Escaping The Glass Castle of Theoretical Self-Help

Building a voice that is genuine and powerful

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I sat there, my eyes glassily looking at the screen in front of me, as my brain scrambled to find any scrap of evidence worth sharing in response to her question, like a man who’s forgotten his anniversary and is frantically searching the house for any semblance of a passable gift.

My instructor repeated the question: “Can you give me some examples of how you put these thoughts into practice?”

This was the exit interview for my Master’s program. I had spouted delightful answers to all of the previous questions. I had quoted the stoics, referenced the World Wars, even slipped in a nod to great writers and works of literature from the last century and beyond. I felt confident in my responses, sure of my studies, and positively dazzling. Until she asked that question.

I stumbled through the answer, giving reference to a few ill-based attempts that in some secondary or subtle way proved that I was putting all that I had learned into practice. Sure, I could have pointed to the way my studies were strengthening my job, my close friendships or even my writing. Yet, all of those examples were still fairly personal and largely private, individualistic in nature.

The instructor looked at me, gave a sad smile and said this profound sentence:

“Beware of becoming a theoretical professor and never truly sharing yourself with others.”

According to Mark Manson, the “self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.” The possibility and potential success available is alluring. In an age where seemingly anyone can share their thoughts on anything, self-help is booming. Right now, self-help is royal. It’s the castle on the hill, above the clouds, ethereal in nature. And everybody wants a slice of royalty.

The internet is full of coaches, guides, gurus, or instructors. You can slap the title “expert” onto the end of any skill and suddenly you have a marketable title. In such a saturated, fast-paced environment, it is easy to take shortcuts or fall into the traps that litter the path towards becoming a known voice in the self-help world. One of the easiest, most subtle ways to head off in the wrong direction is to start spouting or writing what boils down to theoretical self-help. Put another way, giving advice without any true experience.

Theoretical self-help can come across as confidence and bravado, but when it the veneer gets exposed and is proven empty, you put yourself at risk of looking foolish.

My wife is a pediatric ICU nurse. A few months ago, she was working over the weekend and I went to her hospital to drop off a snack and a fun treat, just as a small thank you. While I was there, we ended up having the chance to visit the daughter of a friend’s of ours on a different floor. While we were visiting, our friend asked my wife a medical question about something related to her daughter’s treatment. Before my wife could answer, my brain pulled an answer out from my one college anatomy and physiology course and I answered our friend’s question. I came across confidently correct. Until my wife looked at me with disbelief in her eyes.

She called me on my crap and gave the right answer. I felt like an idiot. I gave a theoretical answer that I thought was the best direction, but when compared to my wife’s actual knowledge on the subject, I was put in my place.

You wouldn't accept a theoretical answer concerning your physical health. You want the proof. So why are we so quick to give and accept theoretical self-help advice?

Escaping from the glass castle of theoretical self-help doesn't mean you can never write or talk about ideas you haven’t personally vetted. Great leaders know that a part of the job is taking steps in new directions and sometimes this leads you to places where there is no experience and no map to follow.

You know you have wandered into the realm of theoretical self-help if you find yourself:

  • quoting other ideas as if they were your own
  • lacking research
  • speaking off the cuff and not thinking about your experiences.
  • sharing too many facts and not enough stories

Theoretical self-help can be wildly alluring because it often works. It sounds good and people who are rushed and in a hurry may consume your advice on-the-go without thinking twice. You may get recognized and celebrated and when success starts to follow, bad habits become hard to break and easier to explain away.

But as my instructor for my Master’s program warned me, you may need to beware. If you find success on the back of theoretical self-help, you may become royalty, but you’ll only ever rule from a glass castle.

It may not happen right away. It may take years. But someday in the future, there will come a time when the people who have been rushing past for years, consuming what you’ve been spinning, will slow down. They will turn to look at the castle you’ve created. When that happens, they will see through the advice. They will look past the stones of success and see a jester’s hat, not a crown.

Escaping the Glass Castle

If you want to be committed to not giving theoretical self-help, there are a few simple ways you can start building out your escape plan:

Anyone can make up a story. It takes someone special, however, to pull the threads of a story out of a few different fabrics and reweave them into something new and purposeful.

You have a voice and you are valuable. Don’t short-change your value by living in a world of theoretical self-help. If you feel like you don’t have the opportunities under your belt yet to speak from experience, then maybe make that the focus of the next few months. There is nothing that can take the place of writing from a good authentic experience. That is the real definition of royalty when it comes to teaching about self-help.

Written by

Creative Engineer writing working hypotheses. Husband. Dishwasher. I write what I wish I could have read when I was younger. For more visit

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