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Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helplessby Steve Salerno
From the Introduction.
For decades I have been tracking the self-help movement without fully realizing its place in the zeitgeist, even though I’ve written often about its component parts. My first book, in 1985, described the “mainstreaming” of veteran sales and motivational trainers like Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar, both of whom were then beginning to expand their brands; they were subtly turning their antennae away from hard-core salesmanship to the much airier patter of mass-market training, with its exponentially greater target audience. Their efforts signaled the beginning of what we now call “success training” or, in its more intensive, small-group settings, “life coaching.”
During the late 1980s and 1990s I wrote separate magazine pieces about:
TONY ROBBINS. Today he’s the Eighty Million Dollar Man (per year). Back at the beginning of his career, customers were paying as little as $50 apiece to learn how to “focus” enough to be able to walk over hot coals pain free (a bit of gimmickry that the debunker James Randi tells us has nothing to do with mental preparation and everything to do with the principles of heat conduction).
TOMMY LASORDA. By the mid-1990s the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager had become a huge draw on the banquet circuit, commanding at least $30,000 an hour for imparting such philosophical gems as “Ya gotta want it!”
THE PECOS RIVER LEARNING CENTER. At Pecos River, otherwise rational corporate citizens fully expected to buttress their self-confidence and negotiating skills by falling backward off walls and sliding down the side of a mountain on a tether.
PETER LOWE. In 1998 I covered one of the barnstorming impresario’s weekend-long success-fests for the Wall Street Journal. I guesstimated the two-day take at $1.4 million, plus ancillaries. We’ll get to the ancillaries in a moment.
In reporting these and other stories, I never quite recognized all those trees as a forest. I also watched, but didn’t quite apprehend, as scholarship and complex thought fell to the wayside amid the influx of simple answers delivered via bullet points, as logic and common sense took a backseat to sheer enthusiasm and even something akin to mass hysteria.
What brought everything into focus for me was a career move of my own in mid-2000. For the ensuing sixteen months, I served as editor of the books program associated with Men’s Health magazine, the glamour property in the vast better-living empire that is Rodale. In addition to publishing such magazines as Prevention, Organic Gardening, and Runner’s World, Rodale had become the premier independent book publisher in the United States largely through its aggressive and ingenious mail-order books program. The company conceived, wrote, printed, and sold millions of self-help or other advice books each year. Thus, my experience there gave me a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of the self-help industry. Rodale’s professed mission statement, as featured on its corporate Web site at the time of my arrival, was simple: “To show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better.”
At considerable expense, Rodale undertook extensive market surveys, the results of which dictated each business unit’s editorial decisions. In the case of self-help books specifically, the surveys identified the customers’ worst fears and chronic problems, which we were then supposed to target in our editorial content. One piece of information to emerge from those market surveys stood out above all others and guided our entire approach: The most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months. In a way that finding should not have surprised me. People read what interests them; a devoted Civil War buff is going to buy every hot new book that comes out on the Civil War. Pet lovers read endlessly about pets.
But the Eighteen-Month Rule struck me as counterintuitive–and discomfiting–in a self-help setting. Here, the topic was not the Civil War or shih tzus; the topic was showing people “how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better.” Many of our books proposed to solve, or at least ameliorate, a problem. If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us–at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again. At some point, people would make the suggested changes, and those changes would “take.” I discovered that my cynicism was even built into the Rodale system, in the concept of repurposing–reusing chunks of our copyrighted material in product after product under different names, sometimes even by different authors.
Worse yet, our marketing meetings made clear that we counted on our faithful core of malcontents. (Another important lesson in self-help theology: SHAM’s answer when its methods fail? You need more of it. You always need more of it.) One of my Rodale mentors illustrated the concept by citing our then all-time best-selling book, Sex: A Man’s Guide. This individual theorized that the primary audience for Man’s Guide did not consist of accomplished Casanovas determined to polish their already enviable bedroom skills. Our buyers were more likely to be losers at love–hapless fumblers for whom our books conjured a fantasy world in which they could imagine themselves as ladies’ men, smoothly making use of the romantic approaches and sexual techniques we described. Failure and stagnation, thus, were central to our ongoing business model.
Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people. Put bluntly, he has a potent incentive to play his most loyal customers for suckers.
Yet it’s even worse than that. Much of SHAM actively fans the fires of discontent, making people feel impaired or somehow deficient as a prelude to (supposedly) curing them. One striking example comes from no less an insider than Myrna Blyth, a former Ladies’ Home Journal editor. In her 2004 book, Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America, Blyth repents for her own role in an industry that was supposed to help women grow but instead wreaked incalculable harm on the psyches of its devoted followers. What women’s magazines mostly have done, argues Blyth, is create and implant worry, guilt, insecurity, inadequacy, and narcissism that did not exist in women before the magazines came along.
PAYING THE (PIED) PIPERS
The American love affair with self-help is unmistakable in the sheer size of the SHAM fiscal empire. Granted, the movement’s total cash footprint defies down-to-the-penny measurement. There’s just too much of it out there, perpetrated to an increasing degree by independent life coaches or poor-man’s Tony Robbinses giving small-ticket motivational speeches at the local Ramada Inn. But just what we know for sure is staggering. According to Marketdata Enterprises, which has been putting a numerical face on major cultural trends since 1979, the market for self-improvement grew an astonishing 50 percent between 2000 and 2004. This substantially exceeds the already robust annual growth figures Marketdata forecast in 2000. Today, self-improvement in all its forms constitutes an $8.56 billion business, up from $5.7 billion in 2000. Marketdata now expects the industry to be perched at the $12 billion threshold by 2008.
Remember–this is only what we can document. And it does not include the broader social and political costs, which we’ll discuss separately.
Between thirty-five hundred and four thousand new self-help books appeared in 2003, depending on whose figures you use and precisely how you define the genre. The higher figure represents more than double the number of new SHAM titles that debuted in 1998, when wide-eyed social commentators were remarking at self-help mania and what it signified about the decline of premillennial Western civilization. Together with evergreens like Codependent No More, Melody Beattie’s seminal 1987 tract on overcoming self-destructive behaviors, these books accounted for about $650 million in sales, according to Simba Information, which tracks publishing trends.
Self-help was well represented on best-seller lists in 2004, anchored by a spate of musings from the Family McGraw (Dr. Phil and son Jay); Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life; Joel Osteen’s spiritually tinged Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential; Greg Behrendt’s cold shower for lovelorn women, He’s Just Not That into You; and actualization demigod Stephen R. Covey’s The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. The last is a sequel to Covey’s blockbuster work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which remains a postmodern classic, as do Tony Robbins’s various tomes about that giant who slumbers within you and the six dozen separate Chicken Soup books now in print. Stephen Covey, too, has a son, Sean, and Sean Covey has his very own best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Freshly minted guru-authors appear like clockwork each year.
They almost have to, if the demand is to be met. In fact, by 1983, so substantial were sales figures for books of this genre that the lofty New York Times Book Review, which for decades fought the good fight on behalf of books written by actual writers, threw in the towel and added another category, “Advice Books,” to its distinguished best-seller list. In an accompanying announcement, Times editors explained that without this new category even the most compelling works of authentic nonfiction–memoirs, exposés, biographies, think pieces, and the like–might never appear on their own best-seller list. They were being swept aside by this massive wave of self-improvement. Ten years later, a study quoted in American Health magazine said that self-help addicts–and addict, evidence suggests, is the right word–continue to buy books “long after their shelves are stocked.” Publishers Weekly put it this way in October 2004: “Self-help books are a Teflon category for many booksellers. No matter the economy or current events, the demand is constant.”
Another cultural signpost: A fair percentage of these book-buying transactions take place at the five thousand New Age bookstores now spread throughout the United States. (Industry sources thought the New Age trend had peaked a few years ago, when the number of stores hit four thousand.) Thus it should come as no surprise that the fastest-growing self-help sectors are also the softest and least utilitarian. Sales of inspirational, spiritual, and relationship-oriented programs and materials constitute a third of overall SHAM dollar volume and are tracking upward. The more brass-tacks stuff–business and financial materials, tactical training–constitute 21 percent and are tracking down. Americans seem to think it’s more important to get along than to get ahead.
For today’s budding self-help star, the usual progression is to parlay one’s pseudoliterary success into a thriving adjunct career on TV or radio, on the lecture circuit, or at those intensive multimedia seminars known to the industry as “total immersion experiences.” According to Nationwide Speakers Bureau founder Marc Reede, whose specialty is booking engagements for sports celebrities, “personal-improvement experts” account for no small part of the 9,000 percent increase in membership in the National Speakers Association since 1975. Just the top dozen speakers grossed $303 million in 2003; their fees generally ran between $30,000 and $150,000 per speech. More than a decade after her ethereal book A Return to Love dominated best-seller lists, Marianne Williamson’s personal appearances still sell out as quickly as Springsteen concerts. Mass-market single-day presentations by Tony Robbins must be held in basketball arenas and convention centers. He attracts upwards of ten thousand fans at $49 a head–still a bargain-basement price for salvation when compared to his weeklong Life Mastery seminar at $6,995. “You have to have something for all the market segments,” Robbins once told me. “You can’t ignore the folks who can only afford a quick dose of inspiration.” By 1999, more than a decade of having something for all market segments had paid off big-time for Robbins; Business Week pegged his annual income at $80 million.
It was the lure of such lucre that sparked the mainstreaming phenomenon among Hopkins, Ziglar, and other training specialists from fields closely allied to sales and motivation. Ziglar, the author of arguably the most successful “crossover” book ever written, See You at the Top, now preaches to thousands of eager disciples at his sky’s-the-limit tent revivals. (Herewith a free sample of the indispensable advice Ziglar offers to husbands: “Open your wife’s car door for her.” And, as an added bonus, a bit of all-purpose wisdom: “You have to be before you can do, and you have to do before you can have.”) Suze Orman followed Ziglar’s lead as well as his advice and soared to the top: Starting with a background in institutional finance, she mastered the art of talking about money in a way that sounded as if she was really talking about “something more meaningful.” She then threw in a dollop of spirituality for good measure and became a touchstone for millions of women who’d always felt unwelcome at the financial party.
A truly hot SHAM artist may franchise himself. Relationships guru John Gray presides over just a handful of the estimated five hundred monthly “Mars and Venus” seminars that bear his imprimatur. The rest he entrusts to a cadre of handpicked stand-ins who can parrot his kitschy trademark material. And then there are the barnstormers, like the aforementioned Peter Lowe, who took the seminar industry to another level by packaging a number of speakers into themed motivational road shows. His evangelical tours teamed an improbable rotating cast of eclectic presenters, ranging from former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to actor Edward Asner to professional football coach Mike Shanahan. They also featured a formidable, at times almost overwhelming, menu of ancillary products.
Ah, the ancillaries. All major seminarists reap a substantial added windfall from their so-called ancillary products: the $10 workbooks, the $19 videos and DVDs, the $49 series of CDs and cassettes for the car, to give you that all-important motivational jolt during the commute to work. To keep the good vibes flowing once you’re ensconced at your desk with your misanthropic boss hovering over you, there are the inspirational trinkets, like those $29 paperweights engraved with uplifting slogans. Robbins occasionally takes time out from his usual seminar patter to hawk unrelated products–like QLink, a pendant that, he says, will protect you from cell-phone radiation, electromagnetic pulse, and other types of harmful ambient energy. The pendant costs anywhere from $129 for the bare-bones model to $839 for a version finished in brushed gold–the perfect complement for one’s newly gilded self-image. Tom Hopkins, at one time the unquestioned dean of trainers in the field of real-estate sales, now depends on his low-cost success seminars to generate sales of his ancillary goods. The modest fee for the seminar is Hopkins’s loss leader for an array of high-margin products.
Topping it all off are the miscellaneous do-it-yourself “personal-enhancement” products and “revolutionary new technologies!” sold via infomercial. Dale Beyerstein, a philosophy professor who has written extensively on pseudoscience, argues that the customary formula calls for taking a modicum of legitimate research and “piggybacking” onto it–that is, extending and misapplying its conclusions in a way that’s just plausible enough to skirt criminal sanctions by the Federal Trade Commission or the U.S. Postal Service. The hubris of some of these pitches–not to mention the contempt for the consumer–almost defies description. For a while during the 1980s, a company called Potentials Unlimited was selling subliminal audiotapes to cure deafness.
Which begs the question: What has America gotten in return for its $8.56 billion investment?
The answer: There is no way of knowing. So much money, so few documented results.
Yes, SHAM gurus have no trouble producing the obligatory testimonial letters, the heartrending anecdotal stories of women who found the courage to leave abusive men or men who found the courage to face up to the demons within. But in any meaningful empirical sense, there is almost no evidence–at all–for the utility of self-help, either in theory or in practice. There’s only one group of people we can prove benefit from the books: the authors themselves.1
For example, as Martin Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association, told Forbes in 2003, though some of Tony Robbins’s preachments may be worth listening to, they remain altogether untested–despite the unambiguously rosy claims made for Robbins’s material and the quasi-scientific pretense of the material itself.
Actually, that’s not quite true. A growing body of evidence challenges SHAM’s ability to do what it says. For one thing, despite all the talk of personal empowerment, limitless potential, and a world in which glasses are always at least half full, Americans have become ever more dependent on chemical modification. Almost four decades after Thomas A. Harris’s landmark self-help tract I’m OK–You’re OK, we live in a culture in which some of the most profitable products made are named Prozac, Paxil, and Xanax. Evidently a great many Americans don’t think they’re all that “OK.” In the final analysis, it’s not the thousands of seminars or millions of books with their billions of uplifting words that Americans seem to count on to get them through the day. It’s the drugs.
That’s no great shock to Archie Brodsky, a senior research associate for the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Harvard Medical School. “Psychotherapy has a chancy success rate even in a one-on-one setting over a period of years,” observes Brodsky, who coauthored (with Stanton Peele) Love and Addiction. “How can you expect to break a lifetime of bad behavioral habits through a couple of banquet-hall seminars or by sitting down with some book?”
Brodsky alludes to twelve-step recovery meetings, which don’t often feature celebrity speakers or hordes of pricey ancillary products but do have a strong and loyal following nonetheless. The twelve-step movement developed as an outgrowth of Alcoholics Anonymous and now encompasses programs for a staggering range of problems, whether compulsive shopping, or loving too easily or too much, or overeating. These days, if it’s a problem for someone, somewhere, it’s a treatable disorder. And a support group likely exists for it. At the apex of the Recovery phenomenon, in 1992, American Demographics reported that twelve million Americans belonged to at least one of the nation’s five hundred thousand support-group chapters.
Americans for some reason assume that Recovery groups work, when in fact there is little or no hard evidence of their ability to help people recover from anything, as this book will document. Consider, for the time being, this one fact: The results of a 1995 study conducted by Harvard Medical School indicated that alcoholics have a better chance of quitting drinking if they don’t attend AA than if they do. Americans seldom hear about such results, in part because AA and its sister organizations have actively opposed independent research that could test their programs’ effectiveness.
The dearth of good science can be recognized throughout SHAM. In her revealing book PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine, psychiatrist Sally Satel complains bitterly about the faulty (or nonexistent) research underlying the nostrums and home remedies that contemporary SHAM artists preach. “We have a generation of healers who unflinchingly profess to know everything that’s good for everybody,” Satel told me in an interview. “They make no distinctions between science, pseudoscience, and pure fantasy. They liberally dispense their dubious prescriptives as if they’d been blessed by an NIH double-blind study.” Tony Robbins, for example, contends that diet is an integral part of a successful lifestyle–not an eyebrow-raising notion, except that he goes on to counsel his audiences on the “energy frequency” of popular foods. The energy frequency of Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, is “3 megahertz.” Satel knows of no such food term and has no idea what it could possibly mean in any case. I checked with Yale University’s Dr. Kelly Brownell, one of the nation’s foremost experts on diet and nutrition. He was similarly mystified.
This is not to say that all SHAM rhetoric is patently false. In fact, there are whole categories of self-help precepts that can’t possibly be disputed. That’s because they’re circular–the guru who espouses them is saying the same thing in different ways at the beginning and end of a sentence. The conclusion merely restates the premise.
Here’s a perfect illustration, from Phil McGraw’s New York Times number one best seller Self Matters: “I started this process by getting you to look at your past life, because I believe that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. That being true, the links in the chain of your history predict your future.” The “that being true” makes it sound as if McGraw is rousing to some profound conclusion. But he isn’t. The part after “that being true” merely repeats what he said in the first sentence, with slightly altered wording. It’s not a conclusion at all. It’s what logicians call a tautology. I am reminded of Larry Bird’s priceless response to an interviewer who besieged the Indiana Pacers executive with statistics. The reporter demanded to know what Bird made of them and what they implied about the Pacers’ chances in an upcoming play-off series. “All I know,” Bird replied wearily, “is that we win 100 percent of the games where we finish with more points than the other guy.”
Other SHAM kingpins, or ambitious pretenders, achieve a certain contrived plausibility by using puffed-up, esoteric-sounding jargon. In August 2004, Dan Neuharth, PhD, the author of Secrets You Keep from Yourself: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness, told the readers of the magazine First for Women that “avoidance is a knee-jerk response to a core fear that threatens your ego.” Translation: We avoid things we’re really afraid of.
Far too often, the SHAM leaders delivering these pompous philosophies of life and living have no rightful standing to be doing any such thing. “There’s a tendency on the reader’s part to think these people are unimpeachable authorities speaking gospel truth,” says Steven Wolin, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. “That’s hardly the case.” In truth, writes Wendy Kaminer in I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, the only difference between a self-help reader and a self-help writer may be “that the writer can write well enough to get a book deal.” In Kaminer’s view, the end result is that consumers make sweeping changes in their lives based on “something their aunt or auto mechanic could have told them.”
By the time the most powerful woman in American media plucked him from obscurity and conferred the Oprah Touch, Phil McGraw had given up on clinical psychology, in part because, he later said, he was “the worst marital therapist in the history of the world.” But McGraw, at least, holds a degree to practice what he now preaches. As we’ll see, others of similar SHAM stature hail from far less convincing backgrounds; they proclaim themselves “relationship therapists” or “dating coaches,” made-up specialties that require no particular licensing yet sound credible, thus duping unsuspecting patrons by the millions. At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups, the leader’s sole credential may consist of his being in recovery from whatever the specific addiction is. Society, again, seems to think this makes good sense. I would ask two questions: Isn’t it possible that fellow sufferers are a bit too close to the problem to lead effectively and impartially? And if your problem was, say, that the electrical fixtures in your house were acting funky, would you really want a workshop taught by some other homeowner who couldn’t get his lights to work right (and who, by his own admission, still had the problem)? Or would you want a trained electrician?
In today’s SHAM marketplace, individuals who stumbled into celebrity sans talent, or who managed to “conquer adversity” entirely by accident, now collect hefty fees for talking up their experiences as if they’d planned the whole thing out as an inspirational crucible. Get stuck on a mountain for a while, lose some body parts, and presto!–instant motivational icon. I refer to Beck Weathers, the Texas pathologist who lost his nose, his right hand and part of his left hand, and nearly his life in the notorious May 1996 Mount Everest disaster that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Weathers, now in his late fifties, travels the lecture circuit, expounding on the theme of “surviving against all odds.” You wonder, though: How many people live in situations that are truly analogous to what Beck faced up on the mountain? For that matter, what role did any of Weathers’s own actions play in his survival? According to Krakauer, Weathers was like a hapless pinball bounced around the mountaintop for sixteen hours, and he almost surely would have died if others hadn’t helped him down the treacherous slopes at significant risk to themselves, and if his wife had not arranged for a dangerous helicopter rescue. (To be blunt about it, Weathers probably had no business being up on that mountain in the first place, as Krakauer himself strongly implies.) So what do we learn from a Beck Weathers? Tellingly, he informs his admiring audiences that “Everest, in many ways, was one of the best things to happen to me.” At $15,000 per speech, he’s not kidding. Even pathologists don’t make that kind of money.
The bizarre case of Beck Weathers boldfaces the huge question mark that punctuates so much of SHAM doctrine and its myriad applications. The sitcom Seinfeld, in the famous words of its creator and title character, was a “show about nothing.” Much the same could be said of SHAM. To a disconcerting degree, it is an $8.56 billion social crusade about nothing. It is a religion whose clerics get very, very rich by stating the obvious in a laughably pontifical fashion. As Anne Wilson Schaef, best known for her book Co-Dependence: Misunderstood–Mistreated, informs us in a later work, Living in Process, “Life is a process. We are a process. The Universe is a process.”
To which a cynic might add: Making airy, asinine statements meant to impress or hoodwink gullible people is also a process.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2005 by Steve Salerno
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