The dangerous power of self ‘help’ books
From hustle culture to toxic productivity, there’s a very real dark side to all those self improvement books
The self improvement industry is seeing annual growth of 6%, with an expected value of over $13 billion by 2022. As well as coaching and speakers, much of this spend is on self help books and audiobooks. This growth is being driven primarily by millennials, who are spending twice as much on self improvement than the generation preceding them.
We’ve become obsessed with self growth and the optimisation of our lives. YouTube is filled with 5AM morning routine videos, showing us the best habits to have a productive morning, from meditation to journaling to apple cider vinegar concoctions. ‘Hustle culture’ has made work-life balance a thing of the past, with influencers sharing their productivity hacks and lengthy work days. And self help books are filling our shelves, promising to teach us the secrets so that we can develop a perfectly productive life too.
“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” — Elon Musk
Tim Ferris’ The 4-Hour Work Week is one of the first self improvement books I indulged in. Whilst there may be some useful nuggets in the book, it rests on the core premise that the way to improve your life and productivity is to fully automate your work, including outsourcing everything to low-paid virtual assistants. Not only does this seem unethical, it’s also simply inaccessible to most working people. I’m not sure my manager would be impressed if I told them I’d spent our marketing budget outsourcing my work to China…
And yet, The 4-Hour Work Week has sold over 2 million copies worldwide, spend 4 years on the New York Times bestseller list, and has been translated into over 40 languages. Google the book, and you’ll find countless reviews of how the book ‘changed my life’.
A productivity and self improvement book released very recently is Grace Beverley’s Working Hard or Hardly Working which, as the name suggests, is filled with Grace’s personal productivity hacks to get as much work done as possible in the least time possible — “a productivity blueprint for a new generation”. Grace is a 23 year old CEO of two companies (Tala and Shreddy), both developed out of her existing audience as a fitness Instagram influencer and YouTuber originally under the name ‘GraceFitUK’.
Grace is the epitome of a dangerous productivity influencer. Browse her Instagram and you’ll regularly see her posting about working late nights and through the weekend. Hustle culture demands that we see this as a positive, that we are motivated by seeing how hard these successful, young influencers are working, and that we bring this into our own lives too. We watch Grace’s feed, and we feel that our own life is lacking. We switch off our laptops at 4.30pm, when Grace is just getting started with her evening of work.
And the solution that we’re sold? Buy Grace’s book, learn all her secrets, and you’ll become just as successful, rich, and motivated as she is.
In exposing this, we get to the core of the self improvement industry. Because it is just that: a profit-driven industry.
Self help books are built on the assumption that their readers are lacking, lazy, and unproductive. They sell us solutions to become less deficient as humans. If that solution doesn’t work? Don’t worry, there are thousands of other books and courses out there that will work. Meanwhile, the reader is left feeling that we’ll never measure up; that our routine and working life will never be as good as the author’s.
Even reading itself becomes a form of productivity. I know I feel guilt if I choose to read for enjoyment, choosing a work of fiction over a self improvement or educational non-fiction book.
Self help books promote personal improvement at the cost of wellbeing. They teach us to overwork, and we wonder why burnout is so common.
Self help books promote personal improvement and productivity growth at the cost of our wellbeing.
Why is productivity even the goal?
We value productivity because we live in a capitalist, growth-focused society. The system drives us to become more and more productive, because this boosts the economy. It’s impossible to find more time in the day, so instead we are taught ways to get more done within those same hours. If we don’t live up to that high standard, we’re lazy.
Social psychologist Dr Devon Price has argued that this capitalist belief system is to blame for our feelings of burnout, inadequacy, and dread of work, in what he calls the ‘laziness lie’. He argues that we have been conditioned to believe that: our worth is in our productivity, there is always more we could be doing, and we can’t trust our own feelings around our limits of work. We’ve internalised this logic en masse, and today’s world of social media and influencers is only worsening and deepening these beliefs.
The ‘laziness lie’: our worth is in our productivity, there is always more we could be doing, and we can’t trust our own feelings around our limits of work.
But we aren’t lazy, and we don’t need to fill every hour of our day with being productive. There’s more to life than work, and there’s more to reading than self improvement and productivity.