Much of what you'll encounter in business--and just plain old life--is confusing and challenging. And a great self-help book can give you invaluable insights on how to grow and move forward, especially when you're struggling to find a mentor or are still building your support system.

That is, if you use it right.

Most people don't.

Out of everything you need to avoid that makes a self-help book less effective, these are the worst offenses:

1. You presume the rest is true. People have a natural inclination to want to make sense of and explain things. It offers a sense of order and control so we don't freak out every three seconds. But sometimes when people find one thing that's true for them in a self-help book, they automatically assume that they can apply everything else the author says. Then, all of a sudden, your view of what's relevant and who you are--and thus your ability to move in the right direction--is skewed.

2. You stop at understanding. Lessons from self-help books can be wonderfully profound--you might even have a line or two that seems to jump off the page and smack you in the face. But cognitive realization or learning is not the same as taking action to modify your behavior. If you know what to do but never follow through because that's hard, nothing's going to change. You'll just deny that your lack of action is the problem, pick up the next title and think, "Maybe this one..."

3. You take 100 percent of the responsibility. I know, I know. We're told to "own our crap" and be self-accountable and gritty a million times a day. But guess what. Sometimes, the problem isn't you. Sometimes it's others who haven't done their own inner work yet, or circumstances you honestly never asked for. Instead of turning to self-help books to "improve" yourself or to try to figure out how to be at peace carrying mis-assigned weight you shouldn't have to shoulder, take a step back. Draw more objective boundaries and don't try to change or fix yourself because of what's not even under your control.

4. You misdiagnose. Let's say you struggle with making friends. So you read book after book about how to approach people, learn good things to say or where to network and how to read body language better. Those lessons aren't necessarily useless. But if the real reason you struggle to make friends is because you went through a heartbreaking betrayal, then the real problem is how to trust again, not the specifics of how to interact more effectively. If you're not honest with yourself about your needs or aren't at a place yet where you can recognize them, then you'll likely gravitate to books that deal with symptoms, rather than the root issue.

Taking these big blunders into consideration, personally, I find it best to take every title with a grain of salt from the minute I see it on the shelf. Rather than assume the author has everything totally figured out or that I'll have a solution by the time I reach the back cover, I simply assume that they have a few gems that can get me started. I pay attention to what prompts a strong emotional reaction in me and jot down points that get me thinking. And I try to make connections between those points and other elements I've read or learned for a broader context and interpretation. By doing this yourself, you ensure that you're not just using one viewpoint or source to make your decisions, that you're active through the self-help process, and that you stay in the driver's seat.

After all, isn't the entire point of self-help for you to help you?

Published on: Aug 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.