Sunday, March 01, 2015

There are no Mulligans in life. On delayed gratification and other contemporary sins.

It's because of deceptively appealing sentiments like those depicted at left that I consider SHAMblog to be of such importance. (Saw it this morning on one of those "self-esteem-building" sites that proliferate on Facebook.) In our broad culture these days, there is very little counterbalance to this type of "inspiration." For all its frothy panache, Komiser's notion contributes to the ruination of the minds of the young people to whom it is endlessly sung: this mantra that you're supposed to be happy and fulfilled and "following your dreams" at all times... Uh, until one day you wake up and realize that you pissed away all those formative years when you should've been building something, preparing for something. You should've been laying a foundation for stability and security and true happiness, which is more about peace of mind and less about fun...and suddenly you're 25 or 45 or 65—as I am today, in fact. And it's too late to go back for a "do-over."

Today's abiding Happyism stands in stark opposition to the ethic with which our parents' generations, and their parents' generation, came of age. Back then the emphasis was on planning, on impulse control, on the components of what we used to call "common sense" or "being practical." Being a mature adult. (Now we scorn such imperatives.) Back then we understood, and raised our kids to understand, that sometimes (if not often) gratification must be delayed, because if you don't approach life with that mindset, you may end up living a life totally devoid of gratification. Irony of ironies.

"Arguably the greatest unintended consequence of all is that if you spend most of your time chasing happiness, you risk finding little of it."
We don't need to encourage our kids to be fanciful or hedonistic, because the selfish desire for gratification is the instinctive one, the one that must be socialized out of us (to some degree) if we are to be productive, congenial members of a functioning society. 

Alas, we react angrily to common sense nowadays. Telling a kid that an idea is "impractical" is made out to be tantamount to child abuse. Or God forbid you publicly dismiss your son or daughter as "a Dreamer." Because, after all, they're supposed to be Dreamers!!

But why belabor the point. Instead I'll give you some selected readings* on the topic (all of which I confess to producing), should you care to go further. 

"The Happiness Myth," from the Wall Street Journal, December 2007.
"Happy Talk," from the Wall Street Journal, October 2008. 
"Positively Misguided," from Skeptic, April 2009. 
"Please, Give Up Your Dreams," from the New York Daily News, February 2015.

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* Depending on your browser you may or may not have to register/pay for some of these sites. I've never been able to figure out how the algorithm works. Even on my own home computers, the first story above sometimes opens with no problems, and sometimes asks me to register. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Looking behind the headlines...a selection from SHAMblog's "greatest hits."

Although I have trepidations about nominating as a "greatest hit" a post focusing on a suicide in the family of one of my subjects, I think this item transcends such qualms due to its redeeming social value. It's a case where I believe that SHAMblog provides readers with an important missing piece of the puzzle, "the rest of the story," if I may appropriate the late, great Paul Harvey.

And can we stipulate before we start that the art is meant almost in self-parody? Yes, I am waging a battle for truth and justice, but I hardly see myself as Superman; anyone who really knows me and my circumstances would laugh out loud at the mere suggestion. I don't even own a cape. 

So here's my thinking:
1. Cindy Bassett and her former venture, the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety, have long been beset by controversy; this was all the more true in the years leading up to the second half of this post, which appeared originally in June 2013. My writing on the Center has generated greater reader interest than any other series in the 10-year history of the blog. Many readers have exhorted me to "keep digging." Some have chosen to recount their own experiences with the Center.

2. Based on feedback directed to me personally as well as discussions that have flared in my comments section and in forums devoted to the Center, it's clear that I exposed a sizable contingent of consumers to new information...which they then used in deciding against a purchase they realized they would have regretted. No, it is not my job to tell people not to patronize self-help gurus. I simply want to equip them with info to which they're entitled as they evaluate self-help's role in their lives and in society. 

3. If it is gauche for me to blog cynically about a family that has been touched by suicide, then is it not at least as gauche for someone to exploit that same tragedy as the theme for the next in a series of consumer products? For while the death of David Bassett was surely a tragedy of unprecedented dimension in Lucinda Bassett's life, the basic pattern we see here was nothing new. From the outset, Cindy used the drama of her own life (some of which may be only "Brian Williams true") as the template for her outreach to vulnerable Americans who felt that she uniquely "spoke to them" because of what she herself had gone through. Without the added context I provide, how many consumers would be predisposed to take Bassett's spiel at face value?

4. Which brings us, finally, to the more general Fairness Question: Steve, how come you only seem to present the ugly side of self-help? This deserves a lengthier explanation, but the skinny is that if you want to see/hear/experience the so-called wonders of self-help and its foundational concepts (e.g. self-esteem), all you need do is turn on almost any morning talk show, go on Facebook, walk into any bookstore, attend any speaking event sponsored by your company (these are often mandatory), etc. Reinforcement of self-helpeven the most predatory kindis ambient and ubiquitous in American culture. I dare say, before SHAM and a small basketful of other books came along in 2005 or so, there was really no serious rebuttal to any of this stuff to be found anywhere; meanwhile, the top gurus were getting a daily/nightly platform from Oprah, Larry King and everyone else. Still today, it's just assumed that this stuff is "the right way to think." So if I'm doggedly contrarian, as in that recent essay for the Daily News, it's with good reason. 

Following is my original post.

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Courtesy of one of our regularswho also happens to have some first-hand knowledge of Lucinda BassettI received today this quote from page 258 of Lucinda/Cindy's new book*, Truth Be Told: A Memoir of Success, Suicide, and Survival.

Though she does not mention me by nameand I hope I'm not being self-aggrandizing in assuming that she's referring to meI have to think her use of the word sham is intentional. Here's the passage, in which she writes of her son's accidental discovery of my blog.

He'd been looking for something on the Internet and found a blog full of speculation and misinformation about how and why his father had killed himself. An aggressive blogger, a guy who apparently likes to write vicious, untrue blogs about people in an attempt to provoke a response, wrote that David committed suicide in our own backyard. Then he said that he killed himself because he knew our product was a sham."
"Mom, get that stuff about Dad off the Internet!"  Sammy shouted through his tears.
A few things. Assuming she's talking about me, she's specifically talking about my post, "A Death in Malibu," current holder of this blog's all-time record for most comments. Note that I do not say that David Bassett killed himself in their "own backyard." I say, in my first line, no less, "This past June 7, 53-year-old David Bassett walked onto a California beach and ended his life with a shotgun." That is not speculation. It is based on information contained in the June 12, 2008 edition of the Malibu Surfside News, and a follow-up conversation with the newspaper's very hands-on publisher, Anne Soble. Ms. Soble had spoken to the coroner. And insofar as whether I correctly identified David's tool of choice, here's a screen shot from Lucinda's own site, devoted to the book**:
While most people who commit suicide use a firearm over every other method combined, solving that problem isn’t as simple as removing guns from the home. That’s what we did for David and he was still able to get a hold of a shotgun.
So I had the general location right, and I had the gun right. ... Where's the misinformation?

And now we have my supposed contention that David killed himself "because he knew our product was a sham." Sigh. I did not say anything of the kind, and there was no "speculation" to that effect. I simply noted the irony: One would expect people hawking a foolproof method for beating anxiety and depression (as per the tenor of their own advertising) to be able to use that proprietary methodology to beat their personal demons. But faithful readers will know that I have recently rethought that whole proposition and revised my emphasis. See this post.

In closing, I choose to think that Cindy Bassett is talking about me. I also choose to think that her coloring of what I said epitomizes her general disregard for truth, and her inclination to rewrite history in whatever way suits her needs of the moment. The individual who sent me this tip knows Cindy very well, and contends that her book is full of such rewritten history. So even if she's not writing about me here, I suspect there's a good deal of convenient untruth in Truth Be Told..

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* New then, which was June 2013.
** That site has undergone considerable modification since then.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Guest post on the good, the bad and the ugly.

Received an email the other day from a gentleman who wanted to know my main gripe about self-help and its resident gurus. When I replied, more or less, "I sorta wrote a book about it," he replied with what follows. 

I publish this with his permission. He has asked to be identified simply as "Anonymous."

You raise important points; often people in desperation cling to anything that can give them hope, no matter how faint and costly. This is a field wide open to charlatans and schemers, and it has always been the case.
It was against the samurai code to exploit other people's misfortunes. We have no such codes today.
My question though is more like, by being so critical, are we not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
If I may, let me state what is bad and good with self-help, using some examples close to home:
[Ed note: I wrote a deceptive headline. He omits the "ugly."]
THE BAD
A friend of a very good friend of mine (a Hungarian lady, very pleasant on the eye) attended a Tony Robbins conference. She was so excited she wanted to take the next step. And what was it? She signed up for €100,000 worth of training, with 10% paid upfront. When she realized what she had done, there was no turning back. She was on the hook. What they said is that she would find a way to get over this. And eventually she did, by raising funds from three wealthy Hungarians. She now works for their institution.
I'm sure all of the schemers have similar programs. People should realize that to change and improve their lives it takes a lot of introspection and hard work. Most of us are just not up to it. But that does not stop the huge marketing machine of TV and publishes to foist these programs on unsuspecting people. And that's really bad, with the consequences you very rightly outlined.
THE GOOD
In fairness, I'll use Tony Robbins here again. A former colleague attended his conference in the early 2000s. He said it changed his life by giving focus. He is now a very wealthy guy, after starting a few businesses that worked out spectacularly after that. Was it thanks to Tony? Who knows...but it helped in his case. [ED NOTE: If we don't know if it was "thanks to Tony," how do we know it "helped in his case"?]
And Tony counts among his clients some very bright and intelligent people like Paul Tudor Jones, Andre Agassi and others who credit him with getting their lives back on track. I certainly think there is a lot of merit in interviewing the brightest people who have "made it," spot the commonalities and see if they can be replicated. This is the crux of Tony's latest book, which, coming from the financial world, I can say that it makes a lot of sense (including going after the mutual fund industry).
Moreover, science is now backing some of these self-help claims. Like how your subconscious influences many of our actions [ED NOTE: Just "many"? I would argue that we never know consciously why we do anything; nor do we have any choice in doing it], the importance of having goals and so forth. There are a couple of decent "self-help" writers that I would recommend, such as Eric Barker and James Clear. They put their stuff out for free, and try it on themselves as they go along.
And perhaps this is the crucial differentiator: whose interests do you have in mind when you peddle out self-help advice? Certainly charging thousands for it seems like a scam, but there are some good honest people out there.
That said, I think we should all learn to go through life on our own, without having gurus or parents or others telling us what we should do. That's the only way we can be free. But I do cherish the advice of many sage people I have met along the way - unfortunately my gut is not all that reliable!*
* In a prior exchange, I had suggested to Anonymous  that he would "know in his gut" if he were in the presence of a scammer. On further reflection, what he says is likely true for many of us: Our guts are not that reliable. If they were, we wouldn't have so many successful con men and Ponzi schemes, so many bad marriages, so many cancerous guts, etc. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Update, "Please, give up your dreams."

The largely acerbic response to today's Daily News essay (which for much of the day has been the most-read and most-shared story) illustrates the magnitude of what we're up against in this noble battle we fight against empowerment/entitlement/magical-thinking lunacy. You cannot safely argue for sanity, common sense or pragmatic probabilities nowadays. As a culture, we are just so invested in dreams and hopes and, yes, fantasy. And if you attempt to bring people back down to earth, you provoke a great deal of ire that may manifest as some nasty recriminations that can get quite personal.

Not that we want to drift too far afield here, but this same phenomenon helps explain why some people are certain that vaccines cause autismdespite evidence to the contraryand why climate change deniers feel perfectly comfortable dismissing the mounting/redundant body of science supporting the concept. In addition we have growing numbers of political candidatesfor meaningful officeswho'll publicly espouse the notion that creationism should be given equal academic footing with evolution, such that the "two theories" are taught side by side.

It just doesn't fit with my world-view is considered an acceptable mentality in today's solipsistic culture. Each of us feels entitled to decide what our personal reality is, just as each of us feels entitled
to see our personal dreams fulfilled. However "well-meaning" some of it may be, it isn't just eccentric anymore; it's pathological.

A writer can point out, quite sensibly I thought, that there's only one starting shortstop for the Yankees, and for the past two decades that shortstop was Derek Jeter, and critics will come back with, "Oh, so the Yankees are never going to have another shortstop?" (The scariest part of such rhetorical barbs is... Well, I ask myself, do people really see that as a winning riposte?) In any case, it totally misses the point. Yes, the Yankee lineup will feature another shortstop, and if he's good he'll hold down the position for a number of years, during which time none of the several million other kids who had their hearts set on that slot will get it. They'll be frozen out, just like the approximately 60 million kids* who were frozen out by the Reign of Jeter.

It is not blasphemy or "negative thinking" to point such things out. It is simply fact.

Or do we insist on living in such a dream world that we've lost all reverence for fact?
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* Little League boasts a global membership of 3 million per year. It is true that some of the same kids player year after year, so it's not a unique 3 million every season. But many of the same players play in Major League Baseball each year as well, so it's not as if all of the starting spots are up for grabs all over again each spring. And, lest we forget, there are other youth baseball leagues, too, so the odds against any given player making it are even worse. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Please, give up your dreams."

The other day I alluded to a forthcoming essay that would serve as context for this post. Well, it has now forthcome, in today's New York Daily News, under the revised title for this post, above. And as I re-read the piece with a fresh eye, it's one of my favorite riffs on a topic I've visited a number of times.

By the way, I must thank News opinion-page editor Josh Greenman for his deft editing and his oversight of the total presentation, which is marvelous. I couldn't have hand-picked better art or written better captions. Gotta love the "This can't happen to you" under the shot of Jeter!

Again, I encourage you to check out the linked posts and articles below as well.
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We spend way too much time trying to childproof life for our kids. Instead of (a) teaching them that life will have hurdles and (b) helping them develop the mettle to overcome those hurdles, we helicopter over them and instead try, as parents, to remove all the hurdles. We try to ease their path in every possible way. Not only is this a tremendous source of anxiety for us, say the shrinks, but as Sir Charles might put it, it's a turrible thing to do to our kids. 



Children raised in such an environment grow up thinking that life is a breeze, that they can (and should) be happy all the time...that it's Life's job to make it so. In any case, they do not develop the coping mechanisms that they will one day need to tackle Real Life, which inevitably is going to contain its share of failure, loss and heartbreak. Such is the ironic fallout of one of the core pop-psychology initiatives of the past half-century, the self-esteem movement that began formally in American schools and then metastasized informally pretty much everywhere else. (See under "law of unintended consequences.")

We do our kids no favors by endlessly chanting, "You can do anything you want in life!", "Don't ever give up your dreams!", "You can even be president if you like!", "No mountain is too steep, no challenge too difficult!", blah blah. I've addressed this point ad nauseam in my book, in other blog posts, in numerous pieces for this or that or the other or still another publication, and in practically all of my several hundred appearances on radio and TV, so I won't belabor the point here. The bottom line is that the best thing you as a parent can do for your child is to let your little Jordans or Tatums* experience garden-variety adversity and equip them with the COPING SKILLS to handle same. They must build up antibodies against defeat, as it were, so that in the future, even if they're not quite immune, at least they're less likely to catch a full-blown, fulminating, fatal case of it. 

Make your kids understand that the world isn't necessarily their oyster, that life is tough and competitive and often unforgiving, that there is no beneficent universe out there that exists to pointedly serve their needs. (Yes, you must also equip them with resiliency and the determination to keep trying as long as it is reasonable to do so; it's a balancing act. Hey, no one said parenting is easy.) Help the kids develop a thicker skin and a philosophical way of accepting defeat (while also instilling the notion that defeat may just be temporary).

Otherwise, two things:

1. They will come of age with a way-inflated sense of their own place in the solar system.
2. They will crumble in the face of Real Life as soon as they're removed from your perky little bubble of influence.

In which case their fallback coping skills may consist of copious amounts of booze or weed or sex or worse, and/or an abiding bitterness or anger or self-loathing, and/or, sometimes, not often, but just maybe, an assault rifle.

* I picked popular unisex names, so feel free to picture little Jordan or Tatum as your son or daughter