Is Self-Help a Scam?

The self-help industry is frequently criticized for being populated by scam artists who overpromise and underdeliver. Is this a valid criticism? Let’s take a deeper look into the dark side of self-help.

False promises

One of the biggest problems in the self-help industry is that promoters make false promises. They promise hugely unrealistic results, as if reading a single book or attending a single seminar will produce all the permanent changes you need to make your life absolutely perfect. And yet people still buy these products because they really want to believe the marketers are telling the truth.

False promises are by no means unique to self-help. Auto dealerships put the self-help industry to shame in this respect. But despite the excessive marketing hype, with experience it becomes possible to see through the hype and find some real substance in self-help. You can go to a bookstore and browse through the whole self-help section without paying a dime until you find something you feel is worthwhile. You can check out books and audio programs from the library. You can read this and many other web sites for free. Many items for purchase come with unconditional money-back guarantees, which in my experience have always been honored. You may still risk some of your time, but you don’t have to risk a lot of money if you don’t want to. The story of Og Mandino is a great example. He was a drunk who wandered into libraries to get out of the cold. Eventually he began reading, and this helped turn his life around completely.

While fast promises are a big problem in the self-help industry, they aren’t hard to recognize with a bit of practice. Mostly I recommend using common sense. If the promised results don’t sound realistic to you, they probably aren’t.

One thing I’ve found is that certain authors are more hype-prone than others. If you see a book promising to make you an instant millionaire, well, that just isn’t realistic for most people. Not that you can’t become a millionaire — it’s just that it will probably take a lot more than reading one book to get there.

One author I respect in the area of making promises is Brian Tracy. While his offerings aren’t immune to marketing hype, I find that his materials tend to deliver fairly good value for the money. I’ve gotten many usable ideas from him, particularly in the area of time management. His book Time Power is one of the best — it’s essentially a transcript of his How to Master Your Time audio program, which was instrumental to me in graduating college in just three semesters. My favorite Brian Tracy book, however, is Maximum Achievement, which I found motivational as well as practical. I read it years ago and still use many of the ideas from that book today.

Fast and Easy

Perhaps the granddaddy of false promises is that of “fast and easy” results. The words fast and easy simply don’t mesh with the realities of self-help. Self-help has been so corrupted by this mindset that I prefer to distance myself from it by using the label “personal development” instead. I really don’t want to be associated with the marketers who promise quick-fix solutions to very difficult human challenges.

Right there on my home page, you’ll find the sentence, “Personal development is hard.” Sadly such statements are rare in self-help circles. And that’s mainly because “hard” doesn’t sell as well as “fast and easy.”

The “fast and easy” model is what I call Personal Development for Dummies. Let’s face it — there are a lot of dumb and gullible people in the world. P.T. Barnum was right when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Actually P.T. Barnum never said that — his competitor David Hannum did. But like the “fast and easy” mindset, this falsehood remains stuck in human consciousness, and it’s very difficult to dislodge.

“Fast and easy” marketing preys on the worst parts of human nature, mainly our greed and our laziness. Based on the terminology I use on this site (i.e. “Personal Development for Smart People”), dumb people lack the self-awareness to realize they’re being manipulated. Smart people are able to see through this manipulation such that it doesn’t affect them much. Somewhere in the middle are the semi-intelligent people who realize they’re being manipulated, but they overreact to it, such as by labeling the entire field of self-help as phony based on a few bad experiences. The smart approach is to learn to see past the marketing hype, so you can bypass obvious fluff while still being able to unearth a true gem now and then.

I don’t expect fast and easy marketing hype to go away. There are a lot more dummies than smart people in the world, and those dummies have credit cards.

No substance

Putting aside the impossibility of delivering on promises that were false to begin with, there are many self-help works that simply don’t deliver much real value at all. I know because I’ve read hundreds of such books, and I’ve listened to many lousy audio programs. In this sense I’d say the self-help industry is no better or worse than most others. There are a lot of lousy products on the market in just about any consumer field. Self-help, when it fails to deliver, usually just fizzles and produces no result at all other than disappointment. On the downside, however, it can actually harm your health and your pocketbook to follow bad advice blindly, but this certainly isn’t specific to self-help. Eating unhealthy fast food will generally kill you more quickly than bad affirmations.

Personally I found a hidden benefit in the lack of substance in most self-help literature. These frequent disappointments helped me develop a more mature view towards my personal growth, one that is realistic for me but still very aggressive. I’ve gotten much better at avoiding those materials that are pure fluff, while improving my odds of finding some real gems. For example, here’s a simple rule you may wish to use: Avoid buying health books with fat doctors on the cover. And another: Don’t enter a business deal if during negotiations, your potential partner seems preoccupied with complaining about how badly their last similar deal went and why it was entirely the fault of the other party. You’ll be next!

Truthfully there is some genuine wisdom to be found in self-help. But it can take a lot of time to find the diamonds among the lumps of coal. And one person’s diamond is another person’s coal. Is it worth the effort though? Yes, I definitely believe it is. I wouldn’t be running this web site otherwise.

Self-help has the potential to be very high leverage. One good idea can transform your life for the better, even if it’s just a mindset change. Before college I had never given much thought to the possibility that being sarcastic and skeptical about my future might limit my results. I figured I was just being smart. But I gradually became convinced those “attitude is everything” authors such as Earl Nightingale were right, and indeed they were. The key was learning to have a positive attitude while still remaining rational and realistic, but that largely came about with time and experience. It takes practice to achieve the right balance between underconfidence and overconfidence, but I do credit some of the books and audio programs I’ve devoured with helping me achieve this balance. Most people are grossly underconfident, which is a very suboptimal way to live, so ideas that shift the pendulum closer to the middle are in my opinion very worthwhile.

No contribution to society

A corollary to the lack of substance is that self-help makes no real contribution to society. Nothing is produced but hot air. While this is a valid criticism in the case of false promises, I’ve personally found tremendous value in certain self-help ideas, and I know others have too. One effective time management idea can boost the productivity of many people. Imagine what companies like Enron or WorldCom might have done for society if their leaders had been sold on the concept of integrity. Lies and falsehoods create no value or even destroy existing value. Truth creates value. And the true gems of self-help create tremendous value.

Self-help is the pursuit of self-knowledge and self-understanding. To say that it has no value is akin to saying that knowledge itself has none. What value is created by knowing that the earth is round? Quite a bit I’d say. What value is created by learning to walk, talk, and interact with other human beings? Again, it’s significant. What value is created by self-confidence, self-esteem, and realistic but aggressive goal-setting? A great deal….

When it’s at its worst, consuming self-help drivel is a waste of your time, energy, and money. But when it’s good, it’s really good. Exploring the world, educating ourselves, understanding who and what we are, and learning to communicate effectively with each other creates massive leverage for further value creation. And personally I think this produces more genuine value than companies whose so-called value creation consists of health-destroying junk food, worthless products no one really needs, environmental toxins, resource pillaging, etc. Which is more productive? To transform a depressed person into a mature, confident one that will be twice as productive and a lot happier… or to manufacture a sofa? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

Lack of integrity

Even more serious than overhyped promises with no substance is the problem of dishonesty. There are many shades of gray between mild exaggeration and outright lying, and each author falls into a different part of the spectrum. Let me give you a specific example.

Tony Robbins has a reputation for being a mega-marketer, one that I think is well-deserved. Despite all the hype though, I’ve found genuine value in his materials. I’ve read all of his books and listened to several of his audio programs including his best-selling Personal Power II, and I’ve been to his firewalk seminar twice, once in 1996 and again in 1998. I believe the firewalk is completely legit in the sense that your mental state is what keeps you from being burned. I followed Tony’s method to the letter and didn’t burn my feet at all. However, my wife screwed up and got knocked “out of state” just before taking that first step onto the red-hot coals, and she ended up with blistering second-degree burns on her feet. She was up all night soaking her feet in the bathtub and had to miss half of the second day of the seminar. So doing the firewalk isn’t merely a matter of walking blindly across the coals. My wife is proof that you can get some bad burns by doing it incorrectly. Tony uses it as a metaphor for breaking through limitations, but I felt that part was more hype than substance. The firewalk was certainly a novel experience, but beyond that you cross into the realm of hype.

The second time I went to the firewalk seminar, Tony offered every attendee a “free coaching session” with one of his staff coaches. He personally pitched it as “my gift to you.” To take advantage of it, you had to schedule a face-to-face appointment in the days after the event. Since the seminar was semi-local to us, my wife and I went ahead and signed up. Knowing Tony to be a great marketer, we figured the free coaching session was akin to the shareware concept of try-before-you-buy. We expected to get a decent sample session and figured it would be followed by a basic sales pitch for more coaching, perhaps in the ratio of 90% substance to 10% sales pitch. Many personal coaches offer a free session to potential new clients, so this isn’t unusual at all. We were OK listening to a short sales pitch in exchange for the opportunity to ask a professional coach some interesting questions.

However, when we attended the free coaching session later that week, we were terribly disappointed. The free coaching amounted to the coach asking us some basic personal questions about our goals and then using our answers against us in an overly aggressive attempt to manipulate us into making a deposit to attend Tony’s far more expensive “Mastery University” seminars. At the time we attended, the firewalk seminar (called “Unleash the Power Within”) was $500 per person. Each Mastery University seminar ranged from $2500 to $5000. Attending the more expensive seminars simply wasn’t an option for us at the time. But when we pointed this out to the coaches, they became almost belligerent and proceeded to badger us. “If you’re truly serious about wanting to live an outstanding life, you’ll find a way to come up with the money. So what kind of deposit would you like to make today?” Eventually my wife’s coach and my coach brought us together and attempted to use our relationship as a further means of manipulating us. “Don’t you want your wife to be successful? Don’t you care about her enough to do this for her?” It was a truly disgusting display of avarice. These coaches were nothing more than salespeople, probably generously commissioned. There was no genuine coaching at all. We felt we’d been lied to. How would you feel in this situation?

My wife and I left disappointed and jaded, and we obviously didn’t buy the seminars. In fact, since that time (1998), neither of us has bought anything further from Tony Robbins. I felt that Tony had personally lied in this case, and the use of this bait-and-switch tactic seriously damaged his credibility with me (which had previously been pretty good up until he crossed that line).

However, despite this very disappointing experience, I still find value in Tony Robbins’ materials. I know people who attended his expensive Mastery University seminars, and they spoke highly of the experience. On balance I think Tony does more good than harm for this planet. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t attest to his character other than what I’ve experienced. However, I can say that I’ve gained a lot from using the techniques in his books, audio programs, and seminars. It could be said that if there’s value in his materials, then he should do everything in his power to promote them. But I’m not a subscriber to the theory that the end justifies the means, especially when it comes to self-help. Although Tony may find such techniques profitable, I’m just not willing to do business like this, even if it means making less money. Perhaps this will limit the long-term growth potential for my own personal development business, but that’s a decision I’m willing to live with. I think what this experience showed me is that Tony Robbins is decidedly human. While many people either love him or hate him (he tends to polarize people), to me he is a shade of gray, a mixture of the best and worst parts of us.

And then there’s the black…. Authors who’ve been repeatedly accused of serious dishonesty related to their work include Kevin Trudeau, Robert Kiyosaki, and Robert Allen. If you go to your local bookstore, you’ll probably find their products on the shelves right now. In the contest between money and truth, money often wins.

But there’s a way to avoid some of the sharks. Before you get too attached to a particular author, I recommend researching them online first. The internet reveals volumes on such people. Just do a Google search on their name, and optionally tack on a word like “problems” or “scam” and see what comes up. It’s pretty hard to keep a secret on the internet.

Personally I feel people who have to lie about their results are making a big mistake. I think it’s a self-esteem issue more than anything else. Once when I was at a seminar and happened to see Dr. Barbara DeAngelis setting up her table, I chatted with her for 10-15 minutes about the professional speaking industry. She acknowledged the shameful amount of falsehood — that people often seem brilliant on stage while their private lives are a shamble. She gave me a great piece of advice that I took to heart, which is to simply be genuine. Just be yourself. Another speaker I respect named Darren LaCroix said that the key to professional speaking is to get so comfortable being on stage that you simply be yourself at all times.

I think that the authors and speakers who reveal their true selves, even the parts they aren’t proud of, ultimately have the most profound impact on people. And they’ll serve their own personal growth as well. Instead of hiding from failure, we should embrace it. More people can relate to failure than they can to instant, overnight success. One of the things I’ve tried to share in this blog is that I’ve had some serious screw-ups in my life. Heck, I was a convicted criminal. But instead of pretending it never happened and trying to bury it in the past, I figure I might as well embrace it and share how I recovered from it. And there was nothing fast and easy about it. It took years, and it was very hard. But the thought that my mistakes, even the ones I make now, might benefit other people through my writing makes me a lot less concerned about failure. If I succeed, great. If I fail, I’ve got a new blog entry. ūüôā

Power trip

Becoming a big name in self-help can yield tremendous power. In some ways it’s like being a politician, where you can enjoy personal gains from influence peddling.

I’ve experienced some of this ego-splashing effect from running this blog. Every day I have people emailing me stories about how they used ideas from this site to improve their lives. Every day other bloggers write something about me and the work I’m doing. A Google search on my name yields 339,000 results at the time of this writing. Just two weeks ago, my wife I and were quoted in the cover story in USA Today. There’s a lot of energy coming my way. And I’ve only been doing this for 17 months. Imagine what it’s like for someone who’s been working in this field for decades.

Fear of public speaking is a barrier to many people, but for those who overcome it, being up on stage in front of an audience can be a power trip in itself. You’re the center of attention, and the audience members are focusing their energy on you. You wield power over their emotions. You can choose to make them laugh or cry. Taking the audience on an emotional rollercoaster is a learnable skill, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of emotionally manipulating people for personal gain.

I’ve no doubt that this ego trip gets the better of many people in this field. Power is addictive. And it’s not at all difficult to fall into the trap of doing things to secure more power while losing one’s integrity along the way. I’d say that this is a very valid criticism of many self-help gurus. When power becomes a higher priority than truth, we all suffer for it.

A big part of my belief system is that human beings are like individual cells in a larger body. A cell that gets out of control in pursuit of personal gain becomes cancerous, a threat to the survival of the whole body. The best way for each cell to live is to devote itself to serving the highest good of all, even when that involves personal sacrifice. But this only becomes truly realistic with an elevation in consciousness; it cannot be forced as in a system like communism. Each cell must stop thinking of itself only as an individual — it must learn to identify with the whole body. Instead of pursuing the enhancement of our own egos, we must aim to increase the power of the whole body — to make all of humanity stronger. So instead of fighting this animal-like lust for power, we can each channel that energy into ambition for the whole body of consciousness.

In practical terms this means that any would-be self-help guru must learn to pass up obvious avenues for personal gain if they don’t genuinely serve the greater good. And again, this will happen once the person reaches a certain level of consciousness. One of the best examples I can think of is Ram Dass. Now there’s a man who really took service to new heights. In fact, he actually went a bit overboard, giving away so much that he later needed to request help from friends to meet his basic needs after his stroke. Millions of dollars in potential wealth passed through him, but he just let it flow through him where he thought it was most needed. The self-help industry could certainly use more people like Ram Dass.

As you might imagine, because of the traffic this site gets, I’ve received offers from potential business partners who want me to promote their products and services to my hundreds of thousands of readers. They invite me to do things that would serve their interests and that would increase the size of my bank account, but if I determine that the deal wouldn’t serve the greater good, I always say no. While my approach might seem foolish to others in business, the primary purpose of this business is to serve the highest good of all, not to make a profit. In fact, that priority is written into Pavlina LLC’s formal operating agreement: “The primary purpose of the Company is to serve the highest good of all humanity.” While at this point it’s more of a symbolic act because there are no employees yet, as the business grows I intend to set up the structures necessary to ensure that the business follows this principle. However, Pavlina LLC is not a non-profit. I do want the business to generate wealth, but under no circumstances are profits to come before genuine service. I’d rather go broke than allow that to happen. Ultimately I think it’s possible to create a life where serving one’s own interests and serving the greater good are both congruent. I’ve written about that in an earlier article called “How Selfish Are You?


Overall I think the major criticisms of the self-help industry are valid. There are a lot of problems in this field. But I genuinely think that by being aware of these issues and by shining the light of consciousness on them, it’s possible to experience that value without all the downsides, both as a consumer of self-help materials and as a creator of them. I hope to prove that in the years ahead.

Is self-help a scam? No, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that. At its core self-help is very much legit. There are some phonies around, but with the help of the internet, they’re becoming easier to spot. And I’ve been seeing an increase in questions being raised about honesty, integrity, and service in this field, which is a very promising trend. In fact, I think business in general is currently experiencing a major wake-up call about the importance of integrity. Some people will remain asleep, but others are in the process of waking up.