[Click here to read Part 1.]
To be clear: This is not an argument for navel contemplation or absent-minded-professorism. As is true in most of life, a balance must be struck. But I see few signs in today's written and spoken America of any striving for a nice balance between ideas and...well, anything else. I see only the anything else. In publishing, that anything else—again, if it's not about vampires—consists increasingly of simple-minded advice that purports to help buyers live better, richer lives: how to do this, how to do that, what to do next if the first how-to-do fails to deliver. It's a nonstop climate of functionalism feeding narcissism. I see people like Joe Vitale writing shamelessly about attracting money as if that's a life plan in and of itself: buy more, have more, flaunt more; then repeat. (Hence, vanity taxes.) I see issue after issue of Men's Health talking about learning how to rub her love-nub or, before that, how to master the conversational/dating techniques that supposedly will enable you to get close enough to have a shot at her love-nub. (Is love-nub-proximity really that hard to achieve in this, the era of the spontaneous hook-up?) Of course, towards that end, it helps if you have nice abs.
Is that what it's about? Is that all it's about?
But there's a larger point to be made here, a point that scratches at one of the supreme ironies of the SHAMsphere. You know, I often think about why self-help so rarely seems to "take," as noted last time. This is a question that comes up in almost every interview I do. Why don't more people assimilate the advice and outgrow their need for further self-help (instead of developing a dependency on self-help itself, which is too often the result)? After all, it's not as if people buy a book or attend a seminar, get their questions answered, and then next time around you have this massive influx of entirely new self-help consumers buying the books or attending the seminars. That's not what happens. As I pointed out in SHAM (and as our own research in Rodale's book division clearly suggested), the demographics of self-help indicate overwhelmingly that the same buyers are buying the same (or similar) materials over and over again, often from the very same guru(s). This is why, if you peruse Tony Robbins' discussion boards or Joe Vitale's blog, you see these breathless references from frequent posters to the previous event or the next one. It's a movable motivational feast, and it never ends.
I think I know why. At least in part.
The gurus like to tell you that they've done all the thinking for you; that they've taken the guesswork out of life and distilled it down to 12 Steps or 10 Keys or 7 Habits. Consider that for a moment: Are you an individual? A unique person with singular goals, needs and desires? Granted, we all want to be happy (or we say we do, which is another whole area that's best left to the shrinks). But what does that really mean, below the surface? What it means to you, I submit, is somewhat (if not very) different from what it means to me or your neighbor. Sure, most of us want a nice partner to go through life with...but what does that mean? Can we all agree on the meaning of "nice"? (Answer: No.) Can we even agree on the meaning of "partner"? (Emphatically no.) Do you want a fulfilling job? Terrific. What's fulfilling, to you? Hell, what's even a job, to you? How does your choice of job intersect with your choice of partner or your broader pursuit of happiness? Will you even know it when you find it?*
Those are questions self-help cannot answer—for you or anyone. Self-help is not written to answer such questions. It is written to sell to a broad audience, and so, not unlike a psychic doing a "cold reading," it must reduce life to a series of all-embracing bullet points and bland generalizations that seem to have personal relevance but in truth have wholly different implications for each and every reader. In all likelihood, we here on SHAMblog couldn't even agree on the precise meaning and application of even one of the habits in Covey's blockbuster best-seller. Now take that ambiguity and multiply it by seven, to include the rest of his habits—and then multiply that by the rest of the 6 billion people on earth. The permutations are infinite. (Indeed, to my mind, clear contradictions exist between several of Covey's habits, notably Nos. 1 and 5.) And yet this is what we American adults, all of whom today were raised on MTV and ostensibly suffer from varying degrees of attention-deficit disorder, have been conditioned to expect: We want it quick, easy, and accessible. Can't you just give me a pill, doc?
Here's another way of looking at it: The typical self-help product is formulated along the lines of a political speech that's conceived with the goal of engaging everyone and offending no one: You'd have to end up saying things that have virtually no specific meaning to anyone.
Now, there are, of course, some types of how-to advice that are useful, and this is where, for example, Men's Health must be given credit. We do know the exercises that will help you craft better abs. (Whether you can ever really look like that dude in my last post is another matter—and we don't really know what those better abs will "do for you," either. But we can't blame the advice for this.) Similarly, if you want to build a bird-house or change your own spark plugs, a carpentry or car-care magazine can walk you through the steps. There's a huge difference, however, between a spark plug and a cerebrum; between abs and emotions. To imply that the exercises that these books, magazines and seminars give you for your heads or hearts will work as predictably and effectively as the exercises they give you for your abs is a gross deception; I dare say it's a fraud. Because once you're working inside the human head and heart, you're faced with a maze of Butterfly Effects and unintended consequences and Id-driven, often unrecognized imperatives. Even when it comes to financial advice, which would seem to fall more in the "bird-cage" category, look at the people who devote their lives to analyzing money and the economy and the stock market and such: Look how often they get it wrong! It's not that easy, folks.
Self-help, for the most part, provides very few answers. It only begs further questions. Which is why those who succumb to its charm end up buying the next book, and the next book, and the next one after that.
NEXT TIME (thankfully, the finale): But there's hope!
* In that connection, I think about the lottery winners who later say they were happier beforehand, or who in some cases recount a disastrous downward spiral set in motion by their windfall.
Friday, February 12, 2010
[Click here to read Part 1.]