What you need to know:
- These books tend to have some voodoo-like qualities, often leaving the reader pumped with a can-do attitude before the high comes down, and the reader has to look for the next high. Maybe they are right.
- As I am a promiscuous reader, I read anything and everything, including some titles that might make my late mother commit me to lifelong prayers, but I’m fonder of self-help books than any other genre.
- I want to make a case for them today.
Take a walk down River Road, Nairobi. You will likely find posters of a certain Daktari wa Tanga alleging to cure everything, including cheating spouses, poverty, joblessness, erectile dysfunction, and debt. Perhaps Covid-19 made it to the list in 2020. If you have ventured there of late, you can enlighten me.
Some ardent readers in my circles sometimes equate self-help books to Daktari wa Tanga. These books tend to have some voodoo-like qualities, often leaving the reader pumped with a can-do attitude before the high comes down, and the reader has to look for the next high. Maybe they are right.
As I am a promiscuous reader, I read anything and everything, including some titles that might make my late mother commit me to lifelong prayers, but I’m fonder of self-help books than any other genre. I want to make a case for them today.
I fell in love with self-help books as a 19-year-old first-year university student fresh from an all-girls Catholic school where my friends and I had overdosed on Mills&Boon romance novels.
Comfort in books
When my father died in my second semester, l looked for comfort in books. As I always did. And because an all-girls boarding school leaves you unprepared for the dating world, and I needed to connect with people, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie became my friend and my bible. I applied the lessons therein religiously, liberally, and overzealously. And it paid off. “Remember Their Name” and “Be Generous with Praise” stuck with me. These two lessons from the book helped me get through teaching practice in my third year, and I continued to use the “magic powers” I had gained from the book long after I had returned the borrowed copy to my friend. My reading of Carnegie’s book enriched my Bachelor of Education degree.
In my early twenties, Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment helped me crack the code on why my relationship with a certain notorious boyfriend was going south faster than I could say “romance”, and helped me feel confident enough to write him a long email, giving him an ultimatum. It was either he committed to me, or we broke up. Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo in He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys also spurred me on. We broke up.
As I nursed my heartbreak, I came across The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which, among other things, introduced me to the wondrous power of positive thinking. I was sceptical about the concept at first — I mean, someone in the book claimed to have been cured of cancer because of positive thinking! But I embraced the fact that the book urged me to tap into my power. I don’t remember what actions I took, but reading it left me with a particular high that had me looking for the film to maintain that high. More than a decade later, I still remember to see the silver lining in every cloud. Well, sometimes.
Thirteen years ago, as I was struggling to remain positive and energised in a humdrum research career that I had stayed in simply because I wanted to survive in Nairobi, and was good at the job, someone shared with me a book called Discover Your True North by Anne Bruce, which helped me come up with practical steps and commit to actions that would lead me to achieve my life’s purpose. A quote from the book stayed with me so long after I read the book that it has been part of my email signature for the last four years: “Do less of what lessens you. Do more of what magnifies your soul, your gifts and your higher purpose.”
And later, even as I questioned the wisdom of leaving a secure, comfortable job for an entry-level job at a fast-paced media organisation while pregnant with my daughter in the name of pursuing my life’s purpose, I relied on Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff...and It’s All Small Stuff to get me through some rough patches of self-doubt.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead helped me define a career path for myself, as did Arianna Huffington’s Thrive, which opens with a bitter and painful lesson the media mogul had learnt: that there is more to life than work. Always.
In her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, Shonda Rhimes inspired me to be more adventurous and daring. That is how I went on a ziplining trip that reminded me how much I hated heights. But the experience was worth it. One of the chapters in the book resonated with me, where the busy Hollywood executive (Scandal, Greys’ Anatomy, anyone?) said she would always say yes if any of her children asked her: “Mum, can you please play with me?”. I copy-pasted her policy into my relationship with my daughter, and she is a happier child for it.
I leaned into Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in 2020 when I started questioning why I felt constantly tired, yet I worked from home, and it helped me come up with a routine that ensured I took healthy breaks. I incorporated walks into my daily routine and started eating away from my home office desk.
In A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Anna Quindlen writes: “Life is made of moments, small pieces of silver amidst long stretches of tedium. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves now to live, really live . . . to love the journey, not the destination.”
If someone asked me today why I read self-help books, I would simply tell them this: books heal us.
In Quindlen’s words, self-help books have taught me to live, really live.