Self-Help Culture Is a Lie – But Its Opposite Is Just As Bogus

Failure evangelists are just preaching a different flavour of hyper-individualism.

by Daisy Schofield

23 March 2022

A photograph of Kim Kardashian pointing to herself with long wavy brown hair and a green turtleneck
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

“I have the best advice for women in business,” Kim Kardashian said in a recent interview with Variety magazine. “Get your fucking ass up and work.”

Kardashian’s comments elicited outrage online, the same kind neo-Thatcherite girlboss-in-chief Molly-Mae Hague did when she recently proclaimed that we all have the same 24 hours in a day. But the belief that hard work guarantees success in a level playing field is hardly controversial – in fact, it’s the very fantasy upon which the multibillion-dollar self-help industry is built.

Books in the self-help genre consistently top Amazon best-seller lists: in 2021, James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (first published in 2018) was the most purchased book on the platform, with Don Miguel’s 1997 bestseller The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom coming in third. By nature, such books promise to transform readers’ lives by teaching them some proprietary life hack. In Atomic Habits, it’s creating “systems” over setting goals; in Jen Shapiro’s You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life (2013), it’s unwavering self-belief; in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006), it’s the law of attraction (a philosophy which suggests that positive thoughts bring positive results into a person’s life). The lie they peddle, however, is the same.

Common to self-help books is the idea that anyone can achieve success regardless of their gender, race, class or disability. “You don’t have to be the victim of your environment,” Clear writes in Atomic Habits. “You can also be the architect of it.”

In self-help literature, the features of an unequal society are recast as individual failings. In their book, Confidence Culture, sociologists Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad look critically at this trend, specifically at how self-help books exhort their readers – mostly women – to work on “the way they look, communicate, and occupy space to … building a more confident inner life” (in You Are A Badass, Shapiro tells readers that they must go from “wanting to change your life, to deciding to change your life”). In so doing, self-help books “locate the causes of social injustice in a confidence deficit”. We’re told that if we only approached life with a little more tenacity, a little more drive, then we too can achieve what we want.

This imperative to confidence goes beyond the workplace. It has seeped into womens’ personal and private lives, including how we understand slippery concepts like consent. As Katherine Angel writes in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent rhetoric “speaks in the language of encouragement and empowerment … privileg[ing] a robust self-knowledge of desire, and a capacity for vocal expression of it”. Angel warns that by placing the onus on women, confidence culture risks obscuring the ways in which society makes women’s self-expression – saying no to unwanted sex, for example – extremely difficult.

Self-help is not novel, though it has specific contemporary appeals. The first self-help book was published as early as 1859, yet the hyperindividualism in which the genre trades is an unmistakable hallmark of the neoliberal era. Ever-deepening inequality accelerated by the pandemic and now a cost of living crisis has heightened the appeal of the idea that enough affirmations and journaling will land us a high-flying career. This is particularly true among a younger generation that bears the brunt of this economic precarity. Influencing – an industry that fuels the myth of meritocracy – is now one of the most popular career choices for children. This is despite the fact that the creator economy is hugely unequal and rife with discrimination, with only a few winners and the vast majority struggling to get by. On Patreon, for example, only 2% of creators made the US minimum wage of $1,160 (£874.83) per month in 2017.

Much of the mainstream appeal of self-help comes from its erasure of social constraints and its seductive claim that anyone can have it all. Often, authors will cite themselves as living proof 0f this, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge their privilege. Roxie Nafousi, author of the self-help book du jour Manifest, describes how manifesting saved her at rock bottom and transformed her life “in every possible way”. That Nafousi was already a successful model and influencer when she discovered manifesting is never posited as a possible factor in her success.

Rather, the implication is that readers who don’t see results only have themselves to blame. “Manifesting is not about sitting, waiting, wishing,” Nafousi has said. “There is no substitute for hard work.” Trusting the universe is far easier, of course, when the universe is arranged in your favour.

When new-age spiritualism converges with entrepreneurship, the results can be a particularly pernicious form of self-help. The idea that we can “manifest money” by adopting a “rich” state of mind and asking the universe for wealth – an approach advocated by Sarah Akwisombe in her book The Money Is Coming, which targets the financially vulnerable and insecure – has landed people in thousands of pounds worth of debt. Akwisombe herself has faced criticism of her unregulated money manifesting courses: “I realised that there was nothing new there,” one unemployed mother-of-three told Refinery 29, who spent £1,200 on Akwisombe’s course. “But I kept getting sucked into the dream that she was selling.”

The framing of success as something easily achieved with the right mindset has inspired something of a counter-movement. Anti-self-help – which includes books such as Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck and Sarah Knight’s No Fucks Given Guides – sells itself as an antidote to self-help, claiming to reject what Manson calls “mindless positivity” in favour of an approach that “refuses to sugarcoat” and “embraces life’s difficulties”. But as Gill and Orgad argue, these books end up repackaging the same ideas, relying on expletives in place of subversiveness.

Gill and Orgad consider how Elizabeth Day’s book How To Fail (now a wildly successful podcast of the same name) embodies this trend. In Day’s “part memoir, part manifesto”, failure is acceptable and worth celebrating, but only under the condition that it has been overcome. In this sense, the authors write, “rather than challenging the orthodoxy, [How To Fail] seems to entirely express it”.

For Day, write Gill and Orgad, failure is divorced from any wider context; the author offers little recognition of a world that sets up some to succeed and others to fail. “Day’s own immense privilege as a white, cisgender, non-disabled, healthy, beautiful, privately educated and phenomenally successful writer,” Gill and Orgad explain, “is ‘checked’, but never operationalised.” The idea central to Day’s book, that “learning how to fail is actually learning how to succeed better”, places the blame on individuals for not being met with a silver lining, or gaining some vital life lessons, from failure. In this sense, Day’s worldview, though nominally disruptive, reinforces the one held by Hague and Kardashian in positioning individuals as the masters of their own destiny.

Anti-self-help may acknowledge, even valourise, the existence of struggle, but it seeks to delude us into thinking that struggle is indiscriminate. What’s more, it reiterates one of self-help’s central tenets in claiming that any problem can be overcome through resilience and perseverance. This is a belief perpetuated by Hague and Kardashian when they speak of limitless potential, of the same 24 hours for all. It’s a dangerous delusion, one that preaches empowerment while keeping people in a state of helplessness. However as the backlash to Hague and Kardashian shows, it’s a delusion that is struggling to sustain itself in the face of cavernous inequality.

Daisy Schofield is the digital editor of Huck and a freelance journalist.

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