One Brand New Brain Coming Up! – The Myth of Self-Improvement Books.
Posted by intellisg on June 12, 2007
ARE the feelings of others more important than your own? Do you tend to suppress your feelings? Do you place the needs of others before your own? Are you an enabler or disabler? Perhaps your life is spinning out of control? Is there really help for you? Maybe you should get a book? You know what I mean don’t you. Those nifty books that can coach you how to manage your time in 3 minutes flat, manage yourself and others or get you that six pack you always dreamt of besides the variety that’s in your refrigerator – I am of course talking about self-improvement books.
Millions of people turn to self-improvement books when they find that their lives spinning out of control. The market for self-improvement products – books, audiotapes, life-makeover seminars and regimens of all kinds is big business.
Research firm Marketdata estimates the “self-improvement” market to be roughly around the $8.5 billion ballpark and there seems to be no end in sight to the growth. In Self-Help Inc, they have solutions from everything ranging from smoking cessation in seven simple steps to balling down your lousy no-confidence self to make-extreme-make-u-over as the new terminator complete with a Cheshire cat winning smile.
It’s attractive enough for any sensible person with a respectable baggage of manias and quirks such as I to ask: do any of these self-improvements books really work? What’s behind all this hype? Is it another sales gimmick conjured by the marketing manifesto trying to sell me another quick fix solution? Do self-improvement books really work? Or am I just too dumb and stubborn to see what they can really do to improve my lot?
Well before we dive into this whole discussion let’s just spend a bit of time peeling away at what the term: “self-improvement” actually means. First of all, I just want to share with all of you all. I am not too happy with the word, “self-improvement.” Only because it’s next door to a whole row of dubious real estate words like painless dentistry, necessary evil, net security, unbiased news, natural synthetic, military intelligence etc. Yeap, you guessed it, “self-improvement,” is an oxymoron.
That’s to say it belongs to a stable of words which combine two contradictory terms to attempt to make sense of nonsense. That’s not a very good start is it? Never mind, I am sure it we will all ‘improve’ and the ‘self’ will just have to follow as best it can, after all that’s a cheap shot wasn’t it?
The Insatiable Demand For Help!
One of the reasons why self-improvement books sell so well is: they can tell us a lot about ourselves that we didn’t know. Frequently the answers are surprising – stuff like did you know you could get more done if you learnt to say “no” because that simply means you are saying “yes.” (now I am confused) Or that you could just as well lose 2 kilograms by just eating your burger meat and dumping the soggy bread, lettuce, mayo, tomatoes and pickle into the trash can?: that could be one reason why increasingly more and more people these days are relying on self-help culture for advice on how to cope in a volatile and competitive world.
For most Singaporeans today, working on themselves has become a full time occupation. We call it all sorts of politically correct things of course like “life long learning” and “continuous improvement,” but the central thrust requires us all – to regularly buy into new thoughtware and skill sets. The goal is simple, the more tools we have in our bag, the more competitive we will be in the labor market and hopefully if everything is square, we would get more out of life. Right?
The Good Olde, 1 -2 and 3!
I really don’t think so. I am not saying of course everything about self help literature is rubbish, all I am highlighting is its obvious flaws and limitations: the ideal that one can even aspire to “be all one can be” by just reading a few books is just plain silly. Isn’t it?
Well, let us just consider how Self-Improvement Inc often grabs us by the collar by shouting out, “Hey something is wrong with you!” Or “You don’t have this or that, you’re not going to succeed in life!” If that sounds like a strange man who regularly bothers you in Orchard telling you, “you need Jesus to save you otherwise you will burn and rot in the hottest place in hell” (btw don’t forget he loves you). That’s because that’s the first movement of the “makeover culture trap.” Self improvement books work by first creating what psychological warfare exponents term the “setting condition precedent for attack” i.e creating the demand factor by highlighting an obvious limitation, fault or deficit.
The second stage of the con job slides in by magically offering the “solution.” And to cap it off, you need either buy the book, get a membership or join a cult to gain access to the anti-serum otherwise you are as good as bird flu test subject.
And once you buy into the plan, all it does is embroil you further in an endless cycle of self-invention that further feeds the demand to buy more solutions to solve imaginary problems. That should guarantee you as a steady and regular customer.
At a time when the vast majority of Singaporeans are being regularly asked to embrace the new order of the globalization movement, it fuel the ethos of self-reliance in the form of the “assuming greater control over the self.” In most cases self-improvement books leverage on what psychologist call the “gambling gene.” That’s to say, it capitalizes on our childhood programming about how we regularly define and equate what it takes to be successful: our competitive nature. All of us who have taken exams – entered a contest – participated in a marathon – know that we all need to train, but more importantly to get the right technique, system or regime that allows us to carve a competitive advantage. We all need special knowledge! In the case of the student, it could be a memorization technique like mnemonics that gives him the edge over the rest of his peers. For the marathoner, it could well be his magic potion brew of supplements. In both cases the link between “special knowledge” and projected desired outcome is firmly established and with each successive victory reinforced even.
The reward could be straight A’s, being the first to cross the line or getting that promotion.
As Dr Chandra a leading AI robotics researcher / psychology expert states,
Self-Improvements Books Are Harmless – Right?
“Before I start, I want to make clear please no spelling mistakes (I hope this will not be deleted). The problem with linking peak performance with “special knowledge” in the context of self help literature is simply this.
It’s a bit like running around three times naked around the padang with a bra over your head and if the sky doesn’t fall down tomorrow. You are likely to believe that your actions actually has a valence on moderating the outcome. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that has little or nothing to do with the truth. Most of the time, if you do that sort of thing and you manage to lose weight safely, stop smoking or solve your sex life out (chuckles and laughs). I say go ahead and good luck to you.
The problem with bottled or 3 minute anything usually blows up when despite following the seven magic steps you still don’t manage to get the desired results! That’s crunch time: when someone else gets the gold medal, someone else gets that promotion and goes off with the girl. In that kind of psychological model, that person who has placed all his hopes on “special knowledge” is left with an unfilled ‘projection of success.’ To say that is fine is an under statement!
It can be devastating and this is what we typically see in certain “beat-your-self-up” diseases like anorexia, bulimia and even obesity. When things don’t pan out the way they should or according to the final chapter of the type script of the self help book all too often it creates disappointment that invariably leads to bitterness (I am of course using lay language here, but bear in mind I could just as well use psycho-analytical specific terms like clinical depression). This if left unchecked will certainly lead that poor sod to form the doom and gloom world view, that the world is unfair, that others are somehow more capable than them and so forth. If the condition persist, it creates a perfect ecology for self sabotage. That’s to say when we to think about ourselves as someone who doesn’t belong to the “chosen one’s” because we didn’t get that promotion, close that big sale, and behave in a way, that confirms this view of ourselves. We get into a vicious cycle and that’s what’s called self sabotage – its tragic.”
This naturally throws out the question: why don’t self-help books work?
According to Dr Chandra the reasons are multi-factorial:
“Why don’t self-help books work? I never said that, the brotherhood has a way of stuffing words in my mouth! They have to work a bit, otherwise no one would buy them. But there lies the danger, we all know the saying “a bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,” that is especially the case with self improvement literature.
Firstly, they are all without exception written with a bent to simplify and demystify and there is a big hole here, because to accomplish that sort of smoke and mirror trick, they need to make a giant assumption: everyone is the same. The problem is no two people are the same in real life. There’s is no book or life template that will be an exact fit for your needs and to solve your specific deficits. These programs (if I can call them that) are necessarily general in nature otherwise they wouldn’t be marketed in for mass consumption.
Some of the ideas and concepts may apply quite well or even work without smoking and exploding most of the time – like how to re-configure your computer using 39 steps, that sort of knowledge from self help books is fine and I really need to qualify myself here. Otherwise I will come across as a self-help book fundamentalist or something, because the brotherhood keeps on misquoting me!
But when you go into areas of specialization like how to stop verbal diarrhea or control your urge to take off your clothes in a public place, then those “programs” may be irrelevant or just plain harmful. Because we know there are no short cuts to plugging those sorts of life issues, you just need to see a professional that invested 10 years of his life studying those sort of things, there is a reason why professionals regularly go on to pursue their masters and P Hd degrees you know.
Above all and I cannot repeat this again and again strongly enough to suggest, if you forget everything about this write up remember this part about any book or program and I don’t care whether it’s written by the Dalai Lama or Warren Buffet. They are all at best over-simplifications concerning the nature of human motivation, conflict and personality. Answers in real life are rarely as simple and clear cut as they are presented in a book or self-improvement program.
A Pinch of Salt Will Do Very Nicely
One reliable way of separating the wheat from the chaff is by regularly using good judgment and common sense to evaluate self-improvement material. That means I am realistic enough to set limiters about this type of help material. For example, if I want to get a handle on my anxiety associated with flying and I see a book about, let’s say “coping with flying.” I recognize that it’s probably written for people who are not suffering from significant psychological problems. Neither do I expect any effective form of treatment for dealing with my psychiatric symptoms. It’s like reading a brochure, most of it the really important stuff just simply isn’t supposed to be there, but then again have you ever bought a car, house or even married someone by just reading a brochure?
The gold standard for improving anything and it doesn’t really matter whether it is health, financial management or investing for the long term is to talk to a professional who has the skills and experiential knowledge to provide the individual attention required to design a program tailored exactly to your needs. If possible talk to at least 3 or 4. In my view there is no such thing as trust when it comes to helping yourself. You just need to trust the facts, not people or even personalities. So always ask questions. That’s another bad thing about self-help literature. In real life you wouldn’t be listening to someone talking to themselves, but it seems awfully strange to me that people do actually plan their entire pension funds by just reading a self help book without asking a single question!
Everyone has noticed that with a given level of knowledge, skill or ability, some people accomplish little, while others surprisingly achieve far beyond their expectations. Now that to me really means nothing at all. If it has worked for you and you have out performed the market, that’s OK and I say, life really goes on and good on you! –but if you are saying, you did it all by just reading a few books with colorful covers and catchy titles, then I say, you are probably delusional and incredibly lucky! And so you really need to consider the philosophical statement which I strongly believe should be printed on every self- help book very much like a surgeon general’s health warning on a pack of cigarettes. If nothing, that should make you think at least twice whether it’s worth spending the time and money reading such material.”
“Once sold not refundable or exchangeable. Sorry sucker!”
(Astro Boy & Scholarboy / Dr Chandra / Literature/ Psychology – EP 9992392-2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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