Surely you’ve seen this inspirational quote. “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
As questions go, it’s a potentially telling one. In line with, “What would your last meal be?” And “Do you prefer cats or dogs?”
As inspiration goes, however, it’s problematic. Because it’s not just a question, is it? Hidden between the lines is an implication: You should attempt that thing you’d do if you knew you could not fail. Put another way, it would be ideal to pursue what’s in your heart, regardless of the success or failure that follows.
That’s a pretty bonkers thing to say. It makes good sense to be concerned about the potential success or failure of your actions.
We humans are wired to perceive and be reinforced by cause and effect. If you eat food and it stops the grumbling in your belly, you do it again. If you put your hand in a fire and it hurts, you don’t do it again. If you don’t perceive and then predict cause and effect, your brain is probably not working very well. If you don’t care what the cause and effect is, your brain is definitely not working very well.
As a one off, this particular quote may not seem like a big deal. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Don’t yuck my yum!” Or the ever-popular social media admonishment: “Scroll on by!” Here’s the thing: This is part of a bigger problem, and it’s something we need to talk about.
Do you know who said “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I didn’t. Turns out it was Robert Shuller. Shuller was an Evangelical televangelist like his buddy Billy Graham. His net worth was reported to be $5 million. Now, I believe that people should be compensated for their labor, and I don’t fault him for making a livelihood. So why bring it up? Thank you for asking. I will tell you.
I think Shuller’s net worth is relevant information because it reminds us of something important. Ultimately, Shuller was a salesman. He was a very good salesman, in fact. He was able to sell to the same people again and again, grasping that holy grail of business: Creating repeat customers.
One way to make sure that people come back is to make sure they keep needing your specific brand of help. If self-help lives up to its name, folks get help. They don’t need that particular help any more. They don’t come back.
Shuller and many other folks in the self-help space profit off of our inability to live up to the appealing but ultimately inappropriate expectations their preachings lay out. If the messages were too overtly unattainable, it would be easy to disregard them. The problem, the reason that I am writing this, is that so much of the messaging is insidious. It is hard to see. Their messages are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Let’s go back to Shuller’s quote at the top. What did you feel when you read it? I know I felt a burst of warm goodness as I fantasized about my life uncoupled from my fears. In other words, I got a dopamine hit. Then, almost as soon as I noticed this good feeling, I felt ashamed. Because the truth is I am not living my fantasy life. My life is good, no doubt, but there are a lot of mundane concerns that drag down my days.
This little emotional journey is what keeps folks coming back to certain subsets of self-help culture. And it takes place so covertly that it can be hard to see that is what is happening. It is a kind of gaslighting.
It is also a brilliant business strategy. We will always be human. That can’t change. By recasting our collective human traits as private flaws, self-help gurus create lifelong customers.
And consuming we are. Self-help is big business and Shuller has not been the only one to profit from it. In 2016, self-help clocked in as an $10 billion a year industry. I’d argue the real number is probably much larger. After all, self-help is also behind a lot of businesses that aren’t classified as such (hello Instagram influencers!).
I believe we should be clear about what we’re buying and what we’re being sold along the way.
The reason I know this quote and bothered to dig into its context is that I am a self-help connoisseur. I love a good strategy for making life better. But I am also someone with a graduate degree in psychology. And I am sick of seeing self-help quotes make the rounds that implicitly shame us for being normal humans and then profit off of our shame. We can do better.
It is a deceptive and unnecessary practice. Humans have an internal drive to never be satisfied and this includes with ourselves. This drive is called hedonic adaptation. It is another thing we don’t need to be ashamed of, and it makes self-help and humanity a natural fit.
However, when we turn to self-help and inspiration and are made to feel ashamed about what is inevitable, we feel isolated. And an isolated human is an unhappy human. Perhaps you’ve heard that the worst punishment throughout history was considered banishment, being forced into permanent separation from the group. It is a cruel thing to do, to make us feel alone for being human. It’s unkind and it’s manipulative, even if it is cloaked in a white script font on a Pantone Living Coral background.
At best, it’s a cheap trick that we don’t need to accept.
Being human is not a personal failing, and no one should be made to feel that way — especially when they are seeking help and inspiration.
THIS is why I will not scroll on by.
This essay has also appeared on Medium