01/29/2012 11:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Self-Help Is for Suckers

We're smack dab in the middle of self-help season. Websites are running their annual "How to Make Your Resolutions Stick" stories; bookstores are devoting front-and-center display space to the topic. And yet, just three weeks into 2012, our personal wish lists for self-improvement are already fizzling. Many of us are already transitioning from the wide-eyed idealism of Jan. 1 to a more sober resignation of maybe next year.

Why can it be so hard to make the life changes we seek?

Because we often think about self-help in all the wrong ways, and it comes back to haunt us when the going gets tough. It's hard to blame us. Just consider what some of the supposed gurus of self-help tell us to do in their books, blogs, and TV appearances -- look at the questions that Dr. Phil, for example, tells us to ask ourselves:

  • What are the 10 most defining moments of your life?
  • What are the seven most critical choices you have made to put you on your current path?
  • Who are the five most pivotal people in your world and how have they shaped you?

Dr. P would have you believe that questions like these hold the key to improving the person you are. But look more closely. These questions have a common link -- and I don't just mean their use of arbitrary digits that seem more likely to have come from fortune cookie lucky numbers than any sort of actual research.

More importantly, these questions share the assumption that there's a true or core self residing within each of us. And that introspection is the way to discover it.

But the thing about introspection is that it gives you different conclusions under different circumstances. And locating your core self? Well, who we are as people is also dynamic and context-dependent.

Are you looking to be a happier, more productive, more successful person? Are you in the market for self-help? Then the better advice is stop putting so much effort into finding your "authentic" self. Learn to embrace the self as flexible.

Consider one study of students at Stanford, who were asked to serve as pen pals with "at-risk" middle-schoolers. The college students were instructed to offer encouragement to the younger kids by explaining in their letters that they, too, had struggled at times in school, but eventually persevered and found academic success. They were told to emphasize the idea that natural ability is overrated-that intelligence "is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity."

Did these letters help the middle-school students bounce back from adversity? It's impossible to say -- the letters were never delivered. But the mere experience of writing them had a lasting impact on the college students themselves: Months later, the letter-writers were still reporting greater enjoyment of school than were other Stanford undergrads. Their grade point averages were higher, too, by a full third of a point on a four-point scale.

You see, viewing the self as a static and stable entity is what puts us on the defensive and leads to chronic self-deception in the face of setback. When you accept that the answer to "Who am I?" should be written in pencil and not pen, threats become opportunities. Failures transform into life lessons. Even if this isn't how you usually see things, it's not too late to start now.

Yet another study -- this one from Hong Kong -- illustrates how easy it is to change how you think about yourself. Researchers gave students one of two different, ostensibly scientific articles -- articles that either depicted intelligence in static or flexible terms. Those led to think of intelligence as a fixed quantity took the easy way out: They didn't persist on tasks in the wake of poor performance, and they avoided taking on new challenges later. Only students told that intelligence was malleable showed the stick-to-it-iveness necessary to improve their performance down the line.

OK, so self-help isn't really for suckers. (Hey, my new book, Situations Matter, is sitting on that front-and-center table at bookstores this month, and I'm not complaining.) The motivation for self-improvement is indisputably admirable. But the problem is that too often, we just don't think about self-help the right way.

What should the self-help gurus be telling you?

That the aftermath of failure is precisely when you need to remember that the self is flexible.

That you're better off focusing on effort and other controllable factors, and not on fixed aptitude.

To forget about "not being a ____ kind of person," whatever the presumed deficit in your supposedly authentic self may be.

Bad grade on your paper? Lousy earnings projections for the quarter? First one voted off the reality dancing show? There are dangers to chalking up setback to a lack of ability or a glaring limitation of your true self. Instead, force yourself to make a list of the changeable factors -- internal and external -- that can bring about better outcomes the next time around.

Because whether in California or Hong Kong, good things happen when you embrace the self as malleable. Regardless of what you read in the self-help aisle, you don't have to lose sleep hunting for your core identity or reconnecting with your inner you. Chicken soup for your soul and numbered questions are overrated.

For more by Sam Sommers, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: