The Problem With “You Control Your Destiny”

(Or, Why There Should Be More “Self” in Self-Help)

Welcome to my sporadic series of essays where I highlight my general concerns with self-help books as a genre, despite continuing to read a ton of them.

We’ve all heard the sayings. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”  “It’s your attitude, not your circumstances, that determine how successful you are.” These attitudes can be summed up in a single phrase: you control your destiny. This belief is the foundation and promise of most self-help books in the “Success” genre; teach yourself to think and act correctly and you’ll achieve whatever you want.

Unfortunately, the same fatal flaw afflicts each of these often-quoted truisms: the message only usefully applies to yourself.

Here’s what these ideas are great for:

  • Reorienting your thinking about getting fired from “I’m a failure” to “I will use this as an opportunity to achieve even better things”
  • Shrugging off that mean comment you got from the rando waiting in line at the deli
  • Pushing yourself to do work towards your goals, even when you’re a little tired or busy or feeling lazy
  • In general, getting yourself out of a slump and motivating yourself

Here’s what these messages should not be used to do (but often are):

  • Condemn others for not achieving our own level of success
  • Pretend that the only reason that we are successful is because of our individual work and efforts, totally devoid of others’ help or cultural, environmental, or other situational factors
  • State that the only difference between more successful and less successful people are that the more successful people worked hard
  • Imply that less successful people are lazy, stupid, or incompetent
  • Decry or dismiss efforts to make institutional changes because “anyone can succeed if they work hard enough”

Bonus awful points apply if: a) “success” here is defined narrowly as some culturally valued trait such as wealth or fame b) the person pushing the idea has institutionalized privileges that others lack. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the people who write self-help books, especially the noxious “do exactly what I did and you’ll get rich” type, are written by white cis straight able-bodied Christian born-middle-class-or-above Western men.

Institutional biases are real. The time we live in, the place we’re born into, our family and living situation, our gender, sexual orientation, race, and other factors? All of those do impact people’s lives in meaningful ways. The playing field is not level.

Furthermore, pretending to apply the same standards to others that we do to ourselves is hardly honest. We know our own capacities and limits. We are usually well aware of any institutional or cultural factors working against us. We know what success looks like for us. When we are sad or feel disadvantaged, we (usually) frame our turn-around in terms of internal motivation, and from a place of complete empathy for ourselves. And perhaps most importantly, any realistic definition of “success” frames it as a journey of improvement – our perception of our own success is based on where we were, how we’ve grown, and how much further we want to go. We don’t know any of these pieces of information about others to the same degree that we know ourselves.

Not every self-help book falls into this judgmental trap. Good personal development books try to change our own internal self-language and ways of thinking about things. It’s not meant to be the author judging the reader, but rather the reader being given new tools to measure and motivate ourself.

And as I mention in my FAQs, I prefer to read self-help books that acknowledge certain important truths. Things like, say, the complexity of life and different people’s circumstances, including failures and unfairness. Or recognition of the journey and a focus on habits and behaviors, not just an arbitrary dividing line of Successful and Unsuccessful.  I also prefer books that have a broad definition of success, one that isn’t tied to  a single societally-approved measure like wealth.

Ultimately, there are some problems that simply can’t be helped by personal development. They need collective effort and societal changes. Since these issues can’t be meaningfully solved by self-help books, I can’t demand that self-help authors address the problems fully…but I do expect them to acknowledge those issues and admit that self-help isn’t the only answer. And I certainly want authors to be respectful, not implicitly or explicitly scornful, of those struggling with unequal challenges.

***

Side note: that whole “no one can make you feel inferior…” quote has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, we should work on being able to shrug off random mean comments rather than being brought down by them. BUT, humans are an incredibly social species, so it’s natural to be affected by what other people say. And when it comes to friends and family? I’d be worried about someone’s capacity for empathy if they were never affected by what their loved ones said about them. Sometimes “without your consent” is translated to mean “so you should be ready to walk away if they treat you badly”, which I agree with in theory. But not everyone is continuously ready to leave a relationship, ESPECIALLY when it comes to people you’re close to. And the general notion that “no one can make you feel a certain way, it’s always a choice to feel good or bad” can be used as a cudgel against people who are already in a bad situation to make it feel like it’s their fault they feel sad when they’re being mistreated.

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