Last week, I spent the afternoon with a book called 8 To Be Great: The 8-Traits that Lead to Great Success, by Richard St. John. It's a two-hour read and I don't regret buying it, but you can probably guess what's in it from the title alone. The author interviewed or read about several hundred successful people (call me typically academic, but he never actually defines "success") and concludes that they have eight things in common. These include passion for what they do, a strong work ethic, good ideas, perseverance, and so forth. No real surprises.
Like many self-help books, it's written in that cloying, indifferently punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style that Strunk and White call "breezy" (example: "A cabin in the woods! Hey, maybe that's what I need. I mean there are so many distractions here in the city I'm having real troubling concentrating long enough to finish this section on concentration.") It's amiable enough, I suppose, but there's no particular reason to read it. There's a three-minute video on TED and a six-minute video on the author's website that sums up everything you need to know. The rest of the book consists mainly of supporting quotations from well-known people, followed by a brief and breezy annotation by the author.
Is this sort of advice actually helpful? It's hard to say. Most self-help books suffer from selection bias, and this is no exception. The author has interviewed the rich and famous and sorted their qualities into categories. But to be meaningful, an equivalent study would have to be conducted of unsuccessful people: bankrupt businesspeople, failed inventors, forgotten athletes, unpublished writers, penniless actors and artists, hated teachers, anonymous academics, and the like. We might very well find (in fact, I'd be surprised if we didn't) that many of them possessed the same passion, work ethic, focus, and perseverance as those who succeeded, but failed to succeed all the same, and for a very simple reason: because the universe doesn't care about us. In fact, if the universe does have some sort of guiding intelligence, there's every reason to believe that it hates us and wants us dead, after a suitable interval of tormenting us with a host of disgusting bodily infirmities and albums from the runner-ups on American Idol. What kind of god would give us both irritable bowel syndrome and Clay Aiken?
The fundamental problem with self-help books is that they convey the impression that life is fair and that we are in control of our own destinies. But this is a conclusion that no one with an acquaintance with history could possibly reach. Of course, we must take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our own actions, and I am grinding my teeth down to nubs from dealing with students who feel that they are entitled to academic accolades without working for them. But history is jammed to the rafters with people who did everything right but who were forced into bankruptcy by economic circumstances totally beyond their control; who were resented, hated, feared, and consequently held back because of their talents; who were victims of monolithic forms of racial, religious, or sexual prejudice; and who were making their way in the world just fine until suddenly they were buried by landslides, drowned by tidal waves, stricken with cancer, or killed by Nazis.
So much for the hideous pseudo-therapeutic daytime talk show piffle that "no one can make you a victim without your consent." Tell it to these people. Is their problem that they don't know The Secret? Do they not have enough perseverance? Perhaps they need to learn about neuro-linguistic programming. Oprah, after all, overcame her troubles with weight gain - several times, in fact. If she can do it, why can't they look on the bright side of famine and genocide?
I think you get the point. Before you go accusing me of making a strawman attack, you really should read my friend Alison Hunter's review of The Secret, a book that actually does say that if you're victim of, well, anything, it's because you've got a bad attitude. Let me, instead, leave you with much a better consideration of the human condition from the most famous and widely-read self-help book of them all:
(Ecclesiastes 9.11) I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.