Listen to this article
They are not cool, they are not erudite and they are certainly not considered sophisticated. I don’t care: I love classic self-help books. From the cheery, mid-century pragmatism of Dale Carnegie and the down-home homilies of Louise Hay to the pragmatic wisdom of Dorothy Rowe, I have spent my teenage and adult life bingeing on the best of them.
It is not just me: the wider self-help industry, which includes publishing, may be regarded as downmarket, but it is predicted to be worth $13.2bn in the US alone by 2022, according to Marketdata.
Critics say self-help writers exploit unhappiness and insecurity, and possibly they do. Nevertheless, every time I read a classic of the genre, I find it useful in a quick-fix kind of way — or at the very least, soothing. Relentless self-improvers love them, too. When I talk to business school students, they cheerfully admit to the same addiction: these are the titles they gorge on beyond their classroom reading lists. One of the most bountiful sub-genres is business self-help writing.
Every week, dozens of parcels sent by publishers arrive in the FT Work & Careers office, stuffed full of uncorrected proofs of new books in brightly coloured, shouty jackets. The publishers hope that my colleagues and I will give the books a mention and sometimes we do. But mostly we pile them up on our desks and arrange them in stacks on the floor, like low-level garden walls constructed with nursery building blocks.
Many FT journalists love them: my former colleague and columnist Lucy Kellaway devoted an entire podcast last year to the wisdom of the Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson classic The One Minute Manager. This diminutive book, which was first published in 1982 and according to Amazon has sold 18m copies, gave her “shivers of pleasure”.
What we like best is their sometimes outrageous promises. Blanchard and Johnson made them and more recent titles continue to do so. For example, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and co-author David Heinemeier Hansson (you too can calm down); and Imagine it Forward by Beth Comstock (you too can innovate more quickly) are among our favourites of 2018.
As a rule, the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year award, the FT’s flagship prize for business writing (see page 43), tends to concentrate on titles that deal with the history of capitalism, biographies and grand theories, rather than the more pragmatic self-help genre aimed at managers.
To redress this a little, last year the FT began a Business Books of the Month round-up of what our writers considered to be the best, most useful titles (see page 44). We also launched a Business Books podcast in 2016, which is now in its fourth series. Both are among our most popular features, so our readers like them.
Nevertheless, as my colleagues and I sift through the slush pile looking for new takes on old problems, we sometimes wonder if they are not, well, a bit repetitive. They may present themselves as revolutionary, but very often we feel as if we are reading the same theories — or versions of them — many times over.
So for those new to the genre, here in no particular order are three distilled nuggets of the typical wisdom to be found in business self-help books:
1) Good leaders have a strong, imaginative and ambitious “vision” for the organisation. Vision is good and it implies an almost god-like omnipotence. Nevertheless, the best leaders are humble: they fade into the background and let others take centre stage. These are not necessarily contradictory ideas and if you can do both at once, you have cracked leadership.
2) Everybody in your organisation is busy and consequently they are tired and not performing well. Many are overwhelmed and anxious. Technology is not helping. The answer lies not in hiring more staff to help take the strain, but rather in encouraging your team to work harder — this time, on themselves. Why not offer a corporate wellness scheme? Short courses on prioritising tasks, meditation and so forth could be part of your vision.
3) Another reason why your subordinates are not performing well is because you are not clear enough. You must spell out exactly what you expect from them, ideally as if they are infants. That way, they miraculously get on with the job and hit all their targets, leaving you free to fine-tune your vision.
That really is about the size of it, give or take a snappy title and a marginally different take on the formula. Perhaps the real question to ask about these books is not why we read them but why we’re not in the lucrative business of writing them.
Helen Barrett is the former FT Work & Careers editor
Get alerts on European business schools when a new story is published