Just before Christmas, this blog got an unexpected present – in terms of a spike of visitors – from topical DJ du jour, Chris Evans. It was a simple exercise in the power of social media: we’d reviewed Michael Heppell’s book, “Flip It”, and were top of Google’s search results if you looked for the book. One drivetime radio interview later, the world was beating a path to our door, not least as Amazon sold out of copies in the meantime. (And apologies to Mr Heppell for a review that was less exultant than many he has received: in summary, our reviewer – Matt – argued that third-party advice is a case of horses for courses, and Mr Heppell’s horse might not clear everyone’s hurdles. As the horse in question wasn’t intended to, we think this is fair comment: in its own terms, the book is no worse – and certainly far better – than many of its genre).

But it got me thinking about the whole self-help genre. Not working in the publishing industry, I don’t know if different genres have peak seasons, but it seems logical that the ‘New Year’ angst that many magazines encourage at this time of year might provoke a key sales period (new year = new leaf = opportunity for new you). What struck me as more interesting was the appetite for the genre. It’s not new: Samuel Smiles kick-started the genre 150 years ago with the simply titled Self Help, and the bandwagon has grown many additional carriages since then. Is there a link between the strength of sales of these types of book and a workplace – and social – culture where ‘failure’ is a powerful taboo? We increasingly live in a world where we are constantly encouraged to stretch ourselves, found business empires, have perfect skin and display impeccable social graces. In a world where always being ‘a winner’ is something we’re constantly bombarded with, are perfectly normal people being encouraged to feel inferior? And are authors reaping benefits for ‘services’ that might not always stand up to in-depth scrutiny?

Two episodes of media coverage in the last six months did make me stop and wonder. Last July, the BBC reported research at the University’s of New Brunswick and Waterloo that indicated self-help and positive thinking might actually do the least good to those who might, on the surface of things, need it most.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Writing in the journal, the researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem. “

More recently, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” has turned a sceptical eye on the positive thinking mantra from the perspective of an author on its receiving end while undergoing treatment for cancer. (From her Wikipedia profile, or her own website, it’s clear that – while a ‘radical’ in US terms – Ehrenreich has credentials both as a thinker and a writer: this isn’t just ‘taking a pop’). What she has taken offence at is the growing consensus that positive thinking is a cure-all, particularly – in her case – where this has been applied to a serious problem: facing up to breast cancer and gruelling treatment. To quote two passages where she confronts this tenet of faith in a recent extended interview with The Guardian:

The dogma, however, did not survive further research. In the May 2007 issue of Psychological Bulletin, James Coyne and two co-authors published the results of a systematic review of all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer. The idea was that psychotherapy, like a support group, should help the patient improve her mood and decrease her level of stress. But Coyne and his coauthors found the existing literature full of “endemic problems”. “If cancer patients want psychotherapy or to be in a support group, they should be given the opportunity to do so,” Coyne said in a summary of his research. “There can be lots of emotional and social benefits. But they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives.”

And, equally to confront widely held thinking:

One 2004 study even found, in complete contradiction to the tenets of positive thinking, that women who perceive more benefits from their cancer “tend to face a poorer quality of life – including worse mental functioning – compared with women who do not perceive benefits from their diagnoses.”

Of course, I’m not saying that every issue that we face in our lives is as challenging as a serious medical diagnosis. But the argument that just by being upbeat we can tackle the world and emerge smiling, healthy, happy and successful does seem a little “fairy tale”. Positive Thinking is the glass slipper that will transform into princes(ses) and land us our Prince Charming, it seems. No matter than in reality, most of us face more than just the two Ugly Sisters, however metaphorically. But, as Matt pointed out in our review of “Flip It”:

If your dilemmas are deeper-rooted or require more detailed treatment, you are more likely to find direction, support and encouragement in a more specialised solution.”

A more recent media interview – on BBC Breakfast with Scott Solder, co-author of “You Need This Book To Get What You Want” – gave me a lot more food for though. (Mr Solder is interviewed at midnight tonight  – 12 January 2010 – on Radio Five Live, if you’ve been reading here and fancy posing a question or two, by the way …). A former BBC journalist and Programme Director at Chrysalis Radio, and more latterly a consultant in communication psychology and a Licensed instructor in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, he received a politely jaundiced approach from his interviewees.

(I’ve not read the book, as it was only published last week, but tweets that include “#omgfacts you don’t need VIAGRA for better erections – use SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY techniques”, “#omgfacts fancy someone from afar? Use body language to GET THEM TO LIKE YOU” and “#omgfacts self-talk techniques to BE BETTER IN BED” must surely raise a few questions about the targeted demographics in the book’s marketing strategy? Given the emphasis on the phrase on ‘self help without the cheese’ in the other marketing activities, I hope the book gives an updated definition of dairy products, as I’m obviously shopping at a very outdated deli. Hats off to the authors for approaching self-help with humour, although I’m English enough to wonder if the laugh might not ultimately deliver more benefit than the advice.)

Book aside, it was one of the interview responses that caught my attention.

Interviewer: When did we start to need advice from others. I mean advice used to be given by people you knew, your family. When did all that change? When did we seek advice of people we didn’t know to tell us how to run our lives?

Solder: I think we’ve always done that in certain forms. Over the years, people have always sought third-party advice. I think as the centuries have passed, they’ve become different. I mean, way back when, people lived by religious books, for example, that gave them a code. I think as society has become more modern, perhaps more secular and perhaps more divided, in terms of how people sort out their value systems, people can make decisions for themselves a bit more and .. you know .. I think to be able to refer to something which can be completely dispassionate and neutral is always a useful way of working out where you should go.”

Which left me worrying that we’re moving into a culture where those that know us – our friends and our colleagues – are no longer places we turn for informed, honest opinions and nudges in helpful directions: we’ve moved beyond not just shared codes of values or morality, but beyond valuing the input of people we share parts of our lives with. That we’re leaving people with concerns about their lives to ‘self-medicate’ using books – however knowledgeable, skilful or genuine the authors – that are written not to address our individual issues, but for as broad an audience as possible. (Patients self-diagnosing from medical dictionaries – and more latterly the Internet – is already a major concern for GPs and health practitioners: extending the approach to our emotional and psychological lives doesn’t seem to me to be an automatically healthier option.) Which must surely be hovering close to horoscope writing? (“Transits in the workplace may trigger contradictory motions in Uranus. Call our advice line for three useful tips …”).

Horses for courses at the end of the day, but might we not pay some attention to the design of the course? Think about what might make it a little more horse friendly, for example? Take steps to make sure the stable lads and lasses are not only properly qualified, but get to know the horses personally, so the ‘treatment’ is a little more tailored? Being aware of ourselves – including those aspects we might address – is a critical stage in tackling our issues, but there may be times when diagnosis and treatment should come from someone at least personally, if not professionally, closer to us than a publishing house.

Not to pour scorn on the genre’s authors, but to provide truly helpful inputs – especially at a senior level – requires more than just motivational talent: it takes qualification and practice as a coach and/or psychologist, and experience of operating in the environment of the coachee, and the ability to form relationships that support their development – as we argued in earlier posts here, Executive Coaching: Why – and why not?, Pulling Punches – the non-directive approach to Executive Coaching, and (when it comes to providing development feedback sensitively and skilfully) Communicating, not broadcasting: closing the loop on feedback, as well as in our whole approach to Executive Coaching (see our website).

If what you need is a fillip (or greater sexual prowess or getting served at bars quicker – but do try not to confuse the two), your friends are busy and your colleagues are unresponsive, then by all means try a book – but bear in mind that most of us can’t resolve our own dilemmas, and it may take more than a bestseller to cure what ails you.

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