Cut out the navel-gazing. Put on your No hat. Suppress your feelings. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography.
Not your average advice in a culture obsessed with perpetual self-improvement. But Svend Brinkmann’s book, “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze,” is not a typical self-help book. The Danish philosopher was sick of being bombarded with the message that we must strive constantly for greater growth and happiness (spoiler alert: he says we’ve found neither). So he penned an anti-self-help missive complete with ten steps to cleanse ourselves of self-help. (And because he’s a philosopher, he naturally turned to the Stoics for assistance.)
I’m a little late to the party – the book was published in English in 2017 and quickly became a bestseller. I discovered it a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled upon an interview with Brinkmann in GQ magazine.* Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I found his thoughts refreshing in an age that is so often about doing/being/having more (and not just more, but mindfully more).
How many of us have gotten caught up in the self-improvement craze (or know someone who has), hoping on some level that radically altering our diet, embracing minimalism learning mindfulness, changing our work style, etc., etc., etc., will bring greater happiness and self-actualization to our lives? Or if we’re not embracing the self-improvement craze, do we live with the fear that we’re not the best versions of ourselves? (She closes her eyes and slowly mouths ‘yes.’) With those questions in mind, here are three takeaways from Brinkmann’s book:
1. A preoccupation with personal growth can quickly become navel-gazing self-obsession. Brinkmann writes, “Other people are tools in our personal development rather than individuals in their own right.” Or to put it in the more colloquial words of my friend, “It’s your world, dude. I’m just living in it.” This is a seriously skewed view of reality, and in the end, I don’t think it even produces the desired result. Paradoxically, I’ve found that the greatest growth in my life has often occurred when I’m truly focused on other people. And that personal growth was a byproduct of loving others, not an end in itself.
2. Our obsession with ‘yes’ can run counter to real wisdom. Where did we get the idea that we must always say ‘yes’ in order to embrace life? Brinkmann argues that it comes from the pop psychology mania that has weaseled its way into our collective consciousness. However it arrived, I think it is misleading. As anyone who has parented a toddler would tell you, saying ‘no’ is essential. I say ‘no’ to L many, many times every day: to keep her safe, to protect her sister, and to shape her character so that she can live as a functional adult some day. Real adulthood involves saying ‘no’ to many of our impulses on a daily basis in order that we can love others well and live with spiritual, mental, and emotional health. And I would argue that when we are proficient at saying ‘no,’ we are free to say ‘yes’ to what is truly important.
3. Looking for the truth within ourselves is ridiculous. Brinkmann mockingly describes our culture’s obsession with ‘gut feelings.’ When in doubt, consult your gut. But consulting our gut won’t tell us anything objective about the world. Brinkmann 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.” Our guts do not contain ultimate truth. Brinkmann argues that we need to look outside ourselves to the world around us in order to discover the correct answers. I would take it a step further, and argue that once we get past scone recipes, we need to look beyond the world to the Author of ultimate truth.
I can’t recommend Brinkmann’s book in its entirety. For example, his advice to “focus on the negative in your life” and “dwell on the past,” seems to me to be helpful in small, measured doses, not as a way to live our day-to-day lives. The constant pursuit of happiness is going to make us miserable, but focusing on the negative will have the same result. And while I appreciate his treatise that we must ‘stand firm,’ rather than being tossed about by our accelerating culture, I don’t think his vision of how to stand firm goes far enough. I’m with the apostle Paul in arguing that we need faith in God to truly stand firm. Finally, I think it’s critical that we don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater and forget our capacity as humans to make choices and to change.
But I appreciate the questions he raised, and I hope that his book marks the beginning of a shift in our culture’s self-improvement obsession. Meanwhile, I’m off to do my bit by ordering that ‘no’ hat.
*Not being trendy or, you know, a man, it’s not my usual reading material. But amidst all the Ryan Gosling idolizing, they do publish some interesting articles.