As I See It: The Improvement Industry
June 6, 2011 Victor Rozek
The moment humans started walking upright, someone was probably trying to improve their posture. In all likelihood there was a Cro-Magnon version of Tony Robbins, hairy, charismatic, with an enviously large cave, who made a living telling his fellow troglodytes how to evolve. Humans, it seems, have a self-improvement gene that, in spite of our best efforts, has unaccountably survived. That’s how we know never to stand under the back end of a woolly mammoth.
The self-help field has a vexingly long history dating back almost as far as writing itself. Long before Egyptians twittered their way to regime change, their ancestors scrawled codes of conduct on papyrus. (Unfortunately they were written in hieroglyphics so no one could understand them.) But that didn’t prevent succeeding generations from trying their hand at self-betterment.
The ancient Greeks had the poet Hesiod, who scripted 800 epic verses he called Works and Days that champion honest labor while assailing idleness. (Of course, Hesiod didn’t have a flat screen and a cable sports package, so idleness probably wasn’t all that entertaining.)
On Friendship and On Duties were behavioral guides written by the Roman philosopher Cicero, and their influence was felt for centuries. In 1558, the licentious nuncio to Venice, Florentine Giovanni della Casa, published his own treatise on manners which was translated into several languages. Alas, he was from the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school of thought–unwittingly setting an example still favored by clergy today. Regrettably, the French admired his excesses more than the Italians, which cut short his promising ascendency in the Catholic Church.
But whether it’s the Ten Commandments, the Twelve Steps, Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, or Mao’s Little Red Book, they’re all attempts by proselytizers to improve the wretched lives of their fellow man. (It’s been my experience that fellow women don’t need nearly as much improvement, which may explain why they are poorly represented in self-help annals.) In any event, the blessing/curse of consciousness brought with it the propensity for critical self awareness, which in turn spawned philosophers, reformers, do-gooders, gurus, and zealots of all stripes and persuasions.
In 1859, one such reformer, Scotsman Samuel Smiles, wrote a book that he actually called Self-Help. In an era when the poor were little more than cheap labor draining their life energy to support the lifestyles of the monied classes (oh, wait a minute, has that changed yet?), Smiles proposed this radical thought: “Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish.” It was an enlightened thought, but then he had another more dangerous one. Perhaps people (well, men at least) should be given access to free education so every man might “exert freely all the powers of his godlike nature.” That pretty well insured he would never be invited to Buckingham Palace.
Nonetheless, the self-helpers were on a roll, especially here in the land of opportunity. Carnegie taught us How to Win Friends and Influence People, Napoleon Hill said all you had to do was Think and Grow Rich, Norman Vincent Peale espoused The Power of Positive Thinking. Success and self-perfection were packaged like cheese and crackers and millions were buying. Their intellectual progeny like the aforementioned Tony Robbins, Gay Hendricks, Eckhart Tolle, and Wayne Dyer have made a good living telling other people how to live.
Corporations began to see the possibilities in personal growth work during the Great Depression (the original one, that is), when a shaken nation turned to men like Dale Carnegie to bolster its self-confidence. Carnegie offered corporate training which included classes in self-improvement, sales, public speaking, and interpersonal skills. Meanwhile, Norman Vincent Peale teamed with Thomas J. Watson, IBM‘s founder, and other notables to form an organization called 40Plus designed to help unemployed managers and executives.
If the object of these self-help classes was the acquisition of new skills, the essence of the teachings was a concept new to Western popular culture, namely that “the body is the servant of the mind,” and that we succeed or fail largely based on the thoughts we entertain. That notion, however, did not originate with Carnegie or Peale or any of their descendants. In the personal-growth context, it came from an obscure writer who is the godfather of the self-help movement, yet remains virtually unknown. And for those of us who have been forced to sit through a mind-numbing corporate training designed to fix our flaws, this is the guy to blame.
His name was James Allen and he probably would have achieved greater wealth and renown had he lived in the United States. In point of fact, he nearly made it. His father moved from England to America in 1879 when his business failed. But before he could send for his family, he was robbed and murdered. It was a tragic case of give us your poor, your tired, your hungry yearning to be mugged. At 15, Allen was forced to quit school and go to work.
Working in England’s rigid class system, Allen no doubt noticed how stuck people were, their station determined from birth, and he started thinking about how they could get unstuck. By 1902 he quit working and started writing full time, penning no fewer than 19 works the most notable of which is a modest tome called As a Man Thinketh.
A student of Buddhism, Allen believed strongly in the mind-body connection. “The mind is a master weaver.” he wrote, “both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance.” Suffering, in his opinion, “is always the effect of wrong thought. . . an indication that the individual is out of harmony with himself.” If people found themselves in undesirable life circumstances, Allen argued that their thoughts led them there. Those who believe they’re sinful, will always find a way to suffer.
Thoughts could not be hidden or held privately, he posited. A man’s life becomes a visible manifestation of his thoughts which “crystalize into habit.” And habit, he said, “solidifies into circumstance.” So homelessness might be explained as thoughts of helplessness that crystalize into laziness, which eventually solidifies into living under an overpass–which would tend to make a person dour. Not to worry, Allen has a familiar explanation for dourness too: “A sour face is made by sour thoughts.” Unsweetened cranberry juice works too.
But where Allen would make money for all of his future imitators, was in his view of human potential. “Dreamers are the saviors of the world,” he wrote. “Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be. . . dreams are the seedlings of reality.” Those words launched dozens of self-help empires and millions of individual success stories. They capsulize the essence of the sales pitch used by the multi-billion dollar self-help industry: you can become whoever you want to be, and accomplish whatever you want to do. Which beats the hell out of “you’re stuck being a Neanderthal, standing under the back end of a woolly mammoth.”
Allen’s work remains vital in part because of the repetitive nature of history. The outcome of a set of conditions operative in the early 20th century (namely an economic caste system that severely limited human potential) was replicated in our time by self-imposed limits arising from economic uncertainty and the pursuit of comfort and security. For many, a steady job became an excuse for not thinking about what to do with their lives.
But Allen rejected the tyranny of difficult times. “Circumstances,” he said, “do not make the man, they reveal him.” To our eternal annoyance and potential betterment, he seeded a movement that offers profound discomfort and unblinking self reflection for the possibility of shedding the life we have for the life we were meant to live. Or as Allen put it: “You cannot travel within and stand still without.”
Maybe so. But on behalf of those of us who have undertaken that demanding and humbling journey, endured the pain and enjoyed the benefits, if we could get our hands on you Allen, we would no doubt thank you–right after pummeling you with a bat.
So much for being evolved.