Today we’re going to be talking about self-help, the self-help culture, and the self-help industrial complex. This podcast exists to help build a sense of interdependence, and so we will be looking at self-help and asking the important question: is it helping?
But first I want us to take a trip back to 1977. The place was Pearl R Miller Middle school in Kinnelon, New Jersey. And the class was science. For our assignment, we were supposed to find something interesting in our yard and create a presentation about it. This was the kind of assignment that my teacher loved to give. It had clear instructions, with just enough room to force us kids to think a little bit.
So, I’ll admit that I was kind of a weird kid. I used to watch food shows way before there was Food Network and Bravo. I’m talking about some Julia Childs stuff on public television. And for my science assignment, I chose to make a dandelion salad. While the other kids pressed leaves or brought in worms or acorns, I was serving my seventh-grade class field greens from my backyard. And if you have a lawn and don’t use fertilizer, you can probably still find those things in your yard, things like dandelion greens, purslane, and clover.
It’s long enough ago that I don’t remember everything in the presentation. But I remember one of the points was about the surprising nutritional value in what we otherwise perceive as weeds. There was something in there about how other cultures look at food. It’s no wonder I ended up a sociologist.
We Can Create Opportunities
When my presentation was done, I still remember my teacher’s reaction. She looked directly at me and she told me how good I was at explaining complex ideas. She told me I should think about being a teacher. Now decades later, I look back over a varied career and I see that my most successful jobs were those where I was involved in teaching or explaining ideas to people.
This is the point in someone’s story where we typically say, “Well, isn’t that great? A teacher who cares about their students.” And that was true, for sure. But you should know that there was something much deeper happening there. She was creating an opportunity for me. An opportunity to understand my personal value proposition in the world. An opportunity to gain confidence in my skills.
To put a happy ending on the story, I took that opportunity. It shaped me. It helped me thrive. In virtually every role I’ve held as an adult, and certainly every role where I could say I was a success, I played a role as trainer or teacher. Would I have held those roles without that science assignment? I don’t know. I can’t know. See, that’s the thing with opportunities. We’re often given them without being explicitly told, “Here, I’m giving you an opportunity.”
Opportunity Plays Two Roles
Two things happen when we are given an opportunity. First, we receive something of value. These are sometimes things we explicitly understand have value, even at the time. This could be funding to start a business, tuition to a quality school or an introduction from a mentor to someone with solid connections.
Opportunities also come in forms that are not as clear at the time we receive them. Being born in the right zip code, for example, makes you far more likely to succeed. Having a parent who went to an Ivy League college increases your chances of entry into that type of school. These represent opportunities we are given that we only recognize as such after some reflection.
The second thing that happens when someone is given an opportunity is that it can be reinforced within their network. It tests their level of what we social scientists call social capital. You might think of social capital as all the non-monetary things you have that you can spend in the world to further yourself.
This podcast is all about starting a revolution of interdependence. And starting that revolution means talking about how to create opportunities. We start that conversation by recognizing that inequality of opportunity is so much more than we typically think when we use phrases like social inequality. Opportunities are those things, sometimes big and sometimes small, that shape our path. And they play a key role in deterring or advancing our life outcomes, no matter how hard we work.
Does Anyone Succeed Alone?
Consider this example. In 1971 a young entrepreneur had already experienced several business failures by his early 20s. Then, his lack of attention to detail subjected him to penalties and taxes, costs that would have tanked his business. But his mother mortgaged her home. She gave him the money he needed to pay his taxes and keep his small record store in East London afloat. That guy ended up doing okay, I guess if you consider Richard Branson’s success in life “okay.”
No one succeeds alone. No one ever has. No one ever will. For every Richard Branson we celebrate, there’s an Eve Branson who provided something — money, support, contacts, education — that made that success possible. This is one of the great paradoxes of personal success and self-improvement: You will never succeed without working your butt off. You will never succeed without help.
We generally hate that second part because it does not match our great cultural narrative of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And let’s face it — every success story involves someone who went beyond what everyone else was willing to do to reach new heights. Mark Zuckerberg is a hard-working genius who created opportunities few foresaw and became incredibly wealthy and influential in the process. But he is also the son of two successful professionals from a wealthy NY suburb who had the time to work on startup ideas because his parents were paying his way through Harvard.
Our Stories Are Failing Us
We see this pattern repeatedly throughout our world, including in areas that pride themselves on egalitarian opportunities, areas like Silicon Valley. Out of all the American-based tech unicorns – valuation of over $1 billion dollars – since 2011, 94 percent of them were headed by white men. That does not make those successful people immoral, and the word “unfair” has been so poorly used it’s worthless. What it means is that successful people can take advantage of the resources in their networks to shape the world in which they want to live.
In our culture, we love to tell the story of that person that succeeded against the odds. But that raises an important question: why, exactly, are the odds stacked against success?
We have a problem. It is a problem of opportunities. This is true even we have spent billions of dollars every year on self-help, hoping it will create opportunities for us. But self-help isn’t helping.
Debunking the Time Myth
To understand why we need to look at the promises of the self-help culture. We need to unpack the beliefs of self-help. One of the great myths of the self-help movement is that everyone has the same amount of time in a day. I have read that phrase in countless self-improvement books and articles during my adult life. I have heard it offered as advice by so many, including people whom I respect, like Oprah Winfrey.
And while it is true as a matter of physics – yes, all humans live by the same time standard – we need to ask if it is functionally true. Is it true in practice? And, if it’s not, what is the effect of offering that advice on the psychology of those who are struggling to overcome barriers and craft their best life?
Let’s start with the basic question — is it true that everyone has the same amount of time in the day? On the one hand, it is technically true. Every person alive on this planet will experience 86,400 seconds every day, regardless of their class, status, or any other identifier. But it seems to me the more important question is this: is it true on a practical level?
To illustrate, let us compare two different kids between the ages of 13 and 18. One comes from a typical middle- to lower-middle-class suburban home. They begin cutting the lawn at their house around the age of 13. Let’s say it takes them 30 minutes to cut the lawn, and they cut the lawn 20 times a year, for 6 years until they turn 18 and go to college. By the time this kid heads into their college dorm, 60 hours of their life will have been dedicated to lawn care.
The Time Myth Does Not Hold Up
Now, consider another teen, maybe even at the same high school, whose parents make enough money to hire a lawn service. By the time that kid enters college, they had 60 free hours their classmate did not, and they could take advantage of that time however they wished. Maybe they spent those hours smoking weed and playing Xbox. Or maybe they spent those hours learning a computer programming language. Those two 18-year-olds, walking into the same dorm on the first day of college, both had 86,400 seconds every day but didn’t have the same amount of time in a day to pursue personal self-improvement.
And cutting the lawn is a simple, easy-to-understand example of the way in which social inequality CAN multiply over time. We’ll talk about solutions to this problem at the end of today. But our lawn cutting kid also spent countless hours in other activities that our rich kid did not — everything from filling out FAFSA forms and scholarship applications, to waiting for the bus rather than driving to school, to making dinner while mom worked a second job, etc. And that assumes other things were working in our lawn cutter’s favor such that they could even get into the same school as our weed-smoking Xboxer.
Hard Work is Not Enough
There are two reasons “everyone has the same amount of time in a day” is a myth that, offered by itself, is more destructive than motivational. First, it feeds a false narrative that life begins on a level playing field, and success is solely determined by what you make of your life and time. There is no doubt that success is impossible without hard work. But while effort is a necessary condition for success, it is not sufficient. Improving one’s lot in life always, every time, involves having resources in your network and learning to use those resources strategically. And that is what we’re going to be focusing on in this podcast.
The other reason the time argument is a myth is that it also feeds a false sense of morality we tie to financial success, especially in America. More than 100 years ago, the Sociologist Max Weber wrote a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He argued that the driver of economic growth in the United States was people wanting to succeed for validation they were loved by God. In other words, financial success meant divine love. Conversely, financial failure meant, well, that God didn’t like you so much. This had the unfortunate effect of casting a shadow of moral failure over those that did not achieve success at the same level as others who had greater starting advantages.
We Need to Strike Down the False Narratives
We know this is not true. Probably in your network you know some moral people who have not had financial success. I think about the urban monastics I interviewed for my doctoral work. I certainly also know some people who have had great financial success that I wouldn’t necessarily consider to be the most moral. But it’s true that even to this day, more than a century after Weber wrote the Protestant Ethic, we still have ideas about morality that we tie to financial success. To move beyond those ideas, and to provide opportunities for everyone who wishes to work hard and succeed, we need to strike at some of the false narratives that dominate our world. The idea that everyone has the same amount of time in a day is technically true but functionally bullshit.
Successful people understand 2 things: no one has ever succeeded without personally investing hard work, effort, and time to reach their goals. But, the second thing, and this is also true, is that no one ever succeeds alone.
If you read most of the self-help literature, you might have a hard time understanding the incredible significance of that second point. Amazon warehouses and B&N bookshelves are filled with books that perpetuate the notion that an individual has all they need in themselves. That is, they have almost everything they need – all they lack is the knowledge given by the author in their book, which could be yours for the low, low price of $24.99.
Self-Help Is Not Making Us Less Depressed
I’m not here to condemn self-help authors. Most authors are people who found something that helped them succeed, and they want to share that knowledge with others. Getting paid for that is a just reward.
But I am here to question the self-help industry. We don’t think of self-help as an industry, like we might think of tech or automobiles. Last year the combined sales for all the types of self-help – books, courses, seminars, and so on – were more than $11 billion dollars, up from about $2.5 billion twenty years prior. That same market is expected to rise to a value of $13.2 billion next year. As a culture, we have invested a lot of money in the belief that we can help ourselves. Is that working?
One of the topics in the self-help industry is finding happiness and overcoming depression. In that same 20-year period, when our spending on self-help products rose more than 400%, our rates of depression also rose, around the globe and especially in the United States. In the US, depression causes 490 million disability days from work each year in the U.S., accounts for $23 billion in lost workdays each year, and takes an economic toll of over $100 billion each year from U.S. business.
We all bought into this story, that by helping ourselves we will be happier. Shinier. That somehow, out of our current reach, was this state of contentment that we can seek and find. One of the great promises of the self-help industrial complex is that we will be happier. Clearly, that’s not working.
Self-Help Is Not Making Us Richer
Another promise is that by helping ourselves we will be more prosperous. But, during that same time – the last 20 years – income growth has stagnated. We are not wealthier as a people, although some individuals have fared quite well during that time. Consider Jeff Bezos. He became a billionaire selling, among other things, books. And, let’s face it, a lot of those books are self-help.
Ironic, isn’t it? The one selling the books became wealthy. Like, super-hero wealthy. While those buying the books did not. Clearly, someone is getting rich from the self-help industry, but it does not appear to be the people consuming the products.
This is part of a larger trend, for sure. And self-help books are not the problem. They correlate with the problem, but they don’t cause it. But that does not mean there are no problems.
The biggest issue is the problem of distribution. Some households are seeing a growth in their income. But the wealth is not evenly distributed. And the opportunities are definitely not distributed evenly. And lest you think this is some liberal social justice message I am preaching, this lack of distributed economic growth will eventually undermine our gross domestic product and our ability to expand our economy.
Self-Help Is Not Strengthening Our Communities
So, is self-help making us poorer? No, clearly not. That would be junk science to suggest that. But is it lifting us out of the muck and mire of economic stagnation? No, clearly not, as well.
Maybe self-help is supposed to make our relationships stronger and our kids smarter. I could keep going with statistics and data but at this point, I think you begin to see the picture, the point I’m trying to make. Self-help isn’t helping in any meaningful way. It isn’t causing us to be less depressed. It isn’t causing us to be wealthier, or even moving us toward economic thriving. And in terms of our relationships, the whole notion of self-help seems to stand in opposition to strong community bonds. Part of what we’ll be talking about here in this podcast is the idea that it’s in relationships, or what I call networks of opportunity, that we find those skills and abilities to survive, advance, and thrive.
And we are not thriving. Here’s a really scary statistic. Right now, the fastest-growing category of illness in the United States is what social scientists call deaths of despair. These are deaths by suicide, overdose, and substance abuse, including alcohol-related illnesses like cirrhosis.
Whole communities are being devastated by these deaths of despair. I don’t want to overplay this point. But, frankly, it would be hard to overplay this point. The reality is that we are in the midst of a significant cultural breakdown. I’m not trying to bum you out. I just want to set the stage for our conversation because the reality is that the problems we face today are creating crises that are virtually insurmountable. Our nation is growing sicker, and self-help is not making us better.
There Is Hope … if We Recover Meaning
Now, I said these problems seem to be virtually insurmountable. We do have a hard time imagining moving beyond them. But I wouldn’t be doing this podcast, and I wouldn’t be embarking on this project if I thought these problems were completely insurmountable. My thinking has been shaped by the work of Viktor Frankl. Frankl, if you don’t know, was a survivor of the Auschwitz death camps. After that experience, he wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl suggests that we really need three things in life in order to find meaning. We need a project to work on. We need a redemptive perspective on our suffering. And we need a community of people who love us.
If you listened to the first episode of this podcast, I shared with you some of my personal experience. That experience involves crashing and burning and then finding my way into the rooms of recovery. In those rooms, what I found was a community of people that loved me. I already had somewhat of a community, but I really needed to find a way to accept the love that was available. In many ways, that’s what this project is about. In this podcast, I am endeavoring to help people understand that there are those that love them and want to care for them. And there are ways to find those people.
This Is My Story of Meaning
But this is also a way to bring a redemptive perspective to my own suffering. For many years I struggled within the grips of addiction. The way my suffering is being redeemed is by figuring out how I provide help to other people that would like help. And I’m not just talking about people who are struggling with addiction. I’m talking here about people who have lost a sense of hope. So much of the self-help literature is based on the idea of a person saying to themselves, I will. I will make my life better, I will crawl out of depression, and I will change my lot in life.
If people hear nothing else in this podcast, what I want them to hear is, that you can. You can do it. There are ways to solve the problems you face in your life. There are people around who want to help and that’s my project. My project in life is this: I teach people how to help others. And so if that’s something that you’re interested in, or if you find that you are someone in need of help, I hope you’ll keep coming back.
Here Are Three Things You Can Try Yourself
Now, I share with you earlier that I’m a teacher at heart so I couldn’t end this podcast without giving you a couple of things to try yourself. And if you want a life of meaning, I would recommend you use Victor Frankl’s 3 elements of a life of meaning.
First, what is your life project? Something bigger than yourself. Write your own obituary. What do you want to leave behind?
Second, how can you redeem your suffering? For those of us in recovery … What is the best way to reframe and redeem your suffering? Poverty? Trauma? Frankl redeemed his pain and unimaginable suffering from 3 years in Auschwitz prison camp by spending the rest of his life helping people find meaning? How can you reframe and redeem your suffering?
And third, ask yourself – where is my community of people who love me? A place where people will love you till you can love yourself. No co-dependence, where you need people. But interdependence, where people fill in the blanks. Who is your community? And what are you doing to give back to that community?