Self-help authors, motivational speakers and other modern day snake oil salesmen.

Share this article

Type ‘self-help book’ into Google search and 640,000,000 results pop up. Compare that to that timeless classic, the Bible, which garners 407,000,000 results, or the Quran at 206,000,000 results. With the major difference that you pay for the ‘wisdoms’ espoused in self-help books as opposed to Bibles and other religious tomes which are often distributed free of charge. Makes you think how the spiritual and ethical considerations in a work like the Bible, spanning almost 800,000 words and with a longevity of 2000 years, compare to the plethora of self-help and motivational literature out there.
A New King James paperback version of the Bible sells for $2.63 on Amazon, while a Kindle version can be ordered for free. In comparison, so-called leadership guru, Robin Sharma‘s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari costs over $10 in paperback and $11.68 in Kindle e-book format. This is the guy who coined phrases like “you are born awesome”; “Leadership is not about a title, it’s about your results” and “If you don’t act on life, life will act on you”. Wow, really? Get out of here.
On his homepage he boasts about some of his clients – “the best companies on the planet” :
Monopolistic companies like Starbucks (read our article: The great coffee debate), and Microsoft. Loss making companies like Panasonic – Panasonic forecast a $9.6 billion annual net loss in 2012. Another client, The Royal Bank of Scotland, was part of the 2008 UK bank rescue package, with 82 percent of the bank’s shares now owned by the UK government (at the tax payer’s expense of course). Seems like if you want to run an ethical or profitable business Sharma may not be the go-to-guy after all.

Then of course there is the long time king of self-help authors and motivational speakers, Tony Robbins. If his scary Klingon inspired countenance does not impress you, then maybe his $480 million net worth will. Ole Tony has been in the self-help racket for over three decades, starting with promoting seminars for Jim Rohn, another well known American motivational speaker. Tony’s missing in action academic qualifications have not prevented him from proclaiming himself an expert on all matters sentient, and probably a few non-sentient ones as well. If you believe the biographical blurb on Robbins’s website he is THE expert on everything: motivation, personal achievement, relationships, health, fitness, time and life management, careers, money, you name it. Maybe Tony should be God, his products just cost a bit more.
He mentions that he has ‘met with, consulted, or advised international leaders including Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa.’ Princess Diana was an international leader? Except for the puerile name dropping, all but three of the aforementioned are dead and not likely to confirm any endorsements of magical Tony’s self-help elixir.
Also on Tony’s list of ‘consulted ones’ are three US presidents, including Bill Clinton and George Bush. They sure did take his advice and took the US national debt and foreign invasions to the ‘next level’.
Tony has also had a few run ins with the law:
In 1995 Robbins Research International paid $221,260 in consumer redress as part of a settlement agreement with the US Federal Trade Commission, after being charged with misrepresentation of potential earnings to franchise investors.
In 1998 Robbins was ordered to pay financial seminar guru Wade Cook $650,900 in damages after being sued by Cook for copyright infringement and plagiarism.

Deepak Chopra is probably the world’s most prolific holistic health/New Age guru, with over 70 titles under his belt and over 20 million copies sold worldwide. A multitude of books and his Chopra Centre for Well Being has delivered a tidy nest egg of $80 million at last count. Our friend Chopra has been widely criticised for what many perceive as pseudo-science in his teachings, especially his nonsensical references to quantum physics as part of the healing process. To such an extent that in 1998, Chopra was awarded the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in physics for “his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness”. In a 2007 interview with evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, Chopra admitted that he used the term ‘quantum theory’ as a metaphor and that his use of the term had very little to do with actual quantum physics. No shit Sherlock.

Eckart Tolle, has been called America’s most popular spiritual author with two best sellers that sold an estimated 8 million copies by 2009. According to him he experienced a life-changing epiphany at the age of 29 after having suffered from long periods of suicidal depression. Overnight his post-pubescent angst was replaced by a sense of peace. He dropped out of his doctoral studies at Cambridge (a place that would induce suicidal depression in most people) and for a period of almost two years he spent much of his time sitting, “in a state of deep bliss,” on park benches, “watching the world go by.” As you do.
A major reason for the success of his books was their endorsement by Oprah Winfrey – that paragon of modern emotivism.

Another Oprah boosted product was the 2006 self-help book and film, The Secret. A syncretic mish mash of classic books and modern-day teachings, it is mostly based on the law of attraction and claims that positive thinking can create life-changing results, such as increased wealth, health and happiness. After being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show the book sold over 19 million copies and together with the film raked in $300 million. Author, Rhonda Byrne’s philosophy is that believing will allow you to achieve your wishes and dreams. Well, my wish is that bullshit artists like Byrne should vanish from the planet, and I really, really believe in that.
Catherine Bennett, of the London-based Guardian newspaper called the film a “moronic hymn to greed and selfishness” and that it “nastily suggests that victims of catastrophe are the authors of their misfortunes”.
Add Byrne’s background as a reality TV producer, and an aggressive marketing campaign, using tease advertising and viral marketing techniques, to Oprah’s breathless endorsement and you have a money making honey trap for all the emotionally/financially/health disenfranchised out there.

On a personal note I have had the distinct displeasure of being subjected to two (ob)noxious inspirational/motivational speakers two years running while I was working for an international travel company. As a world wise, and slightly cynical employee I was down with the fact that any company has its brain washing corporate culture to uphold, so you had to expect a certain amount of masturbatory doodoo at company events. These two jokers however, were and still are in a class of their own. My first introduction to motivational purgatory was at the company’s international shindig in Dublin. Our speaker? The inimitable, Bob Geldof, he of Band Aid fame, and apparently he did something before that, which made him semi well known. This is what I saw and heard: a gnome like creature in a fashionably wrinkled cotton suit hopped onto stage and proceeded to scream in a reedy patois:’fuck, cunt, Band Aid, Me, I, fuck, cunt.’ I was blown away. Enough said. Motivational purgatory number two came courtesy of the same company’s international conference, this time in Hawaii. We were regaled by one Lance Armstrong, on how cool it is to win many, many cycling thingies in France and how he overcame testicular cancer. All very motivational, especially if you happened to notice all the males in the audience surreptitiously feeling up their nut sacks. What pissed me off was not the fact that I was being addressed by a guy with one testicle, no, it was his self-congratulatory attitude and total lack of humility and/or self-insight that got my goat. After listening to saint Lance’s sermon we were all presented with Livestrong armbands, a handy reminder of how cool a guy he is. Well, now we all know that Lance has been a naughty boy, what with all the juicing and lying and stuff. So just from me: I had to sit through 90 minutes of your self praising bullshit with a massive hangover from the night before. Fuck you Lance.

Although the longing for advice and guidelines have been part of the human condition since time immemorial, self-help and motivation as a highly profitable commercial industry has only come into its own over the past 150 years or so.
Samuel Smiles published the first overtly focused self-help book in 1859, entitled … Self-Help. It became an instant phenomenon, outselling Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and clocking up a quarter of a million sales in Smiles’s lifetime.
Dale Carnegie‘s How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936, remains one of the top selling self-help books ever published – over 15 million copies by 2008. Mr Carnegie is currently number 4 on Amazon’s author list for self-help books, almost 60 years after he said adieu to all the friends he won and the people he influenced.

Things really started kicking off with Thomas A. Harris’s 1967 smash hit I’m OK—You’re OK. Steve Salerno in his book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless calls it the start of a revolution in the self-help industry: the rise of the guru, the transformation from simple advice giver to cultural and motivational soothsayer.
Salerno refers to Harris’s view that the average person is damaged early in childhood and walks around thereafter in a paranoid, self-pitying state. He argues that: “The melancholic view of people and personality set forth in I’m OK—You’re OK succinctly captured the sense of Victimization that dominated self-help—and, to no small degree, American culture—for the next quarter century.” So basically everyone got fucked up as a kid and it’s not OK. Let’s blame someone or something till it is OK, OK?
That was the start of the culture of blame that is still today upheld by lazy, incompetent and corrupt governments, societies and individuals across the world.

According to Salerno the Empowerment school of gurus have become more dominant over the past two, three decades. The rules of Empowerment state that you are the sovereign master of your fate and could defeat any and all obstacles in life. Failure is due to a lack of desire and commitment in the individual. Yep, bit of a bummer for all the victims of the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide and Syrian civil war. Maybe they just didn’t desire life enough.
Micki McGee, a lecturer in sociology at Fordham University, New York, mentioned the following in her book, Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life: “It forecloses social context…the entire construct is based on a fiction that the individual is self-contained. It is a profound hubris. In fact, we exist within an environmental setting. Much of the self-help industry really contributes to the insecurity that it is trying to assuage…the idea that we are in control of our own lives offers up ideals which are simply unattainable. When we don’t achieve them there is a sense of dissatisfaction, desire and envy.”
All in all a handy cop out for the self-help authors and motivational ring masters – if their programmes don’t work then it is the individual that is to blame.
No wonder the self-help industry is huge with over $11 billion in revenue in the United States alone. But then again Americans have traditionally been happy to fund the indiscretions of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. A mentality that is enslaved to packaging rather than content.

The main question squats like a constipated elephant in the room – if self-help gurus are so wise, then why do we sit with a world in which economic disparity keeps on growing, the prevalence of mental illnesses are on the rise and health issues like obesity are at an all time high? Despite a massive growth in self-help literature and motivational seminars people seem more unhappy and dissatisfied than ever before. Is it because the market has been created? “There is something wrong with you, here’s how to fix it.” It is a version of the ‘Straw man’ principle – create a false deficiency and then sell a ‘product’ to alleviate or overcome it.
So why does the market for self-help and motivational products keep growing and growing? Packaging, blurbs and catchy titles create an artificial market amongst the neurotic, lonely and those filled with low self-esteem. Pseudo-science and the hi-jacking of gullible or desperate people’s emotions create ignorance of concrete facts.
It seems that we have become less accountable for figuring out the vagaries of our individual existences. Someone else must come up with the answers and if that doesn’t work we hop onto the next ready packaged pseudo-solution. Critical thought and discourse have been supplanted by the cults of one way communication and apathetic acceptance. With most of the world’s middle-class functionally illiterate there is a ready market for universal truths fluffed up in non-empirical balls of cotton candy to give self-help/motivational products a semblance of original substance. Add sophisticated modern marketing techniques, a bit of showmanship and you have the ground zero of rip offs.

Not all motivational speakers and self-help authors are shysters, some have a genuine desire to improve the lot of their fellow human beings. If we could stop wallowing in our own stupidity and laziness it would be easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.
One: follow the money – a multi-million dollar operation focused on the enrichment of a few does not have philanthropy as its number one priority. Heavy sales techniques and egotistical ownership of the ‘truth’ are dire warning signs. Lots of dodgy self promotion is not a sign of integrity!
Two: common sense is a beautiful thing – if it can’t be empirically proven, rather go to church, mosque or temple, it will work out cheaper in the end. If the author or speaker has a patchy educational, vocational or career record, how on earth can they advise you on any form of success? (By the way, selling shit loads of self-help books or seminars does not count as success in the real world, numb nuts)
Three: read! No, not another self-help book. Read some proper literature over a broad range of genres. It will enhance your critical thought processes and probably help you find the answers to your issues by yourself. If not, you will at the very least be well read and able to hold a conversation in civilised company. Classical literature stood the test of time for a reason. Promise yourself that you won’t touch another self-help/motivational product until you have read all the works of Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Baudelaire, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Dante, Miller, Faulkner, Hesse, Houellebecq, Sartre, Zola…oh, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Four: engage! Buy a crate of beer, a few bottles of wine or whiskey, invite some mates over and proceed to solve all the problems of mankind while you get shit faced to your favourite music blaring in the background. It is cathartic, loads of fun, and will definitely cost much less than some muppet’s inane ramblings about how your chakras are not aligned.
Five: memorise the following words and maybe look them up in the dictionary if you have never heard of them before: self-discipline, honesty, accountability, hard work, education, imagination, responsibility, integrity, communication, creativity. Done? Right, now you can get on with the rest of your life.

Maybe Rodriguez was right when he sang – ‘So don’t tell me about your success,
nor your recipes for my happiness’ in his classic song, Rich Folks Hoax.

His words slot in nicely with those of another intelligent gentleman, Albert Einstein:
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former

3 thoughts on “Self-help authors, motivational speakers and other modern day snake oil salesmen.

  1. Excellently done. You made me laugh out loud a few times. I just sooo agree. I would though like to get that book that Adam’s talking about for a few people I know, or even better, I’ll send them this link.

  2. Are you addicted to self-help books? Well, then I’ve got just the book for you! Only $19.99! Simply send a self-addressed envelope to…

  3. Thank you for yet another brilliant article! One to add to your number Five. Charity. If people would rather spend their money and time doing something good for someone else, their self esteem and environmental influence will not be thrown into the pit of enriching the wealthy shysters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
To prevent spam, no links are permitted in comments. Comments Policy