How Advice Culture Turns Us Into Winners (And Losers)

Sep 7, 2022 | Culture, Mindset & Identity


Do you know Dr. Rick?

Dr. Rick was one of the only good things that came out of 2020. He’s a “parenta-life coach”—he helps young homeowners avoid turning into their parents.

Dr. Rick is an invention of Progressive, the insurance company that also brought you Flo and “the sign spinner.” Progressive sells insurance—not exactly a product we associate with personal growth.

But selling insurance isn’t sexy. And the reasons we need insurance aren’t things we want to think about on a regular basis. So insurance companies develop mascots and engage in light world-building to make their brands endearing and memorable.

So it’s in this relational branding and marketing universe that Dr. Rick emerges.

Sean and I first encountered Dr. Rick during an ad break on YouTube. The ad spots are presented mockumentary-style. We catch glimpses of Dr. Rick working with groups of clients or delivering motivational speeches. We get short sit-downs with Dr. Rick, direct to camera, sharing his philosophy.

Dr. Rick teaches young homeowners things like how to silence their phones, pronounce “quinoa,” and make a sofa more inviting by removing decorative throw pillows. He also coaches his clients as they move through the world, offering suggestions such as there doesn’t need to be a coat wrangler at the movie theater or there’s no need to help someone park their car (unless they ask for help).

Dr. Rick ads make me cackle.

And reader? I’ve paused a new Dr. Rick ad so that I could call in Sean to watch it with me.

Anyhow, one of the reasons that Dr. Rick is so successful is that it plays on familiar self-help tropes. Dr. Rick is a bestselling author, a motivational speaker, and a coach. He’s there to help you save yourself from, well, yourself. The ads nod to the fact that most of us roll our eyes—lovingly—at our parents’ quirks and habits. We don’t want to be like them—outdated, obsolete, out of touch.

We don’t want to be losers. We want to be winners.

This is the first essay in a new What Works series that I’m calling Self-Help, LLC. Over the next eight weeks, I’ll be taking a close look at the business of personal growth—and asking, “are we all in the self-help business now?” We’ll investigate the power dynamics of self-help, as well as the shoulds and supposed-tos we’ve inherited from self-help along the way. We’ll examine the value structure that self-help exists in and how that shapes our businesses or careers.

Throughout this series, I intend to identify the logics of self-help and the beliefs and values that make up its politics. I’ll explore how self-help media shape our identities and how we can all be more aware of the ways we use powerful personal growth symbols and messaging in how we do business.

I’ll be relying heavily on a great book by media studies scholar Micki McGee called Self-Help, INC (the name of the series is a nod to its influence). McGee’s work will be our guide through this exploration—along with other media theorists, sociologists, cultural critics, and journalists. And, of course, I’m talking to some business owners who work in and around these questions. 

Self-help is an $11 billion category in the US.

Many, many more billions circulate throughout the larger life improvement ecosystem. Despite the size of the market and the demand for new products, it’s a category that is often the butt of jokes.

In reality, self-help attempts to solve critical problems and address fundamental human needs. And self-help is everywhere. Its pervasiveness on bookshelves, televisions, billboards, and ad campaigns makes it an integral part of our culture. We borrow, adapt, and disseminate the messages and media of self-help without even thinking.

Even businesses that aren’t in the self-help business use the language of self-help to market and sell their products. Dr. Rick, of course, is one such example. But so is Target relating workout gear to empowerment and after-school snacks to fulfillment. Dove famously—or infamously—markets its products using a message of body positivity and self-acceptance. And DoorDash sells its driver “opportunity” as a new way to “meet your goals.”

It’s probably a good time to pause and ask: What exactly are we talking about when we talk about self-help?

What is self-help?

For this series, I’m defining “self-help” very broadly. But the general gist is this: self-help is the category of cultural products that aim to improve on or otherwise change the individual consumer. Cultural products include but aren’t limited to film, television, music, physical goods, services, advertising, events, and experiences.

The basic conceit of self-help is that the potential to turn ourselves into better people ”comforts and consoles us, suggesting that vast material, social, and personal success are available to anyone who is willing to work long and hard enough,” as McGee puts it.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the message of self-help. It rarely acknowledges privilege; it often attributes institutional shortcomings to personal failings; it reduces complex issues to matters of straightforward instructions. But the products and services of personal growth have also been a lifeline to people in pain.

Self-Help is, itself, a medium.

Finally, I want to be clear that when I’m talking about self-help, I’m not only talking about life coaches, motivational speakers, or books dedicated to the topic. I’m not only talking about messages encouraging us to live our best lives or dream bigger. I’m talking about the vast ecosystem that leverages our fear of failure, our hope for success, and our quest for satisfaction. 

Further, when I’m talking about self-help, I’m talking about a particular form—rather than an individual message. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in the 1960s. Put simply, McLuhan suggests that the form of a medium sticks with us more than the content contained in that medium. 

I see self-help as a medium—a form—rather than a message or collection of messages. Self-help, as a medium, takes on a particular grammar, aesthetic, and tone. And those characteristics saturate almost all of the media we consume today—whether it’s Lizzo saying “it’s about damn time,” Ariana Grande saying “thank u next,” The Bachelor exploring the quest for lasting love, or REI declaring that a “life lived outdoors is a life well-lived.” The grammar, aesthetics, and tone of self-help find their way into morning television and posts about cryptocurrency and mothering.

McLuhan argues that, while there is a straightforward meaning to the message contained by the medium, the medium itself contributes another message. That second message, and for McLuhan, the more influential of the two, is character. The medium conveys both a straightforward message and a particular feeling that informs how we relate to it.

Here’s an example: I just picked up my phone and opened Instagram. No, really. The first ad I’m served is for a gorgeous tea kettle from a brand called Caraway. Seriously, this thing is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The image depicts the corner of a kitchen—there are minimalist wood cabinets beneath white quartz or composite countertops. On one wall is a matching wood shelf with sleek white tiles in a herringbone pattern underneath. On top of the counter are the tea kettles—7 in various colors. Nothing about this image screams “self-help,” right? 

But the form of this ad is designed to paint a picture of a better, more stylish life. The caption also mentions that this kettle is “non-toxic,” so the ad’s form also communicates that I can be healthier if I purchase it. The presentation of the tea kettle reminds me that I could be so much more if only I were willing to buy a $195 tea kettle. 

The medium of self-help is the perfect vehicle for consumer capitalism. 

What better way to market a product than associating it with bettering yourself? 

If you think this series on the business of self-help sounds interesting but not directly related to your work or business, I hope this question gives you pause. No matter the kind of work you do, it’s incredibly likely that the way you market that work utilizes the medium of self-help, if not the message. And no matter the kind of consumer you are, you’re being bombarded with the medium of self-help, even if you tune out the specific messages.

Self-help as a medium is neutral. I’m not judging anyone for communicating through this medium—lord knows I do! I’m not sure we have much of a choice at this point. But I want us all to be thoughtful of the message we explicitly or implicitly present through the self-help medium. Why? Because the medium of self-help amplifies cultural values and messages—some of which you might vehemently oppose.


The History of Self-Help

The self-help category is as old as time and is a recent innovation.

Originally, “self-help” was a community concept. As recently as the 1970s, “self-help” referred to how a community might organize to offer aid to its members—especially those who were underserved or disempowered by professional institutions. McGee cites the example of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which published the widely read book Our Bodies, Our Selves in 1971. The book resulted from organizing around the frustrating, demeaning, and often unskillful care women received from doctors. As a group, they shared their frustrations and dismay at how little they knew about how their own bodies worked.

They worked together to gather the knowledge they needed to be advocates for their own health. It was self-help via collective action and mutual aid.

By the time the Spanish language edition was published in 2000, the New York Times had distinguished between mutual help and self-help in its review—noting that Our Bodies emphasized “mutual help over self-help.” So within 30 years, we have not only a separation of mutual help from self-help but a need to specify which category this book belongs to.

What happened in those 30 years?

It turns out: quite a lot.

The most significant shift was a political and economic one that trickled down through culture. And this shift is named for the two world leaders that wove it into the fabric of our lives—Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Reaganism and Thatcherism fundamentally uprooted our relationship to the state and to work. It might be difficult to imagine, but the post-WWII era saw massive public investments in building (in the United States) and rebuilding (in Europe). While much that of that investment was hard infrastructure—such as the Eisenhower interstate system or the council housing system in Britain. Even Richard Nixon, you know, noted socialist, proposed a universal health care plan in 1974. That plan would have created a national public option for those who didn’t receive health insurance from their employers, mandated comprehensive coverage (including for mental health), and required employers to provide insurance to full-time employees. 

So if you’re ever asked what Barack Obama and Richard Nixon have in common… well, now you have an answer.

Margaret Thatcher came to power as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1975 and served until 1990. Over her tenure, her government fundamentally changed the relationship between citizens and the state. She sold off government property, privatized utilities and energy production, and deregulated the financial industry. Reagan, inaugurated in 1981, followed a similar agenda. Most of the changes that Thatcher and Reagan implemented became “normal” in the following 30-40 years. And they’re best understood by the cultural legacy they left: the gospel of personal responsibility.

Before the 1970s, the citizen and the state more or less worked together to build better lives—at least rhetorically. After the 1970s, the citizen was on their own.

While literature about success and personal fulfillment had been around for a long time, the need to “make it” or “climb the ladder” was suddenly an urgent one. It’s no coincidence that the 1970s saw an explosion of survivalist metaphors among self-help texts—phrases like “looking out for number one” and images such as the battlefield, the jungle, and the poker table as metaphors for life. It’s when society is sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, divided into the moral categories of “winners” and “losers.”

People were anxious. They felt insecure. New technology transformed the workplace, the home, and the public square. Women, Black people, immigrants, LGBTQIA people, and disabled people were “intruding” into spaces that had once been safely white and male.

In many ways, the 1970s and 80s mirror the period we’re in now.

“Security is anomalous, while anxiety is the norm.”

McGee writes a feeling of personal security is “anomalous, while anxiety is the norm.” “To manage this anxiety,” she says, people in power advise us to work harder, to work more hours, and to be constantly at work on ourselves.

The project of the greater self-help ecosystem is helping us to navigate the insecurity and uncertainty that have come to define our lives over the last 40 years. It teaches us to be winners in a world of losers or artists in a world of automatons.

And here’s one place things get tricky about self-help.

Social theorist Nancy Fraser has described this response to our anxiety-inducing, insecure society as creating a moral hierarchy, an “institutionalized social order.”

And that social order exists in a context of domination and alienation.

What I mean is, if one sets about improving oneself and another isn’t engaged in that same work, then it followers that the person improving is higher in the social order than the person who isn’t. From there, it follows that the person improving is better than and can dominate the person who isn’t. That potential to dominate, to rise in the social order, provides a reason to continue participating in a system that fails to meet most people’s needs. If working the system means one can succeed as a winner or artist, one will work the system.

The response to the recent student loan cancellation news is clear evidence of this. Many who vocally oppose cancellation see a lack of debt or its repayment as an indicator of their moral superiority—even if subconsciously. They’ve done what they need to do to climb the social ladder. Now, these “kids” with their humanities BAs are coming along and skipping the line. They need to be put back in their place!

Ooof.

Self-help puts a positive spin on the institutionalized social order. 

Texts rarely draw attention to those on the lowest rungs of the ladder. They might gesture toward the “losers” (often, those “holding you back”) as they implore you to become a winner—but it’s less an overt threat and more often presented as an opportunity. Yet, the message shares the same roots as fear-mongering about makers and takers, blatant disregard for chronically ill and disabled people, and anger about immigration.

Taking up the quest for improvement quietly acknowledges the potential that you or I might not be a winner. That we might end up among the losers. What else can we do but continue to work on ourselves?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone seeking personal growth or life advice does so out of a desire to be better than others. But once you see the winner-loser framework in the language of advice culture and the medium of self-help, you can’t unsee it. Without great care and intent, we can’t step outside the social order and its influence.

There’s one winner and 99 losers.

The other day, I stumbled upon a tweet I had to screenshot. The tweet itself isn’t that remarkable. But it was such a simple distillation of the “institutionalized social order” that I knew I needed to archive it.

I’ve edited the wording to maintain the original tweeter’s anonymity but retained the meaning.

The tweet reads:

Remember:

  • 100 people start
  • 90 of them stop within 30 days
  • 9 quit within 12 months
  • Only 1 persists beyond that
  •  You’ll beat 99% of the competition just by sticking out the game

In other words, there are 99 losers, and, to win, you need to outlast them all. The very structure of the tweet is a social order defined by sticktoitiveness. Here, the medium of self-help communicates the need to beat the competition and rise to the top.

I assume the tweet intends to provide motivation and encouragement. This Twitter user wants to remind their audience that persistence is a good way to create success. Totally true! But in attempting to speak to the singular person who believes they can be that one person who outlasts the competition, the user acknowledges that 99 out of every 100 who try will fail.

Of course, there can be merit in a “nevertheless, she persisted” approach to life or work. But this tweet leaves me with so many questions:

  • Why did the 99 people stop?
  • Are those people fundamentally unqualified for success?
  • Is there a scenario in which 100 people can start and persist over the long haul?
  • Who said those other 99 people were my competition in the first place?
  • Why is “beating” anyone the goal?

I know this is a very close reading of a tweet that was likely full of good intent and sent off without a second thought. You’d be well within your rights to say I’m overthinking things here. But that’s kind of my point. We’re so accustomed to the winner-loser framework that pointing out the obvious feels like overthinking.

This tweet says more about our fear of losing than our desire to win. We’ve all been one of the 90 who drops out early. We’ve probably also been one of the nine who almost sticks it out. And very likely feel a sense of disappointment or even shame about that choice. We worry that we don’t have what it takes to be a winner.

And this world doesn’t look kindly on losers.

The threat of losing carries predictable consequences: ridicule, scapegoating, financial ruin, moral bankruptcy, etc. And we tell fables about people who don’t “win” the right way (e.g., Reagan’s welfare queen) or lose on account of their mediocrity (e.g., The Office’s Michael Scott). Donald Trump won over disengaged voters by promising to make them winners again. He acknowledged that they were losers, in a way, but told them it wasn’t their fault. Feminists, immigrants, social justice warriors, woke liberals, socialists—they were the ones who had been winning (I wish), but he’d put them back in their place as losers.

But I digress.

Winning is a fundamental theme of entrepreneurship. You win customers, win market share, win brand recognition. And winning is also an essential theme of the entrepreneurial self.

Bottom line: being a winner means being valuable. Polishing your mindset and redesigning your productivity system is a way to freshen up your personal brand to boost sales or raise prices. We’re so used to thinking of everything in terms of the marketplace that personal growth starts to feel more like product development.

If you want to be the winning product, you’ve got some work to do.

There is a lot of good guidance on personal growth out there. And seeking to explore one’s inner world or challenge oneself is a powerful move. But without excavating the market forces that turn personal reflection into a resume builder, we’ll still encounter that guidance through the winner-loser framework. We’ll still justify our endeavor by considering its worth in the free market.

Running Together

I took up running because I wanted to be a winner. Not the winner of the race but because all the winner entrepreneurs I knew had some sort of fitness hobby. Many were long-distance runners. I wanted to be more consistent, more reliable, and more willing to do hard things. And I figured that the misery of running more than a single mile would probably do me some good.

At the end of my first half-marathon, I noticed a woman fall into step just behind me. Smart move, I thought. She was using me as a pacer and a windbreak. Her goal wasn’t to beat me. It was to finish with me

While I enjoy racing for the chance to set a new personal best or even medal—hey, I do like being a winner—the real reason I race—along with 99% of people who step up to the starting line—is to cross the finish line with a whole bunch of people who are doing the same. 

Races end with a party. 

We celebrate each other over beers, hot dogs, and sweaty selfies.

Running, especially long-distance running, taught me that there’s much more to self-exploration than winning or losing. There’s more than how much money I can make or how many people read what I write. Running faster doesn’t require me to beat more people to the finish line. I run longer and faster for me and celebrate everyone who’s in it with me. I throw a peace sign out to the other runners putting in miles on the trail with me in the early morning hours. It doesn’t matter our experience, pace, size, or how much it looks like we’re going to pass out—we’re runners. Together.

The medium of the race could communicate competitiveness. It could easily play into the winner-loser framework. But instead, we experience the medium of the race as a call to grow together.

There’s a type of self-help that encourages us to grow apart. That’s where the winner-loser framework belongs. But there’s also a type of self-help that enables us to grow together. Building stronger communities requires individual care, compassion, and self-knowledge. 

The more we notice messages that encourage us to grow apart, the more we can shape our messaging and behavior to grow together.

Look, I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. So I’m going to keep this quick here at the end.

Watch your social media feeds this week. Consider how the advice crossing your screen plays into these ideas: winners & losers, social hierarchy, and market value.

And if you’re creating content this week, consider whether there’s a way to share what you want to say without buying into the winner-loser framework.

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