As most readers here no doubt know, Mormon academic and author Stephen R. Covey died earlier this week. Covey was best known for his highly popular self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which earned him fame and fortune, as well as some detractors. His death, together with the fact that my bookclub is currently reading Viktor Frankl’s influential book Man’s Search for Meaning and that I came across an old conference talk drawn from a self-help book, led me to ponder a bit about Covey’s influence and self-help books in general and the influence that these books have had on me.
[You might also call some of these books pop-psychology books or pop-philosophy books or what have you -- I realize there are some distinctions among them, but I'm grouping these all together for the purpose of this post. BUT, I'm excluding all the get rich books from this post -- from Think and Grow Rich to Nothing Down (by Mormon author Robert G. Allen) to Rich Dad, Poor Dad.]
My first exposure to what could be called a self-help book came when I was in my early teens. Browsing through my father’s library I came across a book by Maxwell Maltz called Psycho-cybernetics, which had a significant effect on my thinking. For better or for worse, I realized from that book what a profound effect self-image can have.
There have been other self-help books with similar effects. I was later impressed by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and later by James Allen’s classic book As a Man Thinketh. Each of these has had its impact.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of these books have appeared in General Conference in one form or another. As I mentioned above, I was surprised to find that then-Apostle Heber J. Grant quoted about half his April 1914 conference talk from a self-help book by the President of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, entitled The Strength of Being Clean, which sought to demonstrate the power of moral cleanliness (in the classic sense, not just the sexual sense). Other conference speakers also quoted Jordan, and James Allen has also frequently found his way into conference talks. I’m sure other self-help books have also.
Even in college I was introduced to similar books. There I read Man’s Search for Meaning, which had as strong an impact as any of the others, if not more. Likewise, Mary Catherine Bateson’s book Composing a Life had a huge impact, as I realized the value of flexibility and adapting life to circumstances that are almost always beyond our control. Later I was assigned to read much of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled—which I probably wouldn’t have read without the assignment because I had become much more cynical about self-help books by this time.
I don’t know if I’m still cynical about self-help books. Given my own experience, I do think that they have their value, a value that can be very formative and very helpful in figuring out how to look at life. But I also think that caution is often worthwhile. I’m not convinced that everything these books say is correct, and I often have the feeling that their answers are a little too pat. Today there are so many self-help books that I feel like Joseph Smith felt about the multitude of religions around him: “What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (Joseph Smith—History, v10) Perhaps citing that story gives an answer as to how to resolve the question.
Still, the similarity to Joseph Smith’s situation is another reason for my skepticism — they tread in an area that borders on religion, and seems to regularly cross over into religion, which may be part of the reason that some self-help books can have such power. Because of that power, I think that I need to study each of these books carefully to see if they are really compatible with my religious beliefs before I accept what they say, at least in those areas where they come close to religion. As a result, I remain somewhat of a skeptic, yet glad for much of the influence I’ve received from some of these books.
I present all this as kind of a tribute to Bro. Covey. He didn’t write scripture, but (with the possible exception that some of what he wrote might be perverted as seeking after mammon), I do think that his writings by and large were helpful and led many to live more righteous lives.
In response, and perhaps also in tribute, I’d love to hear what books in this genre have influenced you for the better (no financial books, please) or what value or lack of value you see in self-help books. Please be specific and rational — I’ll delete diatribes against self-help books that don’t contain reasoned arguments against them. Even if you dislike Bro. Covey, that kind of disrespect isn’t necessary and won’t be tolerated. Instead, make a reasoned case for or against these books or tell us what books have influenced you.
I think the best tribute is something that leads to improving the lives of others. Let’s do that.