Literature and books

Pretty obvious: management and self-help books never surprise

What have management and self-help books ever done for us?

photo of tony robbins

Tony Robbins: sent to save YOU

For some, there is something indefinably magnetic about the confident, tanned, smiling face of the management guru staring out from the book’s cover as you pass it in the bookshop or library; all gleaming teeth and pristine collar, he is frozen in time, with perhaps just a little too much makeup giving him the demeanor of an auto-icon; the photographer has been privileged to catch the man’s only static moment of the day, coming as he has from a business lunch, and going to a video-conference with the Chinese clients; and below his clean-shaven, square-but-not-too-square jaw line, three reasons why you, yes you, need to buy this book. Why you, yes you, do not know something that he, only he, does know, something you’ll never ever find it out, unless you buy or borrow this book, even if you lived for a thousand years, or went to the ends of the earth questioning the wisest people in the darkest corners of the most distant continents, or set a quantum super-computer to solve the problem sometime in the next millennium.

You’ve got to buy it – despite the hefty price-tag – and you do. You even read some of it.

One simple formula

I have done this numerous times. It was years ago now. In recent years, needing an excuse, I offered simply the reasons of youth and naivety for my folly. An Englishman, at least outside of London, does not want to be seen with management or self-help books. The rise of such books took place across the Atlantic. And – as with so many other aspects of north American culture – naturally found fertile soil in the shifting, eclectic and sometimes gullible landscape of British culture. But a suspicion of the American way of life reaches deep into major strands of every class and economic group in British society, from Totnes to Ullapool – a distrust and dislike of what is seen as the crass, the arrogant, but most of all: The Successful.

photo of alan partridge

Alan Partridge’s three-point management formula: Think, Act, That’s it.

I am of course generalising, both about British attitudes to American culture, specifically business culture, and also about that great and often – to us – unusual country. And while I disagree with the British sentiment, an attitude I think has held us back, there is an element of truth in it. Because as I read or tried to read these business, self-help and motivational books (call them what you will), with every one of them, one thing became so glaringly obvious that I began to wonder how sales of this type of book had been sustained for so long. During one of Steve Coogan’s live comedy shows in the 1990s, his character Alan Partridge gave a presentation for which he had boiled down all the management techniques ever written down, arriving at one simple formula. That, for all the apparently different methods, across different industries, in all the business and personal motivational techniques, the ultimate method of how to achieve one’s ends was extremely simple: Think, Act, That’s it. When I saw this show, it crystalised for me what had long been growing in my mind. And with a combination of embarrassment and admiration for the phenomenon that is Steve Coogan, I realised I had been a fool.

Role models

I had been taught a costly and time-consuming lesson. Sometimes I pull such books off the library shelf and each sentence is nothing but an exercise in stating the bleeding obvious, as Basil Fawlty said of his wife’s ramblings.

And if I am right – who knows, I may be – then what a lot of energy, paper and time is wasted on such things. Moreover, what does it say about our dignity as individuals and as a society, about how we set our priorities and who we have as our role models? For it still goes on of course, not least on our television screens with immensely successful shows such as The Apprentice.

Perhaps the only point of the books I read was that someone did something, it worked, and you could do it too… even if what they did could have been dreamt up by the average person, even an average person recovering from a medically-induced deep slumber.

I exclude many of the useful self-help books on physical and mental health issues. These are a lifeline for some and are usually written by experienced professionals. They are far more useful.

And there are, of course, many other more technical books on management methods, yet even these tend heavily towards the patronisingly obvious. It’s a good job no public or private money is ever spent on such techniques, say on training courses and the like…

Perhaps I am being a little trite here. Perhaps, in a few of these books, I’ve picked up the odd useful snippet, a half-sentence here, a bullet-point there, that gave me if not a truth hitherto unknown to me, then merely a banal reminder of something I had long known but had forgotten due to having had to think of more interesting things.

Related external link:

> Article: Idiot gurus and moronic buzzwords

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Apologies for the late arrival of this post. Attempts to move house and sort out the design of this website hindered.


Copyright © 2012 David Hansard /
All articles on are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.



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