SocraticGadfly: My anti-self-help help for you

January 04, 2019

My anti-self-help help for you

Tis the season ....

For a crapload of self-help books to start the new year. (Including self-help books that claim not to be. More below.)

Ignore most of them.

First, check blurbs.

If somebody like Tony Robbins touts them, put them down. And run away.

Second, look at titles or excerpts online, on authors' pages or Twitter accounts.

If the author talks about "winning" life? Run away. That's late-stage capitalist bullshit. Beyond that, it's a sociologically and philosophically shallow. It's also an invitation to psychological problems if one is not resilient, and therefore anti-helpful.

If the author talks about "hacking" life? Run away. It's like the above put through a Silicon Valley blender.

If the title talks about "laws," and gives the impression their are certain immutable laws of human nature, obedience to which will improve your life? Run away. If this were true, one such book would have been written 5,000 years ago and we would all be much better off. It's like a religious claim run through the self-help world filter. (Think of AA's 12 steps, OK?) And, I'm far from alone on that pick-up; I've seen it more than once in one-star reviews by others of self-help books.

If the title has a number in it, anywhere, like how many of these immutable laws there are? Run away. Numbers and listicles are an old marketing hack which the Internet has only made worse.

In addition, most of these books are written for people who are comfortably over the "Kahneman line" on income — in other words, they make more than enough for money itself to be a major factor in happiness or contentment, and probably do so in pretty secure jobs. If you're working in the dying newspaper industry, or a corner of the SEO world that will soon prove to be semi-fraudulent, these books aren't for you. Unfortunately, those are often the people suckered by hopes of a quick fix.

Let's take an example by James Clear, whose new "Atomic Habits" says one key to self-help is replacing "I have to" with "I get to."

That may well be true. But, does it solve problems?

Let's take a couple, of him making $33K and her $23K with three kids.

"I get to worry about trying to save 3 percent of my income and I get to ignore saving 10 percent."

"I get to worry about my kids getting sick because, with the amount of deductible on my insurance, we can't afford a trip to the hospital unless it really needs the ER."

"I get to worry about finding a new job over the age of 50."

"I get to thank James Clear for his brilliant, privileged insights."

Etc., etc.

Shit, James Clear's Habits Academy is ONLY $299. Of course, it's not individual ... it's podcasts or videos for that price. But, it IS the "premier training platform." It has attestations from people with first names! It IS based on "proven scientific research" (primarily from social psych experiments that have failed at least one replication attempt, no doubt).


A lot of this has been amplified by the growth of the positive psychology movement, which has its own issues, including Marty Seligman's ties to SERE reverse engineering, plus being, arguably, more crassly capitalistic than the general self-help movement.

The American self-help movement, going back to people like Fulton J. Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale and Og Mandino, has had a bit of Social Darwinist background to it. Or, "economic barbarism," to riff on a Twitter discussion yesterday. Often, this is unstated, but, nevertheless, it's there. The focus is on individual betterment, with societal betterment ignored. (Some more liberal self-helpers may give lip service to this, but they're the exception.) Comments like "winning" life are a reflection and embodiment of that, as I see it, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

And, this is America, so such books have to have pseudo-statistics. Clear says that if saying "get" instead of "have" makes you 1 percent better per day, just compound that over a full year.

First, he doesn't prove it will make you 1 percent better a day, he just uses that as a starting assumption. If that actually were true, per the "immutable laws" paragraph, we would have just one book about this.

Second, better than what? That's never stated.

Third, it assumes that such betterment is readily quantified.

Fourth, it assumes that people like me won't ask those rhetorical questions I just asked.

Even among places that sound better, like Cal-Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, there's a lot of touting of pretty cheap versions of positive psychology and such. Its staff's recommendations for top books of 2018 have Steve Pinker's cluelessness about the Enlightenment, Positive Psych books, and the latest by "we're all in sales now" Daniel Pink. Weirdly, in 2016, at least, different staff members picked books that directly contradicted each other, the last on the list being one I actually might read. And, a 2012 book on oxytocin was arguably scientifically out of date at the time and certainly is now. It's more a "possessiveness molecule" than a love molecule.

(Also sad: One of the top "practical Stoicism" philosophers is a disciple of one of the top "immutable laws" self-help authors. Sad, but ... not really a surprise, when you think about Stoicism, its Logos, and other related ideas.)


Note: The person from whose Medium site I kyped the picture says "just say no to self-help," then goes on to talk about "hacking your life" and the "one thing you need." It turns out she's written 11 books, or rather, "books," (see below) offers "coaching" and other things, but will tell you to say no to self-help.

Of course!

You should instead pay for "other-help." That's where the Tony Robbins types make their money. Videos and podcasts. Personalized emails, or pseudo-personalized. All things web so they can help you (remove money from your wallet). And, no, I don't believe that you can have PTSD symptoms for 30 years, possibly 40, and magically have them disappear in six weeks, ether. Sorry, Mary Schiller. (And, reading a bit more of that comment on your breathless blurb of another person's self-help book [or is it other-help] no. Especially not with that guy babbling about "Divine Mind" and the other New Age BS,. and charging $3,000 to listen to you. (And writing three books, even though he claims to have the one true thing.) Even sadder is, if per her autobiography and my reading between the lines, she thinks that having a New Agey "it happened for a reason" revelation about why she was sexually abused, run like hell from her. Karma is more offensive than Christian original sin. Run like hell from these people, beyond the issue of them wanting to rip you off. They will fuck up your life.

And, no, I'm not saying that because I take PTSD lightly. I'm saying it, from what I know, for exactly the opposite reason. I simply do not believe that a child sexual abuse "survivor" who was then further traumatized in a first marriage could magically heal in six weeks. Period. Rather, that PTSD is stuffed down some New Agey rabbit hole. If it doesn't bite you again before you die, consider yourself lucky.

Most of her alleged "books" are 30 page pamphlets. Even in modern e-book publishing, calling them books is a stretch. Whether it's a lie or not? YMMV. And multiple ones from them are about making money. And, that money-making doesn't heal PTSD either.

But, that's why self-help / other-help (flip sides of the same coin) are so uniquely American. They're highly predicated on capitalism. Capitalism plus a quick fix.

That's America's cultural DNA, or at least its majoritarian cultural DNA, in a nutshell. Why are lotteries so popular here? Quick-fix capitalism.

(Way back when, Og, Fulton and Norman, as far as I know, weren't peddling tschotschkes along with their books. Maybe that's because, pre-Internet, they didn't know better. Imagine an Og Mandino set of pamphlet-length e-"books." Fulton J. Sheen self-help T-shirts with inspirational messages. [Or cassocks like that for hipster priests.] Norman Vincent Peale doing TED talks. [Remember, the E in TED stands for "entertainment." No, really. It's not "education."])

1 comment:

Katarina said...

I love this article. Thanks for writing about this. :)