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

by | BiggerPockets.com

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) and Outliers: The Story of Success 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 People? 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?

We’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts below. 

About Author

Alexander Felice

Alex has spent his career in sales and finance industries and now invests in rental real estate along with working in the underwriting department at a bank in Las Vegas. Alex is an expert in long-distance single family rental real estate, debt and leverage strategy, and financial analysis. He spends most of his free time teaching investors through writing and coaching to ensure their best possibility of success. Alex has been buying real estate for nearly three years and currently owns eight single family houses. He also helped fellow investors directly purchase over 20 properties in 2018. Alex’s writing can be found at BrokeIsAChoice.com, and more of his story can be heard on the BiggerPockets Podcast episode 301.

33 Comments

  1. Greg Parker

    thank you!!! Those hundreds of books I have read over the years haven’t amounted to squat for me. Maybe some subliminal ability to make a decision or something. The “only” reason I have any wealth today is because I was lucky and built and sold a few houses right before 2007.
    I read an article about “luck” where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were at a round table discussion where they were asked what part luck had in their success. They both agreed it was the biggest factor. Right place, right time. Just be prepared.

  2. Jerry W.

    I see your point. Warren Buffet is not that smart, his thousands of successful investments were just luck. Someone is bound to guess correctly nearly their entire life just by chance. Like my first job as an attorney, it was luck that got it. Going to law school had nothing to do with it. The same thing happened in High school. The ones who did well in tests were just lucky in getting the right answers, it had nothing to do with studying.

  3. Shiloh Lundahl

    The book Outliers stresses the idea of timing over luck. It talks about how more Canadian hockey players are born in the first few months of the year than the rest of the year. Then it goes into the size advantage that kids have being born at the beginning of the hockey season have over those born later in the year when it comes to starting to play hockey. The bigger kids then continue to be chosen for better teams because they have more playing experience than their peers and their successes build upon themselves.

    Gladwell also talks about how Bill Gates was the right age at the right time when the technology was created that led to the development of the personal computer and eventually the internet. He also goes in depth on how Bill Gates would sneak away to go to where he could get on to a computer when it wasn’t really open much to the public and how he did that for years.

    So your theory on luck being the reason for success is interesting, but it lacks depth. In other words. Just because older kids tended to be bigger and more experienced when the hockey season started, not all kids born earlier in the year eventually played in the NHL. And just because Bill Gates was the right age at the right time to be at the center of the computer revolution, doesn’t mean that that was the reason he became started Microsoft and no one else could have.

    I would say that there is something known as an unfair advantage. If you want to call that luck then I guess you can.

    I can’t create the internet today. That has already been done. It is too late to do that again. The computer technology wasn’t ready in the 60’s or 70’s for people to create the internet at that time, however, if Bill Gates didn’t sneak away for hours and hours as a kid to get more familiar with computers than the personal computer and the internet would probably have been invented by someone else. If he hadn’t have taken advantage of the opportunity before him, then someone else would have. If you want to call that luck then so be it. I call it taking advantage of the opportunity.

    As far as other self help books go, sorry Alexander, but I just don’t agree with the argument. But then again, I am biased as a therapist. I see people gain insights to what they read or listen to all the time which in turn has a positive effect on their life. One of my favorite self-help books is Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. When I get up in the morning and follow the suggestions, I have more confidence and direction during my day. I feel more centered and focused.

    There are many people who are self-help junkies whose lives are somewhat depressing or miserable. Many people struggle putting into practice the things that they read or listen to. However, there are many people who do put into practice the things they read and allow new concepts to become a part of them.

    I feel that I have an unfair advantage over others that has led me to a lot of my success, but if I never did the work, then it wouldn’t have mattered if I was handed success on a silver platter. The success never would have been realized with out the the efforts that were put into place.

  4. Estelle Angelinas

    I love reading and have read many self-help books. I don’t /can’t follow advice to the letter, due to the lack of resources. What I do is try to adapt some of the ideas into my own life. For the most part, they provide motivation, and get me thinking… that even though I can’t do much, I can do something. I especially like reading about people who succeeded in spite hardships.
    As a former English teacher, I believe that what is important is the “gist” of what you read. The message that those who write it want to give. That with a bit of imagination, and lots of hard work, seasoned by many mistakes, success is possible. Even if its by writing and selling books .

  5. Randy E.

    This article seems to be a thought experiment for the purpose of discouraging the expansion of ones understanding of success. Shiloh’s comment on “luck being the reason for success is interesting but lacks depth” is spot on. Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work the more I have it.” I would change that to the “smarter I work” …the more I have it.

    We make our own luck by working smart and having a deep understanding of the behavioral roadmap to success. I graduated from college in 1988 with a smile on my face, college debt and $70.00 in my wallet. I currently own commercial and multifamily property and have succeeded in many areas of my life. Every January I read Over the Top by Zig Ziglar, along with a host of other behavioral-type books to keep me focused on what’s important. Is this habit the sole reason for my success, probably not? Could I have been successful without them, maybe, but I doubt it. These books have given me clear insight and understanding of “opportunities” that were in my path. I’m not sure I would have taken advantage of those opportunities without the insights these books and tapes provide. I can hear you saying, “yes, but as I pointed out in my piece, your story is anecdotal.” Yes, my story is based on personal accounts, but fact remains that these books and tapes provided the insight to make good decisions and take advantage of opportunities. These books coupled with a veracious appetite for learning, will increase anyone’s odds of succeeding in life. Not just financially, but spiritually as well.

    • Alexander Felice

      What about all the people who read those books, had a good attitude, spent a lifetime learning and didn’t succeed. There are a LOT more of them but those stories don’t get told (or believed when they are).

      Also, I would never discourage someone from trying to be successful, but there is no evidence to suggest self-help books are a proper pathway towards success other than survivor ship bias.

      I appreciate your input though

  6. Max Monihan

    I enjoyed this article but disagree with the premise that luck is the determining factor of success, its true that luck is a major factor in life, but setting yourself in a good financial and emotional position to capitalize on a good luck events can put you far ahead of the game and conversely keeping yourself from being being so leveraged that a bad luck event can effectively take you out is just as important. Mostly I’m parroting an author named Collins who has a fantastic chapter discussing this in his book Great by Choice. He took a very scientific approach to studying great companies along side of their not so great competition in the same industry in the same time and has a fantastic chapter devoted to charting luck events and examining why there were such different outcomes of the same event for the two comparison companies. I’d recommend the read.

  7. Samuel O.

    Thank you for writing this article. I do believe that it’s important what you are able to extract from reading that determines how far you can go in life. I read my fair share of self-help books and I know that for each successful person that made it there are countless others that did not. When I read these books I am trying to find new habitats to ingrain in my daily endeavors to get to where I want to be. I do agree with your claim that you should cast your net wide as far as reading goes.

  8. James Jones

    On your podcast, you said that the characteristic that separates the successful in real estate from the rest is obsession. You didn’t say luck. You think being broke is a choice. You kept saying “education” and “networking” were the cornerstones of your success.

    Do you put the instructional books on making offers, calculating ARV, rehabbing, marketing, BRRRR and networking in the same class as “self-help”? I want to make sure I understand what you are saying.

    • Alexander Felice

      Nassim Taleb says it best “Mild success can be explainable by skills and labor. Wild success is attributable to variance”

      What I’m saying is people who sell ‘self-help’ don’t account for all the variables, they account for the ones they look back on and see as important. That’s called survivor-ship bias.

      I do not have clear box of what exactly goes in ‘self help’ and what goes in ‘technical instruction’. I don’t think the distinction is that important. As I said in the article, self-help isn’t all bad, it’s more of a trap to get stuck in.

  9. Sebastien Bertin

    When I asked Richard Branson if he felt luck played a part in his success, he answered, “Yes, of course, we are all lucky. If you live in a free society, you are lucky. Luck surrounds us every day; we are constantly having lucky things happen to us, whether you recognize it or not. I have not been any more lucky or unlucky than anyone else. The difference is when luck came my way, I took advantage of it.” Ah, spoken like a man knighted with wisdom. While we’re on the topic, it’s my belief that the old adage we often hear—“Luck is when opportunity meets preparation”—isn’t enough. I believe there are two other critical components to “luck.”

    Hardy, Darren. The Compound Effect (p. 31). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

  10. Josh Collins

    I love this article. I agree and disagree. I agree that luck has something to do with it but I also think luck is the what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I don’t see too many couch potatoes getting lucky. It is also possible that someone who is extremely hard working gets the shaft. But I do think success in life has a lot to do with working smarter and not necessarily harder. This is where self-help books come into the picture. My annoyance with most self help books is that they motivate you momentarily but lack much staying power. However, I do think knowledge is power and hopefully these books sink in enough to add to your repertuar of knowledge.
    I appreciate this thought provoking article. The banter is good too. I find it interesting that I can’t really disagree with anyone’s comments, no matter how opposing they might first appear. Fun stuff!

  11. Matt NA

    Great article. I think you’re spot on with your assessment of self help books becoming a trap. It is the feelings the books bring of being actively engaged in becoming successful just by reading the book itself.

  12. tim parker

    Frankly, I am surprised you are a success! Your bull-headedness would be very hard to work with. You seem to be very close-minded. Everyone doesn’t think like you. Some people needs lots of help. And you never know which idea is the last number in the combination lock.

    You are correct in that lots of the books are of little help. But which one will be? The problem is you don’t know what you don’t know.

    • Jason Painter

      You should talk with the guy before you make that assertion. From my experience I think Alex would tell you a network and talking with people is more helpful and motivating than a self help book. He’s more than helpful and willing to schedule a call with you. Check his website.

    • Alexander Felice

      Tim, I’m surprised too! I am bull headed, and arrogant.

      Close minded though I am not, I read a LOT, that’s how I know there are so many books that provide value far beyond the self-help genre. MOST people needs lots of help, that’s why I mentioned in the article that my general suggestion is to “read everything”

      I’m glad you liked the article 😉

  13. Greg Clatterbuck

    I think the article completely misses the point of “luck”. Luck is winning the lottery. Unless you’re a mathematician and developed an algorithm to predict lottery numbers, it’s luck. Luck is not how you become successful in life and business. I would argue the author’s definition of luck is actually a culmination of education, experience, talents, risk, and life events that over a period time result in success. Individuals create their own luck. According to the author, if you are successful in real estate, it is because you randomly purchased real estate and made money. If that were true, every property for sale in every city in America would equal chance of generating income. I would disagree.
    Self helps books service a purpose-motivation. It’s the same reason I go to conventions, see what others are doing and become motivated to become more successful. A separate but equal component of that success is education/research. You have to be motivated and have the KSAs to become successful. If luck were the only reason for success; I have the same chance of developing a phone app that will be downloaded millions of times and become rich as an actual app developer. I doubt this since I know nothing about code or apps.
    Bottom line – Individuals make their own luck. For some, motivational sources, whether it be books, conferences, family/friends starts that process; others have internal drive.

    • Alexander Felice

      well said!

      my intent, nor what I actually wrote, said that luck is the only factor. Just that it’s bigger than people like to admit or realize.

      luck is just as much winning the lottery as it is being born in America. Everyone gets lucky, it’s certainly up to the individual to make the most of it. There are however, far more people who worked hard and have nothing to show for it because they were unlucky.

  14. Philip Lieu

    Better be lucky than good. But there is no point in talking about it, just like there is no point in talking about life about death. You can believe in God or randomness – both can agree luck and after life do exists, but no one know how. Time better spent on motivate yourself to get what you want here and now.

  15. Neil Henderson

    I agree with you for the most part about self-help books. If someone is going to be a consumer of self-help books, I suggest they do a couple of things:

    1. Read books that are addressing a specific problem you are facing right now! Not “someday I might this information” books. It’s unlikely unless you have an eidetic memory, you’ll recall enough information from a book you read months ago, or years ago, to be of much use to you. In order for what you are learning to stick, you need to practice what it’s preaching.

    2. Don’t read so many self-help books. If you’re reading a self-help book a month, you’re reading too many. Read some history books, biographies, economics, science, etc.

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