Reading Between the Lines of Motivational Books

The motivational book industry is one of the biggest and bestselling printed materials industries not just in America, but around the world. While this is completely understandable, as many books out there have the potential to actually change the course of people’s lives, it behooves us to look at some claims with a skeptical eye. Here are a few themes that are played out in motivational books that you should think about carefully before buying into:

  1. 1. Things could be a lot worse, so accept your fate.

This is one of the most bogus arguments that I hear from many motivational speakers and writers. Of course, things could be a lot worse. Things could be worse in any instance, as natural disasters, crippling poverty, and armed conflict going on around the world can attest to. At the same time, however, these problems do not, in any way, affect or connect with problems that you are going through. To say that you should just accept life as it is, is tantamount to never striving for change.

  1. 2. Money and/or status are the most important things in life.

Although not all motivational books are guilty of this assertion, many of these books are underpinned by the idea that we are aiming for “success”, which means money and status, and that our problems are simply obstacles to this idea of success. As Portnoy states in the iconic novel “Portnoy’s Complaint”:

“American society […] not only sanctions gross and unfair relations among men, but it encourages them. Now, can that be denied? No. Rivalry, competition, envy, jealousy, all that is malignant in human character is nourished by the system. Possession, money, property–on such corrupt standards as these do you people measure happiness and success.”

  1. 3. You don’t have to sacrifice anything.

This is patently false, and when motivational books promise you that you can have it all based on a following a set formula, know that you are being duped. Life is tough, and we all must sacrifice one thing in order to accomplish or acquire something else. The tricky part is know which battles to pick, what to leave out, and what to compromise.

  1. 4. You can handle your problems without help from others.

This is one assumption that runs rampant throughout many motivational books. And I’m convinced it is a direct result of America’s heritage of the puritan work ethic that dictates that we can all pick ourselves up from our bootstraps if we try hard enough. While I’m certainly not disagreeing with some of the themes of this tradition, I will say that, as John Donne put it, “No man is an island.” When the going gets tough, hold on to your nearest and dearest, and learn to ask for help when you need it.

While there is much that we can criticize about the self-help, motivational genre, it does fill a hole that is sorely lacking our lives. The most important thing to remember is to treat everything with a healthy, open-hearted, optimistic doubt.


This guest post is contributed by Leslie Johnson, who writes about health, green living, parenting related articles at masters in health administration.

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

2 Responses to Reading Between the Lines of Motivational Books

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