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(Illustration by Rachel Dooley; all rights reserved.)

No Self-Help Wanted

You are not the only thing holding you back.

BY Richard Greenwald

One reason these books are so attractive might be that they imply that we have total control of our own lives. And, in a world where that is increasingly less true, the myth is powerfully strong.

Harvard Business School professor and psychologist Francesca Gino wants to fill that gaping hole in many Americans’ souls. More and more we are anxious, worried and searching. Searching for what? We often do not know, so we search for whatever we are told we should be searching for. In Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, Gino tells us that no matter what we are searching for, our best-laid plans often fail because we allow ourselves to get sidetracked.

Search for “self help” books on Amazon, and you’ll find nearly 300,000 titles. Self-help books are an $11 billion industry. We read these books because they proffer neat solutions for complex problems. Most are a mix of leadership advice, management science and pop psychology applied to the individual—the business of one, you might say. We hope they offer the magic bullet to make us successful, fix our finances, remedy family dysfunctions, find balance, get healthy or deal with our children. Many follow Malcolm Gladwell’s recipe: a pinch of common sense, a crisp measure of entertaining storytelling and just enough social science to sound plausible. 

We seek out such advice because we live in an increasingly narcissistic world that is increasingly complicated by second-guessing, notions of perfectibility and our quest for enlightenment—not religion or spirituality, but rather the quest for a more rationalized, improved self. Some self-help books teach us how to live more simply, but most, at their core, preach a path toward happiness through consumption. Rule number one: If you are unhappy with your life, buy a book. If you are really unhappy: Buy many.

From at least the mid-20th century, Americans have been told that they are what they buy, that they can refashion themselves in any image they desire as many times as they want. The historian Lizabeth Cohen called this America a “consumers’ republic,” in which each citizen is required to do their civic duty and buy, buy, buy. This is a regime where our purchasing not only makes America what it is, but gives us that uniquely American ability to continually reinvent ourselves. Through consumption, we signaled our middle classness, our hipness (as in Boboism, à la David Brooks), and our status in America. And America is all about status, isn’t it?

But a funny thing has happened on this journey: This cult of consumption has obscured not just a class divide in America, but a divide within the middle class, as well.

As the squeezed, shrinking and evaporating middle class clings to status like never before, some members try to signal theirs through cultural capital. In urban America, one can see this in the perpetual quest for authenticity, whether in food, music, literature, clothing or cocktails (gin bars anyone?). By signaling a secret knowledge of what is hip or cool, these folk can preserve their status even as their income position falls.

Others of the endangered middle class, desperate to gain traction, grasp for the next rung on the ladder. It is to this segment that Gino aims her book. These cubical jockeys and (increasingly) freelancers think that if they can only run smarter, as well as faster, they can not only get back in the race but get ahead. But what they find out is they are perpetually running faster and faster and not getting anywhere. So they read another book and the cycle continues.

Gino, pondering why these seemingly smart people make so many stupid decisions, argues that “inconsistencies between what we had in mind … and what we ended up doing … are surprisingly common and systematic.” We spend so much time looking for the big answers, she says, that we fail to notice that it is the subtle or small things—what she calls the “contexts” in which we frame our decisions—that often prove most critical. For instance, her central claim is that there are three types of forces that sidetrack or derail us from the path of success: internal (meaning ourselves), those closest to us (meaning our relationships), and outside forces (such as how we frame or see a problem). If we recognize these blocks we can deactivate them and have a more direct path to success and happiness.

Like most self-help books, Sidetracked offers us a simple takeaway: “Being human makes all of us vulnerable to subtle influences … that can dramatically impact our behavior. These subtle factors can completely overshadow the effects of our underlying personality on our behavior.” If we become aware of these hidden factors, Gino posits, we can mitigate their effects and stay on track.

Using Gladwell’s combination of telling stories and recounting social and psychological “experiments,” Gino suggests a nine-point plan for success that includes many noble and logical points, such as integrity, looking at the big picture, seeing things through others’ eyes and the like.

However, this logic contains a basic, and serious, internal flaw endemic to self-help literature: It assumes that the only thing holding us back is ourselves. What is missing from her discussion is any acknowledgement of the structural factors that work against us, such as a tanking economy. One reason these books are so attractive might be that they imply that we have total control of our own lives. And, in a world where that is increasingly less true, the myth is powerfully strong. Gino, though, unlike many of her fellow business writers, does not place total responsibility for failure to fulfill the American dream squarely on the individual. Her discussion of the hidden, subtle sidetracks suggests she recognizes the existence of a concerted system designed to thwart even the best-laid plans, such as advertising and marketing. Yet, she fails to name this system and in the end leaves modern capitalism completely off the hook.

Whether she realizes it or not, Gino perpetuates a neoliberal stance that mythologizes a culture of the self-made (wo)man, atomizes notions of success and invalidates forms of collectivism. She ignores the fact that shared responsibility has always been an integral part of the republicanism of the last century—the American Century.

She ends her book with: “So, what’s next? I did my part; the rest is up to you.” But is it? Isn’t it time for us to acknowledge that the middle class slide is more than the individual succumbing to market irrationalities? Self-help books such as this one feed on our fears of decline by getting us to work harder and smarter. But in the end we are less happy and secure, and more stressed.

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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