In this world there are two kinds of people (among a few others, presumably): those who keep their own counsel and those who rely on Oprah’s. Not long ago Ms. Winfrey recommended The Secret, the Gospel of Judas-meets-Tony Robbins self-help manual by Rhonda Byrne. Secret fever shows no sign of abating, with OnDemand airing the film version all month. So sayeth Ms. Byrne’s website, “One spring day towards the end of 2004, Rhonda Byrne discovered a secret—the secret laws and principles of the universe….And in that moment her greatest wish, and mission, was to share this knowledge with the world.”
Hold it: not share, exactly. It’s not for nothing that on that website, alongside “Featured Teachers” and “Secret Gifts,” we find, without irony, “Secret Superstore.” Here’s one on the house: The Secret, like most self-help literature, isn’t worth your time or money. Look at the books that edged it out of Amazon’s #1 slot: a Harry Potter sequel, a volume of reconstituted Tolkien, and something called The Little Green Book of Getting Your Way: How to Speak, Write, Present, Persuade, Influence, and Sell Your Point of View to Others. Of course. The secret word is “marketing.”
Christopher Buckley’s God is My Broker tells us: “The only way to get rich from a get-rich book is to write one.” To that end, students of the grift are encouraged to study Lifemanship (1950), Stephen Potter’s classic (#414,804 on Amazon, as of this writing). Potter’s vade mecum—“how to make the other man feel that something has gone wrong, however slightly”—for its sheer effectiveness makes Norman Vincent Peale look like Jack Kevorkian.
Lifemanship isn’t a self-help book at all, but a vicious, hilarious parody. Mr. Potter (1900-1969), a writer and producer for the BBC, was a master at recognizing and codifying the ways that bunglers, frauds, manipulators, ignorami, and various and sundry other “Lifemen” take the wind out of worthier sails. It gets to the kernel of what self-help is really all about—helping us to delude ourselves and, if we’re lucky, the people around us. Think of it as the seven habits of highly defective people.
The Lifeman lives to get the better of his betters, whether in achievement, conversation, sports, games, physical appearance, expertise, or romance. The book’s first example, in fact, describes a Lifeman’s cunning inflation (without actually lying!) of his military service record:
Some of us had had some pretty hair-raising experiences on active service; whereas the most dangerous thing that had happened to Gattling, I knew to my certain knowledge, was firewatching outside Sale, two miles beyond the raiding area of Manchester. Without actually lying, Gattling was able to tell the story of this totally uninteresting event, in the presence of three submariners and a man who had been twice captured by and had twice escaped from the Japanese, and to tell it in such a way that these people began apologising for their relatively comfortable war. “My God,” said Commander Wright, “I never realised it was like that."
“I stamped out the flaming stuff with my foot,” said Gattling. Some cinder from a small and distant incendiary had, by a stroke of luck, landed in his garden. “It wasn’t a question of feeling frightened, I just found myself doing it . . . .”
Like most foolproof self-help methods, this one is divided into pseudo-scientific techniques; they are individually called “gambits” or “ploys” and have priceless “technical” names. “Glaciation,” for instance, is the “set of gambits which are designed to induce an awkward silence, or at any rate a disinclination to talk, on the part of possible opponents.” The point of these is to trip up anyone who actually is a gifted and entertaining conversationalist:
“If someone else tells a funny story, do not, whatever happens, tell your own funny story in reply, but listen intently and not only refrain from laughing and smiling, but make no response, change of expression or movement whatever. . . . If he is a stranger, and has told a story about a man with one leg, it is no bad thing to pretend that one of your own legs is false.”
It wouldn’t do to give up too many of these gambits free of charge, but readers can perhaps practice Cottaging this weekend. From a footnote: “This cottage of the Meynells is in fact a beautifully altered and luxurious Georgian house, but it is an important general rule always to refer to your friend’s country establishment as a ‘cottage.’”
Mr. Potter saw clearly what books like The Secret demonstrate by their sales figures: The self-help industry preys mostly on feelings of envy and inadequacy. Nobody really wants to better himself, least of all if it requires, you know, actually bettering himself. For some, make-believe—what Peale called “the power of positive thinking” and Byrne, outchumping Peale, calls “the secret”—can be every bit as potent.
In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch, with less humor but greater urgency, wrote of the “therapeutic sensibility”: “People today hunger not for personal salvation…but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” It’s important that the illusion be momentary: any longer and reflection might kick in. One might wonder whether engagement with one’s ego is really as valuable as engagement with the real world. To return to Lasch: “For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped by his own design.”
Shaping things, unlike visualizing them, takes work and admits no shortcuts or bromides. But a world that reflects one’s fantasies is, for many, preferable by far to one that demands actual efforts, with their attendant blood, sweat, and disappointment.
Speaking of mirrors, Lifemanship has plenty of sleight-of-hand: “Millions of people have formulated the wish, often unexpressed, that the lessons learnt from the philosophy of Gamesmanship should be extended to include the simple problems of everyday life.” “Often unexpressed” is the pearl, recalling as it does the way self-help books appeal with a straight face to howlingly implausible or nonexistent authorities. (“Gamesmanship,” by the way, is an earlier Potter creation: “The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.”)
The subtext of that opening line, a suggestion found in many self-help books, is that you probably don’t even know how badly you need the help. You may have sensed that someone, somewhere, is better off than you are, and that alone should exercise you, and your check-writing hand. “In one of the unpublished notebooks of Rilke,” writes Mr. Potter, “there is an unpublished phrase which might be our text: ‘…if you’re not one up (Bitzleisch) you’re one down (Rotzleisch).’” What draws one to self-help is the suspicion that he is, in some nebulous way, one down—and, worse still, the willingness to believe that the appearance of self-improvement is equal to or better than the real thing.
The appearance? Perhaps “the visualization” is closer to the truth. After all—with the possible exception of that master Lifewoman, Oprah Winfrey—one is really, in the end, only fooling oneself.