At some point in their careers, most people at senior levels in medium to large organisations come across motivational speakers and self-help gurus. Everyday questions about leadership, talent management, performance and motivation can be drawn, via the wilder fringes of coaching and personal development, towards some fairly whacky approaches and techniques aimed at changing mindsets and thereby changing lives. Sometimes, through this route, executives find themselves on slightly off-the-wall self-development events. Occasionally, the gurus of these philosophies are invited in to speak to entire management teams.
Most of this stuff is harmless enough. The messages tend to be similar – if free your mind of all the crap that is holding you back, then you can stop procrastinating and get on with becoming a great person. Or something like that.
Now I’m all for a bit of self-empowerment, positive thinking and dumping of self-limiting beliefs but a column by Oliver Burkeman reminded me that, sometimes, personal development theories can have a more sinister side.
The just world hypothesis sees suffering and concludes that people who suffer must be the kind of people we disdain.
In nastier corners of the positive-thinking world, this bias is explicit: victims of crime and even of genocides, certain dodgy gurus have said, must have caused their own victimhood.
There’s a perverse logic there. If positive thinking helps you maximise good outcomes and minimise bad ones, wouldn’t negative thinking do the opposite? If positive thinking helps you to avoid bad stuff surely negative thinking drives you straight towards it.
I remember booking onto one of these events, after a work colleague insisted that it was ‘life changing’. One of the speakers claimed that, when terrible things happen, somehow, at a certain sub-conscious level, the victims must have orchestrated their own fate. If you get cancer, a part of you must have wanted to get cancer. If you get robbed, a part of you must have made that happen. We are all authors of our own destiny, he told us, both the good and the bad.
At this point I stood up and shouted:
OK, so I go to Rwanda and say, “Hey Mr Rwandan, all those terrible things have happened to you because, at a certain level, a certain part of your being made them happen.”
Then he says, “Which part of me made them happen, oh wise one? Would that be the part of me that the militiaman has just hacked off WITH A F**KING BIG MACHETE?!!!”
OK, no, I didn’t really stand up and say that. I’m a polite(ish) Englishman so I just sat there and thought it, fuming quietly to myself at the nauseating smugness of the speaker.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that all these deep personal development interventions are bad. Changing the way you look at the world and how you see things can help you spot new opportunities and generally feel better. Given the current state of the economy, a bit more positive thinking wouldn’t come amiss in some quarters.
No, my objection is to the elevation of a few self-help techniques and mind-tricks into a philosophical, and sometimes almost religious, belief system. Anyone who has attended such events will know that they can feel almost cult-like, especially when recent converts line the walls as ‘volunteers’ to help the new participants see the light. When the unenlightened (or should that be the unsaved?) are looked down on for contributing to their own misfortune, something more than just a bit of personal development is going on.
Beliefs like these could only have emerged in the western economies of the late twentieth century. A society has to be extremely safe and prosperous for such ideas to take root and, despite the paranoid tone of much of their political discussion, middle-class Americans are the safest, longest-lived and most materially comfortable human beings that have ever walked the planet. And most of this mumbo-jumbo comes from the US.
For most of human history, and in much of the world still, people’s lives were controlled and directed by others and there was very little they could do about it. Medieval peasants were tied to the land for generations, unable to do much to change their circumstances or those of their descendents. China still moves its people around like pieces on a chessboard, although there are some isolated examples of…erm… self-empowerment. A combination of autocracy and grinding poverty limits the scope for self-actualisation in many parts of the world.
Only in the prosperous West do we have the luxury of believing that, with just a bit of positive thinking, we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do. “Positive thinking fooled the world,” said Barbara Ehrenreich. I’m not so sure that it did. It only fooled those of us who were rich enough and comfortable enough to swallow it.