The problem that Kenny Trinh was using self-help to solve was his shyness. The bigger problem was what it turned him into.
Trinh was a self-described “meek and shy” office worker who wanted to become a self-assured CEO type. “I wanted to be the smart, confident person in the room,” Trinh says, but “I was lacking in social skills and I didn’t believe in myself.” Looking for a transformation, he turned to self-help, reading a library of books on leadership and self-esteem. “I read them as if my life depended on it,” he says.
And according to Trinh, the strategy worked: He credits his whirlwind tour through self-help literature with giving him the confidence to launch his business, the technology-review site Netbook News, where he now manages a small team of workers.
But when it comes to personal growth, “worked” is a relative concept. Trinh’s journey toward self-improvement came with a noticeable side effect: He became That Guy. Inspired by all he’d read, he began preaching his newfound lessons to friends, family, and anyone else who would listen. Someone mentioned a problem in their life? Trinh was there, ready to talk about a seven-step plan that would most definitely fix it, or to point out the ways they were holding themselves back. “I didn’t notice people were starting to get annoyed,” he says.
That’s because self-help, counterintuitively, often crowds out self-awareness. The big tent of the genre’s central promise — that anyone, with the right know-how, can take charge of their life and become the person they want to be — can promote optimism at the cost of empathy. In our endless quest to optimize who we are and how we live, we run the risk of applying those expectations to those around us, ignoring the very real obstacles that can prevent others from making the same changes to their own lives. We get caught up in the belief that bootstrapping is a universal possibility: If I can help myself, surely anyone can do it.
And that can be true even when we’re aware that it’s happening — a cognitive dissonance that Chad Barnsdale knows well. “One of the lessons I learned in my early 20s is that self-reflection is important and that I wasn’t doing it often…