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Improving Ourselves to Death: Self-Help in The Age of Unraveling
It's gone too far.
My upstairs neighbors were banging again to stay warm. They always watched Family Guy afterward. It was 2 or 3 degrees outside, and we didn’t have heat or insulation. The wind chill could fall all the way down to -20.
Our landlord told us, “Stop complaining. You have heat.” You know how that goes. It was all theoretical. With a power bill sliding in at $400, you don’t use your heat. You put on thermal underwear and tough it out.
Sometimes, the water in our toilet froze.
That was life after finishing my Ph.D. I had a doctorate, but I couldn’t afford to frame my diploma. I skipped my hooding ceremony, because I couldn’t afford the regalia. I had a tenure-track job, but I could barely afford gas and groceries. It didn’t bother me too much back then. It was the path I’d chosen.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Psychologists at the University of California ran this little experiment. They asked students to play Monopoly. They broke everyone up into pairs. They gave one player twice as much startup money.
They also gave the person an extra die to roll with, and twice as much money every time they lapped the board. As you can imagine, the players with advantages crushed their poor opponents. Worse, they started making fun of them and rubbing their faces in it, and not in a friendly way. They moved their opponent’s pieces around for them. Their voices got louder. Their body language grew invasive. They didn’t share. They didn’t give their disadvantaged opponent a break when they landed on expensive real estate. They acted as if they were entitled to everything.
Basically, the advantages made them jerks.
Here’s the kicker:
The winners never acknowledged their luck. They essentially started giving advice to the losers. They talked about their intelligence and foresight. They praised their ability to make smart decisions.
Maybe this sounds familiar.
The self-help industry generates around $12 billion a year, and it’s on track to keep growing as desperate zoomers and millennials try to improve their way to financial stability with life hacks and productivity tips. We’re talking about books, blogs, podcasts, seminars, and coaches.
The average member of Gen Z makes about $30-40,000 a year. About 65 percent of them report living paycheck-to-paycheck, even though many of them work longer hours and multiple jobs. One best-selling author I saw recently described them as “the laziest generation in history.”
Like millennials, zoomers feel an increasing sense of grief and anxiety about the future. We anticipate a life of hardship and struggle, filled with tiny homes and off-grid living. We’re not planning for retirement. We’re planning to seek refuge in places that won’t suffer too much from drought, heat waves, derechos, bomb cyclones, and crop failures. Those with money are trying to get as rich as possible over the next few years, in order to insulate themselves.
It’s sad to watch.
Meanwhile, there’s a class of individuals who’ve dedicated themselves to helping us improve ourselves, right up to the end.
They enjoy speaking harsh truths to anyone who happens to struggle, telling them how entitled they sound when they express a desire for stability, or just basic human dignity. They ridicule collectivist solutions to problems, often invoking the law of the jungle. At the same time, they want us all to be kind and grateful. They want us to feel free to express our emotions, but only when it doesn’t infringe on their own personal goals and expectations.
Many of these types grew up with stable, loving parents who continue to support them financially. They’ve never felt the anxiety of late rent or surprise bills. Some even admit their parents still pay them an allowance, but they feel entitled to publish blog posts and record podcasts on topics like money management and personal finance. They pay to get featured in newspapers that tell their success stories, in order to recruit new clients.
Some of them have said they’re waiting for their parents to die, so they can sell the house for profit. Some have complained about the perks that attractive women enjoy. Others describe age (of all things) as a privilege. They promote climate minimalism and what-about-isms. They shame anyone who talks about inequality, referencing the “true poverty” they’ve seen while traveling the globe as digital nomads, selling e-books and online courses.
In their minds, poverty doesn’t exist anywhere but “third-world countries.” If it does, it’s the product of personal failures, not collective ones. Their favorite thing to do is explain what makes rich people better than us.
It’s the Monopoly experiment in real life.
Here’s my point:
The worldviews expressed here aren’t just misguided and irritating. They’re a catalog of failures. They show us just how deep and pervasive greed and self-interest have burrowed into the western psyche. They reinforce and amplify our worst traits, and they present them as desirable, even noble.
Self-help is contributing to the slow collapse of our values.
It’s accelerating our end.
When you look at the self-help industry, you find a legacy of con artists and grifters. You also find an ideology steeped in privilege, entitlement, elitism, racism, and misogyny. I spent some time writing quirky self-help. For a while, I was part of the club. Life coaches and gurus displayed some of the most atrocious behavior I’ve ever seen. They talk about gratitude and kindness, but they’ve refused to help members of their own community when they were asked. They couldn’t just say no, they had to rationalize it. They bullied and fat-shamed colleagues. They dispensed misinformation. Some plagiarized.
They made excuses.
Life coaches insist their content is harmless, even if it doesn’t help their audience. Unfortunately, they do a great deal of harm both to individuals as well as society at large. We can thank them for the law of attraction, the idea that you can cure diseases and ward off illness with positive thoughts. One of the most popular of these books, The Secret, tells readers to abandon their friends if they don’t maintain a positive outlook at all times, even when they’re in the hospital. We can thank them for the abundance mindset, the idea that the universe contains infinite resources, so we never have to think about conservation. Finally, we can thank them for the cult of wannabe billionaires, a fan club that excuses their exploitative business models, as well as their sexual predation of young women.
They continue to defend them.
Meanwhile, these same individuals bash labor unions. They cast suspicion on movements like #MeToo. They hurl insults at bartenders and baristas while quoting Peter Thiel. They complain about liberals, and they discourage their audiences from participating in social activism.
Self-help claims to promote these virtues:
In truth, the industry has simply appropriated these concepts from other fields and disciplines. They watered them down for mass consumption, and oftentimes even promoted warped versions in their place.
Behind every self-help creator and influencer, you find a small army of unacknowledged labor. You find the sister that watched their kids for free while they wrote their bestselling book. You find the unpaid interns and ghostwriters who worked for the experience. You find the parents and life partners who supported them financially until they became famous.
It’s not an accident that these figures are now promoting social murder in the pursuit of personal wealth. They’ve spent the last year minimizing and downplaying our problems. They’ve actively discouraged collectivist action in favor of self-reliance or self-rescue. While they claim to care about our mental health, the only solution they’ve offered is to stop doomscrolling.
To them, it doesn’t matter if it’s -60F in Montana.
It doesn’t matter if girls are waking up to frost on the headboard of their beds. It doesn’t matter if millions of people die in China this year and our global supply chains collapse at a rate we probably won’t believe.
They tell us these aren’t real tragedies.
They’re investment opportunities.
As we move deeper into times of crisis, the self-help industry is morphing into something truly sinister. In fact, it has done nothing but nurture the toxic individualism and disregard for empathy we’re seeing on full display now. We really do need kindness, gratitude, maturity, and resilience, but we need them in service of the larger good. When we have nurses and teachers visiting food banks, that’s a sign that something has gone deeply wrong.
Around this time of year, there’s a dozen articles talking about emotional maturity. Of course, I find that maturity lacking as people continue to make decisions that sacrifice our future for immediate gratification, or find ways to celebrate and gloat about another country’s undoing, even if we depend on them. We see a lot of people talking about listening, but they’re not doing it. They aren’t listening to doctors or nurses or teachers. They’re not listening to scientists.
Who are they listening to?
Many of us only see true kindness and resilience displayed by a tiny handful of our closest allies, and we’re grateful. We don’t write it down in $50 notebooks. We show it every day. We didn’t learn grit from a book.
We live it.
You won’t hear any of this from the self-help industry. As we brace for another year in crisis, their answer is to stay less informed.
We’re not supposed to improve society.
We’re supposed to continue consuming their advice, based on norms and prescriptions established a hundred years ago. As the world burns, we’re only supposed to improve ourselves—even if it kills us.
I have an idea:
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