What Self-Help and Inspirational Writers Might Never Want to Admit

Some people aren’t free, and aren’t successful — and no amount of books, articles, and seminars will change that.

America’s Independence Day has brought with it a slew of self-help/inspirational drivel having to do with “freedom”. I saw a few pop up in my feed, and even read a few. Meh.

Today, though, one popped up in my feed with a title that I couldn’t resist:

If only!

Ellison swings for the fences on this one, as he boldly proclaims:

It doesn’t matter who gets killed, how many get killed, or what happens as the result of the killing.
Whether we win or lose the war, our human experience — the thing we’re fighting against other humans to change — only really changes when we reach deeper levels of understanding/consciousness. The only thing that’s keeping us from those unreached levels of consciousness are the barriers of thought we’ve stacked up in our very own psyches.

This reminded me of a similar thesis from man-about-Medium, Benjamin P. Hardy about why so many others are not also growth-hacking their unicorns, and whatnot:

Wealth, optimal health, incredible relationships, deep spiritual maturity are all available to you. But you have to pay the price to have these things. The primary obstacle in your way is how you feel about what you need to do to have these things.

So, the takeaway seems to be this: you are holding yourself back — no one else.

Perhaps this isn’t the takeaway that was meant by either of the above authors, but it’s not hard to see how someone reading their articles in need of help would leave with that conclusion.

If I didn’t know any better, and I believed these guys, I would feel pretty terrible about myself. Unfortunately, I know that it’s not that simple — nothing is.

The simple fact is: a lot of people are not as free as others — by no fault of their own. They were born with fewer resources, they were born into an ethnic or societal group that faces all sorts of (insidious and complicated) barriers to flourishing. They don’t have a network to rely upon, or the innate bedrock of basic social skills to build one. They are not just a few habit-changes away from becoming the next successful entrepreneur. Reading Think and Grow Rich will not give them all they need to really realize all of their dreams.

There is just so much that I read — especially here on Medium — which seems to ignore those facts. There is this implicit guarantee that all you need to do is change your mind, and you can lift yourself out of the muck and mire, and up into prosperity. It’s Horatio Alger all over again. And it scares me.

I’m scared that a whole new generation of people reading these books and articles will take the bait. But I’m not scared for them — they will be largely white, upper and middle class, and able to do okay for themselves. I’m scared of the attitude they may develop toward those who live in nearly inescapable poverty and oppression. I’m scared that those who stay steeped in self-help and positive psychology literature will come to believe that those who are poor and oppressed are somehow the only ones responsible for it. That belief is utter bullshit.

Oppression and injustice abound. They are the result of systems that emerged from years of antiquated bigoted statecraft and unbridled exploitative entrepreneurship. The residual is a globalized system that makes it much, much easier for those who are at least one of the holy trinity: white, straight, or male (bonus if you’re all three, like me!). Don’t get me wrong. No one is waking up with the stated aim of keeping things this way, it is just something that has stuck around, so long as the profits and growth kept happening.

My point is merely this: it’s not everyone’s own fault that they aren’t doing well in life. Some people were dealt a terrible hand, and no amount of Sydney Banks or Werner Erhard literature will change that. The best it can do is inspire some people who are on the cusp of natural advantage to do better than they would have. The worst it can do is to convince a generation of readers that they need not pay attention to an unjust system because it’s pretty much everyone’s own fault that they aren’t prospering — centuries of slavery, oppression, and exploitation be damned.