Saturday, August 22, 2015


Apparently, the self-help movement is alive and well. It generates a great deal of profit by serving dollops of advice, along the lines of: Follow your dreams.

One hesitates to say that it never works. One suspects that it provides something of a spiritual solace for people who have lost their faith and are looking for a substitute religion.

One must also note that the nostrums of self-helpism are easier to believe in than are those of organized or even disorganized religion. Since they are amazingly simple-minded, you can think you are following them, almost no matter what.

You know what it means to follow your dreams. You know what it means to make your dreams come true. Undoubtedly, it doesn’t happen very often, but at least you know what it all means. I suspect that you also understand what it means to say Yes to life. But, have you noticed that the the notion is empty. Whatever does it mean for a living, breathing human being to affirm that he is alive?

Obviously, self-helpism is a pseudo-religion, a cult-like organization the holds prayer meetings and offers spiritual experiences. Surely, its principles arefar more simplistic than the notion that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The greatest minds in all civilizations have expounded on the golden rule. No one has ever used up very many little grey cells explicating the idea of following your dreams.

Where the golden rule is designed to regulate human relationships and to produce social harmony, Saying Yes to life is meaningless cant that will never  be used to conduct human relationships.

In fact, if you look closely at the maxims of the self-help movement, summarized by one Sarah Alexander you will notice that they are, unsurprisingly, completely self-centered. They have next-to-nothing to do with other people. Self-helpism is a religion for the self-absorbed, self-involved, self-indulgent. It is also a religion for the powerless and for the disconnected.  It will get you into your mind and will tell you that, if only you tap into your mind’s resources you will enjoy extraordinary success. If it sounds like snake oil, that’s because it is.

Self-help principles and precepts are all about self.  And, they are all in the mind. They are mental tricks and gadgets that tell you nothing about getting along with other people.

By contrast, the principle of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you defines the way you ought to behave with other people. All useful ethical systems are about getting along with other people. If a philosophy does not teach you how to get along with others, it is nonsense designed to seduce the gullible and to enrich the gurus.

Alexander summarizes the dogmas of self-help well. They begin with the notion that you should follow your dreams and then move on to the notion of making life happen and saying Yes to life. Everyone thinks they understand this perfectly, but I defy anyone to tell me what it means to make life happen.

Even better is the notion, as Alexander explains, that the universe is responsive to our mental state. I bet that you feel more important already! To be less glib, this means that when we send out positive energy or brain waves, the universe will necessarily reciprocate and send back positive results.

In another context, this says that wishing makes it so. It also implies that if life is not as you wish, then you are at fault for not wishing hard and long enough.

Next, Alexander says, self-help gurus tell us that we should focus (like a laser beam) on what we want, not on what we don’t want. In order to actualize our best selves, we need then to get into mindfulness meditation, set goals, have a plan, and work hard.

Again, all of these principles will send you scurrying into your mind. They imply that if you learn how to think as the gurus would have you think, the world will reciprocate and you will achieve unthinkable success.

By implication, if the world is not quite so accommodating to your wishes, hopes, dreams and laser-like focus, the fault must lie with your impure thoughts and your defective thought processes. If you focus on what you don’t want, the fault for not getting what you want is yours.

One suspects that if it were all that easy, someone would have thought of it before. Surely some have, but it all feels like a rather sophisticated con, designed to prey on insecurity and to allow people to blame themselves whenever anything goes wrong.

Nothing about these principles tells you how to go about getting along with other people. And all successful enterprises involve people working together and getting along with each other.

Of course, the gurus suggest that if  you achieve the right state of mind, using your dreams as your guide, saying Yes to life and focusing on what you want… you will not only achieve great success but will collect a coterie of wonderful friends.

While Alexander does well in identifying the basic principles of the self-help movement, her solutions are, unfortunately, more of the same.

Instead of teaching people how to direct their attention to the reality and other people that surround them and to learn how to negotiate with all of it, she invites them to get further into their minds:

The answer lies in a completely different approach, which taps into our own intuitive wisdom and guidance.

This inner knowledge is a constant presence within us, one that can be experienced as flashes of insight, inspired thoughts or a strong gut feeling.

It seems almost other-worldly in the information it imparts, and keeps nudging us towards what we are inherently meant to be, do and have.

Such wisdom can see the very best in us, and takes into account all of our skills, talents and abilities. It knows what we can and will achieve, if we follow its precise direction.

So, learn to use this as your guidance system and let it give you the projects and ideas that you are meant to focus upon this year.

Let it also guide you through your daily routines and ‘to do ‘lists so that you achieve each day what you are meant to achieve.

Your guidance won’t give you information about the long-term future, but if you follow its inner promptings, it will give you an accurate step-by-step plan that you can follow and evolve so that your life can align with your personal evolution.

If you are going to follow your inner guide, why would you need any advice? Perhaps your guru will help you to access your inner guide, but often you are too inexperienced or too trusting or too caring to evaluate a situation objectively. You do best not to trust your inner guide but to trust an outside adviser who is older and wiser. If you are younger and more naïve your inner guide will have limited usefulness.

I will spare you Alexander’s instructions. They say very little, if anything, about your relationships with other people, about being a member of a community, about getting along with other people. Moreover, they give you very little sense of what it is like to negotiate with a recalcitrant reality or to adapt to changing circumstances and conditions.

One might say that Alexander, like the self-help gurus, is providing therapy lite. It’s a bit like therapy, at considerably less expense. But it is also more obviously a cult.

And yet, as long as it insists that you get into your mind, to find your inner wisdom or to follow your bliss or your dream, it will blind you to reality and make getting along with others that much more difficult. 


Ares Olympus said...

Hmmmm... ideally I'd imagine good advice doesn't tell us we don't already know, but reminds us of what we forget.

This article may be a little confusing since she starts with a bunch good-sounding advice that she sees as problematic as she explains why. So she's knocking down strawmen before she offers her real advice.

So what is she recommending?
1. ASK AND LISTEN [to an inner voice]

So are all these suggestions about self-absorption? I can see the possibility, but as much it looks like self-regulation, and finding inner discipline so you can be less reactive to the world's slings and arrows.

E.F. Schumacher offered his advice:
he tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1. Learn from society and tradition.
2. Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3. Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.
It would seem to me that all of these require period attention and reflection, and redirection when you become aware that you're being reactive and caught up into other people's issues and need to untangle yourself. Then you can be a better friend to others, not be a simple people-pleaser nor blame others for your own reactions to circumstances.

But I admit it all does look open-ended. Perhaps this is where his "two types of problems" come in. Simple advice works well on convergent problems, but divergent problems require greater awareness and hence a need for reflection and being open-minded and not requiring simplistic answers, the sort that make for good self-help books for instances.
Schumacher argues that there are two types of problems in the world: convergent, divergent. For him, discerning whether a problem is convergent or divergent is one of the arts of living.

Convergent problems are ones in which attempted solutions gradually converge on one solution or answer. An example of this has been the development of the bicycle. Early attempts at developing man-powered vehicles included three- and four-wheelers and involved wheels of different sizes. Modern bicycles look much the same nowadays.

Divergent problems are ones which do not converge on a single solution. A classic example he provides is that of education. Is discipline or freedom the best way to teach? Education researchers have debated this issue for thousand of years without converging on a solution.

He summarises by saying that convergent problems are those that are concerned with the non-living universe. While divergent problems are concerned with the universe of the living, and so there is always a degree of inner experience and freedom to contend with. According to Schumacher, the only solution to divergent problems is to transcend them, arguing that in education, for instance, that the real solution involves love or caring; love and discipline work effectively, but so does love and freedom.

Anyway, for me advice is useful for reminders of collecting divergent points of view, so when I have a question of action where planning is needed, I can have a sort of mental map when I start, of expectations how I think things work, however incomplete, and then see what I missed by what comes of from action.

I like the idea that I don't mind making mistakes. I just prefer to know the breadth of dangers ahead of time before I make them. The real trouble in life to me is when you make an assumption and things don't turn out badly, until the 100th time you do something, you know, like drunk driving. So waiting to make mistakes before learning is a risky way to live.

Maybe I'm in a self-help cult? I'd better watch out for that too.

priss rules said...

Well.... at least self-help videos on youtube on how to fix the bike saved me some change.

KCFleming said...

Reading that article on self-help made me want to poke my eyes out.

What's this "inner voice" BS?

Do people really believe we all have some secret genius inside that knows just what to do if only we are quiet enough?

If it's so smart, why is its voice so small?

What kind of crap design is that, that the most expert mind in our body has the mousiest soundbox?

Or are self-help gurus all in need of antipsychotics to quiet their inner voices?

JPL17 said...

Twenty years ago I had a client who idolized Tony Robbins. He owned all the Tony Robbins motivational tapes, and used them as his guide to career success.

I once asked him what Tony Robbins' secret to career success was. He said there were several, but the main one was to adopt the attitude, "FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION."

In hindsight, I should have told him, "He's right, failure is not an option. It's standard equipment."

But kidding aside, to this day I still have no idea what practical advice can be gained from the attitude, "Failure is not an option." It seems completely vacuous, like "Follow your dreams", and "Make life happen".

Proving the point, my client failed at his career goal. But in time, he adjusted his goal, and succeeded in a slightly different career for which his previous failure could be viewed as a "plus".

So contra Tony Robbins, it seems that failure, far from being "not an option", may sometimes be a necessary stage on the way to success.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Edison famously said, "I failed my way to success."

In scripture the rationale for keeping the Covenants is something like this phrase, "Do these things that you and your descendants may have long life in the land provided by God."

Jesus said, "I came that they might have life, and life more abundant!"