A philosophy for reading self-improvement books

Word of caution: I’ve been reading way too many philosophy books recently, so this post might become a bit philosophically involved. If anything here confuses you or piques your interest, I’d recommend checking out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to learn more 🙂

After reading my latest series of blog posts, you might be thinking 

“What? Another self-improvement book? Does this kid read anything that isn’t educational?”

Believe it or not, I do. I’ve read copious amounts of fiction, ranging from fantasy to even a singular, awful romance novel. However, despite the vast extent of literary achievement available, self-improvement books have particularly piqued my interest. While Harry Potter is valuable in its own way, I’d much rather read a book discussing a brand new theory of leadership warranted by interesting psychological studies. 

I’ve only recently developed a penchant for “self-improvement” books. While I was initially dissuaded by my fairly negative preconception of novels of that ilk (“I don’t need help!” – Arush Iyer, 2016), I eventually was able to surmount my bloated ego and dive into the wondrous world of self-improvement, replete with biology, psychology, and philosophy for success. After many hours pouring through these books, I have become a firm believer in the precept that, while your circumstances may be arbitrary or oppressive, one can achieve success through continuous learning. Focus on the self both trains oneself to adapt to a situation and optimize it for everyone’s success. Thanks to numerous great books, I’ve been presented with a variety of philosophies for interpreting life and all of its appendages. 

However, a discussion of self-improvement begs a seemingly pedantic yet surprisingly important question: What is a “great” self-improvement book? The book market is saturated with novels claiming to be the Holy Grail of self-improvement. Every week, it seems like some study tangential to self-improvement has been distorted to fit some arbitrarily vague philosophy of success. How can we determine which one we ought to follow? How do we differentiate between mentors and false prophets?

I’ve thought a lot about these questions, but any simple answer concludes in an implication that is antithetical to the very nature of self-improvement. Prioritizing the philosophy of one closes ourselves to the richness that accompanies another, something that no reasonable self-improvement guru would endorse. What successful business leader would intentionally close themselves off to the opportunity for learning? Additionally, it would be arrogant of us to essentialize the variegated nature of life to a single explanatory theory. To explain it metaphorically, if a builder solely used a hammer when confronted with a task, he’d never be able to complete it. 

My conclusion draws on philosophical precepts, namely the concept of Perspectivism. Perspectivism is an idea initially championed by German Philosopher and owner of a meticulously styled walrus mustache Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had some wild ideas, most of which are beyond the scope of this blog post, though his writings on Perspectivism are pertinent to our discussion. Essentially, perspectivism argues that there are multiple conceptual schemes in which truth is contained. There is no objectively true or objectively false because truth is subject to cultural modifications and other influential factors. My application of this in the context of philosophies outlined by these self-improvement novels concludes that there is no one right answer. Each philosophy is conceptually true in its own way. Each self-improvement book is an instantiation of truth, a perspective proffered by an author who believes that their version of truth is correct or at least advantageous to believe. Perhaps frustratingly for sticklers for certainty, the question of “how does one achieve success” simply has no right answer. 

But what then is the role of the reader? The ideal reader approaches the literary emprise “tabula rasa” (an Aristotelian idea), or as a blank slate. They come not to argue, disdain, or discredit but rather to approach its intent on gleaning as much as they possibly can. To achieve success through the utilization of a proven philosophy, the reader must engage in consistently voracious reading habits. Each novel that piques their interest should be read and meticulously and methodically documented and analyzed. However, the reader ought not to let a singular philosophy dominate their life. Instead, each should be considered part of a greater whole. Simply put, the philosophy of success is a melting pot, where different ideas are combined and optimized to contribute to our wellbeing. You might also think of it in terms of a toolbox. Let’s return to the builder I previously used to emphasize the particularity of life. A builder has a tool box with different tools indexed to scenarios that would warrant their usage. Similarly, we ought to deploy what we have learned in situations where it would be beneficial for us. 

But when does this process of synthesization stop? It doesn’t. Learning to succeed is an iterative process. Just as ants consistently and constantly build their gigantic mounds, we also must consistently and constantly add to our melting pot of knowledge. Even if we wanted to stop learning, we simply can’t. You don’t get to staticize your brain. Even in older ages, we consistently develop connections, though their frequency may be dulled. This brings up another important point. The process of synthesization must start as early as possible. Over time, the melting pot is filled with multiple perspectives and our toolbox will eventually be sufficiently developed for success, both professionally and personally. 

Now, you might be thinking

“Wow… I read 864 words and the conclusion is that everyone is right? This was a complete waste of my time!”

Trust me, I swear this is more than “there are no wrong answers.” The implication is far more nuanced. I encourage anyone, no matter your age or capacity for reading, to read as much as possible and construct your own ways of viewing the world that allow you to truly achieve success. There is no one path to success and, regardless of your background, a focus on multiple perspectives will lead you down the right one. By continually learning different perspectives and approaches, we fill our melting pot of meaning that will serve us to be successful in life, both professionally and personally

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