Feb 3, 2018

The myth of the new you: Why you shouldn't buy what self-help gurus are peddling

Why you shouldn't buy what self-help gurus are peddling

Richard Whittall: While the New Cult’s mode of delivery and the variety of channels has changed in recent years, the dubious scientism remains the same

Richard Whittall
Special to National Post
February 1, 2018

You’ve seen the headlines. Maybe they were on a friend’s Facebook feed or, as is more likely, on a colleague’s LinkedIn page. Perhaps you dismissed them as silly self-help clickbait, but if you’re like most of us, you found it impossible to resist their siren song: “5 Incredibly Effective Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder.” “Most productive people: 6 things they do every day.” “3 Questions that Will Free Your Mind and Turn Your Life Around.”

Chances are you read a few of these articles in the lead-up to New Year’s Day and made a flurry of resolutions which, by now of course, you have quietly dropped. They usually appear on a handful of familiar websites: inc.com, hbr.org, entrepreneur.com, businessinsider.com and the motherlode of self-improvement propaganda with armies of life coaches and “marketing ninjas,” medium.com.

Each post carries the promise of a New You – a well-rested, effortlessly creative person who goes to the gym five times a week, reads 100 books a year, completes a day’s work in two hours, meditates and journals every morning and launches startup business in their spare time in between raising gritty, grateful offspring – all while somehow remaining “stress-free.”

And don’t worry; achieving these ambitious life goals requires nothing more than a few easy-to-implement tips and tricks supposedly “backed up by the latest behavioural psychology and neuroscience.” These tips might even make you unbelievably rich – though the authors of these posts go to painful lengths to stress that money can’t buy happiness. They also just happen to pepper their articles with anecdotes from the lives of ultra-rich business people and investors including Ray Dalio, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, Jeff Bezos, Ariana Huffington, Warren Buffett and others.

Welcome to the New Cult of Self-Improvement.

The inescapable truth the gurus never tell you is that self-improvement never ends.

Once the purview of slap-happy motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and corporate productivity writers such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey, the New Cult of Self-Improvement has adapted to the disruptive paradigm favoured by Silicon Valley, eschewing airport hotel convention centre seminars and dime store self-help books for email newsletters and ebooks filled with “life hacks.” And where there were once a handful of self-improvement superstars, the literature today is spread across an online army of authors and bloggers, with only a few standing out (Tim Ferriss, Cal Newport and Mark Manson) while many others clamber to get a piece of the action.

But while the New Cult’s mode of delivery and the variety of channels has changed in recent years, the dubious scientism remains the same, including the reliance on questionable interpretations of neurological research and anecdotes from the rich and famous to back up claims.

Despite the greater number of voices in the choir, the chorus is very much in unison – most of the new self-improvement advice on offer is more or less the same with minor variations, and it’s not exactly groundbreaking. The advice tends toward setting time aside to do focused work, taking regular breaks, avoiding multitasking, shutting out online distractions, breaking down large tasks into detailed to-do lists, focusing on process instead of results, reading books instead of wasting time on the internet, using spare time for personal learning, sleeping eight hours a day, skipping lunch twice a week, doing push-ups whenever you go to the bathroom and so on and so on.

When it comes to the thornier issues of our psychological and emotional well-being, the New Cult borrows heavily from both Buddhism and the ancient Greek philosophy known as Stoicism, with calls to be mindful of the present moment, focus on what’s in your control and ignore the rest, accept your present circumstances with magnanimity, realize you are not your thoughts, etc.

Of course, none of this advice is objectionable on its own; despite its promoters’ tendency to push quick fixes, much of what they suggest is still both practical and useful. But the sheer volume of blogs, online seminars and podcasts all selling the same story raises the question: why does such a simple, largely uniform message require so many voices to propagate it in slightly different ways, over and over and over again?

The answer relates in part to the ephemeral nature of self-improvement, and our inability to take advice, stick with it and move on with our lives. For example, after the initial high that comes with making healthy or productive changes – perhaps setting up a to-do list or starting a new workout routine – we can’t help but wonder: what if there is a slightly better workout we’re missing out on, or a marginally more effective productivity system we could be using?

The inescapable truth the gurus never tell you is that self-improvement never ends. Even after we’ve made changes to improve our lives, we can’t help but think we could be running faster, or taking more time to ourselves, or being more productive at work, all the while ignoring or discounting the positive changes we’ve already put into place over the years. And of course, legions of self-improvement writers are poised to take advantage of our restless need to tweak, with new and slightly different listicles on how to eat better, or work faster, or lose weight.

The flip side of the self-improvement industry's emphasis on personal agency is, of course, that we are also primarily to blame for our failure to flourish.

So why do so many of us struggle to break this cycle – fully aware we will never be satisfied with ourselves? The answer is the irresistible idea peddled by the self-improvement industry: that our ability to flourish as human beings is entirely in our control.

While news media presents us with an increasingly populated world under the sway of vast, faceless and unseen forces – economic market cycles, demographic shifts, geopolitical tensions, climate change – the self-improvement industry pushes the reassuring notion that our personal choices determine the quality of our lives. If we can learn to be more productive, we will get a decent, well-paying job. If we stick to a regular workout routine, we will stave off death for a few more years and maybe attract an ideal partner along the way. If we can stay mindful of the present moment, we will avoid unpleasant feelings of anxiety or depression.

The flip side of the self-improvement industry’s emphasis on personal agency is, of course, that we are also primarily to blame for our failure to flourish. Personal setbacks or a loss of resolve are not the result of bad luck, but a reflection of individual weakness. And this is where the self-improvement industry can do far more harm than good.

Consider, for example, a person at the peak of their career who is objectively considered to be very good at their job. They might ascribe their success to their ability to work smarter not harder, to delegate tasks, to set ambitious but achievable goals. But one day, due to economic forces beyond their control, they are let go as part of a restructuring plan.

Worse, because they are middle-aged with experience in a shrinking industry, they will likely have to take a lower position for less pay. A lifetime of industrious self-improvement has failed to save them from disaster. Though this person tries to accept the situation with equanimity, they can’t help but feeling as though they should have seen this coming, that they took the wrong self-improvement advice, that this unfortunate situation is fundamentally their fault.

This dark side of the self-improvement cult has not gone unnoticed by critics, some of whom compare its focus on personal salvation – the manic need to produce and strive and improve as much as we can in the short time we have on earth – to the old Protestant work ethic, which still permeates much of our culture to this day.

In a recent post, The Outline’s Vincent Bevins makes this link explicit: “(The Protestant work ethic is) what’s behind the perverted impulse to self-flagellate and ask, ‘What did I accomplish this year?’ and it’s why we get jealous every time we find out that some accomplished famous person is younger than us. In the U.S., for example, it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist, we are all still basically Calvinists deep down. And to the extent that American-style capitalism has spread around the world, so has this basic outlook, to every corner of the globe. This has got to be what’s behind those fanatical posts on LinkedIn and Medium.”

Real self-improvement is arguably impossible in a social vacuum.

Others, such as Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann, have pointed out that while at one time, the individualist program of the self-improvement industry was a useful counterweight to a conformist society, today it has led to a society of insular, self-obsessed navel-gazers in constant fear of failing to keep up with the Joneses. “Nowadays,” Brinkmann writes for The Guardian,“real resistance to the system would consist not of turning inward in search of some authentic self, but in rejecting the whole concept and finding out how to live responsibly with yourself and others instead.”

Brinkmann hints here at the major drawback of the current craze for productivity hacks and happiness gambits: it omits entirely the social element of the good life. Self-improvement – at least the way it is depicted by the mass of Silicon Valley-obsessed online hucksters today – is, in practice, a lonely pursuit. It is a list of personal choices to be made by you and you alone. The role of other people, when mentioned at all, is either as a means to “boost personal happiness” or to delegate boring work.

This is particularly ironic as the purpose of being more productive, or more mindful, or more physically fit is inherently social. We want to be better workers in order to gain recognition from our colleagues and employers. We want to be physically fit in order to appear more attractive to others. We read books and meditate in order to be more socially present and aware.

Moreover, real self-improvement is arguably impossible in a social vacuum. All the productivity systems in the world won’t save you from a fundamentally toxic work environment, while an effectively collaborative office can make even the most disorganized worker more productive. Similarly, experience shows that social support has a major influence on factors like diet and fitness, both when it comes to our close circle of friends and in a larger, more political context involving everything from mass agriculture to city planning.

Of course, it is much harder for self-improvement writers to sell us on the idea that our lives depend on a larger social whole that we cannot control. After all, while you can pick your own to-do list and workout schedule, you can’t necessarily pick your co-workers or your gym buddies or your elected government.

But this is perhaps the core message the New Cult of Self-Improvement needs to embrace: that our ability to flourish, whatever that means in practice, depends a lot on other people beyond our sphere of influence – and that all that can be asked of us is to do the best we can in whatever given circumstance we find ourselves in, while hoping for (but not expecting or demanding) an ideal outcome. It may be far healthier, and nicer, to stop focusing intensely on our own self-improvement regimens and to focus more on developing genuine connections with others.

Ironically, this is the core message of one of the self-improvement cult’s favourite philosophies: Stoicism. But where self-improvement bloggers have latched on to Stoicism’s themes of overcoming negative emotions and preparing oneself for the worst, they have largely skipped over its core message – that the key to happiness is to accept your present circumstances with equanimity, and to prize above all acting virtuously at all times for the sake of the common good.

This means focusing less on getting the right productivity app, eating all the right foods and picking the right cardio-to-weight-work ratio, and more on being an engaged person no matter the circumstances, which are almost entirely outside of your control.

It may not be the sexiest life hack out there, but simply living a virtuous life is probably the most effective.


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