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:

  1. If you got B, you must have done A.
  2. If you do A, you’ll get B.
  3. If you don’t do A, you won’t get B.
  4. 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.