Feel Free to Help Yourself
There is a booming market for self-improvement guides among Americans eager to redeem themselves from the sins of sloth, gluttony, or general discontent. But what qualifies one person to tell another how best to live?
Several years ago, I was living in Washington with one of my brothers, who had come to stay with me while he pulled himself out of a rough patch. Eventually, he got a gig selling memberships at a gym, part of a well-known national franchise. No one in our family is a natural salesperson, but it was a job, and at least the gym is one place where my brother is in his element.
He had the closing shift, and he’d get home in his regulation polo shirt and raid the fridge just as I was going to bed. Pulling in a paycheck straightened his shoulders, as it does for anyone. Some of his wry humor returned, and so it was that one night he came in and, standing at the kitchen counter, recited “The Affirmation,” the creed that new gym employees had to learn by heart:
I will win. Why? I’ll tell you why—because I have faith, courage, and enthusiasm!
Today, I’ll meet the right people in the right place at the right time for the betterment of all.
I see opportunity in every challenge.
I am terrific at remembering names.
When I fail, I look at what I did right, not what I did wrong.
I have clearly defined goals.
I never take advice from anyone more messed up than I am.
I never let a negative thought enter my head.
I am a winner, a contributor, an achiever. I believe in me.
We laughed until there were tears on our cheeks, in part because of the mock enthusiasm with which my brother belted out that last line, but mostly at the idea that such earnest propaganda could ever be received—much less adopted—with a straight face. What kind of chump did these corporate types think he was?
But really, what was so ludicrous about a company that makes its money burnishing the temple of the body applying that same approach to the mind? Sure, it isn’t exactly a tune you can dance to. Still, “The Affirmation,” crude as it is, echoes some of the time-tested ideas of the self-improvement canon, old and new. Back in 1936, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, a folksy businessman’s bible that is really just a useful guide to not being a jerk, Dale Carnegie admonished his readers to “remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” And in the 2006 blockbuster The Secret, various “experts” unrelentingly advocate using positive thinking to mobilize the “law of attraction” in your favor. “Your life is a mirror of the dominant thoughts you think,” but the law of attraction doesn’t register “words of negation,” says one of these authorities. (In other words, if you’re thinking “I don’t want the restaurant to give away our table,” what the universe hears is “I want restaurants to give away our tables.”) The Secretreminds me of another megaseller, The Da Vinci Code, with its pseudo-historical references and simplistic explanations peddled as deep insights. The law of attraction is bunk. But there really are some benefits to thinking positively.
The truth is, my brother could have done worse than take “The Affirmation” to heart. And at that point in my life, dating a string of men whom Dale Carnegie would have kicked to the curb, I could have, too. The main trouble with “The Affirmation” was the source—a company that wanted its workers to bristle with enthusiasm so they’d sell more memberships. That didn’t invalidate the message.
There’s a fundamental contradiction in our attitudes about self-help—a term that describes the broad category of products and ideas that are supposed to make us thinner, happier, smarter, and more efficient. We Americans accept protein powders, extreme diets, personal trainers, expensive gym memberships, and the Rube Goldberg exercise contraptions that litter our basements and garages as the necessary paraphernalia for the pursuit of physical perfection. We openly admire gym rats and envy their fit bodies. But anyone who dabbles in the improvement of the mind—even taking yoga that hasn’t had its spiritual roots bleached out completely—invites a raised eyebrow among those of us who consider ourselves serious people. We are above such lockstep platitudes, empty positivity, and pop psychology. Continue reading