Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Gospel of Self-Helplessness

One is left with a feeling of immense gratitude. New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz has saved me, and perhaps you, the time we would waste reading a mountain of self-help books.

Some are better than others. Some are obviously scams, designed primarily to separate you from your money. Several of the most recent contributions to the genre seems to be proud of their ability to misspell the word Fuck… to plaster it on their book covers and to sprinkle it throughout their nuggets of pseudo-wisdom... as though it allowed them to relate to vulgar millennials.

As though “not giving a fuck” were somehow a goal that is worthy of your effort, your exertion and your hopes.

Anyway, it all feels like self-helplessness.

I do not want to lump all of these authors in the same pile of you-know-what, so allow me to distinguish Angela Duckworth whose concept of grit seems evidently useful. And also, Charles Duhigg, the master of the art of habit changing, a valuable skill if ever there was one.

And yet, Schwartz notes, both of these authors and most of the others seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that you can be anything  you want to be, that you can become anyone you want to become and that if you cannot improve yourself by practicing what these books recommend you and only you are at fault.

Schwartz demystifies it all:

Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter” tells you how to gamify your way back from the edge with the help of video-game-inspired techniques like finding “allies” and collecting motivational “power-ups”; and Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” reminds you that persistence makes all the difference when the going gets rough. Duckworth doesn’t think you need talent in order to become, as another of Duhigg’s books puts it, “Smarter Better Faster,” and neither do any of these other experts. According to their systems, anyone can learn to be more efficient, more focussed, more effective in the pursuit of happiness and, that most hallowed of modern traits, productivity. And if you can’t, well, that’s on you.

Schwartz is quite correct. If these experts do not believe that you need talent to improve yourself they are all selling snake oil. We recall Peter Drucker, in his pamphlet "Managing Oneself," advising young people to chart their course in life by asking first what they are good at. It is easier to be great at what you are good at than to be good at what you are mediocre at. 

Admittedly, Drucker shrunk his market with such pronouncements, but at least he was honest. And, of course, he was saying that you will derive more satisfaction by being more successful at your work than you will being less successful at some job you took on because you believed that it was your passion.

Schwartz begins to chart America’s most recent enthrallment with self-help books with a book called The Secret. Relentlessly hyped by Oprah, the book promises you that wishes come true. If you are riding around the block looking for a parking space, you need but imagine an empty parking space. Lo and behold, one will open up, as if by magic. The idea was inane and infantile. The book’s author sold 20 million copies. Who said that Oprah could not sell anything? Who said that a sucker is born every minute?

Now, we have overcome the trend toward mindless panaceas in favor of more practical self-optimization. We have gone beyond wishful thinking and arrived at the stage of charts, graphs, outlines, tasks and serial victories. Schwartz explains that the authors of the new books do not promise that God is listening to your prayers. They are promising that you—little old you—can become a “superior being.” They forgot the Biblical pronouncement that pride goeth before destruction.

She explains:

We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading. (This may explain Yoni eggs, stone vaginal inserts that purport to strengthen women’s pelvic-floor muscles and take away “negative energy.” Gwyneth Paltrow’s Web site, Goop, offers them in both jade and rose quartz.) 

Tell me you do not feel better already.

Schwartz claims, reasonably, that these self-help books are preying on our fear of inadequacy. I would add, for my part, that they are also preying on our anomie, our social disconnection. Rather than develop good relations with other people we are told that we must stand alone, fearless and almighty, as perfectly self-actualized, self-sufficient, self-involved human monads. These books do not see us as social beings.

We will skip to a series of recent books that seem to care mostly to show that the authors are so cool that they happily embrace their profanity and obscenity:

Sarah Knight has advice of a more specific kind to offer. Her latest book, “You Do You: How to Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want” (Little, Brown), is the third she has published in two years, after “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do” and “Get Your Sh*t Together: How to Stop Worrying About What You Should Do So You Can Finish What You Need to Do and Start Doing What You Want to Do.” Knight’s books belong to what Storr sniffily calls the “this is me, being real, deal with it” school of self-help guides, which tend to share a skepticism toward the usual self-improvement bromides and a taste for cheerful profanity. Other recent titles include “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” by Mark Manson, and “F*ck Feelings,” by Michael I. Bennett, a practicing psychiatrist, and Sarah Bennett, his daughter.

Apparently, Knight wants to free us from our social obligations … which means that her audience probably consists of people who have very few social obligations:

Knight’s point is to encourage her readers to embrace themselves as they are, warts and all, and to help them do so she proposes strategies like “mental redecorating” (recasting one’s weaknesses as strengths), embracing pessimism (to be pragmatic and set realistic expectations), being selfish (advocating for one’s needs), dwelling on the thought of death (to maximize happiness while alive), and “breaking free from the Cult of Nice.” Knight is happy to demonstrate the latter. “You have to stop giving a fuck about what other people think,” she tells us.

And then comes the antidote, or something of an antidote, from Danish psychologist Swen Brinkmann. His attitude smacks of classical ethics, or better a modernized bastardized version of the same. It has its flaws but it feels intuitively more useful than telling the world to fuck itself.

Schwartz sums up Brinkmann’s ideas:

Brinkmann doesn’t care so much how we feel about ourselves. He cares how we act toward others. His book is concerned with morality, which tends to get short shrift in the self-improvement literature. He likes old-fashioned concepts: integrity, self-control, character, dignity, loyalty, rootedness, obligation, tradition. Above all, he exhorts us to do our duty. By this, I think he means that we are supposed to carry on with life’s unpleasant demands even when we don’t feel particularly well served by them, not run off to the Dominican Republic.

It isn’t perfect, but we have done a lot worse.


Jack Fisher said...

his name is Duhigg

Stuart Schneiderman said...


Sam L. said...

The only self-helping going on is helping the writer get some money. I suspect we all know that, but enough of us will take a flyer on it.

Anonymous said...

Along those lines this is interesting. It is 16 minutes long, but this woman gets it.

Anonymous said...

You may have to restart it to keep it from starting something else. Sorry.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Spot on, Stuart.

Oprah and her followers are superior beings. Just ask them. If they say, “No, I am not,” keep asking questions... really probe. You’ll find the superiority and modernist Gnosticism at every turn.

Yes, Gnosticism. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

There’s nothing secret about “The Secret” and the power of intentionality. What is wacky is the belief that some superior being or universal force acts on YOUR behalf, wanting the same thing YOU want, just because YOU want it. Because YOU are special. That’s a load of crap, and reflects the New Age nonsense that Oprah feeds on.

They have “the secret knowledge” — the keys to the kingdom. It’s all in their minds. And you can have it, too... for a small fee.

The real dirty little secret: there is no secret knowledge. What if it weren’t about you? What’s possible from that frame of mind? Lots.

Oprah 2020!

James said...


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Thanks, James.

Let’s keep in mind it was Oprah who said Obama was “The One,” and that evolved into Obama’s persona as the Messiah. That’s a lot of power. What does that make Oprah? Sounds like Oprah is God. Fitting, no? Or is it better expressed “Goddess”? Curious questions.

Gnostics of the world, unite!