Friday, January 18, 2008


Why are Americans so dysfunctional? You'd think with the thousands of books, radio show, and TV programs that try to teach us how to help ourselves become better people that eventually we would start to show some signs of progress. But where is the progress? In Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless Steve Salerno makes a very compelling case that the self help actualization movement, SHAM, is actually causing America to be more dysfunctional.
Think about this for a second. What do these people all have in common; Laura Schlesinger, Phil McGraw, Tony Robbins, and John Gray? Well for starters all four have written books on how to have happy marriages and they've condemned extra-marital affairs. All four are also guilty of the behaviors that they preach against. Salerno goes into extensive detail into every major player in this movement. Far from just being a series of ad hominem attacks, Salerno shows considerable evidence that these gurus have no desire to practice what they preach. They simply want to make themselves rich by pontificating their opinions to anybody who will listen. The multitude of other would be gurus are waiting for the Midas touch of SHAM endorsements in order to make it big; a mention or appearance with the career-make herself, Oprah.
Salerno's most damning evidence that SHAM is exactly that, a sham, comes from his own experience working in the publishing industry. He found research that determined the most likely person to buy a new book in this genre' is somebody who had bought a similar book in the last few months. This begs the question; if the previous book was so effective then why do they need another? And another? And another? This is truly an industry that depends on repeat customers. Advice, advice and more advice yet nobody ever gets healed.
I've never quite understood continuing to pay for a complete lack of results. Why do we accept a lack of result in some businesses and excuse it in others? If I took my truck into the shop because it didn't start and they took my money and gave it back and it still didn't start I'd pitch a fit to get my money back and find another shop. However, if somebody buys a book that "guarantees" a happy marriage, weight loss, or balanced chakras Americans seem to just keep going back to the same gurus, throwing money at them and in the end just getting further and further from the stated goals of the books they are buying. Why? I just don't understand.
We live in a world where people accept Jerry McCarthy's "mommy instinct" over overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccinations do not cause autism, Laura Schlesinger’s advice to stay close to your family even though her own mother was dead and decaying at home for weeks before Schlesinger even found out, Tony Robbins’ advice on how to have a happy marriage that was published while he was having an extra-marital affair and divorcing his wife, etc. etc. etc.
Personally I think that the whole concept of this genre' is based in selfishness. Most of the books are about "me". What do "I" deserve? What's wrong with "me". How can "I" fix this? This whole concept seems counter-intuitive to me. I usually feel better when I'm not so focused on myself. Next time you feel like you need a self-help book go out and do something for somebody else. Go give blood, volunteer to read to kids at a local elementary school, bake some cookies for the neighbors, buy lunch for a coworker, find a charity that you can spend a little time helping out. This is just my advice but it has worked well for me. Hey maybe I could get a book deal out of this.
This book is a bright spotlight that has lit up an industry that has been operating in relative shadows for far too long. It's about time that we started demanding results from this product. And if we don't get the promised results we should find somewhere else to get our advice.

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