Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Guest post on the good, the bad and the ugly.

Received an email the other day from a gentleman who wanted to know my main gripe about self-help and its resident gurus. When I replied, more or less, "I sorta wrote a book about it," he replied with what follows. 

I publish this with his permission. He has asked to be identified simply as "Anonymous."

You raise important points; often people in desperation cling to anything that can give them hope, no matter how faint and costly. This is a field wide open to charlatans and schemers, and it has always been the case.
It was against the samurai code to exploit other people's misfortunes. We have no such codes today.
My question though is more like, by being so critical, are we not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
If I may, let me state what is bad and good with self-help, using some examples close to home:
[Ed note: I wrote a deceptive headline. He omits the "ugly."]
THE BAD
A friend of a very good friend of mine (a Hungarian lady, very pleasant on the eye) attended a Tony Robbins conference. She was so excited she wanted to take the next step. And what was it? She signed up for €100,000 worth of training, with 10% paid upfront. When she realized what she had done, there was no turning back. She was on the hook. What they said is that she would find a way to get over this. And eventually she did, by raising funds from three wealthy Hungarians. She now works for their institution.
I'm sure all of the schemers have similar programs. People should realize that to change and improve their lives it takes a lot of introspection and hard work. Most of us are just not up to it. But that does not stop the huge marketing machine of TV and publishes to foist these programs on unsuspecting people. And that's really bad, with the consequences you very rightly outlined.
THE GOOD
In fairness, I'll use Tony Robbins here again. A former colleague attended his conference in the early 2000s. He said it changed his life by giving focus. He is now a very wealthy guy, after starting a few businesses that worked out spectacularly after that. Was it thanks to Tony? Who knows...but it helped in his case. [ED NOTE: If we don't know if it was "thanks to Tony," how do we know it "helped in his case"?]
And Tony counts among his clients some very bright and intelligent people like Paul Tudor Jones, Andre Agassi and others who credit him with getting their lives back on track. I certainly think there is a lot of merit in interviewing the brightest people who have "made it," spot the commonalities and see if they can be replicated. This is the crux of Tony's latest book, which, coming from the financial world, I can say that it makes a lot of sense (including going after the mutual fund industry).
Moreover, science is now backing some of these self-help claims. Like how your subconscious influences many of our actions [ED NOTE: Just "many"? I would argue that we never know consciously why we do anything; nor do we have any choice in doing it], the importance of having goals and so forth. There are a couple of decent "self-help" writers that I would recommend, such as Eric Barker and James Clear. They put their stuff out for free, and try it on themselves as they go along.
And perhaps this is the crucial differentiator: whose interests do you have in mind when you peddle out self-help advice? Certainly charging thousands for it seems like a scam, but there are some good honest people out there.
That said, I think we should all learn to go through life on our own, without having gurus or parents or others telling us what we should do. That's the only way we can be free. But I do cherish the advice of many sage people I have met along the way - unfortunately my gut is not all that reliable!*
* In a prior exchange, I had suggested to Anonymous  that he would "know in his gut" if he were in the presence of a scammer. On further reflection, what he says is likely true for many of us: Our guts are not that reliable. If they were, we wouldn't have so many successful con men and Ponzi schemes, so many bad marriages, so many cancerous guts, etc. 

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