Beginning sometime around 2014 there has been an invasion of self-help gurus in Western culture, who have since nestled themselves comfortably into the Western psyche. You can see their advertisements all throughout social media and the video-sharing platforms, and their books can be found on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and other retailers.
Thanks to broadcasting platforms like YouTube and Spotify there is now more self-help material available than ever before (and more material comfort than ever before), but in spite of this the current generation seems, almost ironically, to be more unhappy and more unfulfilled than all of the generations that have come before it. A recent study published in 2019, which drew on survey results of over 600,000 adults and adolescents in the United States, showed that those aged 18–26 are now the most unhappy, with significant increases in experiences of psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts (Twenge et al., 2019). These young people are experiencing sustained periods where they lose interest in life and leisure activities at much higher rates than their same age group did just ten years ago. So, despite all of the claims by self-help gurus to be able to turn peoples’ lives around through their programs, why are these figures in unhappiness continuing to rise? It is certainly not for a lack of trying on their part.
There are three principal reasons why we should beware of the self-help gurus and what they are selling. The first is that you can never trust the advice from someone who has no skin in the game, or someone whose past or present actions do not reflect the advice they are selling. The second reason is that the founding principle of the product they are selling is faulty, as, by force of publicity, it will eventually nullify the asymmetry it aims to produce. The final reason is that the endpoint for this type of thinking could potentially disrupt the entire job market and economy.
When we see the self-help guru on stage, bewitching the crowd with the bright lights shining down on them, speaking into the microphone that hangs off their ears, no one ever seems to be asking what exactly these people have produced on their own — other than the self-help content. We are unsure if these principles for success that they boast, and urge their audiences to follow, have indeed been applied to their own lives in any other capacity than creating and presenting the principles themselves. Let’s take a look at some of the advice they provide as direct quotes from presentations or books:
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”
– Tony Robbins
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have”
– Eckhart Tolle
“To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want”
– Tai Lopez
“All change starts with the ability to be honest with one person…yourself.”
– Dean Graziosi
While these quotes are poetic and nice-sounding (and even quite motivating), there is, nevertheless, still a painfully obvious lack of substance. If you try digging into the personal histories of your favorite gurus, there is usually not much with respect to their own paths to success except for some vague statements about “businesses” they had started — but nothing at all as to what any of these businesses are called or what exactly they do. Moreover, for the more open and more honest among them, the only thing their histories and professional backgrounds seem to reveal is a lack of professional background. Take, for example, Tony Robbins, perhaps the best-known self-help guru in the world. Robbins started out his career as a promoter for the motivational speaking events of Jim Rohn (another self-help coach), before launching his own coaching seminars — with no work experience to draw from other than motivational speaking (Robbins had worked briefly as a janitor prior to this).
Another example would be someone like Eckhart Tolle, another one of the best-known self-help gurus in the world. Before pursuing a career in self-help, he spent some time teaching German and Spanish, and later worked as a “counselor and spiritual teacher” (whatever that means) before publishing his first book in 1997, The Power of Now; a sort of guide for living and coping with stress. Tolle and Robbins, along with many others, have since become very wealthy and very successful from telling others how they can become very wealthy and very successful. Furthermore, their own paths to success in the world of self-help gurus begs one very important question: what have they done outside of motivational speaking, or businesses founded upon motivational speaking, that gives them the right, or even the confidence, to try to motivate other people and guide their life decisions?
The second — and, in my opinion, most important — reason we should tread carefully around the self-help guru is that these people are selling an inherently defective product, and the end point that it strives for renders the entire practice redundant. Essentially, the self-help guru claims to teach you a way of life that will allow you to rise above everybody else and become successful — but, in order for the self-help guru to survive and propagate, they will need to create a curriculum that appeals to, and works for, as many people as possible; and so as word spreads, you are no longer the only one with the secrets for a better life that they are selling, which in turn makes the secrets useless. We can see the same phenomenon in any domain — that is, any principle, if it is effective (or, in the case of the self-help gurus, believable enough), will catch on and eventually become the norm, until a new principle comes along and creates a new asymmetry. In any competition — be it in sports, academia, war, or business — the competitors will always be trying to strategize and create an asymmetry that will eventually give them the advantage that will allow them to win. There are countless examples that can demonstrate this in any domain. In the early days of football (or soccer, depending on where you are from), for example, the first British teams found success using the “WM” and “Pyramid” formations, as these had become the antidotes to attacking-focused formations such as 1–1–8 and 2–2–6. The success of the WM and Pyramid formations was then stifled by another asymmetry, when the Hungarian national team produced the first false 9 attacker in 1953 (Nandor Hidegkuti); at which point an antidote was created to the false 9, and an antidote to that antidote, and so on until the current day. Another potent example in the realm of sports would be the Brazilian variation of the traditional Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu, developed in the 1940s, which created an asymmetry as it made strength and size of an opponent irrelevant within combat sports. However, having become highly popularized following the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event in 1993, it has since become an essential tool in the arsenal of most modern mixed-martial arts competitors and has thus ceased to be an advantage to the same degree. If we turn to the domain of war and military affairs, there is perhaps no better example of the pursuit of asymmetry than the invention of the Maxim gun in 1884, the first recoil-operated machine gun. It created a severe disadvantage for any army still using muskets, swords and spears, and eventually became the eminent symbol of 19th century imperialism due to the ease with which it allowed the European powers to set off and dominate the rest of the globe. But as industrialization continued, newer and more effective weapons were developed that pushed the Maxim to the side. Finally, a peek at the business world, and we see an innovation that created one of the most striking asymmetries in history: the moving assembly line by Henry Ford in 1913, which allowed Ford vehicles to be built in about an hour and a half (whereas before it would take upwards of twelve hours) and leave any competitors in the dust — until the other car manufacturers caught on and began using assembly lines as well.
Usually, competitors will try their best to keep their advantages a secret for as long as possible. After all, why would you give up a secret that would allow an opponent to win? But it seems like these secrets are exactly what the self-help gurus are selling, with the intention of capturing as much of the market as possible through their unique brands of self-help. With tens of thousands of attendees at their events and seminars, and even more people purchasing their books and subscribing to their other content, all of their customers are being provided with the same “secrets”, and in theory with the same advantages. Now let’s imagine that everyone who has become a client of these self-help gurus has absorbed all of the information and tips for getting ahead and applied it to their lives. Everyone is back exactly where they started off — that is, they remain more or less the same, still with no competitive advantage.
Finally, while on the surface it may seem like a good idea to awaken the untapped potential for success in every individual (even if this means they all end up the same), the real-world application of such an idea may be much more harmful than we might expect, for the simple reason that no one would be willing to do the grunt work anymore. It creates unrealistic expectations. The majority of the self-help gurus promote and advocate more or less the same idea, some version of “everyone has a great destiny they need to fulfill, and if they only search within themselves for the strength, they will be able to accomplish great things and become a leader of tomorrow.” Everyone is encouraged to become an entrepreneur or leader in their own right. In fact, I’m not sure if there is another word that is used so unashamedly these days as entrepreneur. Where things get tricky is the moment all of these new entrepreneurs realize they need help with the grunt work of their revolutionary new artisanal bottled-water businesses. Yes, in any private entrepreneurial undertaking it is rare that one person by themselves will be able to take care of all of the necessary work that is going to make the business successful. The truth is that they will likely need to rely on many different people to take care of many different things like marketing, production, packaging, shipping, administration and accounting; and a lot of the time these jobs make up the much less glamorous side of a business. Not what they make inspirational YouTube videos about. But imagine that all the people on earth who take care of packaging and shipping (arguably the least glamorous part of the process) have been listening to Tony Robbins for the last few weeks and decide they are going to give it all up to pursue their passions in life, and fulfill their destinies. I am as hopeful as the next person that one day these sorts of jobs will be taken over by AI and robots, and people will be free from having to do this type of work. But until that day, they remain an essential part of the production process, and grunt work in one form or another, is always going to be unavoidable — you cannot start out at the top.
Even if the job market obligates the younger self-help disciples to work unexciting, minimum-wage jobs to start out (before they move on to their more fulfilling positions as CEOs), those beliefs will have already ingrained themselves in their thinking and being, and will be influencing an entire generation. Convinced by such statements as, “most people fail in life because they major in minor things” (Tony Robbins), they will always think themselves too good that type of work, “minor work” as Mr. Robbins would say. Consequently, the grunt work, which makes up the majority of the work in any enterprise, is not going to be done at all, and if it is done, it will be done carelessly and poorly. We will then find ourselves confronted by an entire generation disillusioned with their relative lack of success, just due to sheer competition and the merciless Pareto distribution. Extrapolating further, the effects of such thinking on the large scale, and its consequent disillusionment, have the potential to disrupt the balance of the entire economy. When everyone believes they are destined for greatness and no one is willing to do the grunt work anymore, companies will cease to form, grow, or even sustain themselves. A sustained, global situation like this may end up forcing us as individuals to return to a hunter-gatherer way of life.
Of course, this is not all to say that we should not be trying our best and striving for greatness. We cannot simply stay stagnant, as we all need to grow and make room for future generations. This is more so a hint that we should be less reliant on others for inspiration, and a little more reliant on ourselves. After all, if our motivation is dependent on someone else, and that person one day ceases to be relevant, we lose everything. This is also not to say that there are not genuine figures — both historical and current — who can help us as individuals, figures who do have skin in the game and who are not selling empty promises. The most important thing to take away from this polemic is that it will behove anyone, in the long run, to choose their role models and “motivators” carefully, and to think critically about the advice they are being given, and especially who it is coming from.