Who couldn’t use some help? The anti-self-help attitude you will find in many universities makes perfect sense if you stop and think about it. It’s a territorial dispute. Education is the role of the college. If people are able to live constructive and rewarding lives without needing to go to school, then why would they continue to fund professors? If there is no teaching, then there is no research.
The dirty secret of academia is that teaching is second tier and research is the ultimate goal. Does it seem strange that the members of schools who are paid primarily to teach consider teaching to be a waste of time and something that diminishes their status? Or is it because they know that the book is actually more effective at transforming people than the classroom is? What is certain is that publishing is a priority for professors and that incentivization model drives a lot of the behavior and bias of those working within that system.
Public higher education is approaching a moment of crisis. Instead of seeing their writing as superior to teaching, instead of seeing literature as superior to self-help books, public education institutions would do well to include self-help books in their curriculums and to value teaching higher in relation to research.
The one book I would recommend to people beyond all others is Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective People. I remember my dad gave me a copy when I was in high school and it was a helpful anchor for me during the confusing and dynamic process of becoming an adult. It’s a book I’ve returned to from time to time, listening to the audiobook and reminding myself of the great practical advice Covey lays out so clearly. The great thing about this book is that it relies on nothing dogmatic. There is very little that could be considered esoteric. The book is so pragmatic it is almost scientific.
Any individual, organization, business or team wanting to improve their performance could benefit from studying this book. It has a bunch of ideas that have entered popular discourse, as well. The ideas of “being proactive,” of “looking for the win/ win” and “starting with the end in mind” are all common usage these days. These practices will work in the classroom, in business, in politics. They are tried and true methods of organizing and prioritizing energy in order to achieve your desired results, to maximize the return on your efforts.
Starting with the end in mind is an organizational gold mine. There is so much value in coming up with your personal mission statement through articulating your personal goals. This is something that often changes over time and in different contexts, so it is a habit that requires continual revisiting. Your goals should give shape to your habits. If you want to run a marathon, your training will be geared towards that end. If you are competing in the long jump, you will have entirely different techniques to train. This is just one small example of how the goal helps to define the process.
If you aren’t coming up with your own mission statement, the chances are good that you are following someone else’s. If you aren’t doing things that are designed to move you closer to a goal, then you are doing things to help someone else realize their dreams. There is a great merit in service. Interdependence is ultimately the larger goal, but without the care for self that comes from a goal driven agenda there is little chance that you will be able to serve effectively, since you will be mostly consumed with satisfying the needs of others.
If you have clear goals, then it is easier to understand how best to use your time. When we are following a plan that we are designing ourselves, it is possible to shift from reactive to proactive. This is also something very important to today’s cultural climate. We are in extremely reactive positions and that continually disempowers us from acting in our own best interests. This goes across the board for all social groups, but for this example I will look at the civil unrest caused by systemic racism in our country as was impossible to miss last year.
If our goal is to have a more equitable society, then we need to shift the conversation to reaching that goal more so than criticizing our failure to be there. When we respond to injustice, we react to the circumstance and are part of the process that is enacted again and again. This particular form of violence leads eventually to more violence. To create lasting change, however, it is more useful to do the work of community building and advocacy that will move us in the direction of a more equitable society. We need to think critically to identify the pain points, but once we understand what the underlying problems are it is up to us to work on solving them.
To reach the goal of a more equitable society, systemic change will be necessary. In order to best facilitate that change, there are many proactive things we can do. For one thing, we can validate and celebrate self-help strategies that actually work. There are of course some get rich quick scammers who take advantage of the self-help genre, but any ideas that actually lead to self-improvements should be promoted and shared extensively. The more we can individually up our game, the stronger our team will become.
There has been a class bias when it comes to the self-help genre, but I believe that anyone at any level of society can benefit from a read of the 7 Habits. It is a valuable resource of practical wisdom that can help people to ground themselves during the chaotic and confusing turbulence of a global pandemic during the digital age.