Some people can’t get enough of self-help books. Others are more skeptical. While every genre has its gems, to self-help skeptics like me many books of this type can seem like the same common sense advice jazzed up in new, prettier packaging. 

Others titles tackle the sort of massive personal overhauls that demand decades of therapy and pretend that a little willpower and a few worksheets can solve them (I love blogger Jason Kottke’s way of summing up his annoyance with these books.) 

So, for those of us who want to better ourselves but aren’t regulars in the self-help aisle, where can you find books that might actually help? For one, you could ask a guy who has literally written the book on the self-help industry. 

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote, a book-length push back against traditional self-help advice. But even this dyed-in-the-wool self-help skeptic acknowledges that while many books in the genre offer meaningless pablum, a few really will change your life. He recently picked a handful of new releases that he thinks fall into this category for fabulous book recommendation site Five Books

1. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

A memoir by a psychotherapist who has faced her own life crises, this book doesn’t so much tell you how to fix your problems as explore whether you really understand what your problems are in the first place. 

Burkeman offers an example that might ring true for more than a few Inc.com readers: "you think you need to get tons more work done, so you go and buy self-help books about productivity techniques and becoming more efficient. Or you even seek out a therapist, and say: 'Give me advice on cramming more into my day.' But maybe your problem is actually workaholism. Maybe work is an attempt to avoid something else - to become so much the master of your work, say, that you don’t need to think about what’s happening to your life in terms of relationships." 

2. Seculosity by David Zahl

Wait, Seculosity is a religious book not a self-help book, you might object. But Burkeman, himself a non-believer, insists he got a ton out of reading it. 

"Zahl’s basic argument is that this idea that we’re not religious these days is mistaken; we’ve just transferred our religious urges onto things other than conventional organized religion… we’re seeking salvation of some sort in work, in shopping, in the cultivation and creation of identities online, in parenting, in foodie culture and a whole bunch of other domains. We seek transcendent meaning from secular sources," Burkeman explains. 

The problem with this approach, the book argues, is that these pursuits, unlike religion, don’t offer grace or forgiveness. Your boss, unlike your pastor, won’t tell you you’re still loved and saved despite failing to live up to high expectations. For some that might be an argument for traditional religion. For others, like Burkeman, it’s a call to rethink our how we attempt to make meaning in our lives. 

3. The Second Mountain by David Brooks 

This one seems to have a particular appeal to the middle aged and beyond. "The basic idea of the 'second mountain' metaphor is that there are two phases in most people’s lives," Burkeman explains. "First, there’s a young adulthood phase that very properly is about making your place in the world and developing your talents, starting a family, buying a house, making a career and a name for yourself. It’s largely self-focused, but not in a bad way; that’s the appropriate focus of that phase."

Eventually for many of us though, this project loses its appeal. Then it’s time to start climbing the second mountain, which entails "a shift toward asking what life is demanding of you, rather than what you can get out of it," Burkeman says. 

4. In Search of Silence by Poorna Bell 

After Bell lost her husband to suicide she decided to travel to locations that were meaningful to their life together. In Search of Silence is the result. Burkeman insists it’s not a just a depressing travelogue, but a book that speaks powerfully about the power of changing your physical location

"I don’t mean to sound dismissive about individual locations, but what made an impression for me from this book was the role and importance of the perspective she gained. It isn’t about her going to find the answer in some physical location, at the top of the mountain, or by meeting a specific person, or anything like that; instead the book is at least partly about the power of travel to bring you back to yourself, and to let you see your life in a radically different way," he claims. 

5. This Life by Martin Hagglund 

"This is a massive book by a Yale University philosopher, but it’s surprisingly readable," Burkeman reassures readers made nervous by this title’s heft. 

This Life makes the case that we should learn to appreciate the shortness of life and scarcity of time. Without the looming deadline we all face, life "would become meaningless because you could never really meaningfully face the question of how to use your precious, finite time. Because it wouldn’t be precious," explains Burkeman. 

Like Steve Jobs reminding himself of his impending death every day (he really did this), Hägglund wants to nudge readers to think harder about how they’re using their one wild, precious life. (Feel free to skip the last section where Hagglund gets into politics if that’s not your thing, Burkeman adds.) 

Published on: Dec 6, 2019
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