The Evolution of Self Help
Without consciously trying, seems I’m like every other schmo when it comes to self-help books. There are a few in my library and a few I knew about but didn’t read. With the passing of Dr. Wayne Dyer not too long ago, I started thinking about trends in the self help world. It’s big, BIG business, at least in America, and its been going on for over a hundred years!
I remembered that back in the 1980s there was a wave of self-help books that “broke new ground”. But forty years on, where are we now?
Prior to that the self-help business hadn’t changed much in generations. It started back in 1910 with Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich. People began to understand that how you thought and felt, (focus, attention and attitude), were a component of success. Rich Dad, Poor Dad, (Kiyosaki 1997)…you get the idea.
A few decades later in the mid 1930s Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill expanded on the basic psychology of ‘positive thinking’ and leadership. How to Win Friends and Influence People and Think and Grow Rich, respectively, were hugely successful, provided you were business oriented, wanted lots of money, were mostly white and lived before 1960.
Positive thinking surged ahead with Norman Vincent Peale’s famous The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952. Peale was a Christian Minister and positive. He brought the idea of the human spirit into the mix. Through anecdotes and stories Peale told us that in thinking about things we can make them appear in our lives. We can attract what we think about. (So you better think nice thoughts! I’m with Janice Joplin: Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz…)
Peale’s book was also immensely popular. After WWII North Americans especially wanted a better world for everyone, a more egalitarian society, and thinking positively to change life for the better was very attractive and cost effective.
But after more than a decade of hard thinking we collectively realized that just being positive is not enough when one is unaware that they are also self-sabotaging. By 1960 Maxwell Maltz came out with the ground-breaking concept of “Psycho-Cybernetics” that told us our thoughts, feelings, and actions are constantly looping around, often unconsciously causing us problems. We’ve got to get a grip! Maltz, however, strongly implied that part of self-help was getting someone else to help us.
Famous motivational speakers like Tony Robins and Zig Ziglar basically use Maltz’ methods to break self-defeating patterns.
I suspect that as a self-help book Maltz’ Cybernetics was just too much for the ordinary person. At the same time Albert Ellis was developing ‘cognitive therapy’ and REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). Ellis’ work evolved through practice, and he did not put his ideas into layman’s terms, though he wrote plenty of self-help type books on relationships.
We languished with our broken cognitions and subconscious irrationalities for the next fifteen years until Dr. Wayne Dyer ripped off Albert Ellis and published Your Erroneous Zones in 1976. By that point Ellis had been refining his psychotherapy techniques for almost twenty years, but Dyer was able to write for us ordinary folk. His book showed how a person could take charge and heal themselves. Self-help was back, baby!
“Zones” is one of the best selling books of all time. But the claims were only that this deeper brain rewiring would help you feel happier with yourself. Your crappy life and shitty job weren’t going to change. We’d completely lost the ‘Grow Rich’ component. Ugh.
But then Shakti Gawain and Marsha Sinetar took us into a new realm.
Gawain told us about intense visualization. A positive demeanor and single minded focus were not nearly enough. A coach / motivator were not enough. Visualization will get us want we want. What we really really want. In 1978 Gawain wrote Creative Visualization: Use the Power of your imagination to Create What You Want in Life. A high wattage version of Positive Thinking that tapped into a new spiritual awareness. With Visuals!
A decade passed as we intensely visualized, until 1989 when Sinetar gave us Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. And POW!
Demand was like striking a gusher in an empty field. They couldn’t print the book fast enough! Sinetar hit a nerve we’d been searching for the last near 90 years.
All this time we’ve been winning friends, influencing people, thinking positively, identifying our flaws, fixing our subconscious patterns, modifying our self destructive actions, correcting behaviors, forming visual images, meditating and even paying Tony Robbins and what we really really wanted from our very short time in this reality was to Do What we Loved.
A very Maslovian moment.
If all you wanted to do was win friends and spend a lot of time thinking, then you were covered. But for the rest of us, we needed to be actually doing something fulfilling and meaningful. It seems almost self-evident now, but at the time it was seismic. The old ways in which to feel fulfilled were, it appeared, for most people just not good enough anymore.
One way to illustrate this is to apply Maslow’s idea of a pyramid of wants and needs to Society as a whole.
[Keep in mind that he had great ideas but his pyramid does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Life’s somewhat more complicated, less stratified, more looping.]
But this is just an illustration.
Maslow’s levels, top down:
Self actualization – achieving one’s full potential including creative activities.
Esteem needs – seeking praise, positive direction, mentoring
Belongingness and love
These needs are in a pyramid because the base supports the top. But also because it represents work and values. So the most important, basic needs take a lot of one’s energy, and so on, until the very top can be accessed.
So this is how it works:
When various peoples socialize into a cohesive group, the group stays together only because more people’s basic needs are met with less work (collectively) than if a family or a person tried to exist alone. Otherwise, if life was easier and generally better free of the group, you’d leave.
Like bears or raccoons. After a year, you’re on your own fat ass.
But with humans this is key: implicit in this scenario is that members understand, not all people’s needs all the time, just more people’s needs most of the time.
Safety and love and belonging work in the same way. Better safety for most with less work, more opportunity to belong and feel love outside what the family can offer if you stay in the larger group.
But now we get to ‘higher goals’. “Esteem.”
Having succeeded at ‘meeting the basics’ Society now collectively seeks greater accomplishments. People want to be proud of their collective success.
This is achievable because now there are enough people with enough time away from the demands of the lower part of the pyramid to accomplish more.
You need three components: health, tolerance (freedom), and resources.
Again, collectively, Society knows not for everyone all the time, but at least for a few most of the time. As to the ‘masses’, for many a small amount of the time close to the top, and sadly, for some stuck at the bottom, almost no time at all.
When a few people are given enough time, freedom and resources to do more, to create, to excel, to imagine and invent, to achieve, then greater things are accomplished than could be done by that person alone in the world, unsupported by Society.
And in those greater accomplishments all of Society shares pride and esteem.
Once successful enough, a Society will have enough people with enough freedom and time to ‘fulfill their potentials, including creative ones’, and Society as a whole will share in these advancements, knowing their work empowered human advancement.
And again, everyone understands that the room at the top of the pyramid is much smaller than all the other levels. There isn’t room for everyone all the time at the top. In fact, Society realizes that only a few can spend a long time at the top. Most of the space at the top of the pyramid is occupied for only a fleeting amount of time, but the goal is to have as much room at the top as possible, regardless of how long any individual can remain there.
Thus Society understands that members move up and down the levels of the pyramid throughout their lives. You are born surviving at the bottom, and accident or injury or unfortunate old age can move you back there. You can rise to the top and, like a one hit wonder, slip down and never quite get back. Or you may get into a groove and have all the gifts and support needed to keep contributing at the top for your lifetime.
Well, by 1989 Society had way way more people near the top of the pyramid than anyone ever imagined. Or at least we thought we were. Not a few thousand, but millions.
That’s when Marsha said, ‘Don’t just visualize, do what your heart wants, do what you love’. That’s the key, and there will be money!
Don’t just convince yourself that you’re happy with relentless self-reprograming (which is beneficial to an extent), or even in fact manipulate others to get rich (it sucks to be poor, seriously!) but actually do something you love. And you’ll cover all the other levels of the pyramid because you’ll also be financially rewarded!
Years later Sinetar embarrassingly admitted she overshot the mark on the magical thinking side with Do What You Love. Most people who read her book and tried to follow its precepts realized it should have been “Do what you’re best at and love doing it, then the money might follow”.
But the nerve had been struck.
Sinetar sold millions and millions of Do What You Love. Was it Boomer angst or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? No one knows for sure.
Sinetar came back in 1996 with practical help in To Build the Life you Want, Create the Work You Love. Truly ahead of its time and work that has almost been forgotten. But “creating the work you love” is a concept that was taken up a few years later to even greater success by Sir Ken Robinson. See “The Element”, below.
Build the Life You Want made clear that the work starts with discovering first what you are good at, then discovering whether you truly love that activity or not, and then finally working to monetizing it. The key concept was WORK.
Just a year later in 1997 Dr. Wayne Dyer published a landmark synthesis: Manifest your Destiny: The Nine Spiritual Principles for getting everything you want.
Manifesting works, but only if you do it and you really really really have to want it. And there is responsibility: meditate and then respond with action.
The theme of all Dr. Dyer’s work and most of self-help is transformation. You have to make changes in your life as the Universe responds.
Dr. Dyer was clear: what you want wants you in return. Your thoughts attract to you what you want, and the Universe wants to respond. But when that happens, you have to take action, whether you are comfortable that what is happening is, or is not, what you had in mind. (You have to go with the flow!)
This idea of the Universe responding as part of a practice of self-empowerment is the core concept of The Secret.
In 2006 Australian Rhonda Byrne reached back to 1910 and ’36 and ’52 and ’97 and told us that not only do our thoughts shape our reality, but there is a ‘Law of Attraction’. The Universe will respond in kind. It’s a Law!
Again with the Universe.
Byrne’s book and movie made her rich, so I guess it worked.
Sir Ken Robinson grasped all this and applied it to our social and educational systems. In 2009 with The Element Robinson ditched the deeper spiritual messages of Dr. Dyer and Marsha Sinetar and even Gawain and focused on the future and real world practicalities. In The Element, your Element is “the point at which natural talent meets personal passion”. This is the newest key idea: doing not just what you love, or even doing what you have an advantage doing, but doing what you are good at for which you also have great personal passion.
The world is littered with people born with a “gift”, an aptitude or innate talent, but no desire to do the work, or sadly no social support, as per Maslow.
And love really has little to do with it. Love is too nice. What is important is passion, which is a burning fire that makes you fight if you have to; both love and lust. And other couplets: work and glory; hardship and struggle, highs and lows.
And even then Robinson is clear: your passion might not always be self-supporting. Not everyone gets to sit at the top of the Social pyramid.
Money still may not come even if you work hard at your talent and passion, and you may have to multi task on the monetary side. But at this stage of global sophistication life is different than in even the recent past. Failure to perch at the top of the pyramid is no judgment says Robinson, rather, it is the new norm.
Steve Pressfield in The War of Art and Turning Pro makes it similarly clear. You create for the love of creating, and leave the rewards to the Gods; and while a real pro always plays for money, you really do it for the love of the craft. But, says Pressfield, if one toils with daily dedication to master the craft, the Universe will respond.
2013 found journalist Pam Grout taking the ‘law of attraction’ ideas quantum. She published E-Squared: Nine do it yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create your Reality. These exercises really work. But you have to do them. Grout takes spooky action at a distance and yanks it back into reality.
Concurrent to the trends of the previous century have been behavioral approaches, reflecting the understanding that human beings are ‘plastic’, that is, capable of changing, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
People who have been subjected to physical and emotional trauma can testify that this is true. You want to be better, healthier, and you believe that you should be, but both your body and your brain have been altered.
Car accidents, and shootings; PTSD from armed conflict or the stresses of the medical profession; sexual assaults (both male and female) and physical abuse. Childhood trauma and drug abuse. To ‘get well’ a person needs to admit they need help, need to accept care from others, and have a method, a way to heal, and then go through new trauma as they remake themselves.
‘Human plasticity’ has much evolved from the days of Dale Carnegie.
We see Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989, and Richard St. John’s Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich: Spike’s Guide to Success, 2006, or even Scott Adam’s How to Fail at almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, 2014.
The latest trend can perhaps be well illustrated by Seth Godin, who promotes the concepts of creativity in business, and academic Richard Florida, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” 2002. “The creative class is a key driving force for economic development of post-industrial cities in the United States.”
These thinkers have directly applied Robinson’s theories with hard evidence to predict social trends and their economic repercussions.
Not exactly self-help, but applying the ideas of awareness and transformation to the more mundane issues of life in the middle of the Maslow Social Pyramid. At least you might make a decent living.
In our overview, we cannot neglect ideas in physical health. Parallel interest in modern, science based nutrition and anti-aging programs has kept pace with mental health.
Perhaps the two grandfathers of these ‘programs’ are Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to face stress, pain and illness, 1990, and a few years later Dr. Gary Null’s Ultimate Anti Aging Program, 1999.
Or as my friends will tell you, for years I have said, (often at 1 AM after twelve hours of constant partying and other hijinks): “Feed the Body!” AND “The Body never lies”. I’m serious! “Listen” very carefully to your body. Take that time. You can lie to yourself, and others will lie to you in your best interests, but your body does not lie.
Anyone dealing with trauma, or anyone in denial of their physical reality will confirm this: your Body cannot lie.
Kabat-Zinn’s ideas and methods were revolutionary for Western psychiatry back in 1990. To students of Eastern philosophy, not so much. But some people apparently need to be hit on the head with a bamboo stick (metaphorically) before their mind grasps the interconnectedness of all things.
K-Z fused Eastern mindfulness and meditation to then current physical and mental health research, creating a formal system called Mindfullness Based Interventions or MBIs.
“Scientific research showing the medical benefits of mindfulness-based interventions lays out an approach to mind-body medicine emphasizing the depth of the interconnections between physical and mental health. The book has been called “one of the great classics of mind/body medicine” ”. (Wikipedia).
One seeks to gain control over body (Dr. Null) and consciousness (Kabat-Zinn).
The body side is often neglected. Mental health is difficult when the body is being mistreated or is ailing. The planet is on fire or underwater, food is becoming less and less nutritious, soils are being depleted, and the air is poison.
Modern life mistreats the body terribly.
Which brings us to today, the fall of 2020. Where are we now in the world of self-help?
We have information overload, social media and Ted talks. Modern life rearing its ugly head. Globalization has transformed the world in the years since Gawain and Sinetar wrote their inspiring works, and while the need has never been greater, expectations are severely lowered.
Two generations simply cannot expect the same opportunities their parents and grandparents took for granted. Half the newer self-help books out there seem to settle for little more than coping. And can we blame ourselves?
Today a deadly virus is running rampant. Financial and political corruption is happening openly on a massive, global scale. The fallout of post WWII modernization and the Global Economy are relentlessly depleting the environment even as you read this, pushing us towards massive social suicide. The irony of success: global overpopulation.
And in the face of depleted soils and empty food, a never-ending parade of diets can supposedly make us healthy, wealthy and dead…oh, sorry, that’s James Thurber.
No wonder each of us feels deep down we need to take control of our own destinies. Make each moment meaningful; be mindful, be aware. Find your passion.
You’ve got nothing to lose!
Sean, the fall of 2020.