Biographies better than self-help books

Christopher Farai Charamba The Reader
I consider myself a wide reader, someone who is generally knowledgeable on most subjects. My preference is more for fiction than fact when it comes to leisure reading because my day job keeps me up to speed on real life events.A student of history, my academic background means I’ve read quite a bit of historical accounts as well. I have the penchant for autobiographies and memoirs. The stories of great and infamous men and women and how they became so always fascinate and provide me with valuable life lessons.

One genre, however, that has failed to capture my attention is self-help books. Books that purport to provide a reader with step by step instructions on how to achieve success don’t inspire me in any form and I struggle to get to the end of one, sometimes even the first chapter.

Zimbabwe seems to have caught the self-help bug with a noticeable increase in books by random motivational speakers and life coaches turning up on the streets. I often wonder if these same individuals have read their own work and applied what they prescribe because many don’t seem to have the success they are peddling.

Perhaps it is a case of those who cannot do, teach.

That is my biggest problem with some of these self-help books, that many of the authors are not in a position where they should be dictating the rules and steps to success. They are like a marriage counsellor who has never been married, how valid is their understanding of what it is they are saying?

Many of these books currently found on the street are not written by psychologists or individuals with experience in the relative field, but by someone with Google and a printer who has an insatiable desire to call themselves an author.

This is what I have particularly found in the Zimbabwean context.

As for self-help books from elsewhere, the focus always tends to be on the individual and how if you make these few changes then your situation will completely change.

These books tend to neglect the social, political and economic context of the individual and take on a one-size-fits all approach.

Any book that has a prescription for you to follow to achieve wealth or success is perhaps not going to get you there. If it did, then the millions of people who make these books international bestsellers would all be rich and accomplished, no?

My recommendation for those who want to achieve certain things, is to read the books of and about the people who have gone before and achieved what you aspire to achieve.

Biographies and memoirs carry more useful information in terms of how to achieve certain things than self-help books. The stories of accomplished individuals often show the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. By reading a wide variety of these accounts you realise that each individual’s path was different from the next and while there might be some characteristics they shared, there is no one formula for success.

For young people it is recommended that if you want to go far in your field or in life you should get a mentor to guide you. For me, biographies and memoirs are a form of mentorship particularly if you do not have access to these individuals.

One thing you are likely to find in memoirs and biographies which is sometimes missing in self-help books are relatable situations and practical experienced examples of scenarios. One can then make a personal inference and map out for themselves how best to overcome that particular situation from what they have read of another’s story.

The common saying is that experience is the best teacher, however, one doesn’t have to put their own hand in the fire to know that it will burn them. The scars on another should be deterrent enough.

Through biographies and memoirs, one can learn from the experiences of those who have walked the path they intend to walk more than they can from the so-called self-help books.

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