Ironic as it may be, Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze is a self-help book urging you to resist the self-improvement craze.
The field of psychology is an outgrowth of philosophy. In fewer than 200 pages, psychology professor Svend Brinkmann turns that back around, using the wisdom of the Stoics to counter what he sees as our current obsession with personal growth, lifelong learning, mobility and our “accelerating culture.”
The antidote he prescribes is to “stand firm” — to put down roots, achieve stability and abandon the notion of self-development as an end in itself.
“The buzz all around us is about development, change, transformation, innovation, learning and other dynamic concepts that infuse the accelerating culture,” Brinkmann writes.
This book is for people “who do want to find their own feet but are unable to express this wish. They may have even tried to do so, only to be dubbed rigid, recalcitrant or reactionary by their peers,” he writes.
With a light tone, Brinkmann espouses a dark philosophy: memento mori “remember, we all die.” He dishes up this negativity with a wink, while cautioning that adopting the philosophy shouldn’t “degenerate into nihilistic pessimism that leads to resignation, ennui or actual depression. Rather, it should lead to you accepting your responsibilities and duties, your lot in life.”
To help you stand firm, the book presents seven-steps:
- Cut out the navel-gazing
- Focus on the negative in your life
- Put on the No hat
- Suppress your feelings
- Sack your coach
- Read a novel—not a self-help book or biography
- Dwell on the past
In the first step, Brinkmann argues against the common advice to “follow your gut” to find the answers to important questions. Looking within and listening to your inner voice, he points out, may be widely recommended in popular culture, but is of limited value.
“Just think about how absurd that actually is,” he writes.
“What should we do about climate change? How do you make scones? What’s the Chinese for ‘horse’? Do I have what it takes to be a good engineer? To the best of my knowledge, the answers to these questions are not lurking somewhere within me or you—not even the answer to the last one.
“Society sets objective standards for what constitutes a good engineer (technical skills, mathematical understanding, etc.), and they have nothing to do with how you feel inside. These are abilities that other people are capable of assessing.”
In the second step, Brinkmann takes on the positive psychology movement as a tyrannical focus on the bright side, looking, for example, at the preponderance of “self-help books and misery memoirs” that focus on the sunny side of terrible experiences.
“Very few will say out loud that their illness has been awful from start to finish and that they would rather not have had to go through it. A typical book title might be How I Survived Stress — And What It Taught Me, but you’re unlikely to find a book called I’m Still Stressed — It’s an Unending Nightmare. Not only do we suffer stress or illness and eventually die, we’re also supposed to think it’s all so enlightening and rewarding,” he writes.
Instead, he advocates some recreational kvetching, and suggests that focusing on the negatives in your life can help you more fully appreciate the positives.
And so it goes. In step three, he encourages naysaying.
“Being able to say no signifies that you are a mature person with a certain degree of integrity,” he writes.
In step four he reminds us that letting emotions fly willy-nilly is less “authentic” than irrational and childish. He reminds us that rituals and social conventions, which started falling out of favor during the counterculture 1960s, have a place in polite civilization.
In step five, he urges us to dump our coach or therapist — and the desire for one of Anthony Robbins’ coaching goals, “constant never-ending improvement” — in favor of instead nurturing a circle of friends to confide in.
In step six, he argues that novels tell us more about the human condition than the self-improvement books and biographies that often top best-seller lists. And in step seven, he eschews the common exhortation that we should live in the present, pointing out that spending time thinking about our life as a whole.
“If others can’t be sure I will be the same tomorrow as I am today and was yesterday, then they have no reason to trust me or that I will do what I promise and otherwise live up to my obligations. And if I don’t know my own past, if I don’t try my best to establish a link between yesterday, today and tomorrow, then others have no reason to trust me. If I don’t have what [French philosopher Paul] Ricoeur calls ‘self-constancy,’ then neither I nor others will be able to count on me,” he writes.
The book’s light tone, with occasional laugh-out-loud lines, seems to lose steam about halfway through, and Brinkmann becomes more pedantic. Sometimes he makes his points by setting up straw man arguments (for example, a publisher would be unlikely to make money on I’m Still Stressed—It’s an Unending Nightmare; and no healthy adults advocate unleashing every emotion that buffets them). But in service to driving home his overall message, we’ll allow it (as soon as we stop arguing with it in our heads).
Scale back his arguments and you are likely to find value in his suggestions, presented at the end of each chapter, for applying his philosophy to your life—especially if you’re reached a point where personal growth is starting to feel like a never-ending chore.
Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze
Polity Books, March 2017
Softcover, 152 pages