The Problem With Advice Like “Read More Books”

Young woman holding a book in her hand while looking into the camera
Photo by JoelValve on Unsplash

“Read more books!” How often have we heard that advice? There are so many articles out there explaining why you should read one book a week or two or five or whatever number it is today.

I think everyone realizes that reading more is usually not bad advice but it can be and especially when it comes to reading self-help books there are problems with it that are often ignored or not properly addressed that deserve some attention.

What’s wrong with reading more books?

Reading more books is a great thing most of the time which is why it’s all the more important to point out the issues that it can create when it’s not. The world doesn’t need another article pointing out that watching Netflix all day or scrolling through your Instagram feed isn’t good. People already know that it’s often a distraction to do these things.

With books, however, that isn’t so obvious. I mean reading more books is good, right? Well, the answer is it depends. There are problems with it that are easily overlooked. Let’s focus a bit more specifically on self-help books for now and the problems that come with it and then we will bring it back to reading in general later.

There are four main issues with reading lots of self-help books:

1. False sense of accomplishment

Reading self-help books can give you a false sense of accomplishment. When you finish another book it gives you a rush and makes you feel as though you’re much closer to achieving your goals than you were before.

In reality, however, you’re not any closer at all. Information itself doesn’t get you anywhere. When you have information and put it to good use it can help you get somewhere much faster but it doesn’t get you anywhere if you don’t actually apply it. The power lies in applying the information to your life.

2. Sneaky form of procrastination

It can also turn into a very sneaky form of procrastination because you feel as though you’re getting closer to your goals but you’re just distracting yourself from what you really need to be doing to make any progress.

We hold a lot of overgeneralized ideas about what is good and what is bad. We often believe that reading is good and watching tv or spending time on social media is bad. The truth however is that it depends.

Granted, reading is a better way of procrastinating than watching Netflix most of the time but when you’re binging Netflix you’re at least aware of the fact that it doesn’t bring you any closer to achieving your goals. With self-help books that’s often not the case though which is exactly why this is so sneaky.

I’m not saying that these books can’t help, they have certainly helped me. Often they can be incredibly useful but it’s about how you use them.

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of reading one book after the other as a way of distracting yourself from your life and the problems right in front of you. Not everyone is going to fall into that pitfall and many people are going to use these books to create meaningful change in their lives.

When you’re reading one book after the other and nothing is really having any effect and they’re all starting to morph into each other, when everything feels like the same thing in different words then it’s time to look at whether you’ve fallen prey to this trap I described.

There are of course also higher and lower quality self-improvement books and some are simply regurgitating the same material without much original thought going into it so keep that in mind too.

3. No one piece of information along is going to radically change your life

Another thing to remember is that no one piece of information alone is going to radically change your life. It’s not more information you need but more integration. You need to integrate what you’ve learned and the only way to do that is through experience and self-reflection but more on that later.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible. One piece of information can completely change your life much like buying that lottery ticket can completely change your life. Much like with winning the lottery, always looking out for that one nugget of wisdom that is going to change everything is not a viable strategy.

So this is a useful mindset that makes you more grounded. It helps you to not come from a place of desperation and victimhood where you think something outside of you is going to pull you out of your situation. Only you can do that.

It’s really hard to do it but you can and changing the way you think is where you need to start. You can’t change your behavior without changing the way you think. To quote my favorite book 2150A.D.: “man’s behavior is always the result of his beliefs, that is, his philosophy of life” and that’s exactly where self-help books can be of tremendous value.

4. Vicious cycle of never feeling good enough

Lastly, it can lead to a vicious cycle where you’re always looking for another piece of information, another hit of dopamine that makes you feel like you’re getting closer to your goals.

What that also means though is you’re never good enough and you always need more. One more book, one more article, one more youtube video, and then you’ll have all the information to change your life. You’ll never have all the information but that doesn’t mean you can’t start doing what you need to be doing.

No amount of information is going to make you good at anything, a skill needs to be built through experience. You’ll probably suck at it at first but as G.K. Chesterton liked to say: ”If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”. If something is worthwhile it’s also worth sucking at it at first. You’ll get better as time goes on.

What about reading in general?

Reading can be a way to avoid facing yourself. It isn’t even like that’s all bad. Sometimes it’s really good to just forget about your worries and problems and to just distract yourself for a while. To read that exciting novel that lets you enter another world or to watch that comedy show that just makes you laugh for an hour.

That can be rejuvenating and important and it can give you a chance to come back to your day-to-day life with a fresh set of eyes. If anything this piece is about raising awareness about how distraction is still distraction no matter what form it takes.

Work can also be a distraction. You can throw yourself into your career and work incessantly to avoid problems that have to be dealt with at home. Or sometimes to avoid facing the fact that the work you’re doing has no meaning to you.

Distraction runs very deep and it’s easy to get hung up on the form something takes. To say that reading is better than watching tv or that working is better than mindlessly scrolling on your phone is true a lot of the time but it can make you miss the underlying dynamics that are really running the show.

Again, a lot of the time it’s true that picking up an interesting book is better than scrolling through your youtube feed. What can happen, however, is that you exchange one form of distraction with another one while wondering why nothing changes. The reason is that you have only scratched at the surface of things.

It’s a bit like repainting your car in hopes of fixing the broken engine. It does nothing to fix a broken engine. It does nothing to address the deeper problem, it just changes its appearance.

Whether something is or isn’t a distraction isn’t determined by what it is but by how you approach it. Your intentions and your energy are what make the difference between whether something is a distraction or not. It’s about you and not the activity which is why telling people to read a lot of books is oversimplifying it a little.

Conclusion

It’s often easy for us to get hung up on appearances. It’s easy to think reading is always great and that you can’t go wrong with it. Most of the time that’s true but sometimes it can be a distraction just as much as many other things that typically come to mind when we think of distractions.

So all this goes to say that it isn’t as simple as saying “read more”. Sometimes that’s great advice and other times it becomes the very means through which you distract yourself even more from what you really need to be facing. It can be a way to give a different appearance to the same underlying dynamics.

At the end of the day, I’m not here to discourage you from reading more if that’s what you want to do but it can be a way to avoid facing yourself and your problems and that is something that is often easily missed because reading is seen as such a universally great thing.

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I help people work through the conditioning they've taken on and show them how to adopt higher, more loving perspectives

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Flavio Lapresa

Flavio Lapresa

I help people work through the conditioning they've taken on and show them how to adopt higher, more loving perspectives

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