Self-Help and the War on Common Sense

an illustration for the blog War on Common Sense self-help for dummies“… I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain,
begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind

Romeo and Juliet, act 1, sc. 4

We know of the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on crime and sundry others. Less known is the war on common sense. It is waged daily on the victims and preys of the Self-help and Actualization Movement, or SHAM. It is a 9 billion $/year industry selling verbal fluff, illusion and fraud with total impunity.

The impunity is guaranteed by the implicit and indirect association of the self-help industry with organized religion. The difference being that whereas religion sells happiness in the next life, self-help sells success in the current, under the guise of fulfilling the customer’s dreams. For, taking issue with the claims of the former is unthinkable. Hence organized religion provides a wide umbrella for all kinds of activities promising results without proof of delivery.

The army of the self-help salesmen consists of instructors with over-inflated and/or non existing credentials, veritable “riddling merchants for the nonce,”(1) promising to buyers that the winter of their discontent (2) will bloom into the summer of their satisfaction, if they purchase their advice at a considerable price.

They flatter the imagination with glittering ideas of wealth, power and ultimate fulfillment, easily obtainable by just wishing for them. Their ‘recipes’ for self-help are like Polonius’ “springes to catch woodcocks” (3) and those woodcocked by television, tabloid magazines and infomercials.

The self-help “instructors” are thousands – they deliver their pearls of wisdom, with statements like, for example, “Ya gotta want it!”  The utterer of this profound truth was Tommy Lasorda, an ex baseball player turned helper for the self-helpless. He charges or charged $30,000 an hour for advice as follows, “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.”

The encyclopedia of platitudes and nonsense-in-drags supplied by self-help providers would be thick – I can only quote some examples.

Here is an extract from the manual “Stop Selling, Start Partnering – The New Thinking About Finding and Keeping Customers.”

Customers learn the new mode of thought at the Pecos River Learning Center in New Mexico. The three-day course combines classroom-style learning with physically challenging outdoor activities, such as falling off walls and descending mountain walls attached to a rope. Other similar centers include self-confidence building by resisting starvation or thirst. But here is a winning ticket from the Pecos River Learning Center (italics as in the original)

“Playing to Win.
We called this spirit, visit life strategy, playing to win. Playing to Win is the alternative strategy to playing not to lose. Playing to Win has nothing to do with the conventional understanding of winning, which is that if I win, someone else has to lose. Playing to win is a personal strategy defined as going as far as you can with all that you’ve got.
The underlying tenet of blank to win is that life is about growing, accepting challenges, and never giving up. The most fulfilled, productive, and loving lives are those in which people have overcome challenges, have grown as a result, and constantly go as far as they can with everything they’ve got.
Make no mistake. Playing to win is by far the more difficult strategy, because we often need to endure a short term pain to achieve long-term gain. For example saying you want to start your own business. That usually means you must quit your current job, get a second mortgage on your home, run the risk of failing, and struggle for a few years before it pays off. In the end, if it does stay off, you get to enjoy feelings of fulfillment and success. Yet, most people, when considering the choice, shy away from commitment, from the risk and the possibility of discomfort.”

Anyone can see that “Playing to win” compounds obviousness with emptiness. Here, and in hundred similar cases, we are witnessing evidence that “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.” (4)

And yet, it is emptiness that survives even death. When the founder of the “Pecos River Learning Center” died, in his obituary it was possible to read,

“Larry Wilson, who provided training through Wilson Learning and Pecos River Learning Center to a wide range of organizations that included Disney, the Minnesota Vikings and the CIA, has died.”

Unsaid was, however, that after the Minnesota Vikings undertook the extremely expensive training, the team arrived last in the championship of that year. We must shudder to think what results the CIA achieved, after mastering the art of “Playing to Win.”

The Pecos River Learning Center was later sold to another similar conglomerate for 16 million $.

Self-Help organizations, or self-helper individuals posing as organizations are in the thousands. I choose at random the “Option Institute.” Among many different “courses” here is the “Inner Strength Boot Camp” – a week-long program that will lighten the purse of each student of 4,650 dollars.

Baffled about a boot camp for “Inner Strength”? No problem. Here is the explanation,

quote
We’re all familiar with the term “boot camp.” An intensive, no-holds-barred, all-out, 8-cylinder experience where participants walk through the fires of deep personal challenge. And, in the end, they have rebuilt themselves into something – someone – vastly stronger and more powerful.
Inner Strength BOOT CAMP takes this concept deeper. In truth, we can go through an “outer” strength boot camp, but no amount of physical exercise prepares us for the heavy lifting we face in our lives – financially, with our health, in our relationships, and within our careers.
In the end it all comes down to Inner Strength – creating a way for ourselves to think and feel so that we have an unwavering, unstoppable, indestructible sense of our own strength, confidence, self-acceptance, and clarity. To accomplish this, we’ve constructed a course that powers through nine straight days of intensive work on you. (But you’re still only away for one workweek.)
In this course, we help you to dig deep into every aspect of yourself. Once you’ve done that, we can (lovingly and non-judgmentally) challenge you to build who you are into the version of yourself that you always wanted to be, always thought you could be, but haven’t quite seen yet.
In the end, we may not be able to control everything. But we can become people who determine how we handle everything. We can gain the tools to construct a core of strength, confidence, and clarity on the inside that’s impervious to events on the outside. We can be our own rock.
And that’s why Inner Strength BOOT CAMP isn’t about changing the world. It’s about changing YOUR world.
Would you like to:
*** Remain truly relaxed and unfazed in the face of the judgments and criticism of others?
*** Know who you are – without taking what others do personally or needing them to validate you?
*** Create more loving relationships with the people that matter most to you?
*** Overcome the obstacles that keep you from being present to what’s really important in your life?
*** Speak authentically without fear?
*** Sustain a sense of peace and comfort with an unpredictable world?
*** Stay strong in what you believe and what you want?
*** Understand exactly how you work…so you can change and rebuild the parts that don’t?
If so, Inner Strength BOOT CAMP is for you.
The way it works is that you arrive on Friday night, and then go full-blast from Saturday until the next Sunday. You will be shocked at how far you can get by taking a course in this totally immersive style (while still only being away for one workweek).
Some special methods unique to Inner Strength BOOT CAMP:
*** The Inner Strength Diary:A unique method of tracking your changes – and keeping yourself accountable
*** Happiness Interaction Training Tactics (HITTS): Practical strategies getting people to treat you the way you want to be treated while living what you’ve learned
*** The Book:The most powerful interactive exercise we’ve ever taught for learning to be totally present and focused
*** The Two Sides of You: A special activity where we use digital enhancement technology to show you sides of yourself you might never have imagined
*** What If???:A navigational path we help you create for yourself that allows you to completely trust your ability to take care of yourself – no matter what
*** The “Ask Anything” Project: A method allow you to to get to know your fellow participants – and anyone else in your life – in a unique way
unquote

And, should you still have doubts about the uniqueness of all this obviousness, there is an abundance of “testimonials.” People providing them span the range of human characters and are engaged in all pursuits that swarm upon the earth, from chef/caterers to software engineers. Here is the testimonial from a chef/caterer.

quote
I signed up for Inner Strength with a feeling that if it didn’t help, I’d be lost. Not only did the program give me practical, easy-to-use tools to help build my inner strength, it also helped me discover strengths I did not know I had. I’m now equipped to face anything in my path, and to deal with all issues with clarity and happiness. My life is no longer a battleground – it’s a playground!
unquote

But where are the roots and which are the reasons for the extraordinary success of this ultimate industry of fluff?

It is a case of “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied…” (5) For, the idea of obtaining instructions on the ways of the world is as old as the Bible, the Greeks and the Romans. In my view, the best “self-help” manual ever written is still Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.”

More recently, in 1937 Dale Carnegie published “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The appeal of the book, in my view, consists not so much in the advice, which is sound, but in making the reader feel better emotionally. In fact, though by and large people do not behave at all as the manual suggests, the reader realizes that cultivating humanitarian and genteel feelings towards others has some kind of official sanction – even if, in practice and too often, kindness and openness are rated as symptoms of weakness. Unless, of course the “influenced people” see profit in being influenced.

The same considerations apply to N.V. Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It is amply proven that when man is no longer cold, hungry or fearful, he becomes unhappy. It is “… the unseen grief that swells with silence in the tortured soul.” (6) The book suggests measures to alleviate the symptoms.

Nevertheless, the seminal event, triggering the chain reaction of self-help mania, was the 1967 book “I’m OK – You are OK.” Which, by the way, prompted the much more realistic publication of “I am dysfunctional, you are dysfunctional.”

Yet, “There is occasions and causes why and wherefore in all things.” (7) It is not by chance that the blossoming of the self-help industry coincided with the de-industrialization of the country, the “downsizings”, the “consolidations” and the explosive growth of part-time jobs. In essence, the factual impoverishment of the country paralleled the enrichment of the financial industry, which essentially is air, or rather paper, for practical reasons. Paper can be more easily manhandled, maneuvered, hidden, stolen and monopolized, hence the dramatic divergence in prosperity between the 1% and the rest.

Unable to fight back, “the miserable have no other medicine but only hope.” (8) Searching for solutions, large sections of the populace became the natural target (or victims) of the self-help industry. Whose psychological modus operandi is as follows:

  1. Dissecting the meaning of basic ideas such as right and wrong, good and bad, winning and losing etc.
  2. Giving alternative new connotations to words and concepts, e.g. family, love, discipline, blame, excellence and self-esteem.

Afterwards, or as a result of this lexical sleigh-of-hand, the ‘market’ is split into two segments:

  1. The victims, whose motto is “It’s not my fault”, and
  2. The empowerers, whose motto is “I think, therefore I win, I daydream, therefore I accomplish.”

The victimhood syndrome has  found acceptance even outside the realm of the self-help industry. As I was writing this article, the daily newspaper of where I live, told the story of a criminal just condemned to 10 years in jail. He had stolen someone’s car, and a few days later, by chance, the rightful owner of the car spotted it in the parking lot of a store. Having another set of key, he opened the door of his car. Whereupon the thief reached him, threw him to the ground, stomped on his head and almost killed him – leaving him permanently disabled.

I think the sentence was lenient. But the defendant, with a 30-year long career in crime, brought up in his defense, his troubled childhood (i.e. “It’s not my fault.”)

But I digress.

The victimhood syndrome has also successfully instilled into people, especially women, worry, guilt, insecurity and inadequacy, turning an otherwise (possibly) uneventful life into a permanent winter of discontent.

The empowerers, or rather the sense of empowerment has convinced people that simply aspiring to do something is the same as achieving it. “Feeling good” about oneself and “positive self-worth” are more important than the much more challenging task of acquiring the skills required to gain recognition.

The “self-help” mania has a kind of counterpart, for example, in the “Jesus Festivals” held by prosperous and opulent preachers in the mega-churches of the US Bible Belt.

Yet, the desire to unquestionably accept the unbelievable runs deep in the American soul. In 1830, Frances Trollope, mother of the successful English novelist Anthony Trollope undertook a 2-year voyage to America, followed by the publication of a fascinating book, “The Domestic Manners of the Americans,” in which she also describes a religious “revival.”

“The preacher described with ghastly minuteness, the last feeble fainting moments of human life, and then the gradual progress of decay after death, which he followed through every process up to the last loathsome stage of decomposition… Suddenly he bent forward as if to gaze on some object beneath the pulpit… And the preacher made known to us what he saw in the pit that seemed to open before him. The device was certainly a happy one for giving the effect to his description of hell.
Repeatedly he invited and exhorted the young girls of the congregation not to be ashamed of Jesus, but to put themselves upon “the anxious benches” and lay their heads on his bosom.
After that, three priests walked down and began whispering to the poor girls seated at the “anxious benches”.
These whispers were inaudible to us, but the sobs and groans increased to a frightful excess. Young creatures, with features pale and distorted, fell on their knees on the pavement and soon sunk forward on their faces; the most violent cries and shrieks followed, while from time to time a voice was heard in convulsive accents exclaiming, “Oh Lord, Oh Lord Jesus, help me Jesus” and the like. Violent hysterics and compulsions seized many of them, and when the tumult was at the highest, the priest who remained above, again gave out a hymn as if to drown it.”

Trollope concludes,

“It was a frightful sight to behold innocent young creatures, in the gay morning of existence, thus seized upon, horror-struck and rendered feeble and enervated for ever.
… For myself, I confess that I think the coarsest comedy ever written would be a less detestable exhibition for the eyes of youth and innocence than such a scene.”

Returning to the present, the self-help movement has evolved from the personal realm to include the political. It is a contributing factor, for example in the adherence to the so-called political correctness, daughter of both victimization, or the culture of blame, and the self-esteem movement, a product of empowerment.

But, inspired by the vision of large profits at little or no cost, self-help (in the sense of platitudinal advise sold at high price), has branched even into hospitals and universities.

The World Health Organization now defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Starting from this platform, any reader can deduce that the sky is the limit. The Organization allocates funds to “wellness-based” models, which include research on loneliness and special after-school play programs, all aimed at achieving the ‘state of perfect health.’

Through the same reasoning, public health official have invested millions in so-called “outreach programs” for drug abusers. Here is a declaration by an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, on the subject of women of color contracting HIV from dirty needles and unprotected sex, “In response to daily assault of racial prejudice and denial of dignity, women may turn to readily available mind-altering substance for relief. Seeking sanctuary from racial hatred through sexual connection as a way to enhance self-esteem, also may offer rewards so compelling that condom use becomes less of a priority.” It’s pure victimization at work, and out go the millions for other self-help programs, as their respective deliverers laugh all the way to the bank.

Even mid-sized companies engage high-priced lecturers to inspire motivation through ‘positive thinking,’ though there is no evidence of any positive effect. Considering that often, the company promoters of these program are the very ones who contradict the principles that the programs are supposed to inspire.

Or take the case of the sales seminar where the trainer tells 250 real-estate professionals from the same company that all of them could be the number one salesmen of the year. Self-help can even defy the most simple of mathematics. One of the salesmen will be, the others won’t.

Self-help has surreptitiously changed at large the general outlook on life. From, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill go together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues” (9)
to the philosophy embodied in the popular bumper sticker ‘BADASSE’ – Blame All Disappointments And Setbacks On Someone Else.”

By default, design, skill or luck, the self-help industry has found the formula for ‘success.’ Familiar sounding words applied in a different context puzzle the will (as in the example above, “Inner Strength Boot Camp.”) And hyperbolical images that fire the imagination prompt the willing victim to believe the unbelievable rather than accepting the inherent uncertainties of life.

In the end, self-help makes cowards of its victims, whose hue of resolution is sicklied over by the pale cast of thought, (10) or rather, by the evanescent and ridiculous promises destined to melt into air, into thin air. While the baseless fabric of the self-help visions, (11) the promised successes, praises, glories, wealth and happiness, dissolve, and leave only expensive bills behind.

And, as writer Steve Salerno has aptly concluded in his book SHAM, from where I extracted some of the examples, “The Self Help Industry has made America Helpless.”

** 1. King Henry IV, part 1
** 2. from King Richard III
** 3. Hamlet
** 4. King Henry V
** 5. Romeo and Juliet
** 6. King Richard II
** 7. King Henry V
** 8. Measure for Measure
** 9. All’s Well That Ends Well
** 10. from Hamlet
** 11. from The Tempest

In the play (original quote). Mercutio is delivering a long-winded description of fairy Queen Mabe and Romeo pleads for a halt to the nonsense.

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