Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More poetic-sounding b.s. from the folks who gave you the Law of Attraction!

I heard the first of the italicized lines below during one of those tedious and insipid "self-esteem building" PSAs on Lifetime last night. That got me thinking about a couple of other canards I've heard recently (though it's hardly the first time I've heard any of them). So here goes.

If you don't believe in yourself...who will?

Outright nonsense. How many actors and actresses had no particular ambitions nudging them towards the Silver Screen when they were "discovered" by some talent agent or director? Models, too. Life is full of tales of accidental success revolving around people who were plucked from the obscurity of their humdrum lives. Indeed, some of the most tragic stories in Hollywood history involve people who became icons despite being wracked by self-doubtsMarilyn Monroe comes to mind. (Becoming an icon only makes things worse for such people, as they never feel "worthy.") For that matter, the second-most compelling story line on American Idol, right after the one that goes "I was born to sing!", is the one that goes, "I never thought I had much talent, but my friends insisted that I try out." That's a perfect example of an individual who had no real belief in himself until after everyone else did! As for that old (related) chestnut about how you have to "love yourself in order to be loved"...think about that for a moment. Don't we all know folks who have no trouble at all loving themselves...and that very "quality" is what makes them some of the most obnoxious, rigid, thoroughly off-putting individuals you'd (n)ever want to meet? I for one have always been drawn to soft, retiring, low-key women, and I don't think I'm unique among men in that preference. If anything, I suspect we could all do with a bit less self-love nowadays.

Great spirits always encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds.
True...but relevant and meaningful in its intended sense only in cases where the "spirit" in question is, legitimately and provably, far beyond mediocrity. The line is attributed to Albert Einstein, who rightfully saw himself as a great spirit, too often harassed, nitpicked and impeded by the mediocre minds around him. Today it's a popular rallying cry at motivational seminars, often used to pander to audience members by giving them a psychic mechanism for embracing and justifying all kinds of self-indulgent, harebrained, "boundary-stretching" garbage. (Lines very much like this also have been used by MLM/Ponzi schemers to pitch tactics that are immoral or illegal. I.e., "The winner makes his own rules!" Kind of like Bernie Madoff.) In its largest, most generic sense it's an exhortation to Be Yourself!, Dare to Dream!, Throw Off the Shackles of Convention!, blah blah blah. Keep in mind: Only history gets to judge whether or not you deserve to be regarded as a "great spirit." That's not a title that you bestow on yourself
certainly not early in life, nor alongside 2000 fellow seminar attendees who are all chanting the very same thing. Speaking of "same things," that brings us to:

If you keep doing the same thing, you'll keep getting the same results.*
Hogwash. We've touched on this before, and it bears repeating: There can be any number of atmospheric reasons why something that didn't work in attempts 1 through 30 suddenly clicks on attempt 31. How do you know when you're just one more try away from spectacular success? (Besides, doesn't this run counter to that other cardinal self-help ethic
the one that prizes persistence and urges you to "never give up your dreams!"?) Sometimes the rest of the world needs to catch up to you. Sometimes, for reasons that dwell only in the realm of chance or fate or whatever inscrutable thing you want to label it, something works that never worked before. (Here's another way of saying that same thing: Sometimes that initial run of failure may be nothing more than an aberration in the laws of chance. Take a person who has never flipped a coin before: If he flips it five times and gets all tails, he may mistakenly assume that coin flips always result in tails.) Understand me now: In saying all this, I am not implying that a dogged refusal to give up will ultimately lead to success; as a general prescription for living, that's pretty silly, too.

Which is the larger point: As is often true of "axioms," the polar beliefs (i.e. nuggets of advice that start with "never" or "always") are false and absurd.

And that's the trouble with all of self-help in a nutshell. There are no "easy buttons" for deciphering life. You cannot reduce the human experience to universally valid bullet points: always do this, never do that, 10 Rules, Seven Keys. There may be odds to play
"chances are" that this-or-that will be more effective than something-or-other. But those odds are much closer to even-money than what SHAMland's liturgy implies. As I've often said of baseball, there is little reason to assume that the winning teams, in most cases, are inherently better than the also-rans. The so-called best teams usually win their divisions by just a few games, cushions that fall within the margin of error and could be explained by totally random events: bad hops, sudden gusts of wind, a rainstorm that ended a game prematurely, an unexpected injury, a pitcher inexplicably pitching over his head for a few weeks, etc. Were baseball to perform an experiment by playing its entire season over again from Opening Day, the first-place team might well finish fourth. I am convinced of that.

Much of life is a similar crap-shoot: Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. Maybe what you tried yesterday will pay off today, maybe it won't. Life is experienced individually by individuals
—silly as that soundsand each new day is, in fact, a new day, with new possibilities. The clock starts over.

Unless it doesn't. Unfortunately, you never know till you get there.

Finally, as a sort of mental exercise, I invite you to leaf through these "inspirational sayings," and, before you succumb to their surface allure, spend just a bit of time asking yourself whether they're true
or whether they even make sense. It's astonishing how these proverbs become verbal touchstones, entrenched in the culture, when half the time the core idea is somewhere between (a) untrue and (b) patently ludicrous.

* This is often labeled as the "definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results." There is also a slightly more hip-sounding version: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got [sic]." Tony Robbins is fond of putting it that way.


Dimension Skipper said...

On the subject of other factors determining history's great moments...

Why was Neil Armstrong first on the moon?


From colleagues' accounts, Aldrin really wanted to be the first man out. Chris Kraft, head of Mission Control at the time, wrote in his memoir: "Buzz Aldrin desperately wanted that honor and wasn't quiet in letting it be known."


Aldrin was visibly unhappy with the conclusion, but couldn't argue with the reasoning. Neil Armstrong would be the first man on the moon.


Click the link to get the nuts'n'bolts details in between.

(Of course, I realize it's not as if Aldrin or even Collins is exactly scorned by history as failures or anything like that. Still, I don't think it's all that hard to imagine that each having gone that far already probably would have desperately desired to accomplish that historical FIRST if it was at all up to them as individuals given the opportunity and had all circumstances been equal.)

Cosmic Connie said...

Yes, luck does play a major role in many if not most success stories. Fortunately, Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale and his pal Pat O'Bryan have just created another audio product called "Clearing For Luck," which will help you clear out all of that subconscious gunk that has kept luck from your door step.

Here's a motivational saying that always bugged me: "If you're not the lead dog, the scenery never changes."

First of all, not everyone can be the "lead dog." Second of all, the axiom is not even literally true, because dogs have better peripheral vision than people do.

But then, as you said, most motivational cliches are nonsense when you actually take the time to think about 'em.

Graham Hunt said...

I respect your right to proffer your opinion, even if I disagree with it. The fact of the matter is we obviously function in quite different paradigms where you have your truth and I have mine. Whose truth is superior? Depends on who you ask. My reality states that you will find exactly what you are looking for so if your intention is to find scams and shams that is exactly what you will find, no matter where you look.

Steve Salerno said...

Graham: Oh come on now. So you're telling me that these older people who are the frequent targets of con men were "looking for" scams? Quite the contrary, I think many of the people who end up as marks are honest, trusting folk, perhaps not terribly bright but well-meaning and optimistic--they tend to think the best of life and the people they encounter in it--which is precisely what makes them vulnerable to predators.

The Obidee said...

You miss my point. What I meant to say, admittedly without saying it, was that you (Steve) will find exactly what you are looking for. If you go on a search, expecting to find a sham or scam you will find enough evidence to justify your initial perspective. As I said in my blog response to your blog, the fact that there are scam artists in the self-help industry (which I acknowledge is the case) does not make the material BS.

Steve Salerno said...

Graham/Obidee: Yeah, but then what's so insightful about your "point"? That can be said of anything: If I walk into my yard looking for red birds, I'm going to find them. If I turn on the TV and check the cable menu in search of baseball games, I'm going to find them; if I don't look for movies, I won't find them; etc. (And if you're implying that people only get what they search for--nonsense. The fact that I'm not looking for negativity doesn't mean it won't find me. That's just not how life works.)

And as far as whether the self-help movement as a whole is b.s., I would say this: The very process of trying to formulate programs that are applicable to the masses--at least in the "fail-safe" way that gurus claim--is, yes, mostly b.s. That was the whole reason for this post. Any program that claims to offer high odds of success to all comers necessarily oversimplifies (and "universalizes") the mechanism of success to the point of meaninglessness. You cannot teach success and happiness via bullet points.

RockitQueen said...

I've noticed that Amway has started really ramping up the ads on TV. It makes me feel sick and sad. They will probably lure in a bunch of desperate people who have lost their jobs/otherwise suffering due to the economy and suck them dry.

Have you thought about doing a follow-up book to SHAM?

James said...

Interestingly (for me, anyway!) this article made me think about how I've used sayings such as these, and I came to the conclusion that I don't really regard them as either absolutely true or false, but as things that can act as a kickstart for some pondering.

I tend to take at least some notice of natural cliches (as opposed to detectably-forced memes, perhaps more like the ones you are talking about) because they have made enough 'inner sense' to a populous to use and pass on. In a way those expressions that 'ring true' have strong genes.

I'd also like to say that I very much enjoy this blog (posts and comments) since I started reading it a few weeks ago.

Steve Salerno said...

RQ: I was thinking the very same thing just last night, watching the Avon ads parade across my screen on several channels. Unlike some of the others who comment here, I still see many wonderful aspects of the free market, but that very tendency you cite--to prey upon desperate people during hard times--is not one of capitalism's more noble features. I'm also reminded of that every time I turn on my car radio and hear the gleeful tone of those ads, usually on Rush's show and similar networks, reminding listeners with a few bucks to spare that "now is the time to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities in foreclosures!" I realize that one person's loss is almost always another person's gain...but does the word "vulture" (or maybe "scumbag") come to mind?

As for your question, geez, you really know how to hurt a guy. To he honest, I've developed two worthy follow-ups to "SHAM"...but publishers apparently didn't agree they were all that worthy. I got precisely one offer/deal for my first follow-up--and it was less money than I got for "SHAM," so I sulked and walked away. I'm beginning to regret that decision now.

Anonymous said...

So I don't understand the point of this blog or your entire blog for that matter. You're saying people shouldn't believe in themselves? It's better to have a negative attitude? Answer, please. I'm not trying to be a wise ass, I really want to know??

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 1:15, this is actually a good question, whose answer may be of special interest to those who just wandered by recently (all the more so if they haven't read my book, which, I'm guessing, you and many other more recent visitors haven't). In fact, I'm thinking I'll build my next post around it.

Stay tuned, please...

Robert said...

Re: Believe in yourself. Here are some great stories of big-time celebrities who were literally at the right place at the right time. My personal favorite is Pam Anderson, who just happened to be wearing the right boobs--err shirt, when a jumbotron camera was on her.


RockitQueen said...

Oh, man, I'm with you, Steve. Vultures indeed...that's why books like yours are so important. I hope you'll keep trying to get the follow-ups published.