I should say up front that I am not into self-help. I feel quite strongly that self-help shouldn’t be a thing. It definitely shouldn’t have a shelf in Waterstones. However, sometimes, just sometimes, I get a little glimpse of why it exists; why an increasing number of well-meaning thinkers, cynical opportunists and varying combinations thereof have managed to turn self-improvement, confidence and self-esteem into a multi-million dollar cash cow.
But pushing those money-milking udders to one side, there’s obviously a market there. Clearly the general idea of being ‘better’ is a really powerful one. Eating better. Exercising better. Working better. Living better. It makes sense. I mean, who doesn’t like the idea of that?
While this is probably a very positive impulse in the round (and has likely contributed to humanity’s progress from furry loincloths and spears to bumbags* and driverless cars), it’s interesting to think about the motivations behind that pro-active, self-help urge. After all, if someone wants to get better in the future, does that mean they think they aren’t good enough in the present? It could just be a really constructive desire to learn and be better, but also might be mixed up with feelings of inadequacy, or of a prohibitive lack of confidence. If you think it’s more the latter than the former (and based on some of the titles you’ll see in a typical self-help section, I think it probably is), it’s actually quite a depressing thought.
But before you give this blog up as the sort of theoretical downer that you definitely didn’t sign up for, let me give you an example of a skill/attribute that is so mythologised that it tends to really stir the self-doubt demons: creativity. It’s a subject that you can find endless content about, but it’s also the sort of thing that checks-in an awful lot of baggage. There’s this whole inaccessible stigma surrounding it – as though it’s some rarefied treasure to be bestowed on the deserving few, like a knighthood, or a Super Bowl ring, or a chocolate malted milk**. The dominant effect is a prevailing sense that you’re either creative, or you’re not (and if you’re not, then bow down before those that are).
Even worse, it’s the sort of insidious notion that’s wildly contagious. It just takes one person to declare ‘I’m not creative’ to plant a seed of doubt in someone else. Something along the lines of ‘well, if they’re not creative, then maybe I’m not either?’ and so on, until everyone is so convinced of their fundamental un-creativeness that it’s only those who are able to shut down (or ignore) that deep insecure recess of the brain that shouts painful, negative shit at us who are able to express anything approaching an idea. Obviously this is not a good state of affairs, but gets to the crux of why ‘creativity’ is considered, wrongly, to be such an inscrutable and idiosyncratic quality.
In fact (and this really is a fact!), creativity is completely self-fulfilling. The best way to ensure that you never have a good idea is telling yourself that you’ll never have a good idea. The best way to have a great idea is to believe that, sooner or later, you’ll have a great idea. Those lucky few who do have a great idea, will have discarded 28 good ones and 143 shit ones by the time they strike gold. The person who doesn’t has two or three ideas, decides they are all crap and then gives up. This isn’t to say people don’t have different levels of ability when it comes to developing those ideas into something tangible (or even shareable), but just to say that everybody is a creative person up to the point when they decide they aren’t one. What’s important is personal commitment to keep trying.
But there’s good in this too. Because as much as self-doubt is contagious, creative self-belief is even more so. In the most unashamedly selfish way possible, it’s exhilarating to see an idea that you’ve had transition from the squishy ether of your brain to the reality of existence. It’s glorious; a microcosm of everything that makes life fun. You remember that feeling. And when you see it happen to someone else, it reminds you all the same and bit by bit you build a solid pyramid of confidence that’s much more Ancient Egypt than it is Ponzi.
So, yes, for all my denials, I probably have strayed into self-help here*** but, screw it, I reckon it’s worth the risk because it’s so universally applicable. It’s accepted that certain jobs require creativity, but really that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Is there any person in any job, anywhere, who you would consider to be doing a good job, who isn’t being creative? I doubt it. In all its many, many forms, creativity is far more choice than it is enigma.
*a landmark in evolutionary development
**maybe this one doesn’t quite work, though you often have to work hard to find them these days
***it’s weirdly addictive, maybe that’s why Paul McKenna can’t stop