Above: Duff McDuffee
Above: Eric Schiller
Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller run the blog Beyond Growth, a site dedicated to bringing some much needed criticism to the modern “personal development” business. Duff and Eric joined me via instant message from Boulder, CO and Belingham, WA respectively to answer some questions about the field.
Klint Finley: I suppose we should begin by first talking a little bit about “personal development” – what is it, how did this business emerge?
Duff McDuffee: You mean the field itself?
Klint: Right. Personal development as a business.
Eric Schiller: Duff is probably a bit more of an expert on that particular question, but I’ll add my thoughts to his response.
Napoleon Hill holding a copy of his book Think and Grow Rich
Duff: Ok. Well, from what I understand it largely emerged in the early 20th century when New Thought religious ideas became popular and were applied to worldly success. The basic idea was contained in such books as Think and Grow Rich and As a Man Thinketh.
The notion was that you could create stuff with the power of your mind. The correlary is that if you aren’t getting what you want, you need to do a kind of mental hygeine and clean up your stinkin’ thinkin’ (to quote Zig Ziglar).
So you have people like Napolean Hill, who died broke by the way, writing books on how to get rich by visualizing and affirming one’s future wealth.
Eric: In Douglas Rushkoff’s book Life Inc. he argues that ‘personal development’ or self help found its place in corporations, in order to help the remaining staff become more efficient after job cuts.
Thus personal development has deep capitalistic roots, based in becoming more useful for society, and or your particular corporate persuasion.
Duff: Yes, an excellent point Eric. Books like Who Moved My Cheese encouraged employees to “embrace change” and stay positive while they were being downsized for no fault of their own to make short-term profits for stakeholders. Barbara Ehrenreich covers this too in Bright Sided.
Whether or not this was intended, personal development functions as a perfect religion for capitalism. Pray for money and consumer goods and social status, and take 100% responsibility even when your circumstances are largely determined by social structures and institutions that are not in your direct control.
Eric: The early gurus cherry picked from Maslow and Jung – whatever ideas sounded good at the time.
Duff: Today’s gurus still do
Klint: OK. So how does this – or does it – tie into other areas like “self-help,” “lifehacking,” and, most recently, “lifestyle design”?
Eric: Personal development and self help are effectively the same, personal development is a more recent name for the same thing.
Duff: They are all synonyms as far as I’m concerned, rebranding.
Eric: Life hacking is different, but I think it is in effect, part of the same trope. Life hacking is a branch of hacking culture, it is really technologically based, but is all about “bettering oneself” so it has taken on the goal of PD or self help.
Duff: “Lifehacking” seems to me to be another name for geeking out on consumer gadgets and software for the most part. I mean if you really want to hack your life, do Vipassana meditation, or read Hegel, or take acid (not my preference, but that will seriously hack some stuff up).
Above: Tim Ferris goofing off while his employees do all his work.
Eric: The strange place is where the lifestyle designers and the life hackers collide, there you get people like Tim Ferris
Duff: Lifestyle design is interesting because only the privileged count as designing their lives. When a Mexican immigrates to the U.S. in order to have a better life for himself and his family, it isn’t lifestyle design. In fact, most lifestyle design focuses on 1st world young men with laptops who do freelancing living in developing nations to get a good exchange rate.
Eric: Yeah, lifestyle design itself is very priveledged, and only high-end consumers tend to get into it. They believe it is not consumption, but in reality it functions as a higher almost more evil form of consumption.
Duff: Part of the lifestyle design ethos involves an “escape from corporate jobs” which is of course nonsense. The first thing a lifestyle designer does is create an LLC in his or her own name, then engage in personal branding, and often exploit cheap overseas labor. The corporate ethos has been driven deeper, not avoided.
Klint: Well, it’s been escaped for the person doing the designing – but not for anyone who’s being outsourced to.
Duff: Right. So lifestyle design is really in the same boat as those business books on how to think like a CEO. But it plays off a countercultural branding.
Klint: Well, let me ask you guys this: is there anything so wrong with wanting to escape the corporate 9-to-5? Are they really hurting anyone by bringing business to these countries?
Eric: I think that question isn’t really getting at what is going on on these blogs. Tim Ferris offers to his readers “escaping the 9-5″ but in reality, he hasn’t done it himself. To him, “work” is doing stuff you don’t like, and the rest is fun. To him, a lot of the “fun” makes him money. Ferris works his butt off on his image and his books.
Klint: You’re right, becuase most of what’s actually going on, so far as I can tell, is these guys are going around having a blast and selling shady “info products” to marks with the promise that they can do what they do.
Eric: Ferris is offering a facade to his readers, that they can “make it” by doing very little work. This is really not a new idea, and has been offered in a multitude of self-help/business bookis.
Duff: What’s remarkable about Tim Ferris is that in his book he openly brags about cheating at Tango and martial arts. He used a radical dehydration technique to enter a much lower weight class, then pushed his opponents out of the ring and won on a technicality. This is the kind of business sense he is teaching–how to exploit loopholes in the rules for personal fame and profit.
It’s not really that surprising that Ferris is therefore the guru’s guru when it comes to shady internet marketing schemes that promise get rich/lifestyle quick.
Jonathan Mead. What a rebel!
Eric: Additionally “escaping” is an extension of the American dream, of beating capitalism and making it your bitch. It isn’t an emancipatory dream like Ferris likes to pitch it. Someone I’m critical of, Jonathan Mead took Ferris’ ideas further and claimed that he was part of a “revolution.” This is a bigger problem.
Chris Guillebeau is also guilty of ‘revolutionizing’ lifestyle design. The problem is that it makes business as usual capitialism seem like a new revolution to the consumers, thus making it impossible for a real anti-capitalist movment to take hold. People are mesmerized by the same old promises.
Duff: The revolutionary rhetoric really goes all the way back to Seth Godin, the ur-guru of personal development bloggers. Godin encourages marketers to use the techniques and rhetoric of grassroots political organizing to sell your info products to 1000 true fans. Instead of white papers, you get these PDF “manifestos” which are all a variation of a neo-liberal capitalist manifesto.
While there is nothing necessarily wrong with selling stuff on the internet and making a living doing it, to pretend that this is a revolutionary political act is ludicrous.
In more than one PDF white paper “manifesto” that I’ve read, the authors have specifically said that one should not vote or engage politically in any way. Steve Pavlina has said similar things. Most personal development bloggers advocate for avoiding the news because it is “negative.” All these things combine to destroy our political power by solely focusing on personal power.
Klint: I always thought that militant apoliticalism was a way of appealing to more people by avoiding taking any controversial political stance.
Duff: Could be, yes. But within that apparently apolitical view, when you scrape past the surface, is a radical neo-liberalism.
Eric: Klint, have you read the Porto Davos essay by Zizek? His notion of liberal communism fits perfectly to these lifestyle design gurus.
Klint: I haven’t read that essay, no.
So it sounds like it’s a pretty greasey business. Is there any value at all in it – is there anyone out there in that business worth commending?
Duff: Sure, there are some. I like Scott H. Young for the most part, although I don’t agree with him on a lot of points.
Eric: There are some people we like, but it really isn’t cut and dry to derermine who. I think it is important for individuals to develop themselves, but there is a lot of merit to the idea that you cannot just read what someone is telling you to do, and then directly apply it to your life. There is some barrier there, that prevents the ideas from becoming real habits.
Klint: OK. So where does life coaching fit into this?
Duff: Life Coaching is interesting. I was a life coach for a while.
Life coaching feels really good for both coach and client. It’s really easy work and you get paid really well. It’s like being a therapist with only sane clients.
Klint: And without having to get a master’s degree. Or any degree for that matter.
Duff: Honestly, I think people really benefit from coaching, probably because we are so alienated that many people never have any meaningful conversations in their lives at all. But it is waaaaaaaaaay too expensive, and quickly becomes a massive ego trip and a huge financial scam. I don’t think there is any significant difference whatsoever between a $40/hour life coach and a $5000/hour life coach.
Another potential problem with coaching is that it outsources our meaningful conversations to specialists. If you have a Big Win in your life, who do you share this with first–your wife, or your life coach? Maybe your wife is stressed out and not that good of a listener anyhow. It is more efficient to share with your coach who will celebrate you unconditionally. But this takes away intimacy from your marriage, increasing your alienation.
Klint: So you don’t think that life coaching should be regulated like professional counseling?
Duff: Not really, no. I don’t like regulating meaningful conversation.
Eric: “Life coaching” is very broad. Most “life coaches” in reality are business coaches.
Eric: Overall few focus on personal problems like getting along with others, self-esteem etc. These people are in it for the money.
Duff: The field overall is highly problematic and structured like a pyramid scheme. The most “successful” coaches are meta-coaches, i.e. they coach coaches on building their practice.
But within that, there are some really great people who are very helpful to their clients.
Eric: I asked a coach recently what the breakdown was of his clients, and a lot of them were bloggers and life coaches themselves. Very masturbatory.
Duff: To be fair, many healing professions are circle jerks. Massage therapists often have many massage therapists as clients
Klint: I can imagine if you spend all day giving massages, you’re really going to want a massage at the end of the week.
Duff: Yeah, my lady is a massage therapist. She needs her own bodywork to do bodywork on others. You get really sore.
BTW, my life coach is currently in jail for running an illegal Ponzi scheme.
Klint: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that Duff, in relation to regulation Because if this guy is found guilty and sentenced and goes to prison – he could come right out and go right back to life coaching.
Duff: Sure. But he wouldn’t go to prison for life coaching fraud, but securities fraud. If he robbed a house he shouldn’t be barred from driving a car. Two different fields.
Klint: Yeah, but do you really think someone who goes to prison for securities fraud should being giving life advice?
Duff: I actually have a blog post in the works about this. The issues are complex and the facts aren’t all in yet. I’m not sure anyone is qualified to give life advice. But some people are pretty good at listening and asking poignant questions.
Eric: Who should be giving life advice anyway? It all comes down to the dispersion of a variety of ideologies.
Eric: Securites fraud just means that they broke the rules of capitalism.
Duff: The funny thing is his “Dharma Investments Group” was making similar errors as the big wigs. Who’s fault was the bubble anyway? Certainly fraud is fraud, but when the conservative bankers are doing similar things, all the normal rules go out the window.
Eric: Capitalism encourages people to stretch the rules, some people just get caught. I’d consider a full-of-air guru to be a worse person than someone comitting securites fraud.
Duff: It’s a spectrum of fraud and we’re all on it. Personally I think we can’t go much longer with interest-bearing currency before the whole monetary system collapses.
Klint: I don’t know the details of what that guy got himself into, but it’s hard for me excuse a guy who’s getting normal people to fork over their savings for some investment and then basically stealing their money. It doesn’t really matter what level he’s playing on…
Duff: I understand. It looks really bad for him! I certainly won’t be receiving his services anymore. But I stopped going to him about 5 years ago anyhow.
Klint: …that sounds like someone who’s pretty ethically challenged, y’know?
Duff: Or manic. Making impossible promises.
Klint: But yeah, he could get out of jail, move to another town, assume an alias, never have to disclose any of this… It’s very problmatic I think.
Eric: My point is that gurus do similar things. They take lay people and promise them all sorts of things, lead them on, and then leave them with nothing. James Ray was convincing his followers to go into debt to pay for his $10,000 seminars.
Klint: But to be honest, I don’t think there’d be a decent way to regulate life coaching anyway.
Duff: I don’t think so either. Some fields like coaching/healing and miracle cure supplements will always consistute the wild west …that and spirituality, faith healing, charismatics, etc. And yet, that is what is beautiful about these things too. You get these really wild characters with amazing insights or healing abilities or compassion etc. in the same arenas with the psychopaths and scam artists.
Above: a complete and total shitbag
Klint: So it kind of leads me to another question – does it really matter that much? If people are willing to shell out obscene amounts of money for whatever – personal development products, life coaching, snake oil… are they basically getting what they deserve?
Duff: Well, personal responsibility does come into play to some extent, but we don’t want to go as far as blaming the victim.
Eric: I think they’ve been effectively brainwashed. So I suppose the question is, does a brainwashed person deserve the consquences of things they did not initiate?
Duff: I went to this particular life coach out of my own greed to be a wealthy life coach, for example. But his investors in his scheme retain their legal rights to sue. One of the reasons I like living in Colorado is that there is little regulation over healing practices and therapies. You can practice as an unlicensed psychotherapist here. So we have tons of innovative approaches to healing and changework. Yet the flipside is we have tons of new wage snake oil and BS. It goes together.
So…I’ve got to run now as I’m meeting up with someone. Hope that is ok. You guys can continue chatting if you’d like. I enjoyed this and would be happy to do it again. Let me know when it is posted, Klint!
Klint: OK, thanks for your time Duff!
Duff: Thanks to you too for the suggestion.
Klint: Do you guys have any further plans or is Beyond Growth winding down?
Eric: We’ll see. A lot of the reason we haven’t been posting much lately is that we are bored of where the field is going, and it is difficult to get excited about the same old. Both Duff and I had dreams of writing books and being guru-like long before we started BG.
I’ve thought about opening it up to more authors, or changing the scope a little. Once we start writing again we’ll definitely be taking a different direction. Less harsh criticism, more covert, careful writing with perhaps a few more ideas for people to ponder. Just going after gurus gets a bit tedious after a while.
Considering how harsh we are, we’ve been recieved very well by the community though.
Recommended Beyond Growth posts
The 4-Minute Mile and the Myths of Positive Thinking
Social Media: Moving Towards A Brave New World? (Here are my comments on this post)
The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens