#017 The Self-Help Hamster Wheel
To What Extent Do We Actually Need Help?
I have a black belt in karate, a yoga teaching certification, a reiki mastership, and an MA in Integral Health. I’ve also done a bunch of other small things, like long-term silent meditation retreats, a Thai massage workshop, and a journalism class. I can’t tell you the number of self-help books I’ve read (there are 61 books in the “self-help” folder on my Kindle).
Maybe it’s a little weird that I put my college degrees in the same category as, say, reading The Power of Habit, but I find there’s a lot of grey area between the two. Nowadays, there are independent certifications for everything from leadership to tarot reading, and some college classes don’t give you any better information than what you could research on your own.
In her 2018 article, “Improving Ourselves to Death,” Alexandra Schwartz writes:
Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scientific methodologies, or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business.
So, the distinction isn’t obvious to me. It’s all in pursuit of a better self.
I’ve always believed in the adage, “you get out what you put in,” and have pursued things with an intensity that would make Bruce Wayne say, “Woah, lighten up, take a chill pill.”
I didn’t just want to improve, I felt I needed it, and I thought my intense need to be a better person was unique. But, the self-help market is expected to grow to $13.2 billion in 2022. I’m sure college tuition is not included in that $13.2 billion estimate, otherwise that number would be much higher.
Why are we so compelled to get so much help?
Alexandra Schwartz wonders about this, too, and concludes that it’s the pressure to measure up in a highly competitive economy. She writes, “If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise?”
She’s right about me, I have sometimes been motivated by the desire to stay employable in a highly competitive economy, but if that’s the only benefit, then self-help has proven to be more of a hinderance than a help, for me.
I don’t blame my teachers. Whenever I was motivated by competitiveness, I already had the skills I needed. I was really seeking a band-aid for imposter syndrome or my fears of inadequacy. Afterwards, those psychological roadblocks were still in place, and I’d only managed to put off facing them for a little longer.
I’ve never pursued a degree or certification with a guaranteed income attached, like dentistry, for example, and I’ve only monetized one skill acquired in a classroom (reiki). Ironically, my hard skills (I’ve worked as a web developer and a data analyst) were things I taught myself or learned on the job.
William Gonch takes a more philosophical approach. In his article, “Cognitive Behavioral Soulcraft,” he tells us that self-help is about pursuing goals that give our lives meaning.
I must evaluate my passions to determine the life I want to live and the goals I want to achieve. Then—and this is the hard part—I must continue to see those goals as meaningful, and interpret daily actions as steps toward them… In its attempt to give us control over our own stories, [self-help] impoverishes the stories we share and the meanings we make together.
According to Gonch, building a better self is how we replace the lost meaning we once got through family and community. Because a regular sense of connection is no longer available, we focus on ourselves.
In Gonch’s narrative, we lack the connections that once provided us meaning because we’ve left our hometowns to build exciting careers elsewhere. I know many people who’ve left their hometowns, but not to build exciting careers. They left because they felt no sense of belonging in their community of origin, including myself.
I’m willing to bet that, historically, lots of people have lacked a sense of belonging in their places of origin, but they also lacked alternative options. Now we have them.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of classes, workshops, and retreats are designed to instill a sense of connection among the participants, so we leave grateful for the experience and, ideally, with a few more friends. If what Gonch says is true, that’s one way to guarantee that a participants’ needs are met even if we go in not knowing exactly what we lack.
For me, a quest for more meaning is at the heart of all my actions, but that’s not the entirety of my self-help story.
My motivations to help myself have progressed along with my psychological states at various points in my life. At first, I thought it would validate me as a human being, but since, I’ve been motivated by illness, depression, anxiety, skill development, joy, and inspiration.
I don’t regret any of the self-improvement I’ve done, nor any of the self-help books I’ve read (well, maybe a few, there are some pretty bad ones out there), but I also believe in another adage: “nothing is wasted.” We find ways to use everything we’ve learned, even if not in ways we never expected.
What about you? What’s your relationship with self-help?
If you don’t know about Johnny Harris’ reporting, then you’re missing out, and you should start with his video about why McDonald’s ice cream machines are always broken.