Friday, February 12, 2010

Of live and love-nubs, sex and selves, hype and help. Part 2.

[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 vampiresconsists 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 habitsand 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.


Rational Thinking said...

I like your analogy to a 'cold reading'. And the point that these books cannot take the risk of offending or alienating readers. There's a kind of new-age political correctness, too, that seems to be almost endemic. By that I mean that certain ideas (the pernicious LOA, for example) are taken as a given. And this must be stifling to those who genuinely feel they have something of value to share.

In the end, though, these books are really about 'here's some things that worked for me - maybe you could try them'. It's the certainty with which some outrageous claims are made that really irritates me.

I also agree about the Butterfly effect. It can be dangerous. The cynic in me wonders sometimes about whether there is a deliberate ploy in some books simply to feed a desire to feel good. Hence the repeat business.

Good post, Steve.

Ross said...

The reasons "self-help/self-improvement" often don't "take":

In an area of life that has been deeply challenging, with lots of limiting beliefs, ineffective behaviors and emotional charge, it's not enough to provide a model of what to do. Because when people go to make the changes the old behaviors and ways of thinking are going to come up and get in the way.

So unless you teach people how to be present with the old stuff without buying into it and feeding it, or supressing it, it is going to color everything they do.

Plus new ways of acting and feeling and thinking take time to get familiar and that gap between desire and skill is hard to manage. It by itself is a separate skill set that has to be taught, along with dealing with frustration and confusion in a smart and useful way.

I talk about it here:

BTW, I teach in the "love nub" niche and gettin' some isn't nearly as easy as you might think for many, many people.


Anonymous said...

Self help books aren't intended to supply any definitive answers, they are intended as a distraction from the reality of the human condition, as is all entertainment, consumerism, all our cultural inventions.

We have two ineradicable drives, to survive and procreate, the rest is fluff to fill time before the grim reaper calls and to distract us from the inevitability of his arrival.

Self help is a bastardised form of seeking salvation; if I could just find the right advice in the right book I might manage to outwit the reaper or fool him into giving me a pass.
Vanity, all is vanity, so is railing against it.

Steve Salerno said...

Ross: Hmmm. This smacks of self-promotion, which I usually don't allow. But after some reflection, I decided that it stands on its own merits. We'll see what others think, if anything.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 9:34: I get it, I get it. "All generalizations are flawed, including this one..."

Anonymous said...

Mr Jeffries is putting a new, more acceptable spin on his usual schtick of teaching men with no social skills to hypnotise and manipulate women--for a very high price of course.
I'm not sure who is most manipulated, the women 'targets' of the pick-up artist or the poor chump who pays through the nose to learn these 'skills' in the belief that he is getting any more than a list of cheesy lines and NLP patterns.

Bob Collier said...

I see Joe Vitale is now a member of something called the Transformational Leadership Council. Apparently, "The Transformational Leadership Council was founded so leaders of personal and organizational transformation could support each other in their contributions to the world."

I bet they print their own certificates of membership too.

This is something I didn't know, from the FAQ page:

"What is the relationship to "The Secret" DVD and book?

Many of the members of the Transformational Leadership Council were filmed by Rhonda Byrne for "The Secret" at our 2005 event in Aspen, Colorado."

Rational Thinking wrote: "In the end, though, these books are really about 'here's some things that worked for me - maybe you could try them'. It's the certainty with which some outrageous claims are made that really irritates me."

I agree. It would be more honest and more genuinely helpful if these people's ideas were presented as suggestions or possibilities and not as if they're immutable laws. But, then, it's the repeat business and the fan club that counts most for the gurus, isn't it?

Steve Salerno said...

Re "Mr. Jeffries" and such: Not sure I should've opened this door, on reflection, but I did, so I guess we'll see where it leads.

Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life said...

This is an excellent question Steve, and one I've thought about often. My feeling is that when people do run across self help they often get a positive influx of emotional energy and they like that. Then more often than not find it simply easier to front up the $$$ to get another helping of that positive influx of energy than actually make long term strutural lifestyle changes to continually create that energy in their own life.

For most of us physical fitness would be a major scource of energy and vitality, but... exercising is hard and watching Oprah isn't.

Also some of the ways we can make the greatest gains in personal happiness, are quite counter-initiutive. If you're having a crappy sex life for example, more toys, videos and fancy hotel rooms might not amount to much progress. Fitness, helping out with household chores, playing with the kids and earning more money might.

Same with fat people revolving their entire life around what they eat or aren't eating.

Which is to stay the Law of Attraction is basically correct, but most peoples application of it blows. And from the perspective of all the helping professions... religious, psychiatry, counseling, self-help guru... actually helping your customers is not in the best interest of the person selling the service. It's got to be like a free computer printer and they get you on the ink cartridges forever.

Steve Salerno said...

The "Law of Attraction is basically correct"?

Jenny said...

Steve, you wrote:

Re "Mr. Jeffries" and such: Not sure I should've opened this door, on reflection, but I did, so I guess we'll see where it leads.

I have a couple of suggestions: Either 1) you buy the "home study program" that teaches that all-important Skill Set, then report back to us what you find, thus either proving it is worthwhile and thus giving its creator some free PR -- or --- disproving its merit and thus exposing yet another SHAMster on the landscape; or 2) Mr. Jeffries gives you a free home study course. That way, you are not out any dough and both you and him have the opportunity to provide a service, you to expose more SHAM and him to prove that his product is not just another one of many that have already been thus exposed.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: Hmmm. Thanks for the suggestion.

"Mr Jeffries"?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, asking a hustledork to provide anything that could be construed as "proof" - and expecting him to comply - is every bit as viable as putting that extracted tooth under your pillow at night and hoping for a shiny new Morgan silver dollar. But you knew that already...

If not, I know a guy who'll take you for a real ride for only five grand (Just don't mention my name when you contact him). And if you've any funds left after that, I've got this bridge I can let you have for a relative song...

Cosmic Connie said...

Hey, I've known about Ross Jeffries for a few years now; he's a former comedy writer who in more recent years became known for teaching "Speed Seduction," which seems to be kind of like speed dating but without the refinements. We had a brief (very brief) discussion of him on Eliz's blog a few months back:

More recently, RJ's name has been thrown around on Salty Droid's blog during a heated discussion about Internet marketers (the Feb. 5 entry).

Interesting, all of it.

Nevertheless, if you separate the gist of his comment from the self-promotional efforts, what Ross said here about why self-help often doesn't "take" does make some sense.

Anyway, I've been following this mini-series of yours with interest, Steve, and look forward to "the finale." Good stuff.

PS to Bob Collier: Joe V has apparently been a member of the Transformational Leadership Council since last year; at least he blogged a lot about going to their exclusive get-together in Bermuda last July. BTW, James Arthur Ray was a founding member of the TLC, but his name is no longer listed on their "members in good standing" pages.

Cosmic Connie said...

And since today is Valentine's Day, here's a bit of sentiment from speed-seduction expert RJ, who hates this Hallmark holiday with a passion:

He's offering a special that will, as he puts it, "...really do something to mark out my disdain [for Valentine's Day] and...give you guys a leg up in your quest for the pink abundance."

Who says romance is dead?

Steve Salerno said...

Con: Now, I'm surprised that, instead of "a leg up," he didn't say "two legs open."

Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life said...

Re: "The Law of Attraction is basically correct"

As in if you are endlessly focused on your problems, your problems never really seem to resolve. You end up creating an identity around the problem and it tends to be self-continuing.

Whereas if you can actually do something unrelated, functional and helpful, often that in and of itself can promote a greater sense of well being.

I'm not trying to say you just wish things better by magical thinking, I'm more of a "clean your room and you'll feel better" guy.

Steve Salerno said...

Athol: But see, this is a very important point--I dare say, a critical one. There is a huge difference between saying what you just said and posing that "the Law of Attraction is basically correct." It is very dangerous (and logically dubious) to take some sweeping theory, focus on one relatively minor aspect that appears to have to validity, and use that aspect as validation of the theory as a whole. It's a little bit like saying that Hitler created a tremendous sense of nationalism in Germany, therefore Nazism was a good thing.

I have relatives who did something like this when The Secret first came out, as an explanation for why they (a) bought the book/DVD and (b) put their faith in it: "Well, it's really about how you need to be more positive about life." Well, no. It's about how, as our friend Vitale once put it, "the Universe is a giant shopping catalog and you just place your order." Or it's about how, as someone else (whose name escapes me) more or less put it, "It's about how your most sincere beliefs will be rewarded, for better or worse. The world becomes what you think it is." Yeah, right. Or how 'bout our friend Rhonda Byrne, who explained Katrina and 9/11 in terms of the victims' failure to generate enough positive energy in life?

Saying what you said in your most recent comment is a sensible outlook on life (though I'd still have a few quibbles with you). Saying what the folks I quoted just above insane.

Anonymous said...

I just read RJ's comment and I don't know why but it makes me wanna put my "love nub" on high security alert.

Whatever happened to "there's a lid for every pot"?


Stever Robbins said...

Steve, I can't wait to hear what you think of my forthcoming book. It's pure functional self-help. "Work Less and Do More" is the promise. It covers many of the critical skills that will enable you to live the Life of Your Dreams: how to label your file folders so you can retrieve them later, how to set boundaries at work so you can focus on large projects, how to clean your office quickly so you can find things, and how to raise and deploy a Zombie army to take over the world.

We're marketing it in the Business section, but you and I will know the truth.