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Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Last Self Book You'll Ever Need: Chapter 1: A Self Help Breakdown

What is Self Help?

Self help means you do it yourself, and are motivated by yourself. If you can dial up the motivation, then there’s no telling what you can do. In these modern times full of more choices and responsibilities than ever before we need to be able ratchet up our motivation to the next level.

The problem is, how can you do that?

In simpler times, all motivation was simple and extrinsic, and whether it was for the glory of God, country, or the almighty dollar, you knew where your gumption came from. However, in the 20th century psychologists began to reveal mental ‘forces’ within that intrinsically motivated us. Although these forces were far more metaphorical than real, drives, wills, ids, egos, needs, wants, etc. were nonetheless introduced into the psychological lexicon and explained behavior, sort of. So describing what you can do (positive thinking) or who you are (psychoanalysis) or why you are (psychotherapy) somehow motivates what you can and will do, and all in 10,000 words or less.

One less traveled route to understanding is how you do it, or in other words, how you learn to do it. Learning is in general a subtle and non-conscious thing. You read a book, recite your math tables, and voila, you learn something. But behavioral tendencies are also learned through equally simple matters of observation or experience, and the whole process is speechless, which is all to the good.

The problem of motivation is the problem of metaphor. A metaphor refers to what things are like, not what they are. Thus a ‘need to achieve’ refers to a whole roster of cognitive intermediary events scarcely defined. However, when a term refers to real things, then we can put things together because we know exactly what we are talking about. Thus give someone a hammer, nails, and some two by fours, and one knows immediately what he can make of it. Similarly, biological and physical events refer to real things, thus we can understand and control our biological and material worlds because we not only know what we are talking about, but can communicate what we are talking about. A learning theory follows these ‘hard’ sciences by simply noting co-variations between observable behavior and determining the reliability of ‘lawfulness’ of those correlations. One good thing about this a learning perspective is that it makes explanations precise, useful, and short, as the following universally popular self help book (based on observation learning, such as stop signs) demonstrates.

The Most Popular Self Help Book of all time

The most popular self book is read by all, and usually by the time you are 18. By popular demand, it is printed by your local government and distributed free to eager readers. It has lots of illustrations, big words, and helpful hints. At first you can’t put it down, but after a time, you’ll never pick it up, ever. After you read it, you immediately put its practical principles to work, and it literally gets you to work on time, among other places. Indeed, it is so good and useful you’ll accept no imitations.

And the name of this wondrous tome to self improvement? It is none other than the rules of the road book issued by your friendly local Motor Vehicle Bureau. The book is so complete and so satisfying, there is no need for books like ‘An Idiots guide to Driving’, or ‘ The Seven Habits of Successful Motorists’, or yet again for episodes in Oprah when a Dr. Phil clone counsels tearful audience members on their inability to stop or yield. Indeed, as you drive about, you delight in learning how wise its counsel is, particularly when you are pulled over for speeding or driving without a brake tag. And needless to say, the rules of the road manual is the last self help driving book you’ll ever need.

A driving manual is the last word on the topic because of what it simply explains to you, namely the rules of the road. Whether you will obey them or not is besides the point. Consider yourself forewarned, which is of course to be forearmed. So breaking the road rules means get a ticket and a bit of anxiety, but you knew that was coming, so like death and taxes you deal with it.

A Must Read

Driving manuals are must reads because, well, you must read them. Not so for must haves such as cars, stereos and must see TV. For these, you need a subtle nudge to realize how badly you need them. And to read them you simply must read the advertising, which thanks to this google-ized world is coming at you right and left. Unfortunately however, must have requires first a must do. Whether it is mowing the lawn, writing the great novel, or losing weight, it’s not only introspection and peer pressure but Madison avenue that keeps the pressure on for us to behave better, smarter, and feel happier than the Jones’. That means of course self help advice, which marketing mavens are all to keen to provide.

When you first hear the marketing call as rhapsodized on the blurb on the jacket of a book jacket, self help is as beckoning as a travelogue well told and illustrated. It tells you of the exciting places and things you can see and do, gets you pumped up and ready to go, and supplies motivation through its very imagery. So you get in your SUV, start climbing the Andes, and promptly run out of gas.

Moral: There are no gas stations in the Andes. (But you knew that, or will pretty soon.)

Nonetheless, your aborted vacation won’t be the last, because there are other vacation spots beckoning, each irresistible in their own way, but lacking in one key element such as bath rooms, safe food, or convertible currency. But of course you know that, or will pretty soon.

Visit beautiful Afghanistan, a land of adventure and mystery, and
possessing almost every convenience.

As P. T. Barnum knew, there is a sucker born every minute, but at least we can find wise counsel somewhere that gives us the straight scoop on the myriad things that marketers entice us to buy. No so for self help, because psychologists are as clueless as well, and then there are all those marketing bucks. So we are left with self help, and whether it smacks of outright fraud or is simply Freud, it will tell you how exciting you are and the things you can do, and you also get pumped up and ready to go, and after a fast start promptly run out of gas.

Moral: There are no motivational gas stations in life.

The fact that after an initial burst of energy we run out of motivation and sputter back into our old habits should speak to the fact that there is something missing in the motivational equation, perhaps the psychological equivalent of gas. To this we answer with a simple experiment performed in 1936, and a simple answer that is quite literally, shocking.

1 comment:

Taylor said...

Motivation to people is not like gas to an automobile. We are evolved organisms. What motivates us are opportunities to behave in ways that have increased our survival and reproduction throughout our evolutionary history. It is not all that difficult to survive in the modern world and really its not all that difficult to reproduce if that is your goal.

What this leaves us with then is a puzzle. We want to do things that will make us happier. Things that will bring us great pleasure and at the same time increases our status and standing among our fellow men.

In our evolutionary past these were one and the same things. No longer is this the case. Taking difficult courses to learn new skills, taking business risks, practicing at a sport, etc, are not really all that pleasurable. What is pleasurable is watching TV. TV does next to nothing for your status and standing but it sure is enjoyable. 6hrs per day in most households. 6hrs!!! If you claim not to really enjoy it I hink you are kidding yourself. And that is the problem. What feels good is not good for us and what is good for us doesn't feel good.