Sam Smiles was kind of a failure in his youth, at least by his own criteria. Opposite of the Midas touch, it seemed everything he touched failed.
He was schooled in medicine, but his medical practice failed so badly, he abandoned it and became an editor at a local paper. When that didn’t get him the upward progress he wanted, he went into railroad administration.
When he left the railroad after a decade or so, he thought he should team up and go into business with a partner.
He joined several cooperative business ventures, but they all failed because of lack of capital. Frustrated with his string of failures, he did what many people do when they’re at the end of their rope and hanging on by the knot.
He wrote and self published a book. Finally, success found him.
Or he found it.
A runaway bestseller that shaped an entire industry…
Called Self Help, his book was published in 1859, the same year Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species.
His sales totally shamed Darwin’s.
Darwin’s book sold 1,250 copies the first year. Smiles sold 20,000 copies of Self Help the first year — and well over a quarter million copies in his life. In the 1800s, a book selling 250,000 copies was almost unheard of.
Here’s the funny part.
If you say the name Charles Darwin, most people know who he is. But few remember the name of the man who launched an entire industry.
And launch an industry, he did.
Self-Help was an unexpected sensation, a runaway bestseller and Smiles became something of a guru in education, business and morals.
In many Victorian homes Self-Help held a status second only to the Bible. During his era, the British Empire covered roughly a quarter of the planet and his book was considered an exemplary telling of solid British values.
So what made the book so popular?
Self Help was fattened with habits and traits of wealthy men, peppered with gems like “heaven helps those who help themselves” and the stern admonishment that “poverty is caused by irresponsible habits.”
Here’s what rich men do. Get your butt in gear. Don’t be lazy. It’s your own fault you’re poor. Work harder. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Good old Victorian values.
Self growth people have been repeating the same ideas for centuries, often without realizing they’re parroting Victorian values.
It’s a shame, and here’s why.
We Need Self Help More Than Ever…
The hunger for self growth is not going to slow down. Job security keeps decreasing, and inflation keeps increasing. More than half the country already can’t pay their bills, and that’s not going to get better.
Over 70% of Americans have less than $1000 in the bank and 45% have no savings at all. Over 18 million Americans are unemployed, largely due to the pandemic and 43.4% of Americans don’t have adequate health insurance.
No one is coming to help us. What options do we have?
We have to help ourselves. Lord knows, neither the government nor the wealthy are hurrying to help the people who are struggling.
Even people who do have income are struggling. The average American today can’t afford to retire. Most of us fully expect to work until we die working.
Of course we’re interested in self growth. We have to be.
So what do we do? We look to the self growth industry to guide us. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how we learn.
There are people who mock the self growth industry, asking if it’s “self” growth if you buy a book. Of course it is. If I buy a book about coding and teach myself to code, am I not still self taught? Of course I am.
The problem is not that the self growth industry exists. The problem is that the self growth industry perpetuates ideas that have been passed down from generation to generation, seemingly obliviously, and are as untrue and unhelpful now as they were when Smiles published them in 1859.
Self Help Beliefs that Harm More Than Help…
Samuel Smiles was something of a prig, which wasn’t uncommon for an old British man living in the mid-1800s. He was born in 1812, which tells you most of what you need to know.
Smiles introduced the world to the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor. The “deserving” poor were the people who worked hard, generally in labor, but couldn’t seem to get ahead. But all they “deserved” was the right to educate themselves on their own shortcomings.
The undeserving poor — that was a whole different class of human being in Smiles’ eyes. The undeserving poor, in his mind, were those who don’t work hard enough. A temperance man, he believed most of the poor struggled because they’re lazy, or drunks. Either way, they deserved nothing.
He expanded on his first book with several more, titled Character, Thrift and Duty. A man’s duty was to work tirelessly from dawn to dusk to provide for himself and educate himself. A man was duty bound to pay his fair taxes and understand that his country owed him nothing in return.
He believed a man could only succeed through hard work, perseverance and thrift and if he fails at “any endeavor,” it is his own fault for his own character shortcomings. Ironic, given the number of failures he experienced before his book became a runaway bestseller.
Smiles was not very successful in his careers as a doctor and journalist. He joined several cooperative ventures, but they failed for lack of capital. Disillusioned, he turned away from middle-class utopianism. He finally found intellectual refuge and national fame in the isolation of self-help.
It’s ironic that America as a nation and a people are so proud of having extracted themselves from under the thumb of British rule, yet as a society they still perpetuate beliefs that originate in Victorian Britain.
Over a century later, his beliefs continue to insidiously permeate the self-help industry. Three of his beliefs are more toxic than the rest of them combined. Perhaps you’ll recognize these…
Belief #1. Laziness is a Character Flaw
Laziness is not a character flaw, but Smiles didn’t know that, and how would he have? When he published his book in 1859, Freud was a toddler in diapers and there was little understanding of mental health in his era. People with mental health problems were assessed by a doctor (like him) to determine whether to send them to a workhouse or an asylum.
Truth is, there’s no such thing as laziness. There are only unseen hurdles. Stress and depression often result in behavior that an uneducated man might call laziness. The truth is that mental health problems have a physiological end result and berating a person for “laziness” is not the path to healing.
Most often, what we think of as laziness is, in fact, procrastination, which is simply an emotion regulation response of the human brain, not a character flaw or a time management problem. Today, we know that berating yourself for lack of progress only exacerbates the problem.
Belief #2. Hard Work + Perseverance = Success
I wonder if Smiles would have believed in the myth of hard work if his book had failed. He was almost 48 by the time the cash started to roll in, and all the years of “hard work” prior to the book certainly didn’t get the result he loved to preach and teach in his books and speeches.
Here’s a hard fact. In the last 40 years, CEO salaries increased over 1000% while worker salaries increased only 10.9%. Forty years ago, a minimum wage worker could buy a house and send their kid to college. If you simply made sure you were employed, the rest would take care of itself. That is not the case anymore. Hard work alone is not enough.
Second hard fact. Blind perseverance is as likely to lead to ruin as reward. If there’s a pot of gold buried in your backyard, but you’re digging in the wrong spot, all the perseverance in the world won’t help you hit the jackpot.
The truth is, the entire concept of hard work and perseverance is simply a reframing of “don’t be lazy.” Reframing is the lifeblood of every teacher and public speaker. When you’re trying to get a concept across, you must say it in as many different ways as possible in hopes the idea clicks.
A better approach is simply detached assessment. Not questioning whether “you” are a failure, but whether any given action is getting the result you hoped for. As Seth Godin says, sometimes quitting is the best option.
Belief #3. You Can Learn from Rich People
Ever since Smiles peppered his books with stories of “self made” men, the self growth industry has been filled with inspirational stories based on the daily habits of wealthy men.
It makes sense to our mammal brain because we already know we learn from those who have already done. If I want to learn to fly a plane, I need to learn from someone who already knows how, right?
I can give Smiles a pass, because he wouldn’t have been aware of causation vs. correlation. Self growth people today should know better. Perhaps they do, but they know people eat that stuff up and come back for more. Give ’em what they want, not what they need, right?
The first problem is causation and correlation. Is that man really rich because he wakes up at 5 am, meditates and then hits the gym? Or is he wealthy because his connections resulted in funding, low wages allowed rapid growth of profit, and clever advisors mean he pays no taxes?
The second problem is that the emotional response you get from reading those stories gives your brain the same buzz you’d get if you actually accomplished some little goal yourself.
Given that the mammalian brain doesn’t like to work any harder than necessary, reading about other people’s success easily becomes a short cut to doing the real work of your own self growth.
There is Some Onus on The Reader, of Course.
Don’t think I put all the blame on the self growth industry. We need it more than ever. Unless we suddenly and magically become a society that cares about each other in a way we never have, we have to help ourselves.
But, too often, our attempts to seek guidance lack Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware. Too often we make decisions based on the merits of social proof instead of the merit and accreditation of the writer.
That cycle plays out equally in marketing and self growth, because we need both of those skills more than ever.
The clever marketer creates a big package or program with a list of bonuses as long as your arm and a timer ticking down the hours before the door closes. The influencer promotes the product because the hefty price means an equally hefty commission and voila, social proof is manufactured.
And so, 162 years after Smiles’ rags to riches book launched an entire industry, we read book after book and when they don’t “work” it feeds your worst fears.
You are the problem. It truly is your own fault. You are broken. You’re never going to succeed. Nothing will ever work for you. In truth, few of us are that flawed. Our greatest fault often lies simply in our choice of field guide.
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”
―Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
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