Mar 14, 2012

The Cult of Positivity: If You Dream It, You Can’t Necessarily Become It

Robert Grant

Staff Writer

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Greatness. If you want it badly enough, and are willing to make some changes in your life to cause it to happen, you too can take over the world… or do anything else you really want to do. Yes, you really can have it all. The only things you’ll need to give up are assumptions, expectations, and the comfort zone that holds you back from greatness.

– Chris Guillebeau, Personal Development Blogger.

This is the opening line from one of the most popular Personal Development blogs on the internet. It is called The Art of Non-Conformity and it is full of articles and essays about how you can ‘dominate the world’; this being a metaphor (I hope) for achieving success in some particular area of life. More generally, Personal Development blogs are the latest manifestation of the Self-Help genre; a genre that has been a steadily growing presence in western culture over the past 50 or so years. Originating in America, nearly all book shops now will have a dedicated self-help section (also known as Popular Psychology, or Mind, Body, Spirit), situated somewhere between – and often times overshadowing – the philosophy and psychology sections.

The internet is awash with blogs of a similar nature – a Google search results in 107 million results – each full of straight-to-the-point advice on how to live a fuller, better life, be a greater, wealthier, more successful you, free your mind from conformity and mediocrity and, ultimately, find happiness. Some popular titles of such books and blogs are: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Positive Thinking, The One Minute Millionaire, The Science of Getting Rich, Personal Development for Smart People, Meanttobehappy.com, Personalexcellence.com, to name a few.

While the quality and coherence of the message delivered by each individual book or blog does of course vary, it is worth noting that there are certain identifiable themes that run throughout this genre of self-improvement; themes that warrant some further scrutiny. Certainly, the most central idea present within the genre is that success is a product of a positive attitude and enthusiastic determination. By adopting and maintaining such an attitude you can overcome all obstacles to ‘living your dreams’.

In nearly all the literature can be found the idea that positive thinking and the right attitude are prerequisites to achieving life goals, and the essential ingredient in any kind of success. Pessimism has no place in improving the self, and critics should be avoided at all costs lest they infect you with a negative mind-set; this goes for negativity in the news and media also. If you can’t directly influence it, then you should not waste time and energy worrying about it, they say.

This notion of positivity is closely related to another major theme found within self-improvement: that of absolute personal responsibility. This is the idea that you, and you alone, are the author of your destiny and it is within your own power and control, regardless of circumstances, to make of life what you will. You should never blame others, or contingent circumstances for your failures: that is defeatist, negative and pessimistic, which are three qualities that seem to be anathema to the self-improvement ethos. Self-help gurus and personal developers empower their readers to take control of their lives and make no excuses for failure. In Ireland, this line of thought is represented by Bill Cullen, whose response to a complex and systematic failing of our economic system was to tell people to “get up earlier, work harder, find more leads, do more networking”; an attitude that precludes the possibility of a discussion about systemic inequality, mismanagement, or whatever caused such a dramatic change in our economic culture.

Being a non-conformist is also very important to the Personal Development process. They say that the majority of people, live monotonous, obedient, orthodox lives: get up, rush a highly-processed breakfast, commute to work, spend 8 hours half-assing a job you hate, home, eat a microwave dinner/takeaway as the news tells them what’s wrong with the world, watch some crappy TV shows, then go to bed. To live this life is to be dead. Personal-development offers a way out of the herd, an opportunity to be freed from this slave-like obedience to the norms of the masses. By following some steps readers can think for themselves and control their futures.

So far, this description of self-help and personal development may seem, even if you don’t buy into it, relatively benign. The advice, on the surface, seems well-intentioned and may even encourage people do something worthwhile. However, while it may seem honestly motivated, and, if not intellectually rigorous then at least harmless, there is something more disingenuous about the world of personal development than first meets the eye. It is based on a perception of reality that can lead to a life of self-obsessed illusion, phony friendships and frustration. Here is why.

Personal development plays on the idea that there is enough success, riches and fame for everyone, you just need the right get-up-and-go attitude. Given, however, that all Personal Development offers is a possible attitude-change (as in no specific hard-skills), it makes sense that they would articulate a narrative where attitude is all you need.  However, the idea that with a positive attitude and enough determination, you can achieve anything is just simply not true, nor is it helpful. This message, however, is more than an inaccurate cliché. It is a dangerous mantra to adopt, for it puts people on a path to inevitable frustration.

It does this by robbing the individual of the possibility of having any organic and genuine sense of positive feeling. Instead, it becomes your job, a burden: always be positive. You maintain positivity in the hopes that success will follow. That is, underlying this mind-set is a real feeling of hope; hope that it will “work”, that this positivity will pay off. And as this hope builds and the results don’t appear, it can become extremely difficult to know how to deal with failure.

Look at The X Factor. This program, in the guise of a search for talent, shows people that, to begin with, are overflowing with positivity, enthusiasm and belief. Yet, as soon as they get kicked off, or criticized, they collapse hysterically and scatter their dignity all over the air waves. They subscribe to the following line of reasoning: “I’ve wanted this for so long and I’ve worked really hard. Therefore, I deserve it.” ‘Desire’ becomes synonymous with ‘deserve’. But wanting something really bad, and trying to get it, is no guarantee that you are owed success. There is nothing wrong with, or to fear in, genuinely trying your best, while knowing that failure is a possibility and really not the end of the world.

This is one side of the positive thinking/personal responsibility picture. However, just as influential within Personal Development is a refusal to engage with anything or anyone that seems negative. I have read blogs that explicitly advise people to “only surround yourself with people who inspire you”. That is, avoid anyone, friends or family, who seems critical and/or negative of your desire to be all you can be. This is severely lacking in any kind of understanding of what a friend should be. It is, simply put, using others for your own gain, or as philosopher Immanuel Kant would put it, using people only as a means to an end. Surely a sense of humour, sincerity and kindness are valuable attributes in a friend, regardless of how inspiring or useful they are.

Interestingly, this anti-negative stance also doubles as a useful tool for disregarding critics and making it difficult to reject the teachings once you’ve made a commitment to them. In order to move past the superficial philosophy of Personal Development, you first need to examine and criticize it, but to do so would be to break the cardinal rule: be positive. This leads to a situation – that can be confirmed by going to any PD blog and scanning the comments – where bloggers become surrounded by fawning, sycophantic yay-sayers whose vocabulary is predominantly composed of flattering superlatives: awesome, kick-ass, amazing, inspiring, and so on. Surely it is better to surround yourself with critical and challenging people who have different perspectives than people who offer unconditional affirmation.

Many blogs strongly play to the idea that personal development is not for everyone. Here is a quote from The Art of Non-Conformity: “I should warn you now that this report is not for everyone.  In fact, it’s probably not for most people. Instead of writing for the general public, I spent about 35 hours writing these pages for a small minority of people interested in living life on their own terms”. He goes on to describe the “lonely road for those of us who choose to be remarkable. That path [of convention] is paved with safe lives, middle of the road monotony, and little chance of failure. But where’s the fun in being like everyone else?”

This kind of talk is nothing more than a marketing tool, designed to manipulate people by preying on their desire to seem different from, and smarter than, the ‘crowd’. It is exactly what ads for cars, runners, perfumes, aftershave, etc, do. Who wants to seem safe, mediocre, and unremarkable? Plus, do you think these bloggers will turn away subscribers if they become too main-stream? I doubt it, since they measure their success by how popular their blog is. It reminds me of Lyle Lanley, the Monorail salesman in The Simpsons, who says, in a last-ditch effort to dupe Springfield, “Aw no, it’s not for you, it’s more of a Shelbyville idea”. To which Mayor Quimby responds: “Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. You just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!”.

Being different for the sake of being different is as stupid as imitation for its own sake. Where your tastes lie with respect to the majority is certainly an interesting factor to take account of, but it should not form the basis for a decision. It is akin to strains of feminism that said it was ok to choose your own lifestyle, as long as that choice isn’t being a house-wife. Personal Development preaches about individual decision making and the pursuit of your own truth, but openly and explicitly vilifies the individual whose life’s journey happens to take the conventional path.

By creating a narrative of Us Vs Them, Personal Development fosters a divisive atmosphere: the free versus the enslaved. Again, things are just not that simple. There are many factors that go into why people end up where they are, not all of which are laziness and non-thinking. If someone gets into personal development and quits their 9-5, to travel the world, the very best of luck to you, but there is no need to insult millions of people who don’t make that choice while you do it by referring to them as “zombies”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with becoming a vegan or running a marathon, but these are just arbitrary decisions people make every day. Do a sky-dive, don’t do a sky dive. Drink alcohol, don’t drink alcohol. Learn a language, don’t learn a language. These are normal, natural choices, not life-defining, earth-shattering, momentous acts of courage.

Regardless of the criticisms I have given, however, Personal Development and Self Help remain extremely popular, with literally millions of followers. It is of course possible I just don’t get it and am missing out. But the question remains: why do so many people, from all different walks of life, buy into it?

Personal Development and Self Help offer a convenient, easy, and well-marketed answer to a very deep and genuine philosophical crisis human beings have been living through more or less since the Middle Ages; one that has grown ever more pressing with time. It is really an existentialist crisis that concerns the fundamental question: What should we do with our lives?

The psychologist and social theorist, Erich Fromm – in the tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre – calls this crisis the “fear of freedom”. Fromm argues that the history of modern Europe and America is defined by its effort to gain freedom from the political, economic and spiritual shackles that traditionally bound humans. Since the Renaissance, one tie after another was severed – humans had overthrown the domination of the Church and the domination of the absolutist monarchy state. In their place, the principles of economic liberalism, political democracy, and religious autonomy gave expression to the longing for freedom and brought mankind closer to its realization. This kind of abolition of external domination seemed to be a great victory for personal freedom.

However, while such freedoms resulted in the possibility for more individual expression and autonomy, they also broke the ties that gave people security and meaning; ties that gave people feelings of belonging and of being rooted somewhere: the membership of a primitive man with his clan, the medieval man with his church and so on. So while humanity, at least in Europe and America, has become freer in this sense, this freedom brings with it a new challenge: to orient and root oneself in the world, to find security and meaning without external authority. We now have choice: the choice to live life in whatever way we like. This is a daunting task we all face. And when we realize the size of the universe and of the strength of the forces that shape our world – the unpredictable markets, constant war, environmental disasters – it can lead to feelings of powerlessness, isolation and anxiety. Not to mention the feelings of isolation created by modern consumerism and advertising that, as Banksy put it, makes us feel “that all the fun is happening somewhere else.”

It is this sense of anxiety that Self-help and Personal Development movements exploit. In the face of such powerlessness and insignificance, they sell omnipotence and domination; complete control of your destiny. And if you disagree, or demand more than “7 steps to success” you are ostracised as a negative critic. Self help is popular because it manipulates this fear of freedom and does so with brightly coloured, user friendly blogs and a cheery enthusiastic and attractive smile. But rather than hoping to find answers in Personal Development, it should only be a starting place.

To ask questions about how to live life, to question whether you should be doing what you are doing, is indeed admirable. But to conclude that a positive attitude can solve all problems is naive and denies the possibility to enact change, when necessary, on your circumstances. Aristotle said:

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy and noble”.

The same goes for having a positive attitude, or any state of mind, for that matter: the skill in life is to know when and where they are appropriate.

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