, you’ll find more Girard and Aristotle than you’ll find business books. Whether or not I succeed is up to my readers.)
Keep this kind of self-help around for when you want to read, you don’t want to read fiction, but you also don’t want to exhaust yourself after a paragraph.