August 2, 2021
The self-help industry is worth over 11 billion dollars. Books, magazines, films, conferences from world-renowned gurus, and countless other formats telling people how to dress, what to eat, and what to think to be happy. Yet, there is scant evidence that any of it works. Yes, people might feel better for a while and think they are making a permanent change. But after some time, the new habits don't stick and they are back to square one, which usually means reaching for more self-help.
There are a zillion articles about the sham of the self-help industry. So let's discuss a different phenomenon, "self-helpism", the borrowing of different tactics and ideas from self-help by other disciplines. I will focus on its influence on the management literature, but it also affects sports, business, personal finance and many others. To detect it, we have to first identify the linguistic and psychological devices that self-help deploys.
A key feature of self-helpism is the feel-good
bullshit insight, a phrase that makes the recipient feel good, but is actually empty or doesn't apply to the situation. Here's an example from Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill: “You are the master of your destiny. You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.”. Now compare it to the following phrase from the world of management, missatributed to Peter Drucker: "The best way to predict the future is to create it". Both share the same meaning: you are in control. The first one sounds more poetic, or more cringey, depending on personal taste. It's easy to see that they provide little to no information. They are inspirational in nature. It's hard to believe that reading this kind of phrases will cause lasting changes.
The second characteristic of self-helpism is that it ignores the circumstances and focuses on individual action alone, as if it happened in a vacuum. It's not that your partner is not interested in you anymore, you have to work on your relationship. It's not that the market for physical retail is going through a digital overhaul, you need to work harder. Back to the phrase about predicting the future, it supposes that you are personally responsible for creating it. While blaming everything on a bad situation is a mistake, sometimes things are indeed outside everyone's control, as the last pandemic has shown.
Finally, self-helpism divides the world into winners and losers. Usually, the winner is a reformed loser who walked the self-help path laid out by the guru. "Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.", Robert T. Kiyosaki writes in Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Note that being a winner here is mainly a matter of mentality, so the way into the world of winners is to read the book and learn its teachings.
To sum up, this phenomenon consists of:
Here are some examples of management quotes where self-helpism is evident:
It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, and how you’re led.
— Steve Jobs
Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.
— Jack Welch
Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses.
— Mitt Romney
The main reason self-helpism has infiltrated into management is that management is a complex practice. It involves reconciling the feelings and goals of employees with the business objectives of the company while handling shifting markets. Stakes are high and results, hard to measure. With this much ambiguity, people who sell easy answers have it easy.
It would be a relief if there were lots of high-quality scientific studies to provide guidance, but again, management does not have such a privilege. Management science in its current state is worthless. "Taylorism, like much of management theory to come, is at its core a collection of quasi-religious dicta on the virtue of being good at what you do, ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies)", Matthew Stewart explains in the article The Management Myth. If management is, as many purport, a balance of art and science, the scale tips heavily for the art.
How can we learn more about management while avoiding self-helpism? One solution is to look at other disciplines which face some of the same dilemmas as management, but have a more robust foundation. We can find knowledge and inspiration in philosophy, history, psychology, economics, and fiction. If, instead, we start our research by using terms such as coaching, mentoring, entrepreneurship, and leadership, then self-helpism is sure to inundate our results.
Another good mechanism to avoid self-helpism is to only consider data-supported claims. Look for the numbers behind fluffy advice and consider if they are relatively solid. There might not be a large longitudinal peer-reviewed paper for your particular query, but checking for some quantitative substance behind the words is a start. By doing this, one can finally start getting some valuable information nuggets on management.
If all of that fails, embracing ambiguity is the best option. This helps us avoid falling into the trap of looking for simple solutions to unassailable problems. If we can accept that, in many cases, no solution will satisfy everyone to the fullest, we are less likely to be lead astray by snake oil salesmen.