The introduction of a philosophy paper I wrote while studying at UC Berkeley.

The self-help genre has always been a popular lot, sharing an appeal similar to one would find with new year’s resolutions. So many individuals attempt at undertaking the “higher learnings” provided in the texts, with the hopes of improving their life by depending on the abundance of tips, tactics, and strategies that this set of literature provides. Nevertheless, truly digesting such literature is uncommon, with most individuals reverting back to their normal routines and selves after gathering that short boost of motivation. Why then is the genre oversaturated with similar content, repackaged over and over again, only for more individuals scurrying to buy the next read? Why are self-help books always at the top of the bestsellers list and constantly overhyped?

Throughout the ages and various epistemes, humans have rarely veered away from this notion of continued improvement; we always evolve in order to achieve success in some way or another. Perhaps this is more of a larger comment on human ingenuity and intelligence, but this innate need for constant improvement is a factor that is ingrained in the very being of what it means to be human. Why does this exist? Is this driving force one that is formed due to the societies and various ‘fields’ that individuals live in? Or is it something more intrinsic to the DNA of what it means to be human?

Regardless of the source of this great power, it can be argued that this driving force has also been manipulated over time by institutional powers that have many a time clamped down their ideals, whether right or wrong, as to what humankind should strive towards. Put forth initially through religious institutions through the existence of a God, a higher soul whose guiding principles define what is means to live a good life and be a good person. With the entrance of God, success became clear; there were step-by-step methods towards the attainment of this perfect self.

In some societies, success was defined as becoming one with God, as in Hinduism and Buddhism - Hindu and Buddhist principles encourage individuals to live by a certain code and purge themselves of any ‘karma’, in order to gain ‘enlightenment’. Other cultures and religions simply developed ‘values’ that a perfect individual would strive for. This perfect individual would not commit sin, and fall in line to respect, not harm, society. Though this concoction of sorts attempted to bring harmony and was for the betterment of how social groups operated, it arguably chained up individuals to a set of ideals. This early ‘penalty of the norm’ edified individuals to behave in certain ways, to the extent that it shifted their perspective on what their purpose was in life. A quote from Servan best describes this: “A stupid despot may constrain his slaves in chains, but a true politician binds them more strongly by the chain of their own ideas” (Foucault, 1995). In the process, this original form of self-help was able to harness and manage the multiplicity of the masses, and acted as a tool in depressing society into willingly conforming.

Centuries later, discussion centralizes around the rise of new forms of language, such as how fast capitalist, neoliberal texts are forcing the next revolution, where, yet again, institutions in power are able to “manage the multiplicity” (Foucault, 1995). Gidden’s notion of the reflexive project of the self dictates that all individuals are on their own journey, constantly monitoring and self-correcting, in order to “reshape their biological narrative” (Cameron, 2000). What if individuals are still naive, and when given a meaningful target, all reach out like moths attracted to the lull of a flame? Are individuals truly in control of shaping their own reflexive project of the self, or is attachment to institutional conventions, such as having a good job and a successful career, preventing them from truly enriching themselves? Is this modern-day, first-world determination of what success is just fueled by meritocracy? Or are there other elements to it?

The two research questions that will be considered throughout this paper are:

1. To what extent has the rise of neoliberalism influenced the development and uptake in the consumption of self-help books?

2. How has the popularization of self-help books garnered a newfound understanding of the reflexive project of the self and redefined the bounds of what constitutes as success?