Has the Self-Help Industry Sold Us a Pup?

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English folklore tells of an old swindle.

A peasant goes to market to buy his family a piglet. Piglets are much cheaper than adult pigs, and they can be fed on scraps. Once grown and fattened, they are slaughtered to provide a source of food for the whole family through the lean winter months.

The peasant has saved every spare penny to buy this piglet. And when he gets to the market, he notices an extra special deal. There’s a trader selling piglets, already put into sacks, at a discount. With the money he saves from what the thought the piglet would cost, the peasant can buy himself a beer or two on his journey home.

Dizzy on beer, he’s in a jolly mood the whole walk home. In his hut, he opens the sack, his whole family gathered around to see this piglet, a small animal they will put all their hope in to help them survive the winter months.

The sack wiggles, the peasant shakes it, laughing with glee.

That is, until the piglet emerges. It’s not a piglet. It’s a scrawny little dog.

The children think it’s cute, but the peasant is furious. How will has family survive on this? They can’t eat a dog. He dare not even look his wife in the eye.

He’s been sold a pup.

I’ve read a lot of self-development and spiritual books and blogs in my life. Most of them were the equivalent of piglets for my soul, giving me mental and spiritual strength to sustain me and help me grow.

But some – and usually those that made the biggest claims about how they’d have a huge impact on my life – were pups.

The peasant in the folktale is unlikely to fall for the pup trick again. He’ll check what’s in the sack the next time he goes to buy a piglet.

As for me, I’m gradually learning to discern the values and claims embedded in self-help books. I’m learning to check what’s in the sack.

There’s an inherent conflict at the heart of the self-help industry. On the one hand, self-help books, blogs and videos promise they’ll help us change, for good. On the other hand, it’s in their interests to give us short bursts of success, but ultimately to make sure we fail so we keep coming back for more.

That’s why it’s so important to be discerning.

What does that mean in practice? It means to look beneath the surface of what self-help books promise. Ask yourself if it’s what you really want. Is what’s being promised really the kind of person you want to be?

For each person this process of discernment will be different.

For me, it means I’m skeptical of claims or promises such as the following:

  • unlimited financial wealth
  • set your own rules
  • work only four hours a week
  • take massive action
  • be remarkable

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Unlimited financial wealth. The first thing I notice is that this appeals to my desire for security and status. Those are both good things in themselves. But I can achieve both of these without unlimited wealth. What’s more, I’d prefer if the limited resources of the earth were shared fairly between all of its 7 billion inhabitants. I don’t like that some people go hungry so that others can be billionaires.

Set your own rules. I like to be my own boss. I work for myself, after all. But more than that, I like to be part of a bigger story. I like to be part of communities where people decide together what’s important. We live in an interdependent world. I want to be part of communities where we set the rules together.

Work a four hour week. I love going on vacation and not working for a full week! But ideally I want my work to be where I find meaning and purpose. I’d much rather I had a job I enjoy and feel good about than exploit others so my life can be a perpetual vacation.

Take massive action. I like the idea of massive action. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need to do – such as asking the love of your life if they will marry you. But I’ve found most times I try to take massive action are counter productive. I end up depleting my energy and failing. For me, it’s much better to take small steps.

Be remarkable. There’s nothing wrong with being remarkable! However, I think we are all remarkable, already. By telling us to “be remarkable”, self-help books can make us doubt the value of what we already have and who we already are. Additionally I think the ordinary, humble things of life, such as friends, family, good food and good conversation are what really matters.

When we’re pushed to pursue unrealistic dreams – as self-help books sometimes encourage us to do – we can fail to see the beauty we have already. Whatever is going on in your life right now, you have much you can treasure.

What have you found in the self-development movement that you’ve learned to treasure? Which aspects do you feel it’s important to be discerning about?

Photo by Simon Powell