The self-help industry, also known as self-improvement or personal growth, is a large global market that provides products and services designed to provide help individuals improve their quality of life in some way. It is an industry in crisis. Consumers of self-help products and services are more discerning. The next generation of leaders will be held to a higher standard than previous gurus, speakers, and experts. I believe that the nature of the transformation underway reveals the end of self-help and the emergence of a new and more vital field of endeavor.
Self-help, from my perspective, has been reduced to “help” that, beneath the “feel good” surface, is primarily intended to sell books, online courses, self-help apps, life coaching services, seminars, and academies. The experts of self-help often lay claim to wisdom, sometimes presented as “life lessons,” “higher consciousness,” and “spiritual insight.” Even though the growth of the self-help industry has been significant since the mid 20th century, the number of people suffering from anxiety, depression, and other forms of trauma has grown significantly. An important question to ask is, “Why do many self-help products and services fail to provide practical and useful ways for people to live better lives?”
Before moving on to describe what I believe are fundamental problems in the self-help industry, I should disclose that, in a deep sense, I believe in the value and necessity of a deep, philosophical perspective of self-help but remain averse to the neon whine of the current industry. There are, I believe, several problems in the self-help industry that need to be resolved. And I believe the resolution involves a transformation of the industry, in which the self-help banner is replaced with something with more creative potential. Here is a summary of what I see as the basic problems with modern self-help:
- “Self” is not enough: Individual help must be good for self, others, society, and nature for it to be effective.
- What kind of help? The idea of “help” broad and generic. It can be applied to many areas of life. “Self-help” can mean so many different things that it lacks clarity and focus.
- The End of Experts: Self-help is a transdisciplinary frontier in which no one individual can lay claim to expertise. Self-help demands connected intelligence, not isolated expertise.
- Planned obsolescence: If suffering is collectively reduced and wellbeing is increased, the need for self-help products and services decline. In other words, the primary objective of the self-help industry is to make itself unnecessary. Planned obsolescence is not a good business model, but it is the definition of genuine success in this case.
- Our preference for known misery: It’s easier to maintain the comfort of known misery instead of undertaking the difficult work of personal change. We fear vulnerability, but we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to grow. Rather than clinging to our suffering, our challenge is to take responsibility for it
- Incongruity: Sometimes, good writers write self-help books without living and being in accord with the principles they are writing about. There is incongruity between self-help advice the lifestyle being lived.
- We can buy a solution to our troubles: We fall prey to the misguided notion that we can buy our wellbeing if we purchase enough books, seminars, online courses, certifications, or attend academies.
- Self-help tourism: Self-help is a kind of hobby or activity that is and end unto itself and extraneous to the pursuit of living a good life. On other words, the work of applying principles and values is avoided while the activity of engaging in self-help, even without results, is strangely satisfying.
- Selling solutions to manufactured problems: A standard marketing practice is to offer products and services as solutions to manufactured problems. In other words, marketing must first convince people that they have a problem and that a solution is for sale. Of course, not all self-help practices operate in this way, but a consumer needs to be skilled in avoiding the ones that do.
- Life has largely been externalized: We have been exiled from inner life, which is the starting point for wellbeing. Too much of our life has been abstracted, psychologized, and focused on external pursuits. Our inner life has suffered, which is one reason for the epidemic of anxiety and depression. Self-help requires close examination of inner life, a capacity that is underdeveloped and ignored in society.
- Shifting fields of evidence: Research sometimes has a way of deteriorating from new discovery to outdated fad. In addition, research often becomes a brand of self-help. Happiness, for example, was a major focus of research into self-help that eventually caused harm and disappointment. Self-help has no fundamental common ground.
- Perpetuating false beliefs: One of the greatest illusions perpetuated in some circle of self-help is that we can be anything we want to be. This is a lie. Our only option is to be the best we can personally be based on the practical reality of our own talents, abilities, experiences and circumstances in life. What we all need help with is facing the full force of life exactly as it is, not pining for states, conditions, and achievements in some imagined future.
Why does self-help need to come to an end? Artists know that sometimes the most courageous creative act is the one that requires the abandonment of a line of thought or work, even when a significant amount of time and effort have been invested in a project. The reason for this is innate to the creative process, which is to create the space for something new and hopefully more valuable to take its place. The self-help domain has run its course and the most progressive thing we can do is abandon it.
If we abandon self-help, what then? This is the question I address in the next article entitled, “Wellbeing: The Essence of a Good Life.”