Self-Help Yourself

Christine Whelan | Posted on 04/01/09

Pop quiz: What’s the secret to success? Intelligence? Wealth? Luck? According to the vast and growing advice industry, the secret to success is sheer tenacity. From Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help to M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, the how-to of perseverance is the underlying theme of the best advice literature. This year, I embarked on a little experiment to see how these classic messages would play with a notoriously un-gritty crowd: Millennials. Can classic self-help books teach grit to college students?

“Self-help?” you snort, incredulous. “It’s not a real way to teach the virtue of grit. These are just silly feel-good books.” It’s okay; I get that a lot. Among the intellectual elite, self-help books are considered frivolous, yet they are invaluable windows into the social history and psychology of our country. When the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club asked read­ers nationwide which book had most influenced their lives, seven of the top thirteen books mentioned were self-help texts. In fact, 85 percent of psychologists recommend self-help books to their clients.

As a professor at the University of Iowa, I teach a course on American advice literature. Students read dozens of best-selling self-help texts and seek to understand the core values of the improvement industry. It’s easy to be critical of the overearnest genre: the writers, the inspirational stories, and the sometimes-trite happy endings are soft targets for cynical twenty-somethings. But simply tearing the books apart misses a crucial element of the story: these books are popular. Why?

Self-help books promise success through grit, and that’s an egalitarian message that resonates with readers young and old. In the world of advice literature, it’s perseverance, not genius, that predicts greatness.

With the economy in a downward spiral, I wondered if the advice industry might be due for a renaissance. I redesigned my course to allow students to try out some self-help advice on their own, with the hope that if they road-tested the advice themselves they might more fully understand the persuasive power of the genre. To start, we explored the four core virtues taught in the most popular American self-help books of history: perseverance, thrift, honesty, and self-control. Then students chose a few elements of advice to implement in their own lives. Finally, they reported back their findings: What advice worked, and what advice didn’t? Might the advice work in the future? Or is this all a bunch of hooey?

Here’s what I found: in times of economic trouble, modern self-help gurus and hot-off-the-press advice books are spinning the necessity of grit every which way. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel; classic texts — written well before the students in my self-help class were born — resonate with and inspire even the most cynical members of this Millennial cohort.

From the many perseverance texts on the market, I chose Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, written in England in 1859, and The Road Less Traveled, written by M. Scott Peck in 1978.

Self-Help has the subtitle “With Illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance” because Smiles believed that grit was necessary for all self-improvement. By highlighting examples of “great, but especially good men” to serve as “helps, guides and incentives” to his readers, Smiles teaches the importance of virtuous living. Perseverance, he argues, takes four key elements: individualism, discipline, the ability to overcome adversity, and a continuing desire to learn. And these 150-year-old messages resonated with my students.

Individual actions require repetition to achieve success, Smiles counsels. “Progress of the best kind is comparatively slow.”

For Kati, a senior, Smiles’s focus on small acts of perseverance made his advice “even more relatable to someone who is seeking self-help advice today. The importance of hard work, diligence, and perseverance is a timeless way to improve the success that anyone has in their life.”

But it was M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, written a decade or so before the students were born, that got the class really excited. In his 1978 guide, Peck told his readers that delaying gratification — scheduling pain first and pleasure later — was “the only decent way to live.” The human desire to avoid difficulties and suffering is the root of all mental illness, he argued, and since most of us try to avoid our problems, “most of us are mentally ill to a greater or lesser degree.”

Students in my self-help class called Peck a “personal cheerleader for someone who is going through a tough time.” The advice was “inspiring,” “thought-provoking,” and helpful for “getting priorities into perspective.”

In weekly essays and in-class discussions, students told stories of revoked job offers and uncertain career plans. Emily, a senior, had a job lined up at a Chicago firm where she’d worked for the previous summer. She was excited to start full-time in September, but because of economic cutbacks, the position was withdrawn. “My sense of security and future life plans suddenly disappeared during one short phone call,” she told me. Emily chose two elements of Peck’s advice to implement immediately: “Wise people learn not to dread but actually welcome problems,” and the value of scheduling the pain before the pleasure of life. “I have put both of these suggestions into practice and consequently feel significantly better about my future,” she told me in early February.

While her friends went out to parties, Emily searched for jobs. “I had to deal with numerous guilt trips and being called ‘lame.’ I realize that this is part of putting the pain before the pleasure and I had to pass up fun now so that I can secure a job and have fun later.” After a few weeks of searching, the interviews began, and within a month she had two job offers. “Because of The Road Less Traveled, I know that my problems have made me stronger and by putting the pain before the pleasure, I know I’m one step closer to reaching my goal.”

Peck tells readers that “with total discipline we can solve all problems.” This “just do it” mentality resonated with some students: Jacki, a senior, used Peck’s advice to discipline herself to get more exercise. “I have not been satisfied with my physical health for four years now,” she said. “I have started to make myself get off the couch and head to the gym. I now work out anywhere from two to four times a week, which is miraculous because I used to spend hours in front of the television.”

But the sweepingly broad claim that discipline can solve all problems was grating to other Millennials. They repeatedly and correctly noted that some inequalities or economic realities were difficult to overcome with only disciplined, individual grit.

“Although I wish this was a true statement, it is not,” said Rachel, a senior who had optimistically implemented Peck’s advice when the company she’d hoped to work for after graduation announced a hiring freeze. “I turned in all my homework on time, went to every class, studied, took steps to prepare for interviews, got involved in extracurricular activities to gain more experience, et cetera,” she complained. Why wasn’t that enough?

“Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom,” writes Peck. “Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to growth and development of the spirit.” According to Peck, while weaker folks might avoid problems by procrastination, drugs and alcohol, or just ignoring them, the strong person, the one who will follow him on the road less traveled, will use four tools of discipline to conquer life’s challenges:


  • Delaying gratification. How do you eat cake? Peck asked one of his patients. Do you eat the frosting first, going straight for that sugary goodness, or do you eat the cake itself, saving the frosting to enjoy at the end? Delaying gratification takes grit but pays off in the long run. 

    Michelle, a sophomore, says she used to be good at delaying pleasure and doing the homework and other necessities first, but in college, without her parents to monitor her, it’s been harder. “I now seem to eat my frosting first, when I never used to.” Michelle says she’d tried to blame peer pressure, but she admits that a bit more delayed gratification would help her back on the right path. “I think the reason this book has become so popular ... is due to the fact that it can be related to anyone’s life. It really inspired me to buckle down.” 
  • Responsibility. Before we can solve a problem, we must accept responsibility for it, Peck writes. Like Smiles before him, Peck believes in the power of the individual to change his or her life. Stop making excuses for your problems and fix them yourself. People who avoid responsibility have a character disorder, Peck writes. Saying things like “I can’t” or “I had to” means you are letting the world control you and abdicating responsibility for your own role in your problems.

    For Andrew, a junior, the message of responsibility was one that he hoped would permeate society at large. “In our current way of life it is so easy to just brush aside your problems and move on with your life, but Peck made it very clear that accepting responsibility for our actions is what ultimately allows us to become a better person.” 
  • Dedication to the truth. Peck tells readers that our view of reality is like a map. Just as we’ll get lost if a map is incorrect, if our view of reality is incorrect, we’ll make poor choices. The Road Less Traveled, then, is a guide to recreating a life map that will put readers on the correct path for success. Readers must face the truth, find the real map, and live life accordingly. By avoiding challenge, we avoid the truth. 

    “This exercise really helped show me that I can make subtle changes in my life that have a big impact,” said Josh, a freshman. “In order to be responsible for myself I have to be true to myself. In order to be true to myself, I need to be patient and able to reflect on the situation, so all these areas tie in together. For me to be a better and more well-rounded person, I believe it is important for me to make these changes permanent.” 
  • Balance. All these elements are incomplete without a balance between responsibility and self-blame, between pleasure and pain. Balance means patience with yourself and with the world around you, writes Peck. It means controlling your anger and recognizing the role of faith in your life. Balance requires discipline and feeds a disciplined life. 


Kim, a well-spoken senior, found the balance section most useful because it helped her deal with anger at work, where she manages several other employees. With her short temper, “it has been difficult for me to keep my cool at work because I find it very easy to get angry when people make mistakes or are lazy,” she says. After reading the Peck advice and attempting better balance of her emotions, she has “drastically reduced the amount of stress” at work. Instead of getting angry, she takes a more measured approach. But because she’s often frustrated, this behavioral change means digging deep: “It has required serious commitment and perseverance to be able to step outside the situation and approach it from a different angle.”

College students graduating in 2009 have known only economic success ... and are now entering one of the worst financial climates in American history. Born around 1988, these young men and women grew up in a time of unrivaled prosperity but now face double-digit unemployment rates, higher than any in their lifetimes. Millennials have grown up with the Internet and instant gratification, a world where multitasking was more valued than focus. Now, as they look ahead to a challenging start to their adult lives, might they need new skills? Will perseverance be increasingly considered an admirable character trait?

In lean times, a generation of young adults will be called upon to demonstrate their grit.   

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