Why Self Help Books Are Not For Me

Managing Partner Susannah Clarke explains why systems thinking is far more useful than any self-help book and how true epiphanies come when people think outside themselves and beyond their own experience.


If you visit your local library, bookshop or Amazon catalogue, the list of self-help books is overwhelming. You can self-help your way to being a good parent, a good friend, a good leader, more self-confident, less anxious, even how to stop reading self-help books!!

You get the picture.

Sometimes I wonder if this culture of self-help is causing us to limit our perimeter and preventing us from seeing the real gems that exist when we learn from others.  If we do seek help, how wide do we look? What can we learn from outside our immediate sphere of influence or comfort zone?


I was inspired to consider all of this by a recent TED talk from Barbara Natterson-Horowitz on ‘What veterinarians know and doctors don’t’. Barbara is Professor of Medicine in Cardiology at UCLA and she is pioneering to break down the barriers between the medical profession, who focus on a single area. i.e. humans, and learn from veterinarians who, of course, train to work across many species.

It turns out that Vets have been working successfully on solutions for conditions in animals which also exist in humans, and yet until recently, it hasn’t been common to share this knowledge with Doctors.


At a recent conference, I heard that when a UK bus company were looking to reduce their costs, they identified fuel consumption as their big ticket item for improvement.

They also appreciated that in order to create radical change, they needed to look beyond their own experience, which prompted them to look outside their industry to see what they could learn from others.

The result?  Having visited a Formula 1 team, they are installing the regenerative braking technology developed for F1 cars. The time that these heavy buses spend in traffic, stopping and starting, makes for lots of opportunities to gather and then deploy energy. Their buses may not reach the speeds of an F1 car, but the braking technology will deliver a whopping 20% in fuel efficiency.


I’m a coach.  I truly believe in the power of what’s inside my clients and how they can harness their own energy to achieve great things. Many of their epiphanies come when they think outside themselves, when they think about greenfield opportunities, consider other environments and different territories – when they make connections between something external and something they already know.

Dr. Deming was quite clear on this subject. He said; “A system cannot understand itself – transformation requires a view from outside.”  We see this requirement for a wider vision in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, particularly.

A model showing how Systems Thiking, Psychology, Variation, and Theory of Knowledge are all connected in a Systems Thinking approach

Systems Thinking: understanding organisations as systems, with processes that are interdependent and the influence on them from external factors.

Deming was referring to the fact that without coordination and leadership of the system as a whole (by its top managers), the system cannot optimise. To transform the entire organisation, leaders need to step out of the system to observe the full picture before creating their theories. Often it can take an external coach or a brand new team member to offer an alternative lens with which to view the system.


On a personal note, I have a lot to thank David Attenborough for. I was wrestling with the emotions of my eldest daughter leaving home to go to university when I happened to be watching a David Attenborough programme about teenage lions learning to hunt, feed and wrestle with each other in preparation for leaving the pride and fending for themselves.

The cubs of course had instincts, but they also observed their mothers hunting, copying their techniques. Also, the female lions observed them and addressed mistakes such as pawing the nose of a cub whose up-pointing tail blew their cover. Eventually, the cubs were ready for independence, having PDSA’d their way through adolescence. Even though they left the pride, they continued to adapt their behaviour and techniques to the new environments and new lions that they came into contact with – the art of learning having been instilled.

I learnt that leaving home is a natural and evolutionary process and have since cancelled my copy of ‘The Self Help Guide to Managing an Empty Nest’; thanks, David!


About Susannah

Managing Partner at PMI, Susannah is passionate about the development of leaders and partnering with them to help sharpen their performance edge and realise their full potential.  Connect with Susannah Clarke on LinkedIn.


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