Jun 10, 2007

Good Books

A reader asked if I read self-improvement books. I certainly do.

To begin with, I read lots of books in general, and a sizeable portion of what I read are "how-to" books. I have "how-to" books on
raising little kids; meditating; investing my money; photography; Microsoft Excel; law; business; banking etc etc, and for obvious ulterior motives, I also like to buy recipe books for my wife.

And yes, my "how-to" collection includes many titles on self-improvement, including titles by Stephen Covey, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins, Tony Buzan, Brian Tracy and other lesser-known authors.

I’m aware that many people feel strangely adverse about self-improvement books. It goes beyond mere disinterest – it is actually an adverse feeling about the entire genre.

These same people wouldn’t hesitate to buy a recipe book, if they were into cooking. They wouldn’t hesitate to buy a book about how to look after a dog, if they had just bought a dog. But they wouldn’t even want to be seen in the self-improvement section of a bookstore, holding a book with a title like "How To Succeed in Life" or "Time Management for Dummies".

It’s interesting to examine the reasons why.

I think that some people feel that self-improvement books are for dysfunctional, inadequate people, who already have difficulty coping with everyday life and therefore need some self-improvement. According to this logic, if you buy a self-improvement book, you’re admitting to yourself that you’re dysfunctional and inadequate.

Heheh. If you subscribe to such logic, then you have some big insecurities to face up to. Enough said.

Others may feel that self-improvement books are full of good advice that can’t be followed. In other words, they doubt their own ability to apply whatever ideas they might come across in a self-improvement book. It is true that if you don’t apply the good advice that you read in a self-improvement book, then it will be of absolutely no value to you.

However, it is also true that if your mother, teacher, mentor, pastor, boss, doctor or best friend gives you good advice, and you don’t apply it, then the good advice will also be absolutely of no value to you.

If you go through life doubting your ability to apply the good advice, ideas and suggestions that come your way, then life will be quite challenging indeed. You’ll just have to rediscover and reinvent the wheel again and again. Others would have faced the same challenges in life as you have, and they would be willing to share those lessons. But if you do not wish to learn from the experiences and insights of others, well, you’ll just have to struggle on, on your own.

Now, of course I am not saying that everything written in a self-improvement book is going to be relevant, useful or appropriate for you. Similarly, not everything that your mother, teacher, mentor, pastor, boss, doctor or best friend tells you is going to be relevant, useful or appropriate.

Still, it seems wise to pay at least a little attention to what they have to say, and think about it. Take what you find is useful, and leave the rest behind.

I am also not saying that the application of good advice is always an easy thing. Then again, because good advice comes in many different forms on many different topics, it cannot be the case that it is always a difficult or impossible thing.

Incidentally, you could jolly well think of holy texts and ancient scriptures as the original how-to books. For example, you could regard the Bible as a big how-to book entitled "How to Have Eternal Life After Death in Heaven". You could also think of Buddhist texts as how-to books entitled "How to Seek Happiness and Avoid Suffering".

Whether you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, the application of such good advice could, in either case, seem very difficult or even impossible. But as a Christian or a Buddhist, you would know that the most foolish thing you could do is not to try.


Anonymous said...

These same people wouldn’t hesitate to buy a recipe book, if they were into cooking. They wouldn’t hesitate to buy a book about how to look after a dog, if they had just bought a dog. But they wouldn’t even want to be seen in the self-improvement section of a bookstore, holding a book with a title like "How To Succeed in Life" or "Time Management for Dummies".

Of course we wouldn't. It's like religion. How on earth are we supposed to know whether the person writing the text in question is a fraud or not? Many people make money by claiming to have become successful through a magic path. Of course, those people actually weren't rich before they went on the merry path of biking us out of $29.99 or $39.99 or something like that.

Whereas you can easily know whether the cookbook/dog rearing book is good or not judging by the dishes you produce or the pet you raise.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Heheh, I see your point.

Me - I have no fear reading about Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or any other religion.

I read, and I then decide what I think is relevant, interesting or useful for myself.

Same with any other "how-to" or self-improvement books.

Am a bit surprised though, that you think that the results of self-improvement books are not observable or measurable.

For example, suppose you read a time management book. If you try out a few ideas that you learned from the book, wouldn't you be able to know whether they have worked or not?

Etc etc.

Anonymous said...

LOL, Mr Wang, many of your readers are just typical Singaporeans.

You can't seriously expect them to read a book AND form their own judgment, opinion or view on it.

If they had to do that, they'd naturally prefer just not to read at all.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Oh. How do they deal with the advice from their mothers, teachers, mentors, pastors, bosses, doctors or best friends then?

BK said...

In my twenties just out in working life, my main interest in books were indeed self help books. After some time however, I realised though some were helpful, some weren't. These are more likely those that advise me to behave or act in quite a different way as I used to be; ie. contrary to my character.

I also realise some of these books have pretty simple concept that going thr' a whole book is really a waste of time, 'cos likely you should get the idea in the first few pages, else there won't be any different whether you read in whole or not.

Unlike other merchandise, I tends to go for more famous writers when come to books, like the few you mentioned.

I also like to recommend this book call "The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark" by the late Carl Sagan. Not a how-to book, but by a passionate scientist who thought a clear, rational and sensible mind was what we all lack, in a world filled with pseudoscience.

Jimmy Mun said...

The problem with Mr Wang is that he assume everybody is just like him, endowed with a strong independent judgement.

I fear self-improvement books, partly because I am afraid the path that it will lead me down to. One of my closest friend started reading Robert Kiyosaki, and before you know it, broke his scholarship bond and is full time into selling MLM. He led me to reading Kiyosaki, and in a moment of stupidity, "helped" me decide to "pre-emptively"
quit my job to look for income in "other quadrants". Now I cant talk to my friend now because he will insist on dragging me into MLM, and my career path is suffering from a dent from a longish period of unemployment.

Self help books are indeed a lot like religions. Superior intellects like Mr Wang can flirt with all belief systems, extract the best, and walk away unscathed. Lesser beings like me, may very well get sucked in and never be the same again.

Self-help books call for rather radical changes to our lives that sometimes run against the very grain of our being. Unlike Mr Wang, brimming with confidence and blazing a trail of success, insecure people like me probably fear that we would lose the last vestiges of our identities.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. Self help books are filled with bad advices. Too many people don't see that.

Test said...

Is Jimmy being sycophantic or sarcastic?

Anonymous said...

As usual wang u r talking shit again.

Let me give you all some practical advice, if you end up being overweight, debt ridden and frustrated, pls dont blame anyone else but yourself for listening to your pastor, deacon, teacher or some man you came across on TV.

People write self-improvement books for one reason only: to-make-money.


Mr Wang Says So said...

Haha! I said it before and I'll say it again - Kiyosaki must be taken with a pinch of salt!

His most dangerous exhortation is that higher education isn't important .... definitely a highly debatable proposition.

But Jimmy, I think that this statement:

"Self-help books call for rather radical changes to our lives that sometimes run against the very grain of our being."

is surely an exaggeration, most of the time.

Unless maybe if you read stuff like this one I'm currently reading - The Book of Secrets - but this is hardly a typical self-improvement.

(If anything, it's even more esoteric than the other one which I recently recommended to you, heheh).

Mr Wang Says So said...

Sorry, I just wanted to add something - that book I mentioned above is not recommended for beginners.

Another Mun said...

Hi Jimmy,

I, too, took a break (about 1 year) to dabble in MLM and some other stuff. Returned to job market thereafter (initially temp-ing, then spotted for business analysis role, and then back to previous career). During the interviews, I found the ang-moh bosses more forgiving of breaks in careers (the above was not my 1st break) and sometimes see it as an advantage -- the willingness to take calculated risks and the ability to evaluate issues from multiple angles (having experienced things from sales/production/support sides). Local/Asian bosses, in general, are more "toe-the-line". In the end, it was industry contacts that got me back into the previous career.

Nevertheless, a few years later, I took yet another break and am now training for a career switch supported by a new employer.

From my experience, how the recruiters view one has a lot to do with their own life views and how you can confidently put your past in a positive perspective (focus on what you gained from the detour). Keep perservering and may you meet a good boss eventually.


Anonymous said...

That book you mentioned looks really interesting, Mr Wang. But from the Amazon reviews, yeah, I think it's not for beginners.

Anonymous said...

The Book of Secrets
hmmm...looks interesting. Gotta visit library tonight.

Blogter said...


You're trying self-help books after you've already attained a certain level of success? Or was it the other way around?

Can't help agreeing with Jimmy. Some of it's good, but some are crap too. It takes a clear-headed person to distinguish between the 2 kinds of advice in self-help books.

Luckily, we're lucid enough to realise that not everthing that Wang says is right. But MOST of what he says is right. Right?

Mr Wang Says So said...

I can actually pinpoint the exact month and year when I developed an interest in self-improvement books.

I can't honestly say that I was an unsuccessful person BEFORE then, but I would say that success has been coming much easily and naturally since that time.

If you refer to my other recent post (entitled "The Definitions of Success"), you'll see that my idea of success means success across the board, that is, all main areas of my life - career, family, finances, health, spiritual, hobbies etc (oh yeah, "hobbies" would include blogging too).

For me, I would say that after reading self-improvement books, my deeper attitudinal change is that I see success as a much less random event. Being successful (in anything) no longer surprises me. As long as you are clear about what you want, and you have a suitable plan and you actually execute it, there's an extremely high chance you'll get there.

The other pleasant experience I've had is that if you want something and you're sincerely willing to commit to the goal, all kinds of opportunities, resources and helpful people will just appear along the way to help you. It's as if filters fall away from your eyes. The opportunities, resources and people were all already there, but you never knew it; but once you commit yourself to the goal, they just appear as if out of magic to support you.

Finally, in my opinion, success doesn't necessarily require pain, sweat, tears, sacrifices, suffering etc. Success can be fun and easy, if you know how. You pick what is fun to you, and you succeed in those things, and you have plenty of fun along the way.

Anyway, that's my personal experience. Some of you will believe it amd some of you won't; and some of you will believe that it could work for other folks (like Mr Wang) but it will not work for them. Well, that's life.


"Can't help agreeing with Jimmy. Some of it's good, but some are crap too. It takes a clear-headed person to distinguish between the 2 kinds of advice in self-help books."

Sometimes it's a matter of where and who you are; and whether the book is suitable for you.

Personal development comes in steps and stages, you see.

It's like reading a book on how to play chess. Are you a beginner? Intermediate? Advanced? A grandmaster? Whether a book is useful to you depends on who the book is meant for, and what level you're at.

Like the Osho book I mentioned. This is NOT for beginners, I say again.

Anonymous said...

my, my... while darkness is certainly capable of writing some very charming prose at times, this is one of the times we can agree to disagree.

indeed, no matter, writers of self-help books write only for profit, how is that characterisation limited to self-help authors only?

even if you think that the content of the self-help genre is by and large trashy, you underestimate the comfort one gets from reading such, especially in an ultra-conformist society in which it is perceived to be wrong to have problems cf. the WSM saga.

at the very least, in deferring oneself to the 'authority' of books; self-help or otherwise, one has admitted that there is a problem and that research and knowledge is required to resolve or get round that problem.

in a place as delusional as singapore is, what makes darkness think that such self-affirmation—no matter how un-philosophical or un-intellectual—is altogether useless?

is darkness these days just a parrot member of the Society for the Practitioners of Prejudice aka 'The Elites', i wonder...?

—a very small animal

Blogter said...

"It's like reading a book on how to play chess. Are you a beginner? Intermediate? Advanced? A grandmaster? Whether a book is useful to you depends on who the book is meant for, and what level you're at."

Ok, then which books would you recommend for people in each of the following situation:

a) Really down in the dumps (hit rock bottom);

b) A lower-income Singaporean trying to make ends meet;

c) Someone trying to make his first million?

And / Or, easier: Which book did you start with?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Well, the first point to note is that there isn't always a clear distinction between "self-improvement" books and all the other books in the world.

Eg one could regard Burton Malkiel's classic "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" as a self-improvement book because it hands out advice on how to get rich through investing.

Or you could regard his book as one where an economics professor explains the various theories relating to the operation of financial markets.

The book uses terms like "fundamental analysis", "asset allocation", "efficient market hypothesis", "risk-adjusted returns" etc etc.

Now, if you were totally new to investing and had little knowledge of the world of finance, you would probably think of his book as something like a finance textbook, explaining difficult and complicated aspects of securities markets.

If, however, you already have some knowledge of investing, eg you dabble in shares occasionally and you read the newspaper's Money pages, you would probably regard his book as a "how-to-get-rich" book and therefore quite possibly as a self-improvement book.


Take another example - "The Road Less Travelled" by Scott M Peck, a psychiatrist. The book is mostly about patients who have come to him for counselling/treatment.

Through the stories of their lives, their difficulties and their redemptions/failures (depending on which case you're looking at), Scott, as author, distills and offers to the reader various insights and lessons about life and human nature.

Now, depending on who and where you are, this book could appear not to be a self-improvement book at all (but an interesting book about psychiatry);

or you might regard it as a self-improvement book but not a very good one (since it doesn't tell you how to get promoted; lose 10 kg; have great sex and earn a million dollars);

BUT if you have experienced some very dark, difficult times in your life (like Scott's patients), then you might well regard this book as an excellent and profound self-improvement book.


Then there are self-improvement books which are very specific and focused. For example, "Getting Things Done" by David Allen.

This is essentially a book about time management and personal productivity. It has very specific ideas and suggestions about how to prioritise your tasks; keep track of all your projects; handle your email overload; plan your time; organise your workspace and so on.

Now if you are a person who often finds that you have too many things to do; and you feel overloaded and stressed and you don't know what to do next; and you can't get your projects completed on time, or you're always in a mad rush -

then this book could be for you.

On the other hand, if you are already a fairly organised and systematic person, and you're managing your time quite well with a diary, a To-Do list and a calendar, then you may not feel that this book is useful, and to paraphrase BK's words above, you might say: "this book has a pretty simple concept and going through the whole book is really a waste of time, 'cos likely you should get the idea in the first few pages."

In other words, time management is an area where you have no pressing need for improvement; and your personal challenges probably lie elsewhere.

"Which book did you start with?"

"Goals!" by Brian Tracy. I'm not exactly recommending it to everyone, because, as I said, there are books for people of different kinds and at different stages. "Goals!" just happened to be the first self-improvement book I picked up.

"Goals!" is perhaps best for people who are already fairly driven to succeed, but want more ideas on how to do so.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"A lower-income Singaporean trying to make ends meet;"

I recommend Christopher Ng Wai Chung's first book.

c) Someone trying to make his first million?

I recommend Christopher Ng Wai Chung's second book.

More information abt Chris can be found here.

Anonymous said...

Self improvement? I used to be an alcoholic. I tried everything to cure myself, books, tapes, seminars even hypnosis. Nothing worked.

Eventually I lost my job. When news reached my church. I got kicked out. They said I was a bad testimony whatever that means. I kept on drinking even when doctors said my liver was inflamed and I was suffering from a mild form of alcoholic liver disease. I borrowed, begged and stole for my daily quart.One day I when I was playing a LAN game as I usually do when I am plastered. I started writing a whole lot of rubbish, cannot remember what I wrote something like I am prepared to sell my house, wife and kids just to keep me in drinks or something. I even put down my IC number, name and address. My pastor always warned me abt the devil, he said all you have to do is call him and he will come. One day I noticed my wife talking to a stranger in a flashy car. She looked very happy. When I confronted her she said it was just a work colleague who dropped her off. Later on this man started visiting her and my 3 year old son in the evenings. One day I confronted him. I told him, I was the head of the house.Instead he told my wife to put on a dress he bought for her and even asked her to cook maggi mee for him. One evening I said to him, this is Singapore, you cannot just walk into a man's house and take over his position as the head of the family just because you have money. I was very angry so I confronted him with a baseball bat but he just kicked me very hard and bang my head against the wall and then he told me very calmly, he would take my wife because she was very pretty and there was nothing I could do about it. Then he gave me a bottle of duty free whisky and asked me to shut up and drink. That really made me think how far down the long kang I went down.I said to the stranger this is singapore, you cannot do this, there are laws and there are people who will stop you. He just ignored me as if I was some kind of pariah dog and asked my wife to cook him food. That night I decided to sober up soon after that when my wife told me the stranger could arrange a job for me. I made the best of it and I kept away from the bottle and my pubbing kaki. Every time I wanted to drink I would remember the strangers threats, "I will take your wife and child away from you." That was 3 years ago and I swear not a drop has passed my lips. The stranger disappeared and never disturbed my wife any more but I still live in fear that he will return. I cannot mention his name but all I can say is he is a character in the net. I just want to share this story because I have to pay back a debt by telling other alcoholics seek real help, do it today and dont delay. I did it and so could you.

Anonymous said...

anon above:

that must be quite a bad church you were in. no loss.

Mr Wang Says So said...

There is a very good blog I used to read:


it is by an ex-alcoholic.

He has stopped blogging for a year now but if you are interested, you can browse through the older entries and see life through the eyes of an ex-alcoholic.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Oh, after he went dry, he eventually volunteered with Alcoholics Anonymous to help other alcoholics recover. That's another interesting part.

Blogter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blogter said...

Hmmm... Chris' first books sounds more like a how-to book rather than self-help.

Thanks for the replies and recommendations. I'll lookout for them.

Mr Wang Says So said...

They weren't recommendations. They were examples to illustrate that "self-help" books aren't always necessarily or obviously any different from "how to" books, or other kinds of books.

For example, a self-help book like "Goals!" by Brian Tracy could easily be decomposed into five or six different "how-to" books, eg

a "how-to" book about investing;
a "how-to" book about career planning;
a "how-to" book about health & fitness;
a "how-to" book about happy relationships etc etc

Because what a book like "Goals!" is provide a basic framework of principles & methodologies for identifying a goal; creating a plan; setting sub-goals; taking action on the sub-goals; reviewing progress; and so on - (but the exact subject-matter of the goal doesn't matter that much, as long as it's something personally important to you);

Indeed if you pick up a pure "how to" book on bodybuilding or marathon training, you'll find training programmes that adopt such methodology, in the specific context of bodybuilding/marathon training;

if you study personal financial planning (like I did for my recent exam), you'll see that personal financial planning also adopt such methodologies, in the specific context of personal financial planning;

if you do project management at work, you know that project management also runs along those lines, in the specific context of personal financial planning;

so what a book like "Goals!" does is mainly explain the GENERAL methodologies and principles for working towards just about ANY kind of goal you may set for yourself

(whether your goal is to rear happy healthy goldfish; or to become a CEO; or to learn a foreign language; or to earn a million dollars; or run a marathon; or build muscles etc)

and then the book throws in some ideas about how to motivate yourself; how to dare to strive for BIG goals; a bit about mindhacking etc etc.

I read "Goals!" in 2003, and applied some ideas. Since then, my monthly salary has slightly more than tripled (and let me assure you that in 2003, my salary was not exactly small). As for my annual bonuses, well, my annual bonuses have multipled to the obscene size that you can only find in investment banking. (And that is why, as mentioned in another recent post, I'm already planning for early retirement - another goal of mine).

Yes, I do attribute this financial success to many of the ideas I picked up from self-improvement books, and I can safely say that I am earning more money today than 90% of my NUS law school peers who are working in Singapore ...

(how do I know this? I simply ask the legal headhunters and search firms who frequently coldcall me. How did I get this idea of asking them? I got it through doing a brainstorming exercise suggested in a self-improvement book - this one by Tony Buzan)

... even though many of them are slaving away in law firms working very long hours.

I use income as an example - because it is easily quantifiable - but of course money is certainly not the only measure of success; in fact, MANY other things are more important measures, but as I said, it's convenient because it's quantifiable.

So I personally have no doubt that self-improvement books do a lot of good for me; I imagine that they must be able to do a lot of good for others as well; but of course if you don't read them; or don't believe what you read; or don't apply what you read;

well then, of course they won't work for you.

Blogter said...

Eh, you said you recommend those books for certain scenarios and now you say they are not recommendations. *Scratch head*

In any case, I happen to think they're pretty decent cos' I've read investment books before but yet to have read a local one, so it might be more applicable. So I really appreciate the examples / recommendations. By the way, I've noticed his books are "out of stock" from our national libraries.

So... in 2003 you already quite successful what, earning high salary already. Just that ok, now you're even much more successful. Which is great, your financial situation is sure something that I hope to aspire to in the future. In a sense, you're giving me hope. And not just me, but probably many of your readers. Eh, don't worry, I'm not being sacarstic or cynical, btw.

Also, I get your point that self-help books are also how-to books, in a general sense.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I meant that I wasn't recommending malkiel, scott peck, david allen, brian tracy etc.

Mr Wang Says So said...

So... in 2003 you already quite successful what, earning high salary already. Just that ok, now you're even much more successful.

In 2003, I was earning a very high salary relative to the average Singaporean non-lawyer my age.

In 2007, I am earning a very high salary relative to the average Singapore lawyer my age.

To give you an example, Mrs Wang is also a lawyer. Her monthly salary has grown about 74% since 2003, which is actually pretty good.

Mr Wang's monthly salary, however, has grown about 208% since early 2003.

Blogter said...

Think I've read scott peck and brian tracy before. Scott makes for interesting reading but I hardly considered him self-help. More like some religion writer. Maybe I read him the wrong way.

Anonymous said...

the problem with self help anything is it tries to satisfy all. At the end it ends up doing more harm than good. I bought a book at muscle toning and fitness, but I ended up tearing two muscles on my hamstring and calf, out of action for 6 months and medical came to 5K ++ / some more not covered by insurance.

Maybe I should have used a personal trainer instead. It was a very expensive and painful lesson. I dont think I will be reading another DIY book on how to improve my life for a very long time - cannot afford it.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Maybe you skipped the chapters on warm-up and the dangers of overtraining, LOL.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Scott makes for interesting reading but I hardly considered him self-help."

That's what I meant, when I said that there isn't a clear distinction, and that it also depends on the reader.

If you type "scott peck self-help" into Google (I just did), you get 131,000 hits, and the top hit is the International Herald Tribune referring to Scott as a "self-help author".

Blogter said...

Well, sometimes it all depends on how you want to look at it. I, for one, would certainly rather choose to accept that the consequences in our lives are due to our own efforts, vision, self-help, whatever. And to a certain and even large extent, I believe that’s true. That’s why I still harbour hope.

Certain aspects of our life, however, are just due to happenstance or privilege of our birthright. For example, thank goodness that we’re born in Singapore and not some Third World country like Ethiopia, where no amount of self-help would help. (And our mothers and sisters would be maids or slaves. LOL)

So words of warning may still be relevant to those us who may susceptible to others who hype it in order to lure us into their own pernicious enterprises, be it MLM or religious organisations.

I am willing to concede that self-help can be helpful to those of us who are more like Wang, who are ready for it on certain levels.

Blogter said...

I had the some problem with over- training too. Maybe not so good at taking advice, once you get carried away with the regime and getting results. Maybe patience and gradual build-up is the key.

Also think that the body can only take so much pummeling before it starts to break down, NO MATTER how fit you are. Excercise should never be excessive. There was a time when there seemed to be tonnes of propaganda for Singaporeans to get fit, and some of us just got carried away.

Jimmy Mun said...

Another Mun,

thanks for your encouraging comments. At times, it is so depressing that I allow myself to believe there is no way out of one temp job after another. I agree that MNCs seem far more accepting of me than local companies. I always get an interview with foreign companies, but with local companies, they probably shudder when I ask for more than the minimum wage of a EP holder.

Mr Wang,

I have managed to find a video of "The Secret" via "alternative" means, and is halfway through watching it. Thanks. It feels rather similar to "What the *bleep* do we know?".

Mr Wang Says So said...

Professor Fred Alan Wolf is also in "The Secret" actually.

kloudiia said...

Hey Mr Wang

Got to know your blog through Alvin's post.

Great to find another book lover here, as I loved reading books too.

Can I also recommend my own book on loving and lasting relationships? haha :D Maybe it'd be refreshing for you and Mrs Wang lolz