Self Help Con Jobs
Would you like to be more trusting? Maybe you’d prefer to be more trusted?
Most of us would like to get better at both. But how does one get better—at anything?
Virginia Heffernan has done the heavy lifting for us in the NY Times Book Review section in Advice Squad, her just-slightly snarky look at the New York Times’s advice, how-to and miscellaneous best-seller list from March 9, 2008.
You’ll recognize every genre, if not every title.
For example, there’s the “buy up the Alabama rights for some 800-number fish lure that keeps showing up in obscure publication, then re-sell them via the internet to some other person looking to get rich quick” scheme.
There are the “serenity now” variations once satirized on Seinfeld.
There are variations on looking young, not looking old, great skin, less fat, you are what you eat, get skinny by cleaning your house.
I don’t know what you call Suze Ormon; like Dr. Ruth and Tony Robbins, she clearly knows her stuff, but it’s somehow more about the Suze show than the subject.
There’s a special circle of hell reserved for Deepak Chopra, who ages ago (another lifetime?) actually wrote intelligibly about things medical. Not any more.
But the quintessentially American number one best-selling self help book—for a long time running, I believe—is The Secret.
This book is the capsule story of all the other books—they all promise the One True Way, if you will just follow their advice.
It is also number one because it captures the true secret of a con job—bad logic applied to serious issues. Which results in some major tsouris.
What do I mean by bad logic? This.
Imagine all four variations of a syllogism:
- If you got B, you must have done A.
- If you do A, you’ll get B.
- If you don’t do A, you won’t get B.
- If you didn’t get B, it’s because you didn’t do A.
The trouble all begins with number 1:
“I never gave up the dream that I’d [make it in Hollywood, win American Idol, own the big house, win the SuperBowl, hit the lottery]. I never stopped believing I could do it. And today, here I stand—I did it!”
This is what logicians call a “necessary condition.” If you’re going to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket. To win American Idol, you’re going to have to stay positive. To play in the NBA, you gotta have some big ambition.
The biggest problem comes with shifting to number 2—believing that a necessary condition implies a sufficient condition.
A necessary condition means that if B is going to happen, you will have to do A. A sufficient condition means that if you do A, then B will happen. The shift from a necessary to a sufficient condition is the central con job of The Secret—and of most cults. From “all winners believe” to “all believers win.”
Such a small shift. Such a Big Lie.
In the particular case of the The Secret, the Big Lie is compounded, because it’s not about believing in a diet or a magic pill; it’s about believing in belief itself. You gotta believe! Anything is possible if you only believe! This is the stuff of Oprah’s evil twin; of snake oil salesmen.
If dreaming big were a sufficient condition, every dreamer would win the lottery. If mere willpower were enough to win American Idol, the parade of early season misfits would be in the finals. Simon Cowell’s role is to remind us all that talent and hard work matter too. We love to hate him because we want to believe those self help books are enough—if you just dream hard enough!
But no—just because the winner dreamed, doesn’t mean dreaming makes you a winner. Hope is not a strategy. Strategies require more than dreaming. The inner city is full of kids whose life’s hope is to play in the NBA—far too many for the NBA to accommodate. And they have no strategy to back up the hope.
That’s the con job. But the evil of The Secret lies in versions 3 and 4—especially 4.
Version 3 says, all those poor fools out there who aren’t winning; it’s because they don’t believe. I, of course, know better. I know the power of belief.
Then the clincher, version 4. If you didn’t get wealth fame and happiness, it’s not because The Secret is a lie—it’s because you didn’t believe strongly enough in The Secret; in belief itself.
When Dorothy and Toto say “you have to believe,” we call it entertainment. But Madison Avenue sells the same Secret, as George Carlin pointed out so brilliantly: If you don’t buy our product, you will emit sinister genital odors and everyone will know it’s you and shun you and it all will be your fault, because you were warned. So Buy Now.
The Secret is a closed system. You cannot argue with someone who believes both that A is necessary and sufficient for B, and that the absence of B is necessary and sufficient to infer the absence of A. Work that one out. Like any closed system, every attack on it is rejected as illogical. That’s why they call it a closed system; an objection is defined as wrong.
For True Believers, it doesn’t matter what A is—it’s the experience of having an Answer for Everything that seems so seductive.
Some of us suffer more than others from an inability to believe, particularly in ourselves. A shot of energy, a bit of belief itself, can be a bracing and positive thing; when coupled with a strategy, even life-transforming.
But an entire industry selling people the belief they can influence lotteries and believe BMWs into the front driveway—no. Some of those end up as the ones we laugh and cringe at in early American Idol episodes. Others just slink off in shame when they come to. But most just buy another self-help book, desperately secure in the belief that belief will be enough—this time.
How do you get better at trusting and being trusted? Don’t peddle snake-oil. And don’t buy it either. Belief is necessary; it is not sufficient.
Isn’t this the basis of most religions?
What is wrong with you, Green?! There are so many things you’ve done wrong. Right off the bat, you want us to think. No one expects that anymore.
In addition, your article is too long – anything longer than a sound bite is death these days. Don’t you know I have to get back to Dancing with the Stars?
But, your worst sin is to expect that we will follow you into "Logic Land." This requires us not only to think – but to read carefully and ponder your examples. Nahhhh!
Here’s what I dream about. I dream there will be a day when we have stopped focusing on our hair, our breath and our waistlines so much that we can actually take the time to read the good stuff like this blog.
And, I dream that someday we will all realize that we are not here to "get B" in the first place. That we are here to do the "A" that our talents equip us for – and trust that the rest will be taken care of.
None of us can be conned if we realize that what they’re selling at the front of the room isn’t even close to what we need to be buying.
For me, Charlie, the deal here is that of self-responsibility – am I honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly pursuing what I hope to achieve or realize – i.e., the belief, the vision, the goal. That entails do-ing as well as be-ing. That entails commitment, engagement and action. Pure and simple.
Oh Charlie: you brave, brave man.
You do realize that soon hordes of True Believers are going to descend on your blog (again) the same way they do any time you tip of one their sacred cows.
I hope you are wearing your kevlar.
You’re a braver man than I, mon ami.
. . .
Peter, I’ve thought about this topic for a long time (before Charlie’s post) and you raise some very interesting points.
How did so many people get turned off of self-responsibility? Why do we as a culture infantilize people to such an extent?
My sneaking suspicion is that it stems at least in part from Madison Avenue, that the further we divorce the population from logic and analytical thinking skills the easier they are to manipulate and sell do.
But at what point did it become "okay" enough to treat other people this way that instead of marginalizing hucksters and con men we hold them up as a socially-acceptable career choice? Or even as role models?
I am asking the "why" questions because I keep hoping that if I can understand how we got here, I’ll have a better idea of how we get back out, at a collective level. How do we scale personal responsibility and make it fashionable again? Is it all about working with one person at a time, or can there also be a way to address the collective culture, too?
. . .
Charlie, I’m making a wild guess that you must encounter the same kind of magical thinking in your professional practice sometimes.
I’m very interested in what you do, as an outside advisor, when your clients want silver bullet answers that don’t require effort or change. (This may be a request for a new article.) What can / should a (high-integrity) consultant do in that kind of situation?
Some thoughts in response to your comment, if I may:
You write: “How did so many people get turned off of self-responsibility? Why do we as a culture infantilize people to such an extent?”
For me, infantalizing is about hubris, power and control – consciously and unconsciously. The “I know what’s good for you” approach to parenting, relating, bossing, religion, teaching, being a friend, etc….and, later on when we have a developed capacity to “think for ourselves” we still feel lacking and deficient and so from self-worth or self-esteem place jump at the chance to be “taken care of”. It’s learned behavior, and becomes habitual…IMHO
You: “My sneaking suspicion is that it stems at least in part from Madison Avenue, that the further we divorce the population from logic and analytical thinking skills the easier they are to manipulate and sell do.”
And from parents, primary caregivers, extended family, teachers, clergy, etc. early on…Madison Ave., just continues the process, continues to reinforce the indoctrination; it never starts with Mad. Ave.
You: “But at what point did it become "okay" enough to treat other people this way that instead of marginalizing hucksters and con men we hold them up as a socially-acceptable career choice? Or even as role models?”
Because they give us what we need – some type of association, good feeling, “goodies”- (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically…) that make us feel good, feel like “somebody”, help us deny or withdraw from our own inner pain, and allow us to (continue to) be irresponsible to our selves, so we don’t have to really face the true and real challenges and pain of “growing up”. They give us a faux sense of safety and security…very ephemeral which is why we keep going back for more.
You: “I am asking the "why" questions because I keep hoping that if I can understand how we got here, I’ll have a better idea of how we get back out”
We got here by becoming unconscious. There are four basic levels of consciousness: (1) not conscious (instinctual, ego-driven) allowing one’s lower-level, ego-driven, base, and selfish desires to drive, completely unaware of the consequences and the impact on ‘greater good’ of the community. (2) subconscious —habitual, robotic, reactive. (3) conscious — aware, intelligent, conceptual, reflective and (4) superconscious — (intuitive, guiding, truthful, loving, universal, at a collective level).
We back out by backing up and looking at our life choices and how being unconscious brought us to make choices that end up being self-destructive and self-limiting and make a “superconscious” choice to change.
You: “How do we scale personal responsibility and make it fashionable again? Is it all about working with one person at a time…”
Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world” – i.e., it begins with “me.” Waiting for others to do it first just results in stuckness, paralysis, frustration, blaming and the status quo.
I am impressed with so many people reading your blog and leaving comments. Congratulations! I enjoy what you are writing also. Jann
Thank you for taking the time to write me such detailed replies, Peter. I really appreciate it.
And Michael, I didn’t mean to ignore you: I think your conclusion is right on the spot.
Jann–I’m impressed too. And a little humbled. What a great conversation!
I got email-copied on a reply someone put up today to this posting; but now that I’m online, I don’t see it.
Sometimes blog technology loses comments, and it’s very frustrating for someone who spent all that time thinking adn writing. I thought it was a good comment, so didn’t want the person to feel kicked out.
He wrote to the effect that his aunt told him about this great book which had changed her life, and it turned out to be The Secret. When he saw her again, she had in fact turned her life around, very much for the positive. The take-away for him was that it wasn’t his cup of tea, but it sure did some fine things for her.
There are indeed situations like that: as I said in the original post, "A shot of energy, a bit of belief itself, can be a bracing and positive thing; when coupled with a strategy, even life-transforming."
It’s not my cup of tea either. But I think it’s important, and only fair, to note there are examples like this, where some belief was precisely what was needed.
Thanks for writing in, whoever you were, and I hope this comment expressed your thoughts fairly.
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Thank you for the fresh breath of sanity!!!
I think people have been under snake oil salesmen, ushered in by Oprah for way too long.
Life is so much more complicated then authors of Secret and Law of Atraction would like us to believe.
I absolutely believe in miracles (keep seeing them happen) and in kind providing universe.
But the Universe is not a candy store, and God is not a prayer – answering machine.
I certailnly put you on my blogroll. If you like my site, I appreciciate the same.
The Universe is not a candystore with god a prayer-answering machine. Nicely said, Ella! Thanks!
I can only laugh in disgusted distrust. How trustworthy is anyone these days? With in-your-face angry actions screaming louder than ever and written words, well those too have never before seemed to be as muddled as right NOW. So I ask, are we even capable or worthy of trust? I think, perhaps, maybe not.