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20 Nov 2013

Self-help isn’t what it used to be

Think like a millionaire and you will magically grow rich. In principle, this idea sounds perfectly reasonable. However, in practice it often proves ineffective. Rip It Up: The radically new approach to changing your life: The Simple Idea That Changes Everything by Prof. Richard Wiseman Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book Take visualisation. Hundreds of self-improvement books encourage readers to close their eyes and imagine their perfect selves; to see themselves in a huge office at the top of the corporate ladder, or sipping a cocktail as they feel the warm Caribbean sand between their toes. Unfortunately, research suggests this technique does not work. In one study led by Lien Pham at the University of California, students were asked to spend a few moments each day visualising themselves getting a high grade in an upcoming exam. Even though the daydreaming exercise only lasted a few minutes, it caused the students to study less and obtain lower marks.

Smiles promoted self-help as practiced or habitual independence, a disciplined husbandry of the inner man effected by means of action, economy, and self-denial. Given that Smiles published his aphoristic opus at a time when the nascent welfare state was represented by the grim apparatus of the workhouse that infamously unpleasant asylum for the destitute reorganized under the oppressive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834present-day readers may be taken aback by the animosity with which Smiles condemned all help from without: states and statutes could do nothing to make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Smiles denied the power of institutions to ameliorate individual vice and ignorance, and in anticipation of Margaret Thatchers notorious declaration that there is no such thing as society, he regarded nations as nothing more than aggregates of individual conditions. The remedy for social evil and decay thus resided not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action. Smiles ran with his self-help idea for some forty years, enjoying social and commercial success with books on related themes such as Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1880). Dying only three years after the state funeral of Queen Victoria, Smiles was quickly typecast as a spokesman for the worst hypocrisies of his era. In his socialist masterpiece The personal growth workshop Ragged-Torusered Philanthropists (1906), Robert Tressell lambasted Self-Help as bourgeois propaganda suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties, while more recently E. J. Hobsbawm added Smiles to his list of self-made journalist-publishers who hymned the virtues of capitalism (The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848: 1961). Surely these are justifiable indictments of a man whose best-known work opens with the parsimonious bromide, Heaven helps those who help themselves! Before we relegate Smiles invocation of self-mastery and laborious endurance to the dustbin of history, however, wed do well to recall the singular contribution made by his account of indefatigable industry to our contemporary culture of self-help.


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