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Unpopular Opinion: Self-Help Books Do More Harm Than Good

Alexander Felice
6 min read
Unpopular Opinion: Self-Help Books Do More Harm Than Good

If you’ve spent any length of time trying to “succeed” in life, then you’ve probably turned to self-help books at some point.

Most real estate investors have sought out lists of recommended self-development books. Many titles appear on list after list. Once you notice those titles, you might be tempted to read a good chunk of these suggested books and to take the advice of these authors.

You’ll find yourself motivated and confident—but more than likely no closer to your goals than before reading them.

Why is that?

Consider This: Personal Success Stories Are Anecdotal

Unfortunately, what self-help books will never tell you is that one of the biggest factors in success is luck.

Why do authors leave out this detail? Because no one likes to hear it, and it doesn’t sell books.

Sure, it also takes hard work, consistency, a positive mindset, networking, and other values you’ve heard described so many times. But in addition to those traits, and arguably most importantly, it takes luck.

Related: 3 Habits of Incredibly Lucky People (For Better Fortune in Business & Life!)

This is written about extensively in reputable non-fiction books authored by people who aren’t trying to con you. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto)ir?t=biggerpocke0a 20&l=am2&o=1&a=0812975219 and Outliers: The Story of Successir?t=biggerpocke0a 20&l=am2&o=1&a=0316017930 are two good examples.

Here’s another case in point: If you live in the United States and make approximately $30,000 per year, you’re in the top 1 percent of global earners. But $30K/year in the U.S. isn’t that much, so how did you get to be more successful than 7 billion other people?

You were just lucky to be born where you were.

How about the internet? That place where you can order Uber Eats and buy books. The place where the most information is exchanged these days and where you can read this article.

Did you invent it? Did it exist 50 years ago? And does everyone on the planet have access to it today?

No, no, and no. So, thank your lucky stars!

What about hard work?

One hundred years ago, hard work meant caring for a farm—and it sure didn’t pay well. These days, all you have to do is be popular on Instagram to potentially become a multimillionaire.

Is that really hard work? Successful entrepreneurs from prior generations would likely disagree.

Instagram probably won’t even exist in 50 years. So, to reiterate, being in the right place at the right time, putting in the effort, and being blessed with a dash of luck is truly the formula for success.

Getting Lucky Within the Realm of Real Estate

Have you bought real estate since 2010? If so, you were extremely lucky, because in 2008, real estate prices collapsed like never before.

If you didn’t participate in real estate until after the crash (like me and so many other people on this site), then you owe almost your entire portfolio gain to luck.

Plenty of people are writing self-help or motivational books about real estate investing right now. However, few authors are selling the idea that it was simply luck. Instead, they are selling a narrative that sounds plausible, but it’s unfortunately more entertaining than it is valuable.

In many instances, I’d even call it charlatanism: someone claiming to have a special skill or information that they don’t actually have.

Tried and True Drivers of Success

Believe in Yourself

What self-help books can do is show you that success is possible. This is great. In fact, it’s imperative.  

For that reason, I suggest everyone should read a few.

And while I stand by my point these books are highly overrated, it would be disingenuous of me to say they possess no value.

Here’s another useful lesson they convey: Your future is in your hands.

For most people, it takes reading a few to open up our brains, to see our potential, and to see what’s possible. Therefore, I do recommend exploring the genre to some extent.

But like most specific topics, once you’ve knocked out three or so titles, you’ll know 99 percent more than the general public about real estate investing. At that point, it’s probably safe to move on. 

self-help, self-development, books, reading, real estate

Spot the Cons

Does it offend you that the biggest accomplishment for many self-help authors is selling you their book?

Gary John Bishop recently wrote a moderately well-known book called Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life. It’s basically 200 pages of tough love (of which I admit I’m a big fan). But it’s nothing any drill sergeant, strict parent, or unsympathetic friend couldn’t come up with.

What’s made his concept notable, then? Marketing.

How about the famous book How to Win Friends & Influence Peopleir?t=biggerpocke0a 20&l=am2&o=1&a=0671027034? Have you heard of it? It was written by Dale Carnagey. 

I’m betting the title and author sound familiar, but you might remember Carnagey’s name being spelled “Carnegie.” That’s because he changed it to resemble the actually successful steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, knowing he could ride Andrew’s coattails.

It worked great, too! To this day, people eat this book up, considering it to be a pinnacle of human understanding. (Full transparency: I even have a copy on my shelf!)

The problem is that it wasn’t written by a famous and successful business person; it was written by an average conman, who was good at marketing.

Beware of Survivorship Bias

According to Wikipedia, “[s]urvivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.”

Survivorship bias is at the cornerstone of my argument. This common logical fallacy states that those who survive an endeavor have some significant insight into their success, instead of noticing that it’s simply statistically random.

For example, if the main point of self-development books is that you need to possess a positive attitude, to work hard persistently, and to avoid being deterred by obstacles, then that implies everyone who isn’t successful doesn’t apply these traits.

That’s not really how the world works though.

Related: The 3 Main Reasons Entrepreneurs Fall Short of Their Goals

There are plenty of very hardworking people who have unfortunate luck. Maybe they were born at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Or maybe they experienced undue hardship.

Here’s what I’m getting at: the people who have had success have a bias to think that the way they have done things is somehow special, as opposed to their success being a result of luck. What’s worse, as I stated before, most of the self-help books in print are written by those who aren’t even very successful anyway.

Cast Your Net Wide

I’ll admit, I am not a lifelong reader. It was only a few years ago when I started reading a lot, but it quickly became a hobby that I obsess over—like I do with everything that piques my interest.

Reading is able to both increase and fulfill my curiosity. And curiosity might be one of the best traits a human can have, in my opinion. It’s valuable to want to know how the world works.

Fortunately, living in the 21st century allows us to satisfy our curiosity like never before.

The problem occurs when people don’t see the value in having a broad understanding of the world. Instead, it seems people in the “want to be successful” community are making a mad grab to read every “success book” they can get their hands on. But ultimately, what is there to learn in them?

They often provide little to no science, history, or facts to back up their points and are simply one person’s anecdotal experience of achieving success. To read this is not to learn how the world works; it’s just buying someone else’s story.

To be sure, reading anything is probably a little better than spending your evenings watching Shark Tank in attempt to understand how a corporation works or watching HGTV to learn how to become a successful house flipper. Based on what I know, none of these shows have produced successful CEOs or home flippers. They are lazy entertainment—in my unpopular opinion, just like self-development books.

self-development, real estate investing, investment strategy literature, real estate how-to

What to Read Instead

Here’s my general advice for reading: Read everything.

Although I spent this article talking smack about a particular genre, my intent was only to influence people to open up to the idea of exploring a wider array of topics and categories.

If you want to know how people work, there are plenty of books available that discuss well-established science on human behavior. If you want to know what’s going to happen in the future, I’d suggest reading history books. If you want to learn economics, plenty of econ books exist.

And if you want to gain specialized knowledge about a particular subject—like real estate—BiggerPockets has a fantastic (and growing) selection of books on this genre.

Related: The Best Real Estate Books for Your Investing Business

But as I’ve said, when it comes to the self-help genre, I think this type of writing often does more harm than good.

It’s like chasing a high!

You read one of these things and get motivated, but motivation isn’t always directly productive. Before long, you’re in a funk and you need another fix. So, you find yourself searching for the next book to motivate you, repeating this terrible cycle.

It’s happened to me. It’s happened to lots of people. And it’s a trap everyone should be aware of and try to avoid.


Do you read self-help books? Do you find them useful? Why or why not?

Leave your thoughts below. 

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.