Why today’s self-help advice is making us miserable


A brief history, up to now, of the American success manual

The books that get shelved under self-help, self-improvement, personal development, or prescriptive non-fiction (your “story + lesson” combo, à la Malcolm Gladwell) have a long and storied history as a genre of American literature.1You’re free to browse my Dropbox folder of books on the topic; may I recommend Character Is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America by Judy Hilkey.

The Pilgrims and early settlers had no need for self-help books aside from the Bible, their ultimate guide on how to live. Any existential crises or problems not covered in either testament were covered by the trifecta of social organizations that regulated everyone’s life: family, church, and the community. This sense of interdependence — relying on the community as much as they relied on you — typically meant that one’s profession was inherited, one’s spouse chosen by several people, your place within the community carved out in stone. When your mother and God and a village full of Bible-thumpers were always right there, who needed yet another source of input giving you advice, telling you how to live?

Reminder: the American obsession with productivity is neither an artifact of the internet age, the industrial era, nor is it remotely new. It’s a part of our cultural DNA. Workaholism was how Pilgrims operated; they believed that God would help those who helped themselves. The Pilgrims came to the new world to propagate religion and build a Christian Utopia based on the Bible’s. Their favored traits were of the “keep your head down and get busy” sort — character, principle, industry, sobriety, and frugality — all of which were based on Christian morals.

Having a Protestant work ethic was actually written into the law in Massachusetts in 1648. No person shall “spend his time idlely or unprofittably under pain of such punishment as the Court of Assistants or County Court shall think meet to inflict.”2Lawrence Meir Friedman. A History of American Law, Revised Edition. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1986): 81.


Character Building: The Age of Ben Franklin

As parcels of land became divided into increasingly smaller lots and urban areas grew, young men decided that cities offered more potential for making their way in the world than their family’s land. The “success manual” as a genre of American literature began as instruction manuals purchased by rural families, a way of giving their sons survival tips and passing along their values. Pre-Civil War era success manuals doubled as instruction manuals for building character traits like character, principle, industry, sobriety, and frugality.

At one point, the archetypal American ideal was “a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin [who] awkwardly entered colonial Philadelphia with two large bread rolls tucked under his arms and a third fast disappearing down his throat.”

Early careers looked like Franklin’s, who changed professions based on what he perceived was in demand and what could best help his community. Firmly rooted in Philadelphia, he managed to work jobs as disparate as a “printer, publicist, postmaster, scientist, diplomat, and statesman,” somehow, without building a reputation as that uncle we all have who never quite got his act together.3Burton J. Bledstein. The Culture of Professionalism. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1976): 171–173.

Success as a self-made man in the pre-Civil War, pre-industrialization era relied on what you brought to the table. Emphasis on “character ethic had rested on the belief that in an open society anyone who was morally deserving might rise to social and economic prominence.”4Karen Halttunen. Confidence Men and Painted Women. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982): 206.

How to Sell Yourself

During country’s economic shift from decentralized self-employed producers to urban, wage-earning consumers, Americans were forced to abandon the idea of independently owning the means to their income. While they gained the stability of having an employer, their ability to support themselves became conditional on the whims of the marketplace. Workers became subject to something relatively unique in the economy: unemployment.

By the late 19th century, success was becoming synonymous with securing a white collar job — a salary man, not a wage laborer — and becoming a company man destined to rise through the corporate ranks, a feat requiring charisma, charm, showmanship above Protestant ethos. Americans were forced to act as salesmen for themselves. What good was modesty when you were completing for jobs? What was the point of frugality when your boss alone would profit from your penny-pinching ways? What was the point of humility when you were being judged alongside scores of others?

“While there is so much striving and struggling, so much pulling and pushing, so much joggling and jostling, a man would be driven to starvation, if he did not leave his modesty at home when he started out for the contests of the day.”

Quoted in Karen Halttunen. Confidence Men and Painted Women. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982): 206.

The Industrial Revolution: The Death of Modesty

Building a successful enterprise was once deemed within reach of the common man, but required investors and capital in order to compete with the Industrial-era titans of industry. Carnegie himself admitted in Empire of Business — a treatise on Pittsburgh in 1885 — that “There is no doubt that it is becoming harder and harder as business gravitates more and more to immense concerns, for a young man without capital to get a start for himself, and in this city especially, where large capital is essential, it is unusually difficult.”5Andrew Carnegie. Empire of Business (New York, 1902/1885), pg. 14. Quoted in Irvin G. Wyllie. The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches. (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1954): 143.

Reminder: people have been saying “you need money to make money” since at least 1885.

With so few actually rising to the top, it became more difficult to justify the temperance and hard work required to achieve the rags-to-riches ideal. Previous generations had succeeded through extended apprenticeships, time-honored craftsmanship, and the ability to save for long, hard winters.

After being inspired by Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Herbert Spencer — a close friend of Andrew Carnegie’s — gave birth to the concept of social Darwinism, coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Although Darwinism didn’t start seeing public acceptance until 1900, the metaphor struck a chord. The winners in the new economy weren’t the ones who had been the most moral or frugal. They were simply the ones who had been ruthless, aggressive, and cunning on their way to the top, doing whatever it took to get there.

“The virtues of patience, hard work, and prudence were being undermined by the spectacle of men who seemed to blossom into millionaires overnight.”6Richard Weiss. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1969. Reprint: Illini Books, 1988): 101.

California’s Gold Rush and the Gilded Age ushered in sudden wealth that took its toll on Americans’ collective belief in the power of frugality and faith alone to create success. Who needs merit or faith when you’ve got chance, sports, gambling, casinos, and — everyone’s favorite — sudden unemployment? How could success be entirely self-made?

Hard work, a good character, and faith in a benevolent God were no longer enough in America: you needed luck. You needed Thanks to books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, even that wasn’t enough — you also needed to be the most charismatic version of yourself possible.

Over the next few decades, gurus like Stephen Covey took center stage, explaining the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s habits centered around 3 pillars:

  1. Personal health and well-being
  2. Effectiveness at goal pursuit
  3. Healthy relationship dynamics

The Age of Self-Optimization

Today’s model of success follows the rise of one of Covey’s pillars—effectiveness at goal pursuit. Gone are personal health and relationships, in favor of creating systems like Getting Things Done that help us be as efficient and productive as possible. At the extreme end of this are gurus like Tim Ferriss:

“This book is not about finding your ‘dream job,’” Ferriss writes in The 4-Hour Workweek. “I will take it as a given that, for most people, somewhere between six and seven billion of them, the perfect job is the one that takes the least time.” But Ferriss doesn’t recommend idleness. Rather, he prescribes a kind of hyperkinetic entrepreneurialism of the body and soul, with every man his own life coach, angel investor, Web master, personal trainer, and pharmaceutical test subject.

from “Better, Faster, Stronger,” The New Yorker‘s profile of Tim Ferriss

Success manuals today revolve around books like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Deep Work, and Atomic Habits. Their lessons:

  • Don’t think about the opinions of others
  • Block everyone out to do your thing
  • When it comes to change, don’t give up

These messages all seek to maximize the reader’s Behavioral Activation System, the way we initiate goal-directed behavior in response to potential rewards. The BAS is our brain’s LET’S GO signal, and is frequently thwarted by the Behavioral Inhibition System. The BIS puts the brakes on our actions as a response to perceived threats or dangers. (The BIS would Give Too Much of a F*ck, get nervous or anxious, and wind up with a sad and half-lived life.)

Together, these messages suggest that success depends on being true to yourself, doing your own thing, and not letting others get in your way. You are an entrepreneur. Your product is you. You are the captain of your ship, the master of your domain, and the direction and design of your life are entirely up to you. What could possibly be wrong with advocating for a life of one’s choosing, devoid of familial or societal expectations, of the entanglements that weigh us down?


The Problem with Productivity: Birth place of the Egosystem


In 2008, social psychologist Jennifer Crocker laid out a framework for how people view their relationships, and how those views influence everything they do. In short, some people think that relationships intrinsically add value to their lives, while others fundamentally view relationships in terms of what value they can extract from them.7Jennifer Crocker. (2008). From Egosystem to Ecosystem: Implications for Relationships, Learning, and Well-being. In H. A. Wayment & J. J. Bauer (Eds.), Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego (pp. 63–72). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11771-006

Egosystem

People with this view are self-centered, primarily concerned with their own needs and wants, and view their relationships as zero-sum.

Largely directed by self-presentation goals.

Lower generalized trust of others; “tit for tat.”

Believe they have to fulfill certain criteria to have relationships, and have those needs met by others (eg., make $$$ to be loved and respected); this overall goal supersedes the others.

Ecosystem

People with this view are other- or relationship-centered, viewing relationships as valuable and worthy of investments for their own sake.

Governed by compassionate goals.

Give others the benefit of the doubt.

Because they believe their needs will be met simply because others care about them.

Because they believe that their futures are linked to others, believe that acting selfishly also harms the self.

It’s a zero-sum mindset that leads people with an egosystem, “Me vs. the World” orientation down a rabbit hole of unhappiness: they see other people as standing in the way of their goals.8Jennifer Crocker and Amy Canevello. “Relationships and the Self: Egosystem and Ecosystem,” in APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 3. Interpersonal Relations, edited by M. Mikulincer and P. R. Shaver. American Psychological Association, 2015.

The problem with viewing other people as obstacles to what you really want in life—unless they are behaving in a way that actively and obviously fills some personal need—is that we’re destined to spend our lives in the company of others.

When you care more about your own goals than your relationships with other people, you view interactions as interfering with your goals. You may recognize “something standing in the way of what’s really important to me” by another name: stress. Other people’s needs, wants, desires, seem like unnecessary crap that has to be minimized and outsourced.

At the end of each day, there’s a good chance you say something like I did not do as much as I possibly could have. You might be obsessed with optimizing your life, doing more, and getting things done, and cranking things out. You like the idea of the 80/20 rule: do more, with this one neat trick!! There’s no shortage of productivity porn and tips about how to squeeze the absolute possible amount of value out of each day. Have you stopped to think about where this ideal comes from?

One explanation is that it’s a sign that you’ve internalized the Protestant work ethic and capitalism:  If “generations are characterized by crises,” as Harris argues, then ours is the crisis of extreme capitalism.

Consider the language we use: I wasted a day. I spent my time well. Just as corporations maximize every dollar, we’ve been trained to equate the value of our time with money, and try to squeeze out everything we can out of each minute.

It doesn’t occur to us that there’s an efficiency to every aspect of our life, to everything we do. And not only is there an efficiency, but we have control and influence over that efficiency. It’s something we can take responsibility for and improve. – Mark Manson

First, I want a pound of whatever Mark Manson is smoking, because this relentless drive to identify and eliminate inefficiencies is soaked into our cultural mindset—the hustle culture, the daily grind, the obsession with optimization. The constant thought I probably could have done more today, did I get 1% better? is a horrible dynamic to have in the background of our lives.

Back to the Pilgrims

When we’re obsessed with achieving our goals as efficiently as possible, we start noticing all of the things that feel like they’re getting in the way. And have you ever noticed that other people are simply not on your timetable?

What some people see as strings tying them down, or entanglements in need of pruning, are actually the makings of life’s greatest safety net, and its source of transcendent meaning and one of the biggest factors influencing our happiness in life: the quality of our bonds with others.

Stress is a threat to homeostasis—something forcing you to change in order to survive, a perceived different between what you have and what you want that’s of great importance. The inefficiencies of life (people) are also one of its greatest sources of meaning and joy.

In addition to being everywhere, you may have noticed that other people have free will. They cut ahead of us at the supermarket, forget to turn off their signal, and buy the last good loaf of bread9As I’m self-employed in the era of COVID, most of my recent interactions have involved going to the grocery store

Back in the Pilgrim era, participation in the economy demanded little more than keeping good relationships with your neighbors, and people were continuously in debt to others in the community for goods and services. “The presence of outstanding accounts assured the continuing circulation of goods, services, and social interactions through the community: Being under obligation to others and having favors owed was the mark of a successful person.10Stephanie Coontz. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1992): 70–71.

Being happily entrenched in a social ecosystem was seen as a sign of success: being a neighbor among neighbors and a worker among workers. What the Pilgrims saw as success mimicked the ingredients of a happy life.

Today, we look up to the Elon Musks of the world because they invent things and lead companies—but they’re also workaholics. (Are they happy? Who knows.) We read business magazines, blogs, and self-help books written by industry leaders who claim to have cracked the code of productivity, But feeling guilty about your “lack” of productivity says more about the expectations that you set for yourself and what kind of media you consume.

We’re convinced that if we could just do a little bit more everyday, we’d eventually get rich, be respected, and feel comfortable with ourselves.

Read that website, that post, that book, buy that app, try that time tracking device, make that spreadsheet, follow that system: finally feeling like you have your shit together is right around the corner. Maybe you’ve found something that actually makes a difference, and now you’re telling everyone. You’re on message boards, taking pity on others who aren’t using your genius devices or methods.

Like diet gurus selling supplements, workout gadgets, and diet books, the entire industry of productivity porn capitalizes on our insecurity—the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that behind closed doors, we’re not doing as much as other people. That behind closed doors, we’re not as good as other people, and are doing something wrong.

No one knows exactly what goes on in the kitchens of fitness models or the offices of tycoons—all we know is that our abs are hidden behind a layer of squishy skin, and our bank balance isn’t something we can brag about. We’re not getting as much done as other mothers, CEOs, pet parents, husbands, etc.

It’s a natural instinct to engage in the social comparison process and get a sense of where we lie in the pecking order of the group. Accurately gauging our status compared to others makes interactions smoother, and acts as a shortcut, telling us what kind of jobs and friends to look for, and what we can expect from others. We want to get as close to the VIP table as possible while avoiding rejection and humiliation, processes that would have been death sentences in earlier eras.

The problem is that our innate, automatic social comparison processes are typically only exposed to everyone else’s highlight reel:

We’re not just exposed to our friends’ highlight reels, we’re exposed to the highlight reels of the most extreme people.

Comparison is the thief of joy. It doesn’t matter how your productivity stacks up to others (see: mastery vs. performance goals). And in the long run, it doesn’t matter how productive you were today.


How to Maximize Your Long-Term Self: Stop Thinking About Efficiency

The main objective of your time doesn’t have to be constantly producing. The fact that you’re alive means that you did plenty: you’ve been moving, eating, surviving. Socializing, relaxing, recharging. Cleaning, organizing, dreaming, reading. Napping, reflecting, resting.

So-called unproductive things are vital because they’re what let you play the long game. They charge your battery. And isn’t that important to be productive? Or just survive? I ’d never thought about how much my self-esteem was tied to the idea of being an author until my book came out. The second it did, I felt good about myself. I held my head up a little higher. And here’s what happened when I was walking around the streets of NY: no one gave a shit. Nothing. Most of my daily interactions were better because I felt better, like I finally had the intellectual validation I’d been craving all along.

If you feel like you have to do something special to feel good about yourself, you have a fragile, unstable self-esteem because your self-worth depends on reaching certain goals. You don’t see everyone on earth as a flawed individual deserving of love, each with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to bring to the table. You see life as a pecking order, a constant social struggle that increases how much stress you feel on a daily basis.


To play the long game and feel good about yourself, focus on three things:

  1. Your health
  2. Financial stability
  3. Quality relationships
  4. Connection with something larger than yourself
  5. Joy and meaning in daily activities

Your time and energy are the only worthwhile things in the end. Taking breaks to explore and resting to keep your batteries as charged as possible are more important than working on Your Thing for another hour.

It doesn’t matter if you finally achieve your life goal if it’s the only part of your life that you’re happy with.

Stay on good, stable terms with the rest of your life: it may take much longer to achieve that goal than you think. The happiness you’ll get from reaching that summit will be short-lived.11Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert. “Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want.” Current directions in psychological science 14, no. 3 (2005): 131-134.

Obsessing over efficiency and productivity today creates fragility in the long-run, prone to burnout and major disruptions from unpredictable events. Obsessing over productivity, in other words, won’t make you more productive or happy—it will only put you in a constant cycle of comparison and stress you out in the meantime.

Slow down. Live a rich life.12Shigehiro Oishi and Erin C. Westgate. “A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning.” Psychological Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000317 PDF here.


REFERENCES

  • 1
    You’re free to browse my Dropbox folder of books on the topic; may I recommend Character Is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America by Judy Hilkey.
  • 2
    Lawrence Meir Friedman. A History of American Law, Revised Edition. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1986): 81.
  • 3
    Burton J. Bledstein. The Culture of Professionalism. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1976): 171–173.
  • 4
    Karen Halttunen. Confidence Men and Painted Women. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982): 206.
  • 5
    Andrew Carnegie. Empire of Business (New York, 1902/1885), pg. 14. Quoted in Irvin G. Wyllie. The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches. (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1954): 143.
  • 6
    Richard Weiss. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1969. Reprint: Illini Books, 1988): 101.
  • 7
    Jennifer Crocker. (2008). From Egosystem to Ecosystem: Implications for Relationships, Learning, and Well-being. In H. A. Wayment & J. J. Bauer (Eds.), Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego (pp. 63–72). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11771-006
  • 8
    Jennifer Crocker and Amy Canevello. “Relationships and the Self: Egosystem and Ecosystem,” in APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 3. Interpersonal Relations, edited by M. Mikulincer and P. R. Shaver. American Psychological Association, 2015.
  • 9
    As I’m self-employed in the era of COVID, most of my recent interactions have involved going to the grocery store
  • 10
    Stephanie Coontz. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1992): 70–71.
  • 11
    Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert. “Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want.” Current directions in psychological science 14, no. 3 (2005): 131-134.
  • 12
    Shigehiro Oishi and Erin C. Westgate. “A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning.” Psychological Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000317 PDF here.
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