There are two ways to succeed: do very good work, or cheat

G.K. ChestertonI loved this article by G.K. Chesterton, an English writer, poet, and man of letters.

More than 100 years ago — before motivational posters, TED talks, and Tony Robbins — Chesterton complained about the excess of self-help books.

On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books.

For him, there were only 2 roads to success: do very good work, or cheat.

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards.

He simplifies for entertainment’s sake, but his insight is valuable: for example, he believes we are obsessed with self-help because we mystify money and millionaires.

The writer of that passage did not really have the remotest notion of how Vanderbilt made his money, or of how anybody else is to make his. He does, indeed, conclude his remarks by advocating some scheme; but it has nothing in the world to do with Vanderbilt. He merely wished to prostrate himself before the mystery of a millionaire. For when we really worship anything, we love not only its clearness but its obscurity.

And his remarkable conclusion, that this obsession makes us snobby. It appeals to our baser, meaner values.

They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride?

Some food for thought as we enter 2014. Here’s a running list of what I’m reading, thanks to

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.