“Selp-help books don’t work!” – Svend Brinkmann.
Svend Brinkmann, a professor of psychology, has written what I hope will be—but fear won’t be—the last self-help book. Contrary to the intentions of these books, they rarely help anyone but the publisher and, sometimes, the writer. It’s good business, Professor Brinkmann would agree.
Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze is a paradoxical book. On the one hand, it’s billed as an “anti-self-help” book, while, on the other hand, it’s yet another self-help book. The author says, “The idea is that it will act as a kind of anti-self-help book, and inspire people to change the way they think about, and live, their own lives.” This description could fit any self-help book. Perhaps for this reason, he writes a few pages later, “Overall, the book should be read as a self-help book.” However, this one has a clear agenda: it tries to eliminate all other books in this genre.
In Stand Firm, Brinkmann presents seven steps to counteract the accelerating pace of contemporary culture and to find peace of mind. These steps are based on an easy-going reading of the Stoics and the philosophy of common sense. They are:
- Cut out navel-gazing.
- Focus on the negative in your life.
- Put on the “no hat.”
- Suppress your feelings.
- Sack your coach.
- Read a novel—not a self-help book or biography.
- Dwell on the past.
The first three steps are dualistic. Instead of looking inside ourselves, we should look outward. Instead of being positive all the time, we should cultivate our negativity. Instead of saying “yes” constantly, we should say “no” once in a while. It’s all about balance. Then, to emphasize this point, we are also encouraged to put a lid on our emotions—especially the more negative ones. Finally, we should just get rid of the coaches who tell us to look inside and be positive and authentic, and then we perhaps could read a novel, while we dwell on the past. Most novels, after all, deal with memories.
Thus, Professor Brinkmann encourages us to relax, that is, stand firm against the moralizing domain of change, movement, and development. “Mobility trumps stability in an accelerating culture,” he writes. Therefore, it has become difficult to put down roots or to achieve stability. How we then find balance, that is, know what is worth standing firm on and what is not, is probably the task that this professor finds most difficult to address. So, in a sense, he only helps the reader half of the way.
Stand Firm places itself in the continuation of the Frankfurter School and critical theory, with the main enemy identified as capitalism. This diagnosis of an improvement-obsessed culture is well-argued and solid, but it doesn’t add up to anything new. We can find more or less similar diagnoses in other self-help books or literature on mindfulness. However, Brinkmann’s errand isn’t so much a critique of capitalism as it is of positive thinking. His claim is that this pop psychology approach doesn’t lead to a richer life. On the contrary, what we need is a dose of negativity.
This particular fight against positive thinking is what makes Brinkmann’s book innovative, mainly because his critique of the self-improvement craze is formulated in the tone of those business consultants who push positive thinking. He uses their own vocabulary against them. This makes his ideas easier for the reader to follow because the vocabulary is familiar, but it also serves to keep the conceptual framework of the book rather simple (cf. the traditional self-help book).
Personally, I miss a deeper understanding of concepts such as self, time, character, and introspection. And, perhaps more importantly, as mentioned above, I’d like to read Brinkmann’s thoughts on what I should stand firm on in a metaphysical, changeable world. Yet, my frustrated interests stress that, like most self-help books, this advice is addressed to a privileged reader, who seems more bored with, and confused about, life rather than really suffering.
Let me clarify this point further. For instance, many people can’t just say “no” at work because they can’t afford to lose their income. Also, since Brinkmann refers to our duty to do good deeds, then when is it right to be tolerant and when is it right to express our disagreement with those who are intolerant? Imagine that we witness sexism or discrimination in our organization, what is our duty as good employees? What is our duty if we are also a father or mother and, therefore, also a primary supporter of our family?
Based on the examples in the book, the ideal reader doesn’t suffer financially. For example, we are encouraged to discipline ourselves by avoiding an extra glass of wine or desert, not cheating while playing golf, or taking the bus instead of our car. I recall a classic self-help book about a man who sold his Porsche . . . To continue, Brinkmann suggests that we should visit a museum once a month, as well as reading at least one novel per month. This tells us something about who he expects to read his book.
Still, I have respect for this author’s project. I think that Brinkmann shows courage in writing this self-help book disguised as an anti-self-help book. Also, more importantly, his work as an academic—a highly-respected professor at a good Danish university—give his words more weight. He legitimizes the idea that it’s okay to be negative and so on. He deserves a big round of applause for this undertaking. This book will without doubt help many people who are caught in our current performance society.
Yet, some other questions emerge: How can we know when to say no if we are encouraged not to reflect or engage in introspection (i.e., steps one and three)? Philosophical self-knowledge has nothing to do with the navel-gazing that he so rightly attacks, but this knowledge is needed to minimize self-deception. Also, how do we know what is our duty? What is right or even morally good in society? Morality is related to knowledge that changes over time. For example, people now rarely beat their children to educate them because this doesn’t cultivate caring and curious individuals. These norms are human artefacts that can be rejected. Similar, we might ask: How do we dwell on our past and write our story without at least a little self-reflection? Or, even more clearly, if we should avoid the cliché of being authentic, then how does this interact with Brinkmann’s ideas about creating a coherent character?
In most self-help books, we are often encouraged to locate a narrative thread in our life to develop a trustworthy character. These threads can be rather inventive ways to suit personal agendas. Personally, I doubt whether life isn’t more a zig-zag movement of becoming another, rather than staying predictable. In the end, this is a rather conservative book with elements of nostalgia, but perhaps this is needed.
I wonder, still, whether it’s sound advice to encourage people to be too polite to be honest if this violates their duty. I prefer to resist conformity by creating alternatives, whereas Brinkmann tends to come close to advocating passive nihilism. For instance, he writes, “People have to adapt to the world around them.” This sound like resignation, not acceptance. Furthermore, this advice sounds like the business consultant adage that, instead of following “best practices,” sell the “best fit.” This is also not without problems.
Is it a problem that this book is both against the wellness syndrome but also part of it? I’m not sure. What Brinkmann’s advice lacks in precision, might also gain it more popularity, and his message is needed. I fully support his critique of the self-help industry and the current “terror of positivity,” as Byung-Chul Han once called it.
Thus, despite these critical remarks, my questions actually show this book’s quality. Unlike other self-help books, this invites us to question and think. So, perhaps what it offers really is more anti-self-help than self-help. I do truly hope that this will be the last self-help book. I hope so because Brinkmann’s advice is far better than the majority in this genre.
Therefore, if you have a coach, then sack him or her. Do it, and do it now. Then, go to the library or local bookstore and get yourself a novel. Read. If you’re not convinced, then read Dr. Brinkmann’s book. Give it to a colleague and so forth. Then, perhaps one sunshiny day, the libraries and bookstores will be full of novels, essays, and poetry instead of . . .