The best self-helps books are obviously the ones which have lasted the test of time. But in many ways, great self-help books are just like families. They conceal a common ancestor under various new names and faces, but the hidden sources remain evident to the well-read reader.
All the best self-help books form a "family tree" of lineage. That is, families of books radiate from single ancestor books. And just as there are central lines of transmission, so also there are black sheep and rebels, those who react against the family storyline. So it is far from clear cut. However, by following the lines of influence backwards, we can discover the best and the deepest influences.
Let's look at a pair of books to illustrate this idea of families of books: Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" and Charles Schwartz's "The Power of Thinking Big". Clearly written in opposition to one another, these two books are remarkable because they give the exact same message is the exact opposite way.
Whereas Normal Vincent Peale acknowledges the source, Charles Schwartz conceals it. Both men cloak their words with the imprimatur of authority: they claim to both be doctors, and often quote verbal evidence of completely unknown men. But Dr Peale quotes professionals and Dr Schwartz quotes ordinary folk.
And what is the source of their ideas? Both books come directly from the Bible. As such, Peale acknowledges this directly, while Schwartz conceals it. This pattern of concealment and exposure of the source of teachings continues through the entire field. Schwartz is the rebel, hiding his books' origins behind a pragmatic facade. Peale is the conservative, simply stating what works and why and where it comes from with little interest in creating controversy about religion.
This gives us our first core self-help text:
The Bible, specifically the New Testament and Proverbs.
Other books draw on pagan philosophy. The three great schools of the ancients were and are Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Platonism. Among the stoics we have M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled, derived from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in an effort to conceal its Christian sources. Among the epicurean we have Anthony Robbins' Awaken the Giant Within. The platonic path has always been the richest lode of literature, and this trail follows up through many and great forebears:
Marsilius Ficino, a pioneer psychiatrist.
Emerson, a public speaker.
Thoreau, a backwoodsman, loner, and apologist for antisocial sentiment.
Wallace Wattles, a loner.
James Allen, a loner.
Kahlil Gibran a sybarite.
Of these few are read today in any depth, because the message has not changed substantially in 26 centuries. Yes, we realize, ideas DO create reality. Duh. So the tendency is to admire the old platonic books from afar and read the new. Which accounts for the endless profileration of books of platonic idealism.
Platonism today manifests in various trite forms of idealism, more or less anchored in practical reality, from the Law of Attraction crowd to the sunny good cheer of the Dale Carnegie "How to Win Friends and Influence People."
Many interesting attempts to conceal Christian sentiment do so by taking on a platonic facade: for example, Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is pure Platonism in tone and diction, while remaining in content purely New Testament character-building. It is a successful modern cross-insemination of Platonism and Christianity. When an early review of Covey's book fawns over Covey himself by calling him "a modern Socrates", the reviewer has clearly over-rated this modern Plato, Stephen Covey, by confusing Plato with his teacher Socrates.
Plato's influence is also evident in the fable books, such as Who Stole My Cheese, The Richest Man in Babylon, and The One Minute Manager. Whilst they aspire to have biblical (or, worse, messianic) resonance, they end up having ironic platonic complexity, and sound far more like Plato's fables than Jesus' parables.
Aristotelian self-help begins and ends with Napoleon Hill. He analytically breaks down the categories of success into 17 master principles. Hill's astonishing analytic genius allows others to synthesis new knowledge based on his original insights. When someone says that a self-help book is a rewritten form of Napoleon Hill, they usually underestimate the cognitive flexibility and power of Hill's original analyses.
Why is that? Because, like Aristotle, Hill lays the foundations for entirely new fields of knowledge. The PMA/Positive Mental Attitude later philosophy evolved out of Hill's "Think And Grow Rich" as a derivative (or perhaps a falling-away) from the original vision. W Clement Stone's "Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude" begins the trend, which focuses on causes and imagines that by producing causes thereby effects are also created. For example, smile and you will feel happy may be true sometimes, but not all the time, because sometimes you smile and feel miserable because a smile is an effect, not a cause.
When Hill expresses the truth that "thoughts are things" he is not kidding around. He means they are things as in tools for producing effects. For Hill, a thought is a screwdriver. But when platonist interpreters, who idealistically suppose that everything is a thought, use Hill's philosophy, they immediately overlook Hill's ideas of cause and effect, and lose some of their scientific flexibility and strength. Because this idealistic, platonic oversimplification of Hill's philosophy is so predominant, and often mistaken for Hill's philosophy itself, it has paradoxically created a valuable market for Hill's books for many decades, because Hill's actual books do not oversimplify the matter. Hill retains the natural Aristotelian complexity of his ideas only in his early books and lectures.
From Napoleon Hill's Aristotelian sophistication we get many amazing books: Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, the stream of "art of living" books by Brian Tracey, Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield books on the various dispositions of success. What distinguishes these authors and books as Aristotelian is their emphasis on discovering the elements, energies, and realistic, (scientifically knowable insofar as ethical and metaphysical matters can be known as delineated by Aristotle) true nature of things. They are Aristotelian scientists, in the same way Francis Bacon was attempting to create in his own times and Aristotelian vision of the world. They are significant sources of clarification and power, but not of consolation. For consolation we must turn to the Christian and platonic revelations.
So far we have a significant list of Pagan and Christian influences. Let us attempt to discover the basic source list:
Saint Paul of Tarsus and the other New Testament authors.
The authors of the Psalms and Proverbs.
The forthright Dr Peale acknowledges his philosophical sources as Thoreau, Emerson, and William James, two platonists and a skeptic. In the "Power of Positive Thinking" Peale writes:
"It may be said that three men vitally affected the thought processes of Americans - Emerson, Thoreau, and William James. Analyse the American mind even to this late date and it is evident that the teachings of these three philosophers combined to create that particular genius of the American who is not defeated by obstacles and who accomplishes 'impossibles' with amazing efficiency.
"A fundamental doctrine of Emerson is that the human personality can be touched by Divine power and thus greatness can be released from it. William James pointed out that the greatest factor in any undertaking is one's belief about it. Thoreau told us that the secret of achievement is to hold a picture of a successful outcome in mind."
- Power of Positive Thinking, Chapter 8 page 147.
Brian Tracy tells in his famous 1000 per cent formula of a young man who complained to him that he had stopped achieving and growing. Brian asked him what he had done differently, and they discovered he had stopped listening to and reading success literature. All he had to do, Tracy implies, is to start doing that again in order to have success.
Similarly, Dr Schwartz points out that Coca-Cola re-sells us on coke every generation and every summer, because otherwise we would cool on Coke and lose interest in it; so also we must re-sell ourselves on ourselves, discovering new enthusiasm and interest as we go along. So perhaps self-help books market our interest in ourselves, and refresh and renew our enthusiasm.
One long paean to the fun of self-help is Dale Dauten's "The Max Strategy", which presents experimentation and creativity as essential human functions of work, thereby effectively seeking to integrate work and leisure. Here is Dauten's daring view:
"'...you could do with a thirty percent increase in your productivity and your income, right?'
"I gave the expected answer.
"'Well, change all you can. Change enough so that people notice that you're changing. Arouse curiosity. Get a reputation for being an experimenter and people will bring their ideas to you.'"
- page 79, The Max Strategy, Dale Dauten.
The entire book celebrates how much fun it is to piddle around with our lives. On pages 79-80 he points out that the wellspring of ideas is to continually inventory problems, mistakes, and every daily custom. He says if you're going to change everything, start with problems, mistakes and customary actions. Change them first.
And isn't that what self-help books encourage us to do: change stuff around and see how it works?
Dauten suggests a three-fold inventory process: the List of Problems, the List of Duties, and the List of Mistakes. Essential we're dealing with resentments, fears, and guilt here, it seems, since problems can irritate people, duties can cause fear they might not be fulfilled, and mistakes can cause guilt. Dauten suggests inventorying old material for solutions and recombining it in new ways to come up with solutions for the problems list. For the duties, he suggests using analogy: that is, how is this like something else? And for mistakes, finally, he suggests we befriend our problems, and go into them and through them and out the other side. Mistakes, failure, catastrophe, can be openings to new things too.
Conclusion: present day success literature is the result of recombination of previous success literature with modern practices. As a result, experiments are born. By reading the success literature, one accesses this stream of experimentation and becomes inspired and encouraged to experiment oneself.
The best books, then, will be the source books read in conjunction with the modern classics. So here they are with their modern interpreters:
1. Epictetus, Enchiridion and Dialogs.
--> Peck, The Road Less Travelled. All the thought-changing-by-willpower advocates, from the extreme stoicism of Albert Ellis and David Burns to the milquetoast stoicism of Richard Carlson ("Don't Sweat the Small Stuff"). W Clement Stone's "Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude" and other PMA material.
2. Plato, all.
--> Carnegie "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Covey "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Fable books: Who Stole My Cheese, The Richest Man in Babylon, and The One Minute Manager, The Max Strategy, etc.
3. Aristotle, Metaphysics book I, Nichomachean Ethics book I and II, and Rhetoric book I.
--> Napoleon Hill, all; Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics; the "art of living" books by Brian Tracey, Mark Victor Hansen, Jack Canfield books; Julie Morgenstein; David Allen, Getting Things Done.
4. Epicurus - any anthology of his sayings. Lucretius' poem, De Rerum Natura, is the best single-source gloss of his ideas.
--> Robbins Awaken the Giant Within. Martha Beck. Robert Kiyosaki. A lot of coaching has epicurean qualities to it, with the focus on quality-of-life issues.
5. Psalms, Proverbs, and all the New Testament.
--> Peale: "The Power of Positive Thinking"; Schwartz "The Power of Thinking Big"; Dennis Waitley.