Modern Self Help Classics

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Self help or motivational literature tends to hold up a mirror to the society that created it. Victorian sobriety and industry provided us with the robust self-reliance of the Samuel Smiles classic, Self-Help. The Depression age cave us the American archetype of the wandering salesman, making a sincere effort to know and understand others ( How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie). The optimism of revivified, post-war America yielded optimistic, motivational classics such as The Magic of Thinking Big , where the power of positive thinking perfectly complement America’;s manifest destiny of benevolent global hegemony.

In the 1980s, big goals and instant change were order of the day. This was perhaps the decade where life coaching went mainstream and figures such as Anthony Robbins emerged as motivational superstars. The genre continued to evolve over the next twenty years. The explosion of creative self help literature around the century’;s end saw a marked divergence between more professionally focused works and those that celebrated rapid accumulation of wealth. Now that the credit and property bubbles have burst, has a new self help literature emerging that suits these troubled times? A quick review of recent works suggest that we have found a new model.

The first dominant theme is creative liberation. Even during the affluence and spiraling property prices of the boom years, people felt that materialism did not satisfy and came to the conclusion that their most valuable commodity was not money, but quality time. This insight reached its logical apotheosis in The Four Hour Work Week , by Tim Ferriss, which adopted a revolutionary approach to the trials of modern working life – subvert it from within. Ferriss believed that personal mobility and freedom of self-actualization are preferred goals to corporate wage slavery. Workers, he argued, should not needlessly leave their precious jobs, but rather invent income streams that could have been outsourced and automated, enabling them to squeeze in "mini-retirements" during their prime years. The book touched a chord with the technologically produced adept and cosmopolitan Generation Y (not to mention more than a few dissatisfied mid-life Generation X road warriors).

The theme of creative liberty has been amplified and expanded by other writers such as John Williams, who superbly titled Screw Work, Let’;s Play takes the old saw of election versus job and urges readers to follow their muse. As enlightened companies like Google deliberately eliminate the barriers between official work and creative side projects, this fusion of work and play could well turn mainstream.

The second dominant theme of recent self help work is a new focus on simplicity. This is in part a necessary response to the hardships of the austerity age but also a realization that the fancy clutter of the boom years sapped everyone’;s time and energy for little reward. Information technology is a double edged sword in this regard; it has proliferated tasks and data and spawned an impossible multiplicity of choices. A resonant theme is that that computer processing power needs to be harnessed for good. Technology, at its best, should clarify and enable worthy goals.

One of the gems of this new era of order and minimalist living is The Power of Less by accused blogger and online entrepreneur Leo Babauta. In contrast to the presiding cultural meme of acquisition and relentless, restless speed, Babauta encourages us to focus on what we truly value. It is only through setting defined limits to our activities that we can extract deep value out of living and achieve more than we ever dreamed possible. This art of "haiku living" forces clarity through strict focus on the essential. De-cluttering is not merely a 5S-style imperative, but a holistic approach that can applied equally to commitments and energy sapping people. Through eating and driving slower, we can escape the pressure cooker of the general culture.

So this new crop of motivational literature offers a distinctly twenty-first century twist on the old challenge of living the Aristotelian "good life". Through the new arts of creative fulfillment, lifestyle re-design and minimalist living, authors are providing solutions tailor for these austere times. These writers offer immunity promise for a more fulfilling and balanced life in the changed landscape of the post-recessionary world.

(c) 2010 Andrew Golderslee. All rights reserved.