I’m a huge fan of self-help. I run much of my life by the principles presented by the self-help crowd. My intent here today is just to show that I don’t follow blindly. There are some things that I logically realize are goofy as self-help goes. Perhaps I choose to mostly ignore them, but whatever.
The Deserving – Self-help sometimes seems to be a bi-polar, multiple-personality, slightly autistic mess of beliefs. The one that I have the most trouble with is the manic-depressive nature of whether or not I deserve the best in life. On one hand, you have the self-help crowd running around telling us that we’re not entitled, and the world doesn’t owe us a living. Then on the flipside, we have these same folks saying things like we deserve to be happy. The difference seems to be in the definitions of entitled and deserving. They seem to think it has something to do with hard work and sacrifice. If you were born and you breathe air, you’re not entitled to have whatever you want. If you work hard and sacrifice you deserve to have what you want.
The Martyr – I’ve believed for a while that this seeming contradiction about the entitled and the deserving fits into a category that I don’t think you’ll often see in self-help material. A martyr is basically a person who sacrifices for the good of others, and presumably doesn’t complain about it, because it’s for the good of others. In my experience, there are a lot of martyrs out there who wear their badge as a means to say that they have sacrificed, and now they are deserving. The true hero needs no reward. It’s a hard place to be, because I think it’s human nature to want to be rewarded.
The System – We hear about people who use the system. We hear about people who cheat the system. The main difference seems to be legality and intent. If it’s illegal, then it’s cheating. If it’s legal, but you’re doing it just to get more than you deserve, then it’s cheating. Basically, to use the system, you have to be willing to work hard, sacrifice, and give back to the community, all while playing it off legit.
Mega-Happy – The entire self-help medium is predicated on bigger, better, faster, more, improved, and anything else that you typically associate with advertising. I’ve talked for many years about what I call “mega-happy.” Very few of us are ever just content in life. I think this is one of the dangers of self-help. Contented behaviour is passed off as stagnation, inability to leave your comfort zone, and settling for less. Self-help doesn’t often talk about how we all deserve to have our basic needs met, and to be content with what we have. It tends to take it to the next level. The next level is striving to be better. Even Buddhism and Jonathan Livingston Seagull believe that there is a point where you have achieved all you can achieve. Self-help tends to word itself in such a way that if you are not fully happy with your life that there is room for improvement. I believe that it’s that constant focus on the areas of improvement that turns the wheel of the self-help industry, because until you can look at areas that have room for improvement and say, but it is good enough, you will always believe you are unhappy.
The Ideal Job – Let me say this straight. I don’t believe that because I like playing music that I’m working in my chosen field if I get a job a Guitar Center. I don’t believe that because I like writing that I’m working in my chosen field if I get a job teaching English. I read a statistic that 80% of college graduates aren’t working in the field of their degree. Has anyone ever really thought about why this is? Many of the jobs that exist don’t require degrees. Let’s face it. If everybody went to college and got a degree, the fast food industry wouldn’t suddenly disappear. Restaurants wouldn’t suddenly disappear. There are service industry based degrees “Service and Hospitality” or something like that, but not everyone can be a manager. What I’m trying to say is that as long as we need lawyers, we also need security guards. As long as people buy things, we need retail jobs. As long as people eat, we will need unskilled workers either in fast food, restaurants, putting groceries on shelves, or scanning the stuff people buy.
Lifestyle – The only answer that I see is for people to live on less than they make. I realize that there is a belief that the age of retirement should be higher. I realize that we are able-bodied for many more years than we once were. I think that we should all hit a point where we retire though. I’m not saying that when you retire that you have to stop being useful to society. Do what you like. Keep working if you want. The problem that I see is that we are a society that traps ourselves into working longer than we have to as opposed to working longer because we want to. This is a great equalizer in the world of work. It doesn’t matter if you get stuck in fast food for your working life if you put $2,000 a year into a retirement account starting as early as you can. You can eventually get out of the job, and pursue things you’d like to do. It doesn’t matter if bands don’t get paid very well, if you’re in your 40s and have no need for an income, because you’re already retired.
Persistence – There is probably a weird truth having to do with persistence. You likely won’t succeed unless you’re persistent. The problem with self-help is that it attempts to guarantee success with persistence. The logic is that if you try for twenty years and then give up, well, you just weren’t persistent. You gave up. Maybe if you would have persisted for a couple more years. It’s an odd trap, because once you give up, you have given up. You proved that without persistence, you fail. This is where another one of those contradictions comes into play. They tell you that you have to abandon what isn’t working. Well, that’s called giving up. Yes, they frame it so that you are persisting, but coming at it from a new angle. It’s just giving up though. If I want to be a novelist, but that pursuit isn’t working, so I abandon what isn’t working and get a job at a newspaper; well, I gave up didn’t I?
Reciprocation – There is also a belief that what you give is what you receive. If you smile at a person, they will smile back. This is mostly true, but it’s not always true. If you pray, or if you write affirmations, then your deity or the universe will place resources and opportunities in your life. I think this is one of the hardest ones for me to grasp. I want to believe it’s true. It would make creating a path for my life so much easier. It’s just that when you place value on things that work for you as being destined and value things that don’t work for you as “everything happens for a reason” or an “opportunity in disguise” you are deluding yourself. I have a pretty positive outlook about life. I really do. But I don’t believe that just because shit decomposes and becomes flowers that I want to be shit on. I read a quote attributed to Shakespeare: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” I believe that. I believe that when bad things happen that you can move forward in a positive manner. I just don’t believe that you can turn a negative into a positive. Place a value on your dignity and integrity in the face of bad times. Don’t place a value on how a bad became a good just because you feel happy at the moment.
Faith – Ok, I’ve been pretty down on the whole self-help field. If this is the first thing you’ve ever read that I’ve written then you must think me to be very anti-self-help. I’m not. They say that faith is belief without measurable proof. I have faith in a few things. The proof I have is lacking and convoluted, but it doesn’t matter because when you have faith, you move forward with hope and belief. There are downsides of faith, of course, and I would be remiss to not point that out given the nature of this article. The point here is to not follow blindly. I am a fan of the self-help literature. I just don’t give it a free pass from scrutiny.