An Example of What You Can Get out of a Self-Helpy Book When You Must

by Aug 10, 2019Books, Culture, Worldview3 comments

My company offers incentives to employees every year to read business books. By this means I have gotten through some self-helpy stuff I admit I would have disdained otherwise. To be honest, I feel icky when I read books that purport to lead you to a successful life and yet omit to mention the God of eternal power and divine nature that, Romans 1 says, the books’ authors can’t not know is there—and is not silent. Maybe I’m the weaker brother here; but I just have a hard time stomaching the secularism and implicit Pelagianism. And yet I’m a firm believer in common grace, so I’m eager to acknowledge that 1) nearly anyone who writes a business book knows more about the topic than I do and 2) I’ve gotten some bits of genuine wisdom worth having from these books. Recently I read two such books which, no surprise, led me back to a specifically Christian truth about love.


Rory Sutherland in Alchemy tells story after story showing that humans don’t have complete access to their own motivations, their “psychologic.” But, he argues, if product designers and marketers can work to discover that psychologic, they can come up with clever solutions to all kinds of problems, many of which we don’t yet even see. (For whatever reason, the suggestions that most fascinated me had to do with restructuring the seating on the metro [British English: “tube”] so as to reward riders who choose to take up less space. He suggested little bumps/stools built into the wall.)

Why we should bother to do all this creative work is left to the reader’s worldview. I presume that “making more money” will be the motivation for many or most readers. This book appeals to no explicit system of values. But the reader comes away convinced that Rory Sutherland is clever and not too conceited about it. (Well, this reader did. Other readers, says Goodreads, thought he was bragging the whole time about his cleverness. Unfortunately, that is also a possible read of the book.)

Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak is the third in a series of books that—the authors are right to say in their conclusion—has probably run its course. I’ve read all three. The schtick is probably played out sufficiently, and it’s fundamentally similar to that of Sutherland in Alchemy: pay attention to human incentives and how people operate, and you can get stuff done better with and for other people. We shall not say “pay attention to human incentives and how people operate, and you can manipulate people,” because the authors’ motives seem to me to be more altruistic than that. They are helping tackle some important questions, such as diminishing societal obesity and catching terrorists, in which the ends of public health and safety justify a few means that bear resemblance to experiments performed on rats.

But here’s what stuck out to me as I listened again to the entertaining but now-a-bit-cliched stories in the third of the three Freakonomics books: Dubner and Levitt actually do get into worldview, into evaluating motivations. And they say, toward the end of their book, that love has to drive you if you hope to live up to the ideals they promote.

If you love your work (or your activism or your family time), then you’ll want to do more of it. You’ll think about it before you go to sleep and as soon as you wake up; your mind is always in gear. When you’re that engaged, you’ll run circles around other people even if they are more naturally talented. From what we’ve seen personally, the best predictor of success among young economists and journalists is whether they absolutely love what they do.

Right after this quote, the authors let their insight lapse a bit into platitude (that is no less true for being a cliché): love your work, and you’ll never work a day in your life. But I’d like to explore their insight in the above paragraph.

Because it is all fine, and it is all good, to watch other people be clever. But how are you ever going to come up with that key idea that will work Alchemy on your product sales, your public health project, your book manuscript? What can you do to increase your creativity, enabling you to Think Like a Freak? Or is it just a gift, and you have it or you don’t?

Dubner and Levitt’s answer in that paragraph is love. And I think as a Christian that they have to be right. What little success I’ve seen in my field of writing for the church has come when love for people who are not currently seeing particular divinely revealed truths has so consumed me that I have endlessly mulled over how to open their eyes. My wife knows when this is happening, because as the old King James says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” I talk about it with her. I’d like to think some of my recent work has stumbled into a niche no one really saw before; I didn’t even know I’d discovered it until love drove me into it and I looked up to see where I was. (Permission to change metaphors, sir? Granted.) I have been astonished how many insights grow in a field watered by love. The creative ideas just keep coming. I have many thousands more words written that I haven’t published because I assume others are probably tired of hearing from me. I’m actually going to need to stop loving because I need to be done with this topic…

Reading anecdotes in self-helpy business books can surely help prime the pump of good ideas. It’s funny and inspiring to see people gifted by common grace using their God-given brains cleverly. But love is like the water pressure in the pump. If there’s no love driving you, creative ideas will not flow.

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  1. Edward Vasicek

    Good article. Thanks. I read the book “Freakonomics” and several others like it (Thinking Fast and Slow, etc.) and find them helpful in limited but unique ways.
    Self-help books come in quite a spread. The books you are talking about engage the mind, and the authors think deeply, even if not always in a Christian way. Others, however, are shallow and a whole lot less analytical, esp. when they are written by authors without PhDs!

  2. Bobo Beck

    Thank you for your humility in this post, reading and digesting a genre of books that you wouldn’t otherwise without the encouragement of your organization. For me “self-helpy” books can provide immense amount of practical insight, case study, perspective, etc. What is often not addressed is the heart motives behind wanting to do X, Y, or Z or to get help improving in _________ area of your life and profession. On the surface, this industry exists because people and organizations want to improve. Yet the industry can also exploit our heart’s inclination towards money, power, actualization, and the subsequent influence as well as meaning self-help influencers and authors often promise.


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