Self-help’s big lie

Steve Salerno's latest book is "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."

EVER SINCE the United States began weaning itself off the sociological junk food of victimization and its culture of blame, the pop-psychology menu increasingly has been flavored by an antithetical concept — empowerment — that can be summarized as: Believe it, achieve it.

Nowadays, Fortune 500 conglomerates draft business plans with bullet points drawn from Laker coach-cum-inspirational guru Phil Jackson’s Zen optimism. Couples write partnership covenants based on the utopian blather of John Gray. Millions of everyday Americans owe their feelings of “personal power” to erstwhile firewalker Tony Robbins, arguably the father of today’s mass-market empowerment. And there is Oprah, who is seldom categorized as a guru in her own right but whose status as the movement’s eminence grise is beyond dispute: The road to self-help’s promised land, and a bite of its $10-billion fruit (as tracked by Marketdata Enterprises), runs straight through Harpo Productions. The nostrums delivered by these and other self-help celebrities form a cultural given, an uncontested — and, we are led to believe, incontestable — foundation for today’s starry-eyed zeitgeist.

Lost in the adulation is the downside of being uplifted. In truth, the overselling of personal empowerment — the hyping of hope — may be the great unsung irony of modern American life, destined to disappoint as surely as the pity party that it was meant to replace.

In U.S. schools, the crusade to imbue kids with that most slippery of notions — self-esteem — has been unambiguously disastrous (and has recently been disavowed by a number of its loudest early voices). Self-esteem-based education presupposed that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness, even if the mechanisms necessary to instill self-esteem undercut scholarship. Over time, it became clear that what such policies promote is not academic greatness but a bizarre disconnect between perceived self-worth and provable skill.

Over a 20-year span beginning in the early 1970s, the average SAT score fell by 35 points. But in that same period, the contingent of college-bound seniors who boasted an A or B average jumped from 28% to an astonishing 83%, as teachers felt increasing pressure to adopt more “supportive” grading policies. Tellingly, in a 1989 study of comparative math skills among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competence, Koreans highest — but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were at math, the results were exactly opposite: Americans highest, Koreans lowest. Meanwhile, data from 1999’s omnibus Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking 12th-graders from 23 nations, put U.S. students in 20th place, besting only South Africa, Lithuania and Cyprus.

Still, the U.S. keeps dressing its young in their emperors’ new egos, passing them on to the next set of empowering curricula. If you teach at the college level, as I do, at some point you will be confronted with a student seeking redress over the grade you gave him because “I’m pre-med!” Not until such students reach med school do they encounter truly inelastic standards: a comeuppance for them but a reprieve for those who otherwise might find ourselves anesthetized beneath their second-rate scalpel.

The larger point is that society has embraced such concepts as self-esteem and confidence despite scant evidence that they facilitate positive outcomes. The work of psychologists Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman suggests that often, high self-worth is actually a marker for negative behavior, as found in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Even in its less extreme manifestations, confidence may easily be expressed in the kind of braggadocio — “I’m fine just the way I am, thank you” — that stunts growth, yielding chronic failure.

Then again, one never really fails in this brave new (euphemistic) world. “There is no such thing as failure,” posits a core maxim of neuro-linguistic programming, the regimen from which Robbins drew much of his patter. Among empowered thinkers, reality becomes an arbitrary affair, with each individual deciding his or her personal truth.

Consider healthcare, where vague notions of personal empowerment are a key factor in the startling American exodus from traditional medicine. A comprehensive study reported in the medical journal JAMA pegged the number of patient visits to alternative-medicine practitioners at 629 million a year, easily eclipsing the 386 million visits to conventional MDs. In theory, these defections represent a desire for “self-empowered healing” that will “put people in charge of their healthcare destiny,” to quote one holistic health website. In practice, the trend puts hordes of Americans at the mercy of quacks who shrewdly position themselves at the nexus of mind and body. It behooves us to remember that feeling better about a health problem is not the same as doing better.

Nonetheless, with such highly visible exponents of latter-day empowerment as Robbins, Winfrey and Winfrey’s principal protege, Dr. Phil McGraw, fanning the flames, a generation has come of age on the belief that a positive mental attitude will carry the day. Far from helping his disciples, the empowerment guru does them a disservice by making them “think positive” about a situation in which the odds of success are exceedingly low. As top management consultant Jay Kurtz argues: “The most dangerous person in corporate America is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He’s running faster in the wrong direction, doing horribly counterproductive things with winning enthusiasm.”

You cannot have a life plan predicated on the belief that everything is equally achievable to you — especially if that same message has been sold indiscriminately to all comers. In the grand scheme of things, knowing one’s limitations may be even more important than knowing one’s talents.