Debunking the Self-Help Gurus

When I decided to fact check a commonly cited study used by self-help gurus (I’d heard Zig Zigler shout it, from his knees, Tony Robbins citing it with that intense look of certainty, even my old friend Barbara Braunstein from her podium) I ran into a little problem. Here’s the story of my search which was published in Fast Company Magazine:


By Lawrence Tabak

Lawrence Tabak is a widely published magazine writer who is currently focused on writing fiction for young adults. He is the father of two boys. He has worked as a tennis teaching professional, a executive at the United States Tennis Association, and in corporate communications postions in the financial services industry. His essays and feature stories have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including the in-flight magazines for TWA, United, American and Continental; Fast Company, Tennis Magazine,, and The Atlantic Monthly.

3 replies on “Debunking the Self-Help Gurus”

Problem with use of your Fast Company article on the Yale Study

Hi Lawrence,

(Or perhaps it’s Larry). A heads up about a book that’s doing well in the UK and is coming to the US in a few weeks: Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. It’s set to be released in November in the US and may do pretty well.

When you get a chance, you should check what he writes about your article. (You can actually get the book now from In it, he describes the Yale study and part of your article, saying that your piece was published in 2007, possibly to make it seem more current.

He stops his description of your article before the point at which you contact Beverly Waters. He then says that *he* decided to get to the bottom of things (hiding the fact that you had successfully debunked the Yale study 15 years before) by calling–guess who–Beverly Waters. Based on his “reporting” with Beverly, he announces that he is now able to say once and for all that the Yale study never existed.

It would be one thing if he were just a second-rate Malcolm-Gladwell wannabe, but he writes *extremely* well, has been very successful in England, and, I think, the book is going to get a lot of attention in the US.

So you may (or may not) want to address his distortions–if no where else, in an Amazon review. I’m a psychologist and know the goal research literature and have found he misrepresents research on a fairly regular basis. The Yale Study and your Fast Company article is just the most blatant example.

And for what it is worth, I read your piece years ago (it did come out in 1996, correct?) and have periodically re-read it since then. I appreciate your work.

There are now some powerful research-based approaches to goal attainment that, in fact, are very effective. Simply writing down a goal, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

Warm regards,
Ben Dean PhD
MentorCoach LLC
4400 E. W. Hwy/Ste 1104, Bethesda, MD 20814
301.986.5688 (o)

gee. I always thought that study was true. I know that making a to do list seems to help at least on a daily basis. Lately my inspiration seems to be coming from watching “My Cousin Vinnie”!

i loved your “thomas the unbeliever” attitude; right now, when evey ideea is supported by citing an article, critical thinking is key. i really admire your following up on the existance of this study and so humorously presenting your path in finding the truth. gret job; great article.

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