Year's Day is the holiday of self-improvement junkies
"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
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
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
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.
||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.
||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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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"
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
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
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:
- "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.
- "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.
- "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:
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:
- Eat more junk food.
- Laze around more and exercise less.
- Watch more TV.
- Get into more arguments.
- Make less money, spend more, save less.
- Gossip more.
- Get into more arguments.
- Three times a day, look in the mirror and say, "I am
worthless and I can't accomplish anything."
- Read lots of self-help books. Trust everyone else's opinions
instead of my own.
- 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
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,
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Total private average
weekly hours, 1988-2000
"Resolution is Futile"
Frugal/Mindful Living Resources
Yahoo!'s Personal Growth category
© 2001 Mariva H. Aviram. All rights reserved.