Bad Self-Help and the ‘Myth of Perfect Perfectibility’

You know that ugly ache you can get when you eat a bad slice of cheesecake? That raw, hollow feeling that seems to fill your whole stomach?

Well, in the past year, that’s how I’ve started to feel about self-help advice. Actually, I started feel that way about my own self-help advice.

Recently, I tried to put that discomfort into words on Twitter:

The tweet got a surprising response, which tells me that other people are getting tummy-aches too. In this essay, I’d like to elaborate a bit on what I meant in that tweet.

1. Self-help equates success with high status

If I remember correctly, one of the most-read articles on Medium last year had a headline like this: If You Want to Be Successful, Do These 32 things.

I forget what the 32 things were, but I’m sure the listicle had some variation of the classic self-help hacks and secrets. You know, things like waking up at 5 a.m., drinking chia-seed protein shakes, soaking your testicles in ice water (sorry ladies), power posing in public restroom stalls, drawing crop circles in your Moleskine notebooks, and so on.

What bothers me most about these articles is what they don’t say. Despite the promises to make you successful, nobody seems to take to time to tell you what they mean by “success”.

Recently, I realized that this is because modern self-help doesn’t need to define success. To self-help, “success” is simply whatever everyone else sees as high status — driving a battery-powered sport vehicle; living in a twenty-room mansion with the Cuban women’s lacrosse team; receiving six-figure paychecks; and so on.

Put another way, modern self-help is ethics-agnostic. It assumes you already know the answer to the great philosophical question “How should I live?”. All that is left is to give you the tools to help you get there.

I don’t think that the key to the good life can be found in a 10-step program, and I certainly don’t think copying everyone else is going to get you there.

2. Beware ye fairy tales

Terrible idea, unless you like screen glare and sand in your keyboard. (Source)

Another problem with modern self-help is that it’s core narrative is based on a fairy tale. The 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote:

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Keynes point was that our beliefs and actions are influenced by thinkers from past that we’ve may never have heard of.

It’s the same for self-help, I think. Self-help has historical influences, but few of its fans know what they are. Books like Byrne’s The Secret or Anthony Robbins’ Unlimited Power share a history with believers in “mind-cures”, who thought that faith could solve all our problems.

From the City Journal:

“The [self-help] genre truly gained steam, though, around the turn of the twentieth century, when a philosophy known as New Thought made self-help more user-friendly by relaxing its fixation on hard work. Rather than seeking worldly success by following God’s principles, proponents of New Thought — a tradition that arose out of both transcendentalism and “mind-cure” proponents, who believed that right thinking could heal ills — advised readers to communicate their desires to God (or some power), who would provide. Attitude is everything; if you believe it, you can achieve it.”

The New Thought movement is alive and well, with Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret selling over 30 million copies.

Too skeptical for this voodoo mumbo-jumbo? Don’t worry, there’s a version for “intelligent” skeptics too. Take the same idea, repackage it with scientific salad dressing, and you get terms like grit, growth mindset (“successful kids believe“), ego depletion (“willpower is a muscle”), and the 10,000-hour rule. Same magical thinking, but sugar-coated with science to help the voodoo go down.

I’m not saying that this advice doesn’t work. What you believe does change your behavior. But it’s easy to take this too far. At one point, I truly believed that mindset was everything. All I needed was 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and I could be the best in the world at anything.

It says something, I think, that — despite its wild popularity — much of this “science” has since failed to replicate. People want this stuff to be true. And, I have to wonder: Did the scientists (unknowingly) do their research already knowing they wanted to find? If so, it’s no surprise that they found it.

3. Naive optimism

James Stockdale, a fighter pilot, spent nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In the camps, he noticed that optimists, not pessimists, were the first to die.

And modern self-help is full of such optimism. Here’s Alain de Botton on the trend:

“[Modern self-help is full of] people who are reclothing the Christian message so as to promise a financial heaven if we believe in ourselves, have faith, work hard and don’t despair. Or else those with a passing acquaintance with Buddhism, psychoanalysis or Daoism. What unites modern practitioners is there fierce optimism. They make the grave assumption that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that all will be well. They are utterly cut off from the spirit of their more noble predecessors, who knew that realism could also have its therapeutic benefits.”

The optimism that makes me the most uncomfortable is what I’ve been calling the myth of perfect perfectibility. This is the belief that (a) there’s some perfect life in the future waiting for us and (b) we can achieve anything we want, as long as we try.

Again, this sounds a lot like the idea of heaven, but repurposed in a way that a skeptical mind can accept. Heaven isn’t in the afterlife; It’s here, now. You just need hard work and the right 10-step program to get you here.

If paradise is here and now and all you have to do to get there is to believe, one has to wonder why nobody in history (as far as I know) has managed to get there.

Here’s philosopher Julian Baggini in Microphilosophy praising concert pianist James Rhodes’ critique of self-help:

[Rhodes] main complaint is that the self-help culture encourages us to think we are more perfectible than we are. The “good-enough human being” should indeed be good enough. “The human condition is one of fragility,” he said. “Just because we are not happy it doesn’t mean that we are unhappy. There is a huge amount of space between happiness and unhappiness and someone in between is OK.” Well said.

Modern self-help promotes unrealistic expectations.

Even if self-help does manage to make you rich, beautiful, and high status, life’s problems do not go away. You’ll still fall in and out of love. Your job might get better or worse, but it will never be problem-free. Friendships will fade; New ones will develop. You’ll get hungry, grow old, develop aches and pains, and eventually die.

I live in Japan, and the Japanese — despite all their problems — know how to find beauty and joy in life despite its imperfection and impermanence. In the West, we seem more inclined to try and will imperfection away.

Photo credit: Pelican

4. It’s your fault when you fail

It might not seem like such a bad thing to say, “You can be anything you want to be.” But there’s a dark side to thinking that you are 100% in control of your destiny: It’s also 100% your fault when you fail.

Some people even go as far as to say that poor people are poor because they didn’t try hard enough. All that’s necessary to pull a country out of abject poverty is effort.

I’m a prime example of how deluded you can get with this kind of thinking. In school, I aced all my tests without studying. I scored top 1% on my SATs, including a full 800 on maths. I rarely studied, except the day before a test. Despite overwhelming evidence that school was easier for me than others, I proceeded to look down on everyone else who did worse than me, saying, “They just didn’t try hard enough.”

Effort and self-help advice can help, bust — like medicine and exercise — they helps the most when you’re (a) a beginner or (b) very sick. Most gains to be had are the low-hanging fruit; after that, there’s a limit to what self-help can do.

Most readers are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I find it interesting that, towards the end of his life, Maslow began to have doubts about his own pyramid. Maslow noticed that those with an inflated sense of personal agency seemed to be narcissistic assholes:

‘High scorers in my test of dominance feeling, or self-esteem, were more apt to come late to appointments with the experimenter, to be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, less tense, anxious and worried, more apt to accept an offered cigarette, much more apt to make themselves comfortable without bidding or invitation.’

I’m not sure if this applies to everyone, but it certainly applied to me. Boy was I an asshole.

5. Still operates on 70s blank slate ideologies

I already wrote about this in The Greatest in the World Fallacy, so just a few more points here.

In her book The Nurture Assumption, developmental psychologist Judith Rich Harris argues that your parenting had little to no effect on the personality you have today.

Most people in the West read this and it sets off alarm bells. It’s so obvious to us that parenting is incredibly important, that we find it near-impossible to consider that it doesn’t.

But many cultures outside of ours do not believe that parenting is so important. Indeed — making parenting important doesn’t make much sense evolutionarily — most of our ancestors would have lost one or both parents well before they reached adulthood.

The mistake researchers make, says Harris, is failing to separate genes from the environment. Angry parents can produce angry children not because of parenting, but because of their genetics.

Self-help makes the same mistake as the scientists did. It’s full of blank slate thinking, which ignores the effect of genes & human nature on life outcomes. There are self-help books that teach you how to be an extrovert, how to be less anxious, how to be more productive, and so on. Biology influences all of these things, but I’ve never seen a self-help author mention them.

Again, I’m not saying that self-help advice doesn’t work. Some of it does. And no, genes aren’t everything — not even the biggest idiot in the world thinks that. But it’s a problem when people who do well in life because of genetics/talent tell you they succeeded because of effort and then try to sell that advice to you.

What I really mean

Okay, I’m done. There are many other good criticisms of self-help, but the above are the ones I find most interesting.

After writing this, I realized that I’m really trying to make a single, interrelated point:

  • Modern self-help (lets call it “neo-self-help”) falls for the myth of perfect perfectibility.
  • This myth inflates expectations. Expectations of paradise on Earth make it hard to appreciate the here and now. We are more likely to sacrifice the present (which is imperfect, impermanent) for an ideal future that is unlikely to come.
  • This myth also undervalues relationships and institutions. Human flourishing doesn’t come purely from within; a lot of it is contingent on institutions, governments, communities, etc. These things should be preserved.

The science fiction legend Theodore Sturgeon once wrote that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”

I think this applies to self-help as well. The crap is really crappy, but there’s some great advice out there. Philosophies like Buddhism, Stoicism offer helpful advice that is over a thousand years old, and — as long as we don’t engineer our own extinction — I’m confident that their teachings will continue to apply for the next thousand.

I used to wholeheartedly believe all the things I criticized in this essay. I can’t promise that I’ll always be right, but what I can try to do is to write as honestly as I can and share my thoughts when I change my mind. I know some of you appreciate that, and it is for you that I write.

I end with a quote from Will Storr’s recent book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing To Us:

“Western culture prefers us not to believe we’re defined or limited. It wants us to buy the fiction that the self is open, free, nothing but pure, bright possibility; that we’re all born with the same suite of potential abilities, as neural ‘blank slates’ … This seduces us into accepting the cultural lie that says we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can be whoever we want to be. …it means that the men and women who lose simply didn’t want it badly enough, that they just didn’t believe — in which case, why should anyone else catch their fall.”

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Originally published at thepolymathproject.com on August 26, 2018.