Book cover art for SHAM
Steve Salerno

The Self Help and Actualisation Movement'—nicknamed SHAM by the author—is the main target of this book. Although he starts with an interesting assessment of the phenomenon and explores the various ways in which it has entered into and influenced society, he goes off the rails a bit later on. The second part of the book finds him walking down a path that feels mostly like his own personal opinion, which quickly becomes less interesting than some of the bigger questions he could have asked. It's also now quite dated being almost 20 years old. Still, it's useful for its criticism of self-help more widely.

'Self-help is an enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnose in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that have never been shown to work.' (Page 2)

Victimisation Vs Empowerment

Salerno argues there are two camps in the self help movement:

Victimisation: we are all living in a fundamentally hostile environment, victims to a cruel world and the cruel people living in it. We are helpless fo this effect and suffer for it. An assumption that there is something wrong with you that needs fixing; in steps the self help author.

Empowerment: sheer aspirational self worth and mindset will win out against skills and talents, you can do and be whatever you want if you simply put your mind to it and try hard enough. Here, you are instead omnipotent, the sovereign master of your fate.

Mainstream Uptake

Zig Ziglar was originally a sales trainer who happened to be greatly motivational to his classes. More and more he realised that he could do more with a wider audience, expanding out into more generic motivational content.

People keep buying self help books. Shouldn't the improvements... take? Shouldn't we stop needing to buy them after a while? The human condition cannot have changed so much that we need such an enormous volume of this literature?

'Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help has a compelling interest in not helping people. Put bluntly, the guru has a potent incentive to play his most loyal customers for suckers.' (Page 7)

'What has America gotten in return for its $8.56 billion investment? The answer: There is no way of knowing. So much money, so few documented results. Yes, SHAM gurus have no trouble producing the obligatory testimonial letters, the heartrending anecdotal stories of women who found  the courage to leave abusive men or men who found the courage to face up to the demons within. But in any meaningful empirical sense, there is almost no evidence—at all—for the utility of self-help, either in theory or in practice. There's only one group of people we can prove benefit from the books: the authors themselves.' (Page 11)

Benjamin Franklin was arguably the first self help author with his 'Poor Richard's Almanack', filled with his advice on how to lead a better life.

'Publishers Weekly put it this in October 2004: "Self-help books are a Teflon category for way many booksellers. No matter the economy or current events, the demand is constant."' (Page 9)

'It is an $8.56 billion social crusade about nothing. It is a religion whose clerics get very, very rich by stating the obvious in a laughably pontifical fashion.' (Page 16)

All this is to say, if self help and actualisation actually work, why is everyone so screwed up? Is it actually doing the hurting? Is it creating a generation of people who believe they are both complete victims and fully empowered god-like beings who can change the world with their minds... at the same time?

'Therein lies the beauty of it all, from the guru's point of view. If SHAM doesn't transform your life, it's not because the program is ineffective. It's because you're unworthy.' (Page 40)

False Profits

'If motivation were a religion, Tony Robbins would almost certainly be its pope.' (Page 77)

Oprah Winfrey is the great legitimiser of many gurus. An appearance on her TV show was (and still is) a surefire guarantee of success and legitimacy.

Dr Phil made his break from courtroom training when he helped Oprah through a trial, finding his way onto her show and afterwards becoming a wildly popular TV host himself.

Tony Robbins (at the time of publication in 2003) was reported to make about $80M a year. One of things that helped him become so popular was his infamous 'fire walk' where attendees would walk across hot coals and receive no burns through the power of their own mindsets. This has since been entirely debunked; it's a question of conduction, not courage.

'"Fire walking works, but not for any reasons related to spiritualism or metaphysics. It's the physics of the thing, having to do with heat conduction and transfer." Undeterred, Robbins to this day kicks off some of his ultra-high-tech seminars with this ultra-low-tech mood-setter. "It's really about getting people's attention," he once told me. "The fire walk really embodies the whole of what we try to achieve with mental focus."' (Page 80)

Robbins also popularised NLP or 'neurolinguistic programming'. This is also an essentially made up model of thought, with no scientific basis, where you don't experience failures, you just get results. Don't like the results you're getting? Change your behaviours. What the NLP movement forgets to mention is that its two founders had an enormous falling out and nobody in particular owns or leads the movement today, it's fractured. Presumably they couldn't use NLP to resolve their conflict.

'Robbins uses science as if it existed solely for his convenience in making the points he wants to make. He'll offer up blithe correlations between technology and disease or caffeine and breast cancer, as if they were unimpeachable medical truths.' (Page 82)

In 1995, Tony Robbins settled a case with the FTC where he had essentially charged people anywhere between $50-90k to sit in a room and watch videos of him delivering his techniques.

All this is to say that Self Help gurus talk a good game but depend on the repeat business of their customers to make the money they do. This means they need people to be enamoured of their personalities.

'"The people who are there, the ones who made a sizeable investment to go, they're going to be excited and get into it. But when you're talking about the people who don't go, well, it's hard to say how they feel."—Niurka Turner, a former salesperson for Tony Robbins Enterprises, explaining why people who attend Robbins's seminars probably have more faith in his methods than those who don't.' (Page 75)

Salerno also mentions that Robbins had a tight relationship with the top brass of infamous MLM, Amway. (Page 83)

Life Coaching—It's Definitely Not Therapy!

The supply for people to just 'talk about life' used to be low, but the demand very high. People wanted more than just therapy, or just financial planners, or just lawyers... they seemed to want to talk about wider things in their lives.

However, if demand is high, then all kinds of muck will flow into the market, which then means a whole host of bad life coaches selling their 'expertise'.

'Marketdata Enterprises estimates that twenty-five thousand "life coaches" of various stripes are now active in the United States, about ten thousand of them working in corporate America alone. The International Coach Federation (ICF), founded in 1992 as the National Association of Professional Coaches, claimed seven thousand members worldwide by 2004; that's up nearly 200 percent in just four years.'

'ICF is just one of several fraternal bodies that (very) loosely oversee this new SHAM specialty. Technically, no life coach is answerable to ICF or any other regulatory body. Of course, civilian penalties may apply if coaches commit a provable fraud, but even that's unlikely to occur, since the nature of the promise is so intangible and, usually, nonspecific.' (Page 106)

There's a very uncertain boundary between coaching and psychiatry. Where do you draw the line? Coaching becomes an acceptable form of therapy, or even just talking about feelings, that you can talk about in wider company.

Virtually anyone—anyone!—can simply call themselves a life coach. And that's all they need to do. There's no need for qualifications, there's no regulation, there's no rules. It's an incredibly gray area.

Most coaching association websites have links that help you to either find a coach or become a coach: 'Imagine consulting a site for medical help and being greeted by the offer "Would you like to find a doctor...or become a doctor?"' (Page 114)

You Are All Diseased

Helpful to be able to paint most people as needing some sort of help, because then they need the help you are selling. Don't think there's anything wrong with you? You're in denial.

'Does it sound cynical to note that the more classes of people one can paint as dysfunctional, the broader the market for the antidysfunction product or "belief system" one is selling?' (Page 135)

'In sum, Victimization and Recovery have relentlessly encouraged ordinary people with ordinary lives to conceive of themselves as victims of some lifelong ailment that, even during the best of times, lurks just beneath the surface, waiting to undo them.' (Page 141)

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