Message in a Bottle
The Habits of Highly Effective Self-Help Books

This past week, author and business professor Stephen Covey, whose 1989 leadership manifesto The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sold more than 20 million copies, passed away due to complications from a bike accident. He was 79, and in addition to all of his extraordinary professional accomplishments, Covey leaves behind a wife, nine children, and a whopping fifty-two grandchildren. If that isn’t a highly effective person, I don’t know what is.

The one thing I know about self-help authors is that they tend to write the books they need for themselves. When I was an assistant editor in New York, I worked with a woman recovering from a bitter divorce who was writing a marriage advice book, a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder who had survived two heart attacks about to publish his seventh book on living stress-free, and a soap opera actress known for her diva behavior on set working on a book about humility and gratitude. I found it so ironic to watch authors give out advice (and good advice!) that they couldn’t always seem to take for themselves.

Which leads me to the reason I think Covey was such a successful and special self-help author: The guy lived his own advice. He was a walking advertisement for his message. We don’t always see that with self-help authors, and when you’re choosing books in this category, I recommend you examine the author as closely as their credentials. Remember, it’s a lot easier to give advice than to take it. For example, I’d take marriage advice from John Gottman (married over twenty years with one child and 40 years of breakthrough marriage research) over Steve Harvey (married three times and accused of cheating by an ex-wife).

Another shining example of living their message is Kay Redfield Jamison, who started off with an unforgettable memoir about her struggle with bipolar disorder and went on to write numerous books about coping with and understanding mental illness and moods. She’s not a self-help author exactly, but she definitely has offered hope, education, and inspiration to an enormous readership. Both a tenured professor of psychiatry and a patient with first-hand experience, Jamison lives and exemplifies the positive outcomes of her thoughts and advice, much like Covey.

I’ll leave diet books for another time, but I will pause to suggest you avoid dieting advice from Kirstie Alley. Walter Willett (chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School) would be a better resource. And keep in mind that the newest advice isn’t always the best, so you might want to remain on the skeptical side when it comes to fads.

Finally, I’m going to touch on one of my favorite self-help authors of all time, Richard Carlson. He had a Ph.D. in psychology, was married for over twenty-five years, and the father of two girls. The irony? Carlson died at age forty-five of a pulmonary embolism during a flight from San Francisco to New York. Was he sweating the small stuff? I guess we’ll never know, but my understanding was he was a terrible workaholic in his younger years. His advice is so simple and practical, but also some of the hardest to put into practice. With Carlson I think the magic was in the way he put things. Even if we have a hard time “stepping back and seeing the bigger picture,” it’s a comforting thing to read.

After all, we read self-help books not only for their advice, but for the comfort, reassurance, and inspiration that we are not alone in struggling with our problems. Stephen Covey will live on by giving those feelings back to generations of readers that will have never known him as a living author. Talk about effective.

—Miriam