I Have Never Been More Proud to Write Self-Help Online
I’ve also never felt more like an impostor
I want you to understand how it feels to be a self-help writer in 2020.
Not because I want you to be one or because I want your admiration or sympathy but because, whether you realize it or not, you’re reading self-help every day, and if you don’t know where it’s coming from — who, why, what emotional and mental place — you can’t judge it accurately, let alone interpret it well or implement it in your life in a way that’s actually helpful.
My name is Niklas Göke, and I write self-help on the internet. It’s a job I’ve been doing for six years, and I have never felt more proud to do this work than today. I’ve also never felt more insecure about it.
No one on earth sets out to be a self-help writer. That’s the first thing you must know. Have you ever heard a 12-year-old say: “When I grow up, I want to give people advice!”? I haven’t.
You become a self-help writer because you want to be any writer but don’t know which kind. You start using writing to structure your thinking because, well, writing is thinking. You may also use it to process your emotions. Maybe, you just like telling stories to exercise your creativity muscle.
Whichever it is, at some point, you share one of those stories publicly, mostly because you can’t help it. It might just be your ego talking, but it’ll feel like the call of destiny. You have no idea what you have to say, but you know you have to say something, and so, eventually, you speak up. You’re itching for feedback from people who won’t hold back. You want to be held accountable. And maybe, just maybe, you even fall for the foolish notion you might help someone.
Then, all you have to do is repeat that process a thousand times for a thousand days and, suddenly, you’ll be a self-help writer. It sounds hard but it’s easy. At least if you’re driven by what I’ve described, not some weak desire for quick money. Writing is all gamified these days. The likes, the shares, the feedback — it’s addicting, and if you have any predisposition towards writing whatsoever, an inkling of positive reinforcement will be more than enough to propel you from post to post. You’re having fun. You’re indulging. You’d do it for free. You are doing it for free. At least for most of your journey.
One day, you’ll look around and realize you have thousands of followers. That you’re reaching millions. You’ll have some credentials, a track record to show, and maybe even a full-time income to keep the party going indefinitely. Everyone and their brother will have an opinion. A lot of people will beat down your door, tell you their life’s story, and ask for advice you can’t give. It’ll be beautiful, humbling, and there’ll never be a boring day in your life.
It’ll also be a lot of responsibility.
In 2020, more people have lost their jobs than have been born. That’s something to chew on, but when the pandemic first hit early in the year, like most people, I was mainly chewing on my own problems.
That’s the second thing you must know: Self-help writers fall into the trap of self-obsession as easily as anyone else. It’s all too human to be self-centered, and even though it’s our job not to be, we forget.
It was scary, eerie, and yet somewhat awe-inspiring to see how, across three different, largely unrelated platforms, my views and income plummeted 50% overnight as the world’s attention was collectively sucked in by news about the virus, and even though I had to make payroll, not for a second did I have to doubt whether my basic needs would be secured, which is a lot more than a lot more people could say.
I remembered that, six years ago, I posted my first dollar made online on Facebook. $7.50 via PayPal. For a few months, I shared a message along the lines of, “If you’re not working on a way to earn some of your income online, soon, you’ll be screwed.” Eventually, I gave up on that message. I felt like a broken clock. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
It didn’t feel like a victory to remember this in March. Being right felt empty and hollow. I’d have traded it for “one ‘No Crisis’, please” in a second. It did, however, pull my head out of the sand.
I realized I was lucky to have a job at all, let alone one so barely affected by a disease sweeping the entire planet. It was nice to see that reading — and thus writing — was still needed, and it felt weird to try and “follow the money” when millions of people had lost the trail altogether. I felt stupid for writing what I hoped would be popular, what I hoped would go viral and make thousands of dollars.
“I should be writing what matters, and I should do it with all the energy I can muster,” I thought. That’s what “doing your part” means for a self-help writer, and even though I’ll have to come around to it many times over, for now, it gave me the courage to quit chasing the dollar, to quit the hamster wheel of endless output and hunker down to write the stories that really matter. In a financial sense, I had been free to do so for quite some time; to do what’s scary but important instead of what’s easy but irrelevant, but, as often in life, making the decision was the hardest part.
Funny, the irony: As a self-help writer, in doing your part for others, you’re also doing your part for yourself, because when your job is to help people with words, putting yourself in the position where you can choose the best, deepest, most meaningful words available to you is actually part of said job.
The bigger your audience as a self-help writer, the bigger your responsibility. This responsibility can be scary, and it’s easier to pursue money or popularity than live up to it. That’s the third thing you must know, and though each self-help writer will go through such phases, it’s never too late for them to step up.
When you look in the mirror, do you want to support the person you see?
I’m not asking if you think you can. I’m not asking if you think you deserve it. I’m asking you if you want to.
Every article I write only serves this purpose: For you to treat yourself like someone you are willing to help. That’s it, and that’s the next thing you must know. Nothing more, nothing less.
I don’t want you to “adopt my perfect goal-setting system.” I can’t heal your depression. I don’t have a map for finding love or getting rich. I have ideas, but I’m not expecting any of them to work like a key magically opening a lock, and neither should you.
What I do hope from the bottom of my heart is that each idea will get you to root a little more for yourself than you did yesterday. “This girl in the mirror? She’s pretty okay. Let me try and support her.” That’s all I’m asking for.
I’d like to think I’m successful in this mission at least some of the time, and it’s a mission I’m on because I was raised this way when many, many other people weren’t. I had a near-flawless childhood full of optimism, hope, fun, and love. I grew up with so much of it, my cup is constantly overflowing. It took me a while to understand how to use this overflow for good rather than just let it dissipate into thin air, but I think with writing, I’ve found the perfect vessel.
“You are awesome. You are complete. You are perfect as you are, and you should use that perfection to do awesome things. You deserve help, love, and fun along the way, and if you treat yourself like you do, you will receive all of them and more.”
It’s a message I believe in, and that’s why I write. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty in it for me. A quiet life. Money. Some fame among nerds, perhaps. My ego is well-covered.
We overemphasize the “self” aspect in self-help writing because it’s good marketing. “Make a million by yourself. Get healthy by yourself. Become happy by yourself.” There’s always much inner work involved, but if you read someone’s article on any of said topics, you didn’t really do it all by yourself, did you? Actually, you got help — and that’s perfectly okay.
That’s what it comes down to: Self-help is just help. No one pulls themself up completely by their own bootstraps. Reading books is getting help. Letting someone inspire you is getting help.
My help is optimism, self-love, and confidence. These are the goods I provide. Every writer’s selection is different, and that’s the last thing you must know. Choose wisely.
I didn’t set out to be a self-help writer, and I don’t think anyone does. Some use it as a cloak for profiteering, but the writer who genuinely cares does so precisely because she knows she’s no more enlightened than you. It is her insecurity, paired with naïve optimism, that drives her to want to make a positive difference in your life and thus calm her relentless, inner Jiminy Cricket, telling her she has something she must share, something to pass on.
Despite what it may look like on the outside, most self-help writers have an acute awareness of the responsibility they carry. This does not protect them from the flaws of being human. They too get lost in a version of reality where they are at its center, and their mind will try to shield them from the pressure of leading an ever-growing audience by telling them to just focus on the next hit, the next pay day, the next zero attached to some number. It takes time to shake this off, and it’s a battle that never ends, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win enough rounds to produce something worthwhile, something deserving of your reading, support, and time.
Every self-help writer writes for different reasons, and those reasons determine what outcomes their writing will supply. It takes them a while to discover those reasons and understand what product they’re shipping, but that should never stop you from choosing what you read carefully. I write so you may treat yourself like a true friend, and if an ally in the mirror is what you’re looking for, you and I may have some beautiful interactions. If you already see that friend in your reflection, you may need something else — another writer’s product, perhaps, or even a little wordsmithing business of your own.
Like all humans, self-help writers aren’t perfect, and that’s why self-help is far from a perfect industry. It does, however, offer a lot of meaning, empathy, and hope — if only you look in the right places. I hope my place will be one of the right ones.
My name is Niklas Göke, and I write self-help on the internet.