The Self-Help Industry

New Year's Day is the holiday of self-improvement junkies

January 1, 2001

"Starting today, I will exercise every day, eat better, watch less TV, and make more money." Even when I resist it, this is what goes through my mind every January 1st. I have, for over fifteen years, been the quintessential New Year's Resolute. And, like any proper New Year's Resolute, I have broken every single resolution I've made. I've abandoned well-intentioned plans to improve my life and generally be less lazy. One year I even made a New Year's Resolution to end the practice of making New Year's Resolutions once and for all -- and I broke that one the following December 31st.

It's not as if I haven't sought help with my various vices and issues. I have read more self-help books and watched more "Change Your Life" TV and attended more self-improvement classes than I'd like to admit. I've had enough. I've overdosed on self-helping and self-improving and personal growing. If I'm "recovering" from anything, it's from being a self-help addict. Let me explain.

With everything I read and listen to, including products of the self-help industry, I try to maintain a balance of open-mindedness and healthy skepticism. This is a challenge, of course, because many personal growth purveyors demand their audience cast aside their skepticism. And, in case this demand doesn't work (and it often doesn't), they threaten us with the malfunction of their secret formula when such skepticism arises.

It's not my intention to denigrate all self-improvement products and their creators. In fact, after a number of books proved useful to me, I enthusiastically foisted them upon friends and acquaintances. Don Aslett's anti-clutter books and Elaine St. James's Simplify Your Life series motivated me to rid myself of all the material stuff I don't need. Julie Morgenstern's Organizing from the Inside Out provided sound methods for organizing what remained. Jerrold Mundis's How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt and Live Prosperously helped me get my finances in order. Granted, the only thing these books could really do was supply information and inspiration, but it did these things well and, at the time I read them, I was ready to put into practice the suggestions made by the authors.

I find that many other books, however, particularly those on time management and "personal success," are inherently flawed. As I read through them, I witness an increasing disparity between the synthetic feel-good emotions raised by the authors' pep rallies of the mind and the annoyance and frustration I feel at the authors' lack of understanding reality -- the way things really work and the way life is for most people.

The self-help/personal growth industry is huge, as evidenced by bookstores' growing devotion of shelf space and multiple entries on mass-audience bestseller lists. A quick search on Amazon.com for "self-help" reveals 19,250 entries. This figure is roughly the same as the number of elderly Jews in South Florida who accidentally voted for a Nazi sympathizer. If all these books were voters, their choice for President would probably be Oprah. (Along with Deepak Chopra for Vice President, Anthony Robbins for Secretary of State, Dr. Wayne Dyer for Attorney General, Dr. Phil McGraw for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Suze Orman for Secretary of the Treasury, and John Gray for Administrator of NASA.)

It's amazing there's such a clarion for all of us to somehow improve our lives, and such a drive to sell us a plethora of ballyhooed methods of improvement. This industry is so popular and voluminous that a number of comedians have published their own self-help parodies, like Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller's Feel This Book: An Essential Guide to Self-Empowerment, Spiritual Supremacy, and Sexual Satisfaction, Jimmy Fallon (of Saturday Night Live) and his sister Gloria Fallon's I Hate This Place: The Pessimist's Guide to Life, Stuart Smalley's (a.k.a. Al Franken's) I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!, Gary Greenberg and Jonathan Bines' Self-Helpless: The Greatest Self-help Books You'll Never Read, and my favorite, Mike Judge's MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head: Chicken Soup for the Butt.

There's even a subsection within the self-help market for those of us who have glutted ourselves at the buffets of the gurutocracy. Roberta Jean Bryant, author of Stop Improving Yourself and Start Living, describes herself as a "veteran self-improvement junkie, a failed dieter, and recovering Twelve-Stepper." After her surfeit as both consumer and purveyor of self-help products and ideas, Bryant conveys that "there is more to life than perpetual self-improvement, more to living than the frantic pursuit of recovery." Perhaps the "more" to which she refers means selling a book that would more aptly be titled Stop Buying Other Self-help Books: Just Buy Mine.

After tasting the fruits of a variety of authors and gurus from the self-help cornucopia, I've figured out some of the things that bother me so much about certain pervasive personal growth philosophies. The following is a breakdown of thirteen of these constructs and their inherent flaws.

1. Change your life in 30 days. This is wishful thinking, to say the least. I can't even wash my sheets, let alone fix my entire life (or a single pertinacious problem), within 30 days. This phrase alone promotes the idea that improving one's life requires a single effort, or that improvement is constant and straightforward without inevitable setbacks (the kind of setbacks that would naturally require the consumption of more self-help products).


Avoid the "limited pie" approach to life. While I agree it's important to rethink your feelings of jealousy and resentment and to curb excessively competitive behavior when it hurts others or yourself, the problem I have with this suggestion is that it assumes there is an inexhaustible supply of resources and wealth available for everyone. This assumption never addresses the environmental and social consequences of everyone on this planet getting their hearts' desires. In addition, the self-help/personal growth marketeers never admit that many "successful" people have gained their success off the backs of many more who are not successful.

When you're reading a self-help book or listening to the leader of a personal growth seminar, it's important to realize that these "experts" generally foster a pretense of selling their wares to people with some privilege. Their advice is tailored toward those who are at least middle-class, non-disabled, and middle- or upper-management in employment -- people who enjoy playing the part of a client in the pop-culture office of a trendy psychotherapist. The purveyors, however, don't shun the less wealthy; in many ways, the underprivileged masses represent the bread and butter of their revenue. To ordinary schmoes, they sell the aura of wealth -- the feeling of success -- for $15 plus tax (and sometimes shipping).


Learn this model and consistently apply it to your life. Every personal growth peddler, it seems, espouses some paradigm of the mind. Trying to reconcile the various models -- each involving dizzying arrays of levels, containers, diagrams, and analogies -- with one another is logically impossible. Once a model is explicated and established, the marketeer relies on it to explain and solve everything; in this manner, it becomes self-referential. Whatever the model is, it usually represents nothing new. The model is merely a modernized version of astrology or numerology, complete with self-contained intricacy that increases the busywork and mental clutter in one's life.

Despite their complexity, these models actually describe the mind in disappointingly simplistic and reductionistic terms. John Gray, seminar leader and best-selling author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships, has actually transported men and women to different planets! A scholar of human sexuality and gender relations might wonder where in the solar system are the homosexuals, bisexuals, polyamorists, tomboys, effeminate straight men, hermaphrodites, transgendereds, women who like football, men who don't, and the rest of us who don't fit into this constrictive view of men and women.

Squeezing the entire human race into a simple model becomes even more preposterous in the arena of political and social issues. On the day after Christmas, host of NPR's "Morning Edition" Bob Edwards sought leadership advice on behalf of President-elect George W. Bush from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Covey expressed his opinion that President-elect Bush showed good leadership potential: "[President-elect Bush's] ability to listen, to acknowledge and respect differences and diversity was so evident in his governorship; I think that he can carry the same spirit and attitude and skill set to the presidency." Oh, come on. No one but a loyal Republican could possibly say this with a straight face about George W.

When Edwards asked what, specifically, makes a good leader, Covey responded, "…[P]rimarily, it's a matter of personal integrity, that a person has to get settled inside themself the principles upon which they want to operate, including the principle of mutual respect, so that that person would not bad-mouth another person behind their back." Covey then proceeded to spout four minutes' worth of mumbo jumbo about empathetic "bonding" in personal relationships, generating "Win/Win" results, encouraging a "spirit of creativity," modeling "a combination of character and competence," "path-finding," and "aligning [President-elect Bush or another leader's] team, [his] culture, the structures, the systems, the processes to serve those values within the context of that overall purpose and vision." Apparently, familiarity with the argot of the Franklin Covey management cult is the only requirement for governing a large industrialized nation (whereas familiarity with the names of countries and knowledge of basic English sentence construction are quite optional).


I did it; you can, too! Here's how. After loyally reading the books and attending seminars of self-help gurus, one is left still wondering exactly how they were able to do whatever it is they are offering guidance for. For example, the diet and fitness book Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body -- And a Better Life, by personal trainer and exercise physiologist Bob Greene (with some narrative from his most famous client, Oprah Winfrey), exemplifies a number of commonsense strategies for losing weight and getting into good physical condition. But we readers still haven't figured out the significance of the title: make what connection? The connection between eating well and exercising and the miraculous "evolution" that Oprah underwent is assumed but never really explained. I guess we have to lose weight (without the daily presence of Oprah's trainer) to find out for ourselves.

As frustrating, the marketeers heavily rely on anecdotal evidence to "prove" the effectiveness of their plan, and they often refer to their own lives as success stories, as well as to the lives of friends, associates, or composite characters. Even when readers and listeners suspend their disbelief with regard to the anecdotal evidence, the stories themselves are often not very telling. The anecdotal evidence is usually supplied without any messy details -- those of which might be helpful to people who are trying to apply the self-help methods to their own lives. I find it irksome to spend money and time on a book or a class that consistently glosses over the important details of how the guru or his associates went from rags to riches, suicidal thoughts to high self-esteem, or addicted to recovered.

It's fair to mention that there are notable exceptions to this tendency, particularly among descriptive and honest memoirs that are cross-marketed to the personal growth audience. Iyanla Vanzant's autobiographies, Interiors and Yesterday I Cried: Celebrating the Lessons of Living and Loving, detail the author's long journey of transforming her life: escaping abusive relationships, getting off welfare, pursuing a career in law, and establishing herself as a venerable figure in spiritual leadership. Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man and Life's Greatest Lesson, a personal account of a sports columnist's time spent with his former college professor, illustrates the experience of maintaining a friendship with someone who is dying, including both the profundity and the raw difficulty it involves.


Here's more evidence. The marketeers rarely refer to specific studies or use hard data, and, when they do, they often make astounding logical leaps from the results of studies conducted by actual researchers to their own conclusions. Sometimes they pull statistics out of thin air, such as when time management gurus inform us that we spend 90 percent of our time on nonessential tasks. Really? How do they know? Did they conduct a study on this? I would prefer they be honest and wrap this figure within an opinion statement, such as, "After consulting with many clients, I estimate that they spend 90 percent of their time on tasks they don't consider essential." But honesty probably wouldn't sell as well.

Besides the reliance upon anecdotal evidence and fabricated or misconstrued statistics, gurus get a kick out of using quantum physics and other "scientific" appropriations to prove their theories. I guess they must want us to think they're really smart. But if we ignorant readers understood a thing or two about quantum physics, we would know that human beings are not quarks. Impossible (or "miraculous") events don't occur with us as with subatomic particles. The virtues of maintaining a positive attitude aside, we cannot just conjure some impossible scenario that manifests itself in an alternate universe and then somehow breaks the dimensional barrier into ours. The idea that "your imagination and thoughts determine reality," that "if you think it, it will come true," is much more Nietzsche's superman than Schrödinger's cat.

6. Land your dream job. Career experts market the idea that there is, somewhere out there, the perfect job for you. When the you-can-do-or-have-anything-you-want ideology is applied to real-world issues such as employment, it promotes the fallacy that jobs are static and secure, and that they won't suck in some way that becomes less tolerable over time. In the world of these career advisors, there are no abusive or exploitative workplaces, stock-market crashes, economic recessions, layoffs, or wrongful terminations. (And career experts often fail to mention that they left their own dumb jobs to pursue more lucrative vocations in promoting self-help products and services.)


If you have too much to do, delegate tasks to others. This would be a great idea if it weren't so stupid. It assumes the reader is a middle- or upper-management type with lots of subordinate human resources to spare. Why, if this actually is the case, must a manager read a time management or career success book to learn that they should delegate? If a manager doesn't already know that effective delegation is an essential part of their job, they've risen to their level of incompetence, and so has their boss for putting them in that position in the first place. I mean, duh.

For the rest of us, we'd be only too happy to unburden part of our workload (especially the most unpleasant part) onto someone else -- but we lack the status or money to do so. Consider these scenarios:

  1. An administrative assistant works at a company that laid off a bunch of people last year, citing a management consultant's suggestion to "streamline" its staff. The administrative assistant used to share her workload with another full-time employee, and sometimes with an office manager who functioned as a workplace "floater." The other full-time employee got the boot along with lots of other people just before Thanksgiving. Now both the administrative assistant and the office manager work ten-hour days at the minimum to keep up with the increasing workload. There is not enough money in the budget to hire a temp, so the administrative assistant sometimes comes in on the weekends to help her supervisor and attempt to reduce the pile in her Inbox. She reads a time management book and promptly puts its sound advice to use: she delegates her overdue mail-merges to the janitor and the filing to the office-supply delivery guy. When she finally returns home, she delegates the pile of dirty dishes to the kitchen counter and the laundry to the bedroom floor.
  2. The janitor, who is even busier now that he's helping out the administrative assistant with her mail-merging, reads a best-selling time management book during the train ride to his second job. The book inspires him to delegate a variety of his tasks to other overworked and underpaid janitors and to the homeless guy living in the Dumpster outside the office.
  3. A homemaker is responsible for two small children and the maintenance of a house. Her husband works long hours in order to support the family, so he is exhausted when he is home and can only help her so much. She gets up at 6:00 AM and cooks and cleans and runs errands and takes care of her children until 10:00 PM, or later, every day. She is exhausted and overwhelmed and lonely and kind of depressed, so she reads a self-help book during the times her kids are asleep. The book proves immensely helpful as she proceeds to delegate some of her daily tasks to others: the mail carrier cooks dinner, the four-year-old feeds and bathes the baby, and the cat mops the floor.
  4. A single, childless, petless professional (doctor at an HMO, young attorney, Web developer at an ill-conceived dot-com startup, or some other professional) spends all her free time at work. She is not by personality a workaholic; she's just trying to stay in the loop and keep up with all the paperwork. (Maybe even get a promotion some day.) Despite having no family members or pets to take care of, the professional never gets enough sleep and has long ago given up on having a life. Her salary is not bad, so she can afford to buy a lot of self-help books. In fact, there are three time management books sitting on her dusty bookshelf at home. She just hasn't had the time to read them yet. If she ever were to read them, she would realize that she should be delegating some of her paperwork to her company's clients and her home chores to Bill Maher's visage on Politically Incorrect.

Let's stop deluding ourselves, shall we? It's impossible to delegate tasks if there's no one available to help you (or you can't afford to hire someone) or if those who can help you are already overworked -- and would really resent it if you suddenly went on a "delegating" spree. In plain terms and backed up by a lot of data, Juliet Schor elucidates in The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure the lack of time and options most people in the United States really have. According to Schor, Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum are now spending more time working than ever before, even as compared with the workload of medieval peasants and "primitive" peoples.

This simplistic piece of advice is only useful to a wealthy neurotic workaholic, who, come to think of it, is the self-help market's best friend.


Quit whining and just do it. Somewhere along the way, there is a sudden break from the narcotic you-can-do-anything inspiration to the Stoic, Calvinist, or Protestant work ethic: "Pull yourself up by the bootstraps." The idea is that everything is in your control. If things go wrong, you're the only one to blame. It's rare to read or hear sound advice on coping with the realities of socioeconomic, racial, cultural, gender, or physical disadvantages.

This also seems to be an ineluctable outgrowth of the Freudian psychological attacks on women: "Stop being so hysterical; it's all in your head." If some simple cure to your problems doesn't work -- like reprogramming your mind with the use of daily mantras and affirmations -- you just need a swift kick to the backside.


Reward yourself. Once you've managed to accomplish a goal, it's important, say the experts, to treat yourself to something nice. The rewards suggested usually involve buying something, eating something unhealthy, or getting a "makeover." It seems appropriate that self-help marketeers, who primarily target middle-class (or wealthier) people in industrialized countries, would instruct their audience to use consumption as a reward.

In addition, the message of reward in one book completely contradicts that of another: anti-procrastination books suggest eating a double-scoop ice cream cone when we finish a project, fitness books instruct us to pamper ourselves with a department store makeover after achieving weight loss, and money management books advise us to enjoy some leisure time instead of making frivolous expenditures.


Don't be judgmental. This noble suggestion is often followed by a bout of hypocrisy. Consider this passage from Chapter 43 of Richard Carlson's Don't Sweat the Small Stuff -- and it's all small stuff, titled "Become an Anthropologist":

Recently I was at a local shopping mall with my six-year old daughter. A group of punk rockers walked by with orange spiked hair and tattoos covering much of their bodies. My daughter immediately asked me, "Daddy, why are they dressed up like that? Are they in costumes?" Years ago I would have felt very judgmental and frustrated about these young people -- as if their way was wrong and my more conservative way was right. I would have blurted out some judgmental explanation to my daughter and passed along to her my judgmental views. Pretending to be an anthropologist, however, has changed my perspective a great deal; it's made me softer.

To put this statement into perspective, ponder this hypothetical passage from an inspirational book if it were written by one of the guys in Rage Against The Machine:

Recently I was at a local shopping mall with my band mate. A really square-looking guy walked by with his daughter dressed in a boring Gap Kids outfit. My band mate immediately asked me, "Dude, why are they dressed like that? Are they, like, a parody of themselves?" Years ago I would have felt very judgmental and frustrated about these ignorant suburbanites -- as if their way was wrong and my more alternative way was right. I would have blurted out some judgmental explanation to my band mate and passed along to him my judgmental views. Pretending to be an anthropologist, however, has changed my perspective a great deal; it's made me softer.
Perhaps Chapter 43 should be renamed from "Become an Anthropologist" to "Sit upon Your High Horse and Provide Condescending Examples on How Not to Be Judgmental."


There is power in forgiveness. Is that right? I thought there was power in being incredibly vengeful, as well as in lying, cheating, stealing, and backstabbing, as demonstrated by the administration about to govern our nation. Oh, I guess the self-help gurus must mean the power that comes from within: the power of rising above one's enemies, of having compassion even for those who've hurt you. Well, there's definitely some truth to that. Forgiveness is a very powerful thing if you're ready for it and sincere about it.

But in the rush to shuttle their readers to nirvana, the gurus forget one little thing: it's OK to be angry. Now, this is my own philosophy, and you can believe whatever you want, but I personally think if you "honor" (to borrow that New Age term) your feelings of anger for as long as you need to, they will eventually dissipate and compassion and forgiveness will naturally fill the void. Anger serves an important purpose: it helps protect and distance you from those who are hurting or exploiting you. In fact, forgiveness is the result of distance -- temporal, physical, and psychological -- and often of amends offered by the offending person(s).

On a larger scale, former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa urged the citizens of his native country to forgive their oppressors for apartheid. But the official policy of apartheid would never have been defeated if South Africans and their supporters around the world hadn't risen up in anger and resistance. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, while he also promotes national forgiveness, expressed that reconciliation and forgiveness require repentance and confession.

If the self-help guru were really being honest, he would admit that it took a while for him to be able to forgive those who trespassed against him. He should allow us this time as well.


Rely on religion. I can't tell you how many gurus have demanded that we believe in a "higher power" in order to better our lives. Does this mean atheists are doomed to a life of failure? Some gurus try to include the more skeptical among their audiences -- the "God"-resistant -- by suggesting we simply substitute a euphemism like "the universe" or "the great spiritual connectedness" for "God" in order to swallow their philosophy. Nice try, but having to perform constant mental edits on everything I read and hear grows tiresome.

Many gurus of the New Age embrace other religions outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islam realm, such as Buddhism. Often, however, they miss the point, ignoring essential Buddhist tenets such as respecting our physical and historical insignificance. These gurus confuse enlightenment with consuming more and more, building more and more success -- in essence, becoming godlike within our own spheres and owning the world. This doublespeak is an affront to those who are truly seeking to moderate their egos.


The disclaimer. Gurus usually convey at least one of these:

  1. "Follow my step-by-step plan." The guru insists that if the steps are not followed, the written exercises not completed, or the methods not practiced, the program will not work, and you will not see the results you desire. This is a cover-the-guru's-ass statement for when the plan fails on its own.

  2. "Take what you like and leave the rest," or "You won't agree with everything I say." This is the guru's attempt to encourage open-mindedness on our part, as well as convey his own. It also allows the guru to promote all sorts of flawed theories and unrealistic suggestions without having to include the hard stuff -- logic and actual research.

  3. "Trust your intuition." This is especially confusing when mixed together with the constant demands to believe everything the guru tells you, even if it doesn't jive with your own experience.

Few other industries unabashedly flaunt such hucksterism -- and subsequent excuses for their wares not working properly -- with so little scrutiny. I wonder if Ralph Nader would be interested in establishing a watchdog organization for self-help consumers.

If self-help gurus were honest and straightforward about achieving success in the only way they understand, their guidance would look like a simple 1970s-style BASIC program:

10 learn something
20 have an insight
30 write a book OR
40 lead a seminar
50 promote yourself
60 GOTO 10

Now that I think about it, this is all very depressing. I was looking forward to making a New Year's resolution or two and the temporary illusion that I might actually be successful this time. But perhaps I have been going about it all wrong. Maybe what I need to do is make some resolutions I can actually stick to. So here is my new revised list:

  1. Eat more junk food.
  2. Laze around more and exercise less.
  3. Watch more TV.
  4. Get into more arguments.
  5. Make less money, spend more, save less.
  6. Gossip more.
  7. Get into more arguments.
  8. Three times a day, look in the mirror and say, "I am worthless and I can't accomplish anything."
  9. Read lots of self-help books. Trust everyone else's opinions instead of my own.
  10. Host a GOP fundraising event.

Happy new year.


Rick Ross's information archive of controversial and potentially unsafe groups

Geoffrey Hill's "Critical Examination of the School of Thought Known as 'New Thought'"

The Skeptic Tank

Holysmoke.org: exposing frauds and cults

"Intruding into the Workplace"

Stephen Covey on "Morning Edition," December 26, 2000

"10 Steps to a Better Millennium"

The Thirty-Hour Work Week Web

"Time Frenzy": a documentary of our fast-paced lives

Juliet B. Schor's "Civic Engagement and Working Hours: Do Americans Really Have More Free Time than Ever Before?"

"Americans Working More: Black, Hispanic Workers Toil Longer for Same Money"

Public Data Query: National Employment, Hours, and Earnings

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Total private average weekly hours, 1988-2000

"Resolution is Futile"



Frugal/Mindful Living Resources

Yahoo!'s Personal Growth category

Copyright © 2001 Mariva H. Aviram. All rights reserved.