What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods. — Thomas Paine

Here’s the thing with self-help books: most of them are bad.

It hurts me to say so, because I love self-help books. They’ve changed my life in many ways. But self-help is a field that loves easy fixes, tolerates baseless claims, and distrusts credentials, and this means discerning readers must sift through a lot of junk to find a gem.

Fortunately, there’s a litmus test you can give a book that will tell you, with a high degree of certainty, whether it’s worth reading or not.

First, let’s clarify what self-help books are for.

The point of self-help

The point of self-help is to enable us to solve problems.

A self-help book is a map—we’re at point A and we want to reach point B. We want to believe that there’s an easy path to our destination—that if we just knew the way, we’d be home free.

99% of the time, this just isn’t true. But many self-help books tell us otherwise. They preach an easy path to losing weight, or becoming organized, or getting a handle on our finances. These things are not easy to do—not for long, anyway. No such path exists.

But there’s always a path that works. It may be a difficult path, but it’s proven. Tried and true. Illuminating a path that works is what self-help is all about.

Beware of easy

Easy sells books, though, and hard doesn’t. It takes integrity to write the naked truth—the path ahead of you is hard—when one could fudge things and sell a lot more books. In fact, this is such a common feature of bad self-help that you can use it as a rule of thumb:

If a self-help book emphasizes “easy,” don’t read it.

The best self-help books tell a different tale. They say, “It’s hard, but you’re up to it. Let me show you the way.”