Self-help craze : why it doesn’t help


Richard Moore


Me, Inc. 

    In her new book, sociologist Micki McGee explains why the
    only Americans helped by self-help books might be the
    authors who write self-help books.

By Dan Brillman 
Updated: 7:22 p.m. ET Oct. 26, 2005 

Oct. 26, 2005 - At least two of the more than 4,500
"self-help" titles listed on claim to be "last
self-help book you'll ever need."  But in truth, the
appetite for advice seems insatiable. The number of
self-help books (including diet and fitness titles) in
print has more than doubled since 1972 and the genre has
expanded into TV with a boom in reality shows that promise
body, mind or family makeovers.  Indeed, the industry
might even be circling back on itself with mocking advice
like: "Throttle your inner child" or  "Shut Up, Stop
Whining, and Get a Life." 

Sociologist Micki McGee says that the modern self-help
explosion mirrors an increasingly unstable work and
political environment. In her recently-released book,
"Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life" (
Oxford ), McGee tracks and defines our obsession with
self-improvement-and why it has less to do with being
self-absorbed than with belabored workers that feel they
must constantly re-invent themselves to survive in a
competitive job market. According to McGee, fixing what
ails us as a society is not "something that we can do by
organizing a more hectic schedule or getting the most
recent BlackBerry."

McGee spoke to NEWSWEEK's Dan Brillman about why self-help
is so addictive and what she believes are better solutions
to the dilemmas of modern life. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why don't self-help books help?

Micki McGee: Self-help books propose individual solutions
to problems that are social, economic and systemic in
nature. So, while one can make changes or adjustments in
one's individual life, as these books all advocate, if the
larger social structures are operating against one's own
individual efforts, you will be at best swimming upstream
in making changes in your own life. That's essentially the

You use the phrase "the belabored self." What does that

People are belabored because there have been changes in
the labor market that are fairly significant. There's no
longer lifetime employment for people in really any
arena.  No longer even long-term jobs. [People] have to
constantly be looking for the next job, in most cases. So
many people operate now as free agents. You have to
constantly be inventing and re-inventing yourself, trying
to remain marketable in a rapidly changing economy and an
increasingly competitive context. The self-help industry
capitalizes on this and also attempts to meet the needs of
people who are facing really a very challenging historical

Do you think our culture drums into us the notion of
constant self-dissatisfaction?

It's been observed for a long time that America is a
nation of "strivers"-a people who are bent on the
invention and re-invention of self. It's one of the
marvelous things about the American tradition-[that] you
can work hard, study hard and get ahead. So, certainly
that's part of our ethos, if such a thing exists. Benjamin
Franklin was one of our original, and most popular
self-help writers.

Are there any self-help books you value or take something

There are bits of advice to be taken from many of these
books that are helpful. The problem is that as a genre
[the books] lead people to believe that they can
individually solve their problems by addressing one aspect
of their life or another, or getting a new Palm Pilot, or
learning to say no, or whatever it happens to be. It's not
that easy.

The thing about self-improvement literature that's very
appealing is that people like to feel that they can take
charge. And in fact, feeling like you have some control
over various aspects of your life is enormously inspiring.
But there are things that are outside your control.
Assuming that everything is in the individual's control is
one of the great fallacies of self-help literature. It's
in every book: "You are in charge of everything in your
life." Except for the 12-step books where God is in charge
of them.

So it's either yourself or God?

[Laughs. ] That's right. That's very interesting. After
[Hurricane] Katrina, Rick Warren and Dr. Phil were guests
on Larry King. We have America's favorite psychologist and
America's favorite pastor on how to cope with Katrina.
Warren's answer was you can't count on anything-you have
to put your faith in Jesus Christ. He's skipping over the
idea that people help each other. What about community? On
the other hand, his organization does build community.

How are TV makeover shows emblematic of the self-help

People are feeling the necessity to put their best foot
forward visually with a makeover phenomenon because they
need to look young and fresh in the labor market. Ageism
is a very real factor in the labor market. People won't
speak about it, but certainly it exists. So you see people
needing to sort of reinvent themselves and makeover
television is part of that.

So what is the solution?

The solution is the kinds of political organizing and
political activism that have been emerging over the past
five years. The answers lie in people coming together, and
addressing the fact that American families and American
working people need some kind of social safety net to be
rewoven. We have to work on that collectively. It's not
something that we can do by organizing a more hectic
schedule or getting the most recent device, so that we can
do more things at the same time. 

Do you think that can happen?

Absolutely. People are inventive, creative, resilient.
People will come together. Many people have predicted that
one of the consequences of Katrina is that there will be a
shift, and that the traditional safety net will be
mandated by the people of this country. People are up in
arms about what they've seen.  What we will need to make
that happen is the political will that matches the moral
will. [We've got to end] this constant requirement of
reinventing the self and becoming the "CEO of Me, Inc." 

Your book seems to become a self-help book towards the
end, ironically.

I hope so. It would be my fervent hope that it would
provide a [more] robust sort of help than what one finds
in self-help literature on the whole. I'm not against the
self-help industry. But the message that the industry
brings to people is just mistaken. And people so want help
and are so looking for ways to improve their lives to
create a better world for their families, and their
children, for their grandchildren, that it saddens me, and
sometimes it makes me angry to see that the answers that
are offered are so flimsy.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc. 

© 2005 



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