August 5th, 2011
01:55 PM GMT
Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) In the roadside markets of central Johannesburg, alongside neat piles of fresh vegetables and Chinese-made wigs, hawkers sell self-help books.
The book titles are long-winded and have the author’s photo enlarged on the cover - a style that seems popular in the United States. In fact, most of the books are aimed at the American businessperson and seem incongruous sitting in a Southern African roadside stall.
The Americans have pioneered that genre of literature that aims to “help.” Some books take a religious tone and others are more business-focused. Some of these manuals are self-righteous, some are plain boring; most are worthy and the authors have a genuine desire to help others “make decisions,” live “in the moment” or find their “passion.”
What “life lessons” can, for example, an immigrant Zimbabwean living in Johannesburg learn from a salesman in Idaho? Well, a lot apparently.
The common denominator in much self-help literature is the underlying need to triumph over adversity or to improve oneself. The universality of that instinct translates across cultural or geographic differences.
Personally, I like to just get on with things. Professionally, as a journalist, I am always open to hearing stories about how people change their lives or make a difference. I avoid the self-help books but over the years, I have interviewed business leaders, self-help gurus, management experts and many others who offer their solutions to dealing with life, money and business.
For me, the simplest arguments make the most sense. There is a whole industry and tone of language devoted to the self-improvement business but once all the waffle is taken away, it’s the obvious advice that is the most valuable.
Take, for example, the recently re-released book “The Surfer’s Code,” written by South African surf legend Shaun Tomson. I interviewed him recently and his lessons or “codes” made sense, even though I am a useless surfer and average swimmer.
Some of his offerings include, “I will always paddle back out,” and “There will always be another wave.” These will be familiar to many parents who constantly remind their children to keep trying harder and never give up.
The old adage that one should pick one’s fights is reworked as “I will never fight a rip tide.” Sensible stuff.
“I will watch out for other surfers” has shades of good neighborliness and the 10 Commandments.
It is a gentle book about dealing with tragedies and challenges. Like all self-help books there is nothing new in it and that’s the point. Tomson’s message is that everyone faces difficulties and sadness in their life; the big challenge is how to deal with it.
As the global economic situation seems to look bleaker and bleaker, from the United States to Europe to East Africa people are realizing that future opportunities might get lesser.
So, many more will look for comfort and advice in the pick-me-up manuals that are flogged in the bookshops of fluorescent shopping malls of the industrialized nations as well as on the brightly sunlit stalls of the developing world.
The messages will offer succor and try to sustain populations of people around the globe who are all sharing experiences that are familiar: how to make money and be happy.
It’s as simple as that.
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