Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Nobody's Going to Help You, and That's Awesome

I'm not into self-help. I don't buy self-help books, I don't read productivity blogs, and I certainly don't subscribe to self-proclaimed self-help guru newsletters. Reading someone else's advice on the rather generic concept of helping yourself always struck me as a particularly misguided idea.

Apparently I'm not the only person to reach this conclusion, either.

I spent two years reading all the self-help books I could find. As of a year ago, I had read 340 self-help books. Because I’m insane.

My conclusion from all that reading?

95% of self-help books are complete bullshit.

To be clear, I am all for self-improvement. Reading books, blogs, and newsletters by people who have accomplished great things is a fine way to research your own path in life. But these people, however famous and important they may be, are not going to help you.

Unfortunately that's not the answer he wanted. To him, my answer [that nobody was going to help him become successful] was really discouraging. To me, if I was receiving that answer from someone else, it would be really encouraging.

I like being reminded that nobody's going to help me - that it's all up to me. It puts my focus back on the things I can control - not waiting for outside circumstances.

Take it from The Ultimate Productivity Blog:


Reading self-help advice from other people, however well-intentioned, is no substitute for getting your own damn work done. The sooner you come to terms with this, the better off you'll be.

Get out there and do stuff because you fundamentally enjoy it and because it makes you better. As a writer, as an analyst, as a techie, whatever. Learn to love practicing the fundamentals and do it better each time. Over time, quality does lead to success, but you have to be patient. Really patient. Turns out, "overnight" success takes years. Maybe even decades. This is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Plan accordingly.

For example, I don't care if anyone reads what I write here. I'm writing to satisfy myself first and foremost. If others read it and benefit from it, fantastic -- that's a welcome side effect. If I worry about who is reading, why they're reading, or if anyone is even reading at all, I'd be too paralyzed to write! That'd be the least productive outcome of all.

That's not to say that some introspection about the nature of your work isn't useful. It is. Even the weary self-help student I quoted above concluded that 5% of self-help advice surprisingly wasn't bullshit. The one book he recommended without hesitation? 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.


Despite my deep reservations about the genre, I ordered this book based on his recommendation and a number of credible references to it I noticed on the Skeptic Stack Exchange.

Why does this self-help book work when so many others fail? In a word, science! The author goes out of his way to find actual published scientific research documenting specific ways we can make small changes in our behavior to produce better outcomes for ourselves and those around us. It's powerful stuff, and the book is full of great, research backed insights like this one:

A group of participants were asked to select a negative experience. One group of participants were then asked to have a long chat with a supportive experimenter about the event, while a second group were invited to chat about a far more mundane topic - a typical day.

Participants who had spent time talking about their traumatic event thought the chat had been helpful. However, the various questionnaires told a very different story. In reality the chat had no significant impact at all. They might just as well have been chatting about a typical day.

In several studies, participants who have experienced a traumatic event have been encouraged to spend just a few minutes each day writing in a diary-type account of their deepest thoughts and feelings about it. For example, in one study participants who had just been made redundant were asked to reflect upon their deepest thoughts and feelings about their job loss, including how it had affected both their personal and professional lives. Although these types of exercises were both speedy and simple, the results revealed a remarkable boost in their psychological and physical well-being, including a reduction in health problems and an increase in self-esteem and happiness.

The results left psychologists with something of a mystery. Why would talking about a traumatic experience have almost no effect but writing about it yield such significant benefits? From a psychological perspective, talking and writing are very different. Talking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, even chaotic. In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work towards a solution. In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic, solution-based approach.

Therefore, the real world change you would make based on this advice – the proverbial 59 seconds on the book jacket – is to avoid talking through traumatic experiences in favor of writing about them. Not because some self-help guru said so, but because the published research data tells us that talking doesn't work and writing does. Not exactly intuitive, since talking through our problems with a friend always feels like the right thing to do, but I have certainly documented many times over the value of writing through a problem.

59 Seconds is so good, in fact, it has rekindled my hopes that our new Stack Exchange Productivity Q&A can work. I'd love for our productivity site to be founded on a scientific basis, and not the blind cult of personality I've come to expect from the self-help industry.

Remember, nobody's going to help you … except science, and if you're willing to put in the required elbow grease each and every day – yourself.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: