We are the change

What everybody ought to know about self help books

A few weeks ago I received an email from a journalist asking if he could interview me for an article for the Independent on Sunday on self help books.  Of course I said yes!  I love self help books which have been instrumental in creating a lot of my core philosophies.   The article, The Modern Fix: Do self help books really work, seems to attempt to discredit the self help industry as a bunch of charlatans who are only in it (the industry of writing self help books) to fleece the weak. I disagree.

Then yesterday, I received a call from the BBC asking me if I would be happy to talk on BBC World Service about self help books.  Yes, Yes, Yes!  But during the course of the conversation I had with them, it became apparent that there were lots of different opinions on what constitutes a self help book; continuously coming back to the question “are self help books therapy”.  Self help books are a lot of things… a resource to educate oneself, an answer to a problem, a new way of looking at the world, a way of taking control of a situation … and yes sometimes therapy.  But they are not only for when you are feeling low; they are a way of moving yourself forward in a way that will help you with your life.

In the beginning

Books have been a core part of my life ever since I was 7 and used to save up my pocket money for 3 weeks so that I could go down to the shop and buy the latest in the Mallory Towers series.  These books then became my refuge and entertainment, as we moved cities and countries every 2-3 years until I was in highschool.  My parents bookshelves were always heaving with self help books so I grew up believing that it was totally normal to read and refer to them if you wanted to change something.

In university, I started buying my own books and what I found was they offered me new perspectives; new ideas and new ways of thinking.  I can’t even remember most of the books that I read back then, but I know I was seeking answers about how to achieve more.  Do more. Be more.  I read Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich.  I read Dale Carenegie’s How to win friends and Influence People and I read Susan Jeffer’s Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (we are running a Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway workshop in May with one of Susan’s trainers).  These books filled my head with dreams and ideas and a sense of empowerment.  I believed that I could do and be whatever I wanted.  And I still do.

Fear paralyses

I had an interesting conversation with a friend yesterday where she was telling me that when she comes from a position of fear, she makes decisions that don’t serve her in the long term.  I think a lot of us are like this.  When money is low; when debts are mounting; when businesses are struggling; when relationships are failing; when life feels overwhelming we often make decisions that we live to regret.  If we can create some space and introduce a new perspective through a book that is designed to help to deal with that exact situation, it can often be a massive help and support.  These books can give us a sense of control in our lives when everything else seems to be spinning out of control; allowing us to take action in a safe way.

Always moving

The feeling I got from the article in the Independent is that as there is no science behind self help books actually making a difference, this makes them unworthy of our attention.  But how do you measure attitude?  When I launched Women Unlimited, I deliberately made the decision that we would take a positive stance on business and life.  I do fundamentally believe that we can change our circumstance by changing our behaviour.  The old adage “if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got” circulates round and round in my head every time I feel like I’m not achieving what I should be.  So I try something new.   Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but it always means that I’m moving forward.

Not all books are created equal

There is another side to this though.  Not all self help books are created equal and we have a responsibility to use common sense when applying what we read.  I know there are lots of people out there who believe that the book The Secret will change their lives.  Without having to do anything other than wish for it.  And believe.  The problem with this, is that it makes us passive and gives us a ‘wait and it will come’ kind of attitude.   Action creates change.  Not waiting.

In 2005, I read a book called the Magic of Thinking Big.  This book became my bible for the next 5 years of my life.  I thought that if I wanted to be happy, I needed to THINK BIG, have big visions and big dreams.  Over time I have come to realise that this is not the path to happiness.  The reason being, is that it stopped me from enjoying the journey.  Constantly striving for more; more wealth, more things, more success, can leave us feeling empty and inadequate.  The gap between our dreams and reality needs to be surmountable and to match the other areas of our lives that are important.  My personal struggle came with balancing my business aspirations with my family aspirations.  I could not be the mother I wanted to be if I was off focusing all my time on trying to build a multi-million pound business.  And I knew what I would regret more if I made the wrong choice.  By removing that pressure, I discovered that not only am I much happier but also, even as my children grow up, I don’t want the multi-million pound business any more.  I want a business that serves me, serves my community and allows me to live the life that I want.  Sometimes, what we aspire too, is not what it best for us.

Recommended books

If there is something going on in your life that needs changing, then you could do a lot worse than read a self help book and in many cases they can help you move out of a really stuck place.  With the advent of customer reviews, the ability to preview books on Amazon either via Kindle or the look inside feature, you are able to determine pretty quickly if a book will be able to help.  Here are some of my favourite books from the last couple of years…

Life without Limits by Lucinda Bassett.  This book changed my life back in 2002 when I was feeling lost in my life and my business (my first business was placing consultants as a headhunter)… I highly recommend it if you are in a similar place. Six years later, it was also the inspiration for the name Women Unlimited!

The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy.  I’m reading this now and it has really helped me to both understand what I need to do to achieve more in my business and to appreciate what I’ve achieved to date.  Brilliant and easy to read with simple concepts.

The Success Principles by Jack Canfield.  There are 66 of them in all.  Jack Canfield has put together this weighty tome to consolidate all the principles that he has come across in his years in the self help arena

The Power of Less from Leo Babauta.  I bought this book to help deal with the overwhelm of having too much stuff going on in my life.  Six simple steps that helped me to simplify things.

The Power of Focus by Jack Canfield.  Another great book from Jack which transformed my life from the first chapter as I realised that I get to choose what I focus on.  I applied this to the chaos that made up every day of my life as I tried to get the kids off too school and now our house is a haven of peace and calm every morning (ok, that’s not quite true, but most days we get out of the house with no screaming and no stress)

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer All about the power of taking small steps to make big changes.  An easy book to read and a great way to approach business and life.

The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield.  This fantastic books addresses motivation and the challenges that we face when doing anything.  Particularly the hard stuff.  A great book that applies to all areas of life.

59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman.  I bought this book a few years ago when it came out and really enjoyed it.  I’ve applied many of the principles that are in the book and it’s just plain interesting!


Please share with us your favourite self help books below, I’m always up for a good read!


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  1. Irene Brankin says

    Julie, your insightfulness stands you and the rest of us in good stead. Your paragraph on Fear Paralyses sums it up with the possibility of a new perspective and taking action in a safe way. I think the problems arose in the media due to the fact that some books appeared to be saying do steps 1-5 and your life will change overnight – not always the case. Well done. Irene

  2. Jenny says

    GREAT article Julie and agree with your views. For me any kind of book is about offering a new perspective, new insights, ways of being and doing (often fiction too!). Sometimes it’s our expectations that are the problem (or perhaps those set by the book/product) that by reading ‘this’ book, going on this workshop/seminar, our lives will automatically change, instantly, and for the better. Then of course, people blame the book, rather than accept responsibility for their own change, which as we all know can be very challenging!
    Always admire you Julie – keep up the GREAT work!

  3. Kate says

    Great post – I’ll be checking out a few of these. Some books I have read have made no difference in my life while others have created huge changes. You never know – but I think the key thing is that you have to be ready to change and you have to be ready to do the work. Thanks again – very helpful post.

  4. […] read a post by Julie from Women Unlimited a couple of weeks ago, in which she recommended some of her favourite “self-help” […]

  5. Sheeba says

    Hi, I chanced upon women-unlimited, while checking out a new client drom UK, on Linkedin – another woman in business. Great article Julie! I love self help books too, though I used to frown upon them a few years back, untl I read one and applied it in my life!

  6. Stef says

    Hi Julia. Reading this article made me laugh as I’ve pretty much followed the Same path as you, reading lots, moving to self help books (some great some not so great) at an early age; I even have the adage ‘if you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got’ pinned to my work pc. You are an inspiration to me while I work out how I’m going to make money to live the free life I know is attainable.
    Thanks and best wishes,

  7. Louis says

    Found this article very interesting. There are lots of great self help books out there that people have never heard of and I advise them to look them up. Such books can help a person through their weight problems which can better themselves through their lives. This article indeed proved of great inspiration and more people should read it.

  8. Angie Macdonald says

    Great article, Julie! You make some excellent points. As a self-help junkie I think that the right self-help books have been invaluable to me on my personal journey. I thought the author of the article in the Independent: The Modern Fix – Do Self Help Books Really Work approached the topic with a closed mind and seemed intent on genre bashing more than anything else.

    I have written about this topic on my own blog and have quoted you in my article. http://writehealth.co.uk/do-self-help-books-really-help/ . And when it comes to my favourite self-help book of all time it has to be Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers. It was the first self-help book I ever read and I still re-read it regularly whenever the fears and doubts get too much. http://writehealth.co.uk/feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway/

    Thanks for a great read.

  9. Steve says

    Hello Julie, very nice. Throughout my life I have turned to books to help me in many situations.
    I read most of the Magic of Thinking Big when I was a teenager and I took away several things from that. But it didn’t effect me like it did you. The Secret is good, many do think it is only wishful thinking even though it is very clear in there that you must do something also.
    Thanks for the new list, I think all but a few of the books you mentioned are new to me.