Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helplessby Steve Salerno
Self-help: To millions of Americans it seems like a godsend. To many others it seems like a joke. But as investigative reporter Steve Salerno reveals in this groundbreaking book, it’s neither—in fact it’s much worse than a joke. Going deep inside the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (fittingly, the words form the acronym SHAM), Salerno offers the first serious exposé of this multibillion-dollar industry and the real damage it is doing—not just to its paying customers, but to all of American society.
Based on the author’s extensive reporting—and the inside look at the industry he got while working at a leading “lifestyle” publisher—SHAM shows how thinly credentialed “experts” now dispense advice on everything from mental health to relationships to diet to personal finance to business strategy. Americans spend upward of $8 billion every year on self-help programs and products. And those staggering financial costs are actually the least of our worries.
SHAM demonstrates how the self-help movement’s core philosophies have infected virtually every aspect of American life—the home, the workplace, the schools, and more. And Salerno exposes the downside of being uplifted, showing how the “empowering” message that dominates self-help today proves just as damaging as the blame-shifting rhetoric of self-help’s “Recovery” movement.
SHAM also reveals:
• How self-help gurus conduct extensive market research to reach the same customers over and over—without ever helping them
• The inside story on the most notorious gurus—from Dr. Phil to Dr. Laura, from Tony Robbins to John Gray
• How your company might be wasting money on motivational speakers, “executive coaches,” and other quick fixes that often hurt quality, productivity, and morale
• How the Recovery movement has eradicated notions of personal responsibility by labeling just about anything—from drug abuse to “sex addiction” to shoplifting—a dysfunction or disease
• How Americans blindly accept that twelve-step programs offer the only hope of treating addiction, when in fact these programs can do more harm than good
• How the self-help movement inspired the disastrous emphasis on self-esteem in our schools
• How self-help rhetoric has pushed people away from proven medical treatments by persuading them that they can cure themselves through sheer application of will
As Salerno shows, to describe self-help as a waste of time and money vastly understates its collateral damage. And with SHAM, the self-help industry has finally been called to account for the damage it has done.
Also available as an eBook
From the Hardcover edition.
“In an age of self-help, why are so many Americans helpless? Why do so many self-help gurus, from Dr. Phil on down, create followers rather than independent souls? Steve Salerno exposes the SHAM with ruthless honesty destined to make more than a few people angry.” —Dr. Michael Hurd, author of Effective Therapy and Grow Up America!
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
By Steve Salerno
Random HouseSteve Salerno
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From the Introduction.
For decades I have been tracking the self-help movement without fully realizing its place in the zeitgeist, even though I've written often about its component parts. My first book, in 1985, described the "mainstreaming" of veteran sales and motivational trainers like Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar, both of whom were then beginning to expand their brands; they were subtly turning their antennae away from hard-core salesmanship to the much airier patter of mass-market training, with its exponentially greater target audience. Their efforts signaled the beginning of what we now call "success training" or, in its more intensive, small-group settings, "life coaching."
During the late 1980s and 1990s I wrote separate magazine pieces about:
TONY ROBBINS. Today he's the Eighty Million Dollar Man (per year). Back at the beginning of his career, customers were paying as little as $50 apiece to learn how to "focus" enough to be able to walk over hot coals pain free (a bit of gimmickry that the debunker James Randi tells us has nothing to do with mental preparation and everything to do with the principles of heat conduction).
TOMMY LASORDA. By the mid-1990s the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager had become a huge draw on the banquet circuit, commanding at least $30,000 an hour for imparting such philosophical gems as "Ya gotta want it!"
THE PECOS RIVER LEARNING CENTER. At Pecos River, otherwise rational corporate citizens fully expected to buttress their self-confidence and negotiating skills by falling backward off walls and sliding down the side of a mountain on a tether.
PETER LOWE. In 1998 I covered one of the barnstorming impresario's weekend-long success-fests for the Wall Street Journal. I guesstimated the two-day take at $1.4 million, plus ancillaries. We'll get to the ancillaries in a moment.
In reporting these and other stories, I never quite recognized all those trees as a forest. I also watched, but didn't quite apprehend, as scholarship and complex thought fell to the wayside amid the influx of simple answers delivered via bullet points, as logic and common sense took a backseat to sheer enthusiasm and even something akin to mass hysteria.
What brought everything into focus for me was a career move of my own in mid-2000. For the ensuing sixteen months, I served as editor of the books program associated with Men's Health magazine, the glamour property in the vast better-living empire that is Rodale. In addition to publishing such magazines as Prevention, Organic Gardening, and Runner's World, Rodale had become the premier independent book publisher in the United States largely through its aggressive and ingenious mail-order books program. The company conceived, wrote, printed, and sold millions of self-help or other advice books each year. Thus, my experience there gave me a bird's-eye view of the inner workings of the self-help industry. Rodale's professed mission statement, as featured on its corporate Web site at the time of my arrival, was simple: "To show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better."
At considerable expense, Rodale undertook extensive market surveys, the results of which dictated each business unit's editorial decisions. In the case of self-help books specifically, the surveys identified the customers' worst fears and chronic problems, which we were then supposed to target in our editorial content. One piece of information to emerge from those market surveys stood out above all others and guided our entire approach: The most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months. In a way that finding should not have surprised me. People read what interests them; a devoted Civil War buff is going to buy every hot new book that comes out on the Civil War. Pet lovers read endlessly about pets.
But the Eighteen-Month Rule struck me as counterintuitive-and discomfiting-in a self-help setting. Here, the topic was not the Civil War or shih tzus; the topic was showing people "how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better." Many of our books proposed to solve, or at least ameliorate, a problem. If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us-at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again. At some point, people would make the suggested changes, and those changes would "take." I discovered that my cynicism was even built into the Rodale system, in the concept of repurposing-reusing chunks of our copyrighted material in product after product under different names, sometimes even by different authors.
Worse yet, our marketing meetings made clear that we counted on our faithful core of malcontents. (Another important lesson in self-help theology: SHAM's answer when its methods fail? You need more of it. You always need more of it.) One of my Rodale mentors illustrated the concept by citing our then all-time best-selling book, Sex: A Man's Guide. This individual theorized that the primary audience for Man's Guide did not consist of accomplished Casanovas determined to polish their already enviable bedroom skills. Our buyers were more likely to be losers at love-hapless fumblers for whom our books conjured a fantasy world in which they could imagine themselves as ladies' men, smoothly making use of the romantic approaches and sexual techniques we described. Failure and stagnation, thus, were central to our ongoing business model.
Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people. Put bluntly, he has a potent incentive to play his most loyal customers for suckers.
Yet it's even worse than that. Much of SHAM actively fans the fires of discontent, making people feel impaired or somehow deficient as a prelude to (supposedly) curing them. One striking example comes from no less an insider than Myrna Blyth, a former Ladies' Home Journal editor. In her 2004 book, Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness-and Liberalism-to the Women of America, Blyth repents for her own role in an industry that was supposed to help women grow but instead wreaked incalculable harm on the psyches of its devoted followers. What women's magazines mostly have done, argues Blyth, is create and implant worry, guilt, insecurity, inadequacy, and narcissism that did not exist in women before the magazines came along.
PAYING THE (PIED) PIPERS
The American love affair with self-help is unmistakable in the sheer size of the SHAM fiscal empire. Granted, the movement's total cash footprint defies down-to-the-penny measurement. There's just too much of it out there, perpetrated to an increasing degree by independent life coaches or poor-man's Tony Robbinses giving small-ticket motivational speeches at the local Ramada Inn. But just what we know for sure is staggering. According to Marketdata Enterprises, which has been putting a numerical face on major cultural trends since 1979, the market for self-improvement grew an astonishing 50 percent between 2000 and 2004. This substantially exceeds the already robust annual growth figures Marketdata forecast in 2000. Today, self-improvement in all its forms constitutes an $8.56 billion business, up from $5.7 billion in 2000. Marketdata now expects the industry to be perched at the $12 billion threshold by 2008.
Remember-this is only what we can document. And it does not include the broader social and political costs, which we'll discuss separately.
Between thirty-five hundred and four thousand new self-help books appeared in 2003, depending on whose figures you use and precisely how you define the genre. The higher figure represents more than double the number of new SHAM titles that debuted in 1998, when wide-eyed social commentators were remarking at self-help mania and what it signified about the decline of premillennial Western civilization. Together with evergreens like Codependent No More, Melody Beattie's seminal 1987 tract on overcoming self-destructive behaviors, these books accounted for about $650 million in sales, according to Simba Information, which tracks publishing trends.
Self-help was well represented on best-seller lists in 2004, anchored by a spate of musings from the Family McGraw (Dr. Phil and son Jay); Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life; Joel Osteen's spiritually tinged Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential; Greg Behrendt's cold shower for lovelorn women, He's Just Not That into You; and actualization demigod Stephen R. Covey's The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. The last is a sequel to Covey's blockbuster work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which remains a postmodern classic, as do Tony Robbins's various tomes about that giant who slumbers within you and the six dozen separate Chicken Soup books now in print. Stephen Covey, too, has a son, Sean, and Sean Covey has his very own best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Freshly minted guru-authors appear like clockwork each year.
They almost have to, if the demand is to be met. In fact, by 1983, so substantial were sales figures for books of this genre that the lofty New York Times Book Review, which for decades fought the good fight on behalf of books written by actual writers, threw in the towel and added another category, "Advice Books," to its distinguished best-seller list. In an accompanying announcement, Times editors explained that without this new category even the most compelling works of authentic nonfiction-memoirs, exposes, biographies, think pieces, and the like-might never appear on their own best-seller list. They were being swept aside by this massive wave of self-improvement. Ten years later, a study quoted in American Health magazine said that self-help addicts-and addict, evidence suggests, is the right word-continue to buy books "long after their shelves are stocked." Publishers Weekly put it this way in October 2004: "Self-help books are a Teflon category for many booksellers. No matter the economy or current events, the demand is constant."
Another cultural signpost: A fair percentage of these book-buying transactions take place at the five thousand New Age bookstores now spread throughout the United States. (Industry sources thought the New Age trend had peaked a few years ago, when the number of stores hit four thousand.) Thus it should come as no surprise that the fastest-growing self-help sectors are also the softest and least utilitarian. Sales of inspirational, spiritual, and relationship-oriented programs and materials constitute a third of overall SHAM dollar volume and are tracking upward. The more brass-tacks stuff-business and financial materials, tactical training-constitute 21 percent and are tracking down. Americans seem to think it's more important to get along than to get ahead.
For today's budding self-help star, the usual progression is to parlay one's pseudoliterary success into a thriving adjunct career on TV or radio, on the lecture circuit, or at those intensive multimedia seminars known to the industry as "total immersion experiences." According to Nationwide Speakers Bureau founder Marc Reede, whose specialty is booking engagements for sports celebrities, "personal-improvement experts" account for no small part of the 9,000 percent increase in membership in the National Speakers Association since 1975. Just the top dozen speakers grossed $303 million in 2003; their fees generally ran between $30,000 and $150,000 per speech. More than a decade after her ethereal book A Return to Love dominated best-seller lists, Marianne Williamson's personal appearances still sell out as quickly as Springsteen concerts. Mass-market single-day presentations by Tony Robbins must be held in basketball arenas and convention centers. He attracts upwards of ten thousand fans at $49 a head-still a bargain-basement price for salvation when compared to his weeklong Life Mastery seminar at $6,995. "You have to have something for all the market segments," Robbins once told me. "You can't ignore the folks who can only afford a quick dose of inspiration." By 1999, more than a decade of having something for all market segments had paid off big-time for Robbins; Business Week pegged his annual income at $80 million.
It was the lure of such lucre that sparked the mainstreaming phenomenon among Hopkins, Ziglar, and other training specialists from fields closely allied to sales and motivation. Ziglar, the author of arguably the most successful "crossover" book ever written, See You at the Top, now preaches to thousands of eager disciples at his sky's-the-limit tent revivals. (Herewith a free sample of the indispensable advice Ziglar offers to husbands: "Open your wife's car door for her." And, as an added bonus, a bit of all-purpose wisdom: "You have to be before you can do, and you have to do before you can have.") Suze Orman followed Ziglar's lead as well as his advice and soared to the top: Starting with a background in institutional finance, she mastered the art of talking about money in a way that sounded as if she was really talking about "something more meaningful." She then threw in a dollop of spirituality for good measure and became a touchstone for millions of women who'd always felt unwelcome at the financial party.
A truly hot SHAM artist may franchise himself. Relationships guru John Gray presides over just a handful of the estimated five hundred monthly "Mars and Venus" seminars that bear his imprimatur. The rest he entrusts to a cadre of handpicked stand-ins who can parrot his kitschy trademark material. And then there are the barnstormers, like the aforementioned Peter Lowe, who took the seminar industry to another level by packaging a number of speakers into themed motivational road shows. His evangelical tours teamed an improbable rotating cast of eclectic presenters, ranging from former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to actor Edward Asner to professional football coach Mike Shanahan. They also featured a formidable, at times almost overwhelming, menu of ancillary products.
Ah, the ancillaries.
Excerpted from Sham by Steve Salerno Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
For the past two decades, Steve Salerno has been a freelance feature writer, essayist, and investigative reporter, writing on business, sports, and politics, and their wider social ramifications. His articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Playboy, Reader’s Digest, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Good Housekeeping, and Sports Illustrated, among other publications. He has also served as editor in chief of American Legion magazine and as editor of the books program associated with Men’s Health magazine. In addition, Salerno has been a visiting professor of journalism and nonfiction writing at three colleges. An accomplished musician, he lives in Pennsylvania.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Very interesting book which well fulfills the author's stated purposes. Became repetitive towards the end and really dragged.
What this book is really about, if you look beyond the specifics (which are generally excellent and eye-opening), is the uniquely American penchant for denial and elevated self-appraisal. Salerno provides a fascinating look at the way in which we'd rather feel better about our problems than face up to them, and we'd rather pay people with no expertise enormous sums of money to tell us why we're allowed to remain in denial. An important book!
This is the most important book I have read in the last 5 years. I have read over 200 self-help books, and would have probably read another 200 had it not been for this book. The self-help movement has put wool over our eyes for too long, promising results just by positive thinking. Without the proper skills, positive thinking and affirmations will lead to nothing but delusions. After all, you wouldn't expect to run a mile under 4 minutes just by thinking positive. I am now cleaning out my library, getting rid of all the self-help books I have accumulated. This book is a must-read.
In taking on the addle-brained sloganism of the past fifty years in American pop psychology, the author shows clearly, compellingly, and with biting humor just where the self-help train has gone off the tracks. More important, he does it in studious journalistic fashion, following the money and connecting the dots. This was not the case with earlier examinations of self-help, which mostly played the topic for laughs or merely as a launching point for the author's own biases. I was particularly impressed with the book's scope, in that it reveals all the subtle ways in which self-help's teachings have bled over into society-at-large and its most important institutions. I also enjoyed the striking and original way it brackets various developments in self-help as sub-themes or sub-movements in their own right: e.g. 'sportsthink,' 'contrapreneurs,' and the rise of 'BADASSE' (Blame All Disappointments And Setbacks on Somebody Else).' But the most powerful and original aspect of the book is its searing critique of today's so-called Empowerment Movement, which actually chains people to unrealistic hopes and leads them to substitute a never-ending series of 'goals' for meaningful action. (The author also argues powerfully that Empowerment may have much to do with today's flagging commitment to marriage and other long-term undertakings.) There should be a way of getting this book into the hands of every Oprah viewer. And by the way, there's a lot of cool, juicy stuff on the leading figures in self-help. You may never see Dr. Phil quite the same way again. Simply outstanding.
Excellent book about how everyone and your grandma have jumped onto the self-help wagon. People with no expertise or actual education or training, and even scam artists themselves, have made mass amounts of money while still leaving the person who needs help left helpless.
Has the ability to speak. All dogs on the labrador islands can.
This book is further proof there is something for everyone. At the risk of sounding boorishly happy and self-actualized¿ if one chooses to relegate personal responsibility to external sources, and to eliminate the possibility of discovering the immense potential within oneself, then perhaps this book will provide ample justification for just such a chosen belief system.