Self-Help and the American Dream

<i> John K. Roth teaches about the American Dream at Claremont McKenna College, where he is professor of philosophy. He has published numerous books on American thought, including, most recently, "American Ground: Vistas, Visions, and Revisions" (Paragon). </i>

When the kids were little, we used to play Milton-Bradley’s “Game of Life.” Winning meant being a millionaire, but unlucky rolls of the dice could make you a loser instead. In that case, the game board said, you retired to the country and became a philosopher. A few years later, Milton-Bradley varied the theme. While millionaire status was still the goal, the game of life became the American Dream.

These pursuits of happiness both provided help along the way. You could take a stock market tip, buy insurance, or try a new career. Failure to make the right move at the right time spelled mediocrity if not misfortune or disaster. The game designers, however, neglected to offer assistance that Americans apparently consume as quickly as publishers can put their writers’ advice-filled words between covers.

To reflect American life accurately, somewhere the “Game of Life,” and “The American Dream,” should have let you land on a square where you could buy, read, and heed a self-help book. Doing the latter is a part of the American way as old as it has been profitable for those whose trade is books. Scores of self-help books appear every year. They cover a host of topics. Some offer to teach us how to enhance business by becoming one-minute managers. Others prescribe how to improve our looks or personalities, how to achieve better health by adopting a vegetarian diet, or how to expand happiness by doing aerobics or running a marathon. By reading you can also learn how to cope with earthquakes or the Internal Revenue Service. Still other examples preach the power of positive thinking, or, if that’s not trendy enough, the latest “new age” spirituality. Principles of success, rules for living well, and the steps, always simple it seems, to put them into practice--these are the keys to the kingdom of self-help. Not surprisingly, many of them unlock the secrets of the “Game of Life” and “The American Dream.” They promise the way to wealth.

Whatever the aim envisioned by self-help books, their pitch is usually that grasping the goal is within everyone’s reach. Yet the appeal is also that if you take their advice, the wisdom you show in doing so will make you different and better than the mediocre majority who lack the good sense and initiative to improve. These books sell both ways: “Anyone can do it,” they insist, but their advice is for you, the discerning individual who has the uncommon determination to try.


If such appeals want to make us “feel good about ourselves” twice over, they trade on guilt pangs, too. Failure to buy, read, and heed its advice, warns the typical self-promoting self-help book, equals lost opportunity.

The advertising for one recent entry in the self-help field, Mark Fisher’s “The Instant Millionaire,” provides a case in point. Its hype describes the book as “a concise, quick two-hour read,” by a writer who wants to share generously with others the secrets of a philosophy that did not force him into country retirement but made him a millionaire at 36 instead. One promotional blurb identifies a few of Fisher’s secrets--they include cliches such as “don’t be afraid to ask,” “don’t underestimate your own self-worth,” and “aim high"--and then tantalizes the prospective buyer by asking: “For $12.95, who among us can afford not to read this book?”

Fisher’s advice isn’t bad. One could certainly do worse things with $12.95 than to buy, read, and heed his book. However improbable, doing so might even help to make one an “instant millionaire.” Less remote to ponder, though, is what the continuing popularity of the self-help genre may tell us about ourselves. That line of thought takes us back to the game of life in the United States and to the American Dream in particular.

Few terms are defined in so many different ways or bandied about more loosely than the American Dream. To some people, the term is a joke, an object of satire, derision, or contempt. To others it denotes a unique set of social and moral ideals--liberty, for example, and justice for all. Typically, however, the idea suggests individual opportunity, ever-present new beginnings to achieve self-determined success.

The American Dream depends upon the gospel of self-help. Already in the 18th Century, Benjamin Franklin understood and promoted that vision. His witty wisdom for good living--"God helps them that help themselves,” “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise"--made his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” an early self-help classic. He was urged to complete his equally famous “Autobiography” by a friend who judged no one to be better qualified than Franklin “to promote a greater spirit of industry and early attention to business, frugality, and temperance with American youth.” It provided more advice--for instance, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Franklin hoped for the prudent and ethical practice of business, but in the next century, the Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, found Americans distracted by materialistic interests. His corrective, in contrast to Franklin’s, entailed an awakening of spirit. Yet these advisers shared important traits as well. Both criticized Americans for being half asleep, for failing to energize their potential. Each was also highly optimistic about what American life could achieve. But everything hinged on what Emerson called “self-reliance.” His 1841 essay on that subject urged the American individual to avoid conformity, to understand that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and to trust thyself.”

Emerson’s Self-Reliance became the quintessential statement of America’s faith in individualism. Although in some ways the self-help genre is really a form of “other-reliance,” advising us to do what others say, it nevertheless remains quintessentially individualistic. Thus, it is doubly indebted to Emerson and to Franklin before him. Much good has come from American individualism and from the self-help initiatives it has produced and promoted.

But dangers lurk within this tradition, too. Insofar as self-help favors self-fulfillment over civic virtue and a publicly responsible patriotism, we may care too much for individual wealth and not enough for our commonwealth.

To be really helpful in the 1990s, American self-help needs to concentrate less on individual success and more on the fatal interdependence of all human action. It needs to emphasize insights such as those in the preamble to our Constitution. There the framers said nothing about instant millionaires or even about winning the game of life. Their American Dream concentrated instead on establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty not only for ourselves but also for our posterity. Their goal was not greater individualism but “a more perfect union.”

For all of their individualism, Franklin and Emerson understood and cared for those ideals, too. We Americans could help ourselves indeed by reinvigorating that part of our self-help tradition.