Self-help nation

Americans spend billions of dollars a year trying to improve themselves. Is this quest for perfection a sign of perpetual optimism -- or fear of a hostile world?

Published August 12, 2005 4:25PM (EDT)

Self-help, in all its ever-proliferating forms -- books, seminars, video, audio and digital -- is a multibillion-dollar industry. That much, at least, we know for sure. And most of us would agree that the lingo, theories and attitudes of the self-help industry have soaked into every corner of American life. A coworker jokes that he's in denial about the fact that he needs to buy a new computer; a friend blames another friend's obnoxious behavior on low self-esteem. Even people who claim to hate self-help find themselves using its buzzwords and echoing its clichis. But do we really understand how much the industry has affected -- or infected -- our world?

Not according to Steve Salerno, author of "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless." "You may think Dr. Phil is the greatest thing since sliced bread," he writes, "or you may chortle at his braggadocio and his sagebrush sagacity. But almost no one worries about Dr. Phil. Like the rest of SHAM [Salerno's acronym for the "Self-Help and Actualization Movement"], he slips under the radar."

Dr. Phil is on Salerno's radar, all right, and it's certainly true that the author worries about the TV shrink, but saying that in this book Salerno has thought deeply about the self-help industry would be pushing it. "SHAM" is one of those slapdash fulminations -- invented decades ago by the political left but recently perfected by the right -- ranting on some current deplorable aspect of society. It's spun out from a few well-researched articles Salerno wrote for magazines and padded with a grab bag of shopworn anecdotes and secondhand data culled from other, similar books. (Sally Satel's dubious "PC, M.D." is a favorite source.) You know the drill by now: Salerno's stance is flabbergasted indignation at the countless outrages against common sense being committed on a daily, if not hourly, basis by people whose perfidy or idiocy is a cause for perpetual wonder.

Commentators rarely go broke when capitalizing on the pleasure Americans take in sneering at their fellow citizens, but Salerno doesn't bring much clarity to the ongoing national infatuation with self-help. He casts his net so wide he winds up blaming the self-actualization industry for such grouch fodder as frivolous lawsuits (yes, that old spilled McDonald's coffee story gets hauled out yet again) and the devolution of electoral politics into sloganeering. He's done some solid, shoe-leather reporting on such self-actualization gurus as the infomercial icon (and hot-coal walker) Tony Robbins, and "SHAM" offers valuable glimpses into the empires built by these figures. But credit for coming up with real insight into the self-help juggernaut more properly belongs to Micki McGee, a faculty fellow at New York University and the author of "Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life."

McGee regards the self-actualization industry almost as warily as Salerno does, but she has a far more sophisticated grasp of its appeal. Self-help, she argues, is not (as the cultural commentator Christopher Lasch once insisted) the manifestation of a rampant "culture of narcissism." Instead, it's an understandable -- if also misguided -- response to fundamental changes in our economic and social worlds. Today, she writes, "constant self-improvement" is presented to us as "the only reliable insurance against economic insecurity." The result is what McGee calls "the belabored self," the personality as a perpetual renovation project, driven by the fear that "with lifelong marriage and lifelong professions increasingly anachronistic, it is no longer sufficient to be married or employed." When your spouse might leave you or your boss might fire you at any moment, you have to be ready to hit the market again at any time; "it is imperative that one remains marriageable and employable."

The way Salerno sees it, the self-help industry is a modern boondoggle and annoyance -- more disturbing than, but akin to, that damn noise the kids call music these days. It's a waste of money, it saps folks of their gumption, and no one can prove it works. In his self-designated role as the hardheaded Everyman journalist, Salerno claims he has never before "covered a phenomenon where American consumers invested so much capital in every sense of the word -- financial, intellectual, spiritual, temporal -- based on so little proof of efficacy." During a brief stint as an editor at the Men's Health division of Rodale, a book publisher specializing in the genre, he was astonished to learn that the most likely customer for a self-help book is someone who'd bought a similar book within the preceding 18 months. "If what we sold worked," he observes, "one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us."

Salerno's point is well-taken (McGee makes a similar one), but it's not exactly revelatory. Hasn't he noticed how one diet book after another roosts on the upper reaches of the bestseller lists, despite the fact that Americans keep getting fatter? People buy the books and often lose weight on the diets, but they eventually gain it back and so move on to the next plan, thinking that maybe this one will finally do the trick. If you ask, they'll swear the original diet worked, and it was really their own fault for not sticking to it.

Probably, somewhere in the very back of their minds, these people realize that a particular diet or list of highly effective habits is not likely to "revolutionize" their lives as promised. But hope springs eternal that the perfect plan awaits somewhere. That prospect appeals to the optimistic, risk-taking side of our national character. And like a slot machine, these self-improvement schemes very occasionally pay off, if only for a while. As any behavioral psychologist will tell you, nothing fascinates a human being like intermittent reinforcement. It may not be rational, but that's how human beings work.

So many words have been written about relationship-oriented self-help books sold mostly to women (from "Women Who Love Too Much" to "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus"), that the light both Salerno and McGee shed on success coaches such as Robbins or Stephen R. Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," is particularly welcome. Salerno, who wrote a magazine profile of Robbins, details the gradual method by which the Robbins-industrial complex coaxes its adherents into spending first small and then eventually whopping sums on his various "Life Mastery" programs (including purchases of vitamins supplements and a pendant called the QLink that supposedly protects you from the radiation emitted by cellphones). Having sunk that much cash into this stuff, Robbins' followers become invested in believing it works.

Salerno chooses to focus on success mavens because they give him the best ammo: It's relatively easy to measure how well their programs work (and therefore prove that they don't). If you want to figure out if sales went up after a daylong motivational seminar, you look at the numbers, but how can you tell when you've learned to love just enough? McGee studies success gurus because she believes that at heart what drives people into the self-help section of their bookstores is economics. For all his no-nonsense posture, Salerno's analysis of the self-help industry is a haphazard collection of self-contradictory, sometimes extraneous and frequently knee-jerk attitudes. McGee has an analysis, one that essentially amounts to following the money, and despite her ivory tower gig and stiff, academic prose, she's by far the more tough-minded of the two.

Salerno divides the self-help movement into two main branches: "Empowerment" (which promises total mastery over one's self and one's surroundings) and "Victimization" (which offers support to people it has diagnosed as so damaged they're lucky to be alive). McGee prefers to divide the field into rational and expressive approaches. The rational ties your capacity for transformation to a system of self-discipline and control; the expressive encourages its adherents to surrender to the workings of some vague, New Agey, cosmic force (often called simply "energy"), which will guide the properly attuned person toward fulfillment. In an economy that grows ever more ruthless and competitive, faced with downsizing, outsourcing and stagnant wages, the rational school offers people the illusion of mastery while the expressive provides a dreamy sanctuary from the cruel marketplace.

McGee's grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of both notions is formidable. She traces Robbins' mind-power fantasies back to the New Thought movement of the early 20th century, led by Ralph Waldo Trine, who preached "a pragmatic idealism in which wealth and opportunity were characterized as equally available to all through a kind of cosmic abundance." She finds threads in contemporary time-management gurus like Covey that lead back to Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin, and in New Agers that lead back to Emerson. (You have to love a book that describes Tony Robbins as someone who "leaves behind the Enlightenment notion of the reasonable creature and moves in the direction of a Nietzschean model of 'giving style to one's life.'") Instead of Salerno's born-yesterday notion of self-help as the folly of a post-'60s generation of navel gazers and complainers, McGee recognizes that most of these ideas have been with us for a long time.

Still, the particular conditions of late capitalism have added a new twist to the fantasy of self-creation. The current permutations of self-help reflect what McGee sees as a crisis brought on by the movement of women and minorities into the workplace. She points out that the "self-made man" (an idea traceable all the way back to ancient Greece) was never really that; the unpaid labor of a mother and usually a wife helped "make" him, and he often benefited as well from the underpaid labor of servants and others prevented by skin color or class from enjoying the same opportunities. Now that all those previous unpaid and underpaid workers are demanding their own shot at the brass ring, it's become painfully apparent how impossible it is for individuals to really make it all by themselves. At bare minimum, someone still has to teach us to walk and talk.

No wonder, then, that child rearing and the roles of mothers stand at the center of so much controversy. What Salerno dislikes about the self-help industry is that it makes some people feel entitled to more than they can get and it permits others to shirk personal responsibility. What McGee sees as the problem with self-help is that it deceives us into thinking that we can function in complete independence, that every problem in our lives can be addressed as a purely individual challenge. Child rearing (and to a lesser degree caring for the sick and elderly) challenges this notion because it's both essential to the survival of humanity and proof positive that everybody needs somebody sometime.

For centuries, raising kids has been the unpaid work of women. Now that they have the chance, if women instead choose to invest their time and labor in the kind of self-cultivation -- networking, overtime, maintaining a marketable appearance, acquiring new skills -- essential to survival in today's unstable, loyalty-free workplace, you can hardly blame them. They're only doing what every shrewd "self-made" person is supposed to do. In defecting from the home they're also unwittingly demonstrating that the American ideal of rugged individualism is a big lie. No wonder career women make conservatives apoplectic. Nowadays, those women who do decide to donate their time to rearing their children can count on little job security and the decay of their employability. Rick Santorum likes to complain that "radical feminists" devalue stay-at-home moms, but it's really the free market that treats their contribution as worthless (or worth only the pittance paid to childcare workers).

As shrewd as McGee is at teasing out the anxieties underlying our makeover fantasies, her views on the possible solutions are founded in an unexamined quasi-Marxism. This makes them seem as elusive as the promises of Tony Robbins and his ilk. Throughout "Self-Help, Inc." she evaluates all self-help trends on the basis of how likely they are to lead to "progressive, even radical" political activism. Perhaps, she suggests, the inward-looking little communities formed to follow 12-step programs can be encouraged to agitate for "economic justice" and the "redistribution" of resources and opportunities?

Like a lot of academics, McGee seems to think that the general public is merely ignorant of the principles of socialism and, if properly educated by more informed persons like herself, will surely see that their best interests lie in this direction. This is the sort of well-intentioned but disastrously patronizing attitude that whips red-staters into a frenzy of Bush voting. Many of these citizens do crave a counterforce to the brutality of the marketplace, but they prefer to seek it in church and a retreat to "traditional values." The old ways of life, to their mind, provide at least some emotional security. Socialism they see as thoroughly discredited, a proven recipe for deprivation and oppressive bureaucracy.

McGee has the sense to insist that activists ask themselves "why people have embraced self-help groups -- what do they get there that they don't get in political organizations?" What she fails to consider is the possibility that those organizations have yet to articulate a coherent, alternative and post-socialist vision of society that's sufficiently appealing to lure people away from the siren song of capitalistic individualism. Many people look at the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country and think to themselves, Hey, it's a great time to be rich.

As Salerno points out, a motivational speaker who tells all 250 members of a sales staff that with the right attitude every one of them can be the No. 1 salesman is obviously promising the impossible. No one laughs, though, because at that moment, sufficiently pumped up, each candidate believes she's talking only to him. Commentators like to say that self-help speaks to the American faith in the Protestant work ethic. But perhaps what it really taps into is the same impulse that makes poor people waste their dollars on lottery tickets.

Our reckless inner gambler tells us that if we have to choose between a drab little portion of guaranteed security and a long shot at a big, glitzy jackpot, we'll take the chance at winning big. Losing might leave us broke, but the giddy hope of striking it rich, of achieving Life Mastery, of becoming highly effective and having it all is just more exciting than the sober vision of a society whose resources are doled out equitably. Anyone who, like McGee, wants to see the American masses mobilized on behalf of economic justice will have to change this aspect of our national personality. By comparison, Tony Robbins' famous stroll over that bed of hot coals looks like a cakewalk.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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