By Parveen Chopra March 2005 Self-help books are the greatest success story of the 20th century. Why are they so popular? what do they teach? How is that reflected in the life of their creators? Also presenting three leading self-help gurus. ‘There should be more to life than this…’ How often do we find ourselves mumbling such sentiments to ourselves! Yes, there is much more to life, much more than most people can even imagine-assert self-help gurus and a burgeoning number of books on the subject. They also map out a whole array of attitudinal changes and steps we need to take to have more adventure, more success, more love, more self-mastery and self-knowledge. A common strain running through this philosophy is the refusal to reconcile to ‘small pleasures’ or ‘quiet desperation’ as the lot of humankind. Yes, there are difficulties and setbacks in life, but they can be overcome with hard work and determination. Self-help has became a kind of religion today, but the concept is age-old, enshrined, for example, in that old saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Reviewers of this kind of literature even say the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible qualify. But in its present form, self-help philosophy was developed in America, which enshrined the pursuit of happiness and equal opportunity in its Constitution. In 1841, American transcendentalist Emerson wrote Self-Reliance, outlining individual possibility. Soon after, Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help preached reliance on one’s own efforts, a never-say-die pursuit of a dream that did not wait on government help or any other kind of patronage. He took the greatest idea of the 19th century, ‘progress’, and applied it to individual life. The Twentieth century produced a glittering gallery of self-help authors and motivation gurus, who developed and refined approaches to the achievement of human goals. The emphasis varied, depending on the need of the day, ranging from wealth-creation earlier (Dale Carnegie Napolean Hills) to value creation later. In our times, the emphasis is equally on unearthing and developing one’s unique personality and leading a life of balance and fulfillment. There is no need to barter well-being for success, either. You can have it all, is the promise. The Cassandras who criticize this kind of thinking as selfish and mercenary are sought to be silenced by highlighting that ethics and win-win are key to real and sustained success. The reach and popularity of the self-help movement can be gauged from the number of titles on the subject in the market and that some of the all-time bestselling books in the last 100 years fall into this category. According to an estimate by Tom Butler-Bowdon, author of 50 Self-Help Classics, the books on his list alone have sold around 150 million copies. Some of the contemporary self-help gurus are as charismatic and influential as the spiritual gurus, heading huge corporations and businesses, selling products and coaching services for individuals and corporations, and commanding an appearance fee matching that of film stars and sports celebrities. Self-help gurus themselves are a prodigious example of what they preach. People like Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra are dynamos of energy, bursting with optimism, confidence, discipline and self-empowerment. One wonders if they have reached the pinnacle of human evolution, or the spiritual high point thought to be the preserve of enlightened masters. Undoubtedly, their systems have a spiritual dimension, to a greater or lesser degree. Deepak Chopra and the rising star Robin Sharma, both of Indian origin, even acknowledge the fact. Superficially though, self-help movement being outer-directed seems to run counter to spirituality which is inner-directed. But the two are not irreconcilable as in Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna: Yogastha kuru karmani (established in yoga, perform action). Invariably, these motivational leaders double as role models, their own success stories being inspirational. Dale Carnegie was a poor farm boy, who after stints as a salesman and actor, found his niche running YMCA courses for businessmen on better communication. Those courses became a book,How to Win Friends and Influence People, which has by now sold over 15million copies. Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), went from a log cabin and delinquency to become an adviser to President Roosevelt and friend of steel baron Andrew Carnegie. Anthony Robbins’s first job was to sell tickets for a popular motivational speaker. Tasting success-he could sell tickets to almost everyone-he soon started giving his own seminars and by the age of 22, he had already made his first million. So what is the special appeal of self-help literature? One, the post-behaviorism psychology and the human potential movement of the past few decades dinned into our heads that most of us use only a fraction of our potential. Enter the self-help book. It may incorporate methods derived from motivational and cognitive psychology. The titles say it all: Awaken the Giant Within, Unlimited Power (both by Anthony Robbins). Two, there is no need to reinvent the wheel-certainly not in today’s global village. My journey and my destination may be uniquely mine. But a general map of the terrain already exists for me to consult, provided by those who have seen it and successfully traversed it before me. Enter the self-help book. Three, with the breaking down of traditional information and support systems-the church, the community, the family-in our time, we are left to our own devices, even as life gets more complicated, throwing up newer challenges. Enter the self-help book. It builds on time-tested devices of positive thinking, affirmations, creative visualization, and concepts like ‘failure is feedback, not fate’, ‘the road to success is always under construction’, and ‘all wealth is first created in the minds of men’. Or it may specifically deal with change as in Who Moved My Cheese? An added advantage is that these books are written with contagious passion, punch and panache, exuding fireside informality and directness, making you feel you are being let in on a secret. Four, the wealth of choice available today is wonderful-imagine the time when people could only be hunter-gatherers, or farmers or soldiers–but opportunities still have to be seized. To make headway and make an impact in today’s world we need vision, emotional intelligence, ethics, a thirst for knowledge and ideas. The education system or family or the mass media, even your employer, are in no position to force-feed you such qualities. Enter the self-help book. A bold claim of self-help philosophy is that change need not take years or even months as in conventional therapy or counseling. The ability to profoundly transform our lives is within our grasp. All that it calls for is our willingness to make clear decisions and take dramatic action to follow through on them. However, lest it scare off beginners, a gentler Robin Sharma favors making small, incremental changes to go from where we are to where we want to be. Exhorting you to wake up, get up and get going to achieve your highest, self-help gurus are dismissive of the whines of a past of deprivation and abuse. Look at what Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for 27 years, and Oprah Winfrey, who suffered the worst in childhood, have made of their lives, they point out. Going further, the zealous ones thunder that not actualizing your unique self and potential is a betrayal against yourself, society, and the Universe. Inspired to do something about it now?
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