Why self-help books should be banned

Kraft Foods Inc.

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY The one thing most self-help and leadership books, blogs and seminars have in common is the pervasive concept that each and every one of us has someone inside who is capable of doing great things.

It reminds me of a fantasy played out in all sorts of fiction books and movies where a kid or an average Joe down on his luck wakes up one day and finds out he's actually a superhero or a prince or something.

I'm not sure if I can do justice to how ridiculous and damaging that concept is, but I'll try.

First, let's throw out all the labels and just be clear about something. Children think they're the center of the universe. Their egos are huge -- that's just part of being a kid and getting the attention they need to survive.

And a big -- perhaps the biggest -- part of growing up and becoming a mature adult is gaining confidence through experience while learning that it's actually the universe that's huge and you're just a tiny, tiny part of it.

I'm no shrink, but I think an awful lot of people get hung up on that, which is why we have so many whiny, entitled children running around dressed up as men and women.

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So, when someone convincingly says you can unlock your hidden potential or your power to succeed, you just need someone to show you the way or believe in you, it's a very attractive throwback to that childish belief that you're special and entitled to great things.

Ironically, anyone who suggests that to you, through a book, a blog, a seminar, coaching, whatever, is more or less casting themselves in the role of a parent to you, the child. Not only is it pretty dysfunctional, but if you really are trying to get ahead in life, as we all are, it'll set you back, and in more ways than one.

You see, it's one thing to discover your genuine strengths and weaknesses, figure out what you really love to do, methodically research the opportunities available to you and their unique challenges, and then develop some goals and a plan for your career.

It's another thing entirely to engage in fantasies about being special, finding a magic bottle with a genie in it or waking up a superhero. It's cute when you're a kid, but when you're an adult, it's just sad and more than a little creepy.

What got me thinking about this were three things that happened in the space of just one day:

- I was watching a TV show where the owner of a failing restaurant said (I'm paraphrasing here), "I always thought that, if you try and work hard, it will pay off." I had to scratch my head and wonder where in the world she got that idea? What about actually knowing what you're doing? Or, more specific to her situation, having decent food and a good location, location, location.

- I heard about that Tony Robbins event in San Jose where 6,000 people were trying to gain some sort of "personal power" by walking across hot coals or something, except 21 of them suffered burns and required medical treatment.

- The usual assortment of dopey blogs, books, platitudes and parables that slither across my radar screen every time I think it's safe to read my email or glance at the Twitter feed.

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that children and adults alike need to learn important lessons on their own. There's just no way around that and, you know, I wouldn't have it any other way if there was. Still, you can't fault me for suggesting that the only thing worse than believing you're special and expecting great things to just magically happen is to pay somebody to tell you that.