Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Just "choose" an attitude of success? Yeah, right.

I encountered this infographic yesterday, linked from an article at empirella.com, made by one MaryEllen Tribby:

Supposedly, it's based on real research statistics and stuff. It appeals to me, I guess, because it confirms a lot of what I want to believe is true. The idea seems to be that being a decent and open-minded person will lead to greater success, while being bitter and mean-spirited won't. Certainly, I should think that's a good way to be happy, if nothing else.

Two things that strike me, though:

1. I don't think you can pigeonhole people into one type or the other. I think we all have some of each category in us. More interestingly, I know that I exhibit habits of action and mind from both categories at different times in my life, or hell, even different times of the day. 

2. You could just as easily label these two columns "secure people" and "fearful people."

In short...I don't think these kinds of attitudes are as easily and cleanly chosen as we might want to tell ourselves. It's all very well to write this type of self-help motivational article or a similar kind of book and enjoy the affirmation you can get from other people reading your observations and recognizing the obvious truth in them, but, well...obvious truth is obvious.  After all, how many people do you know who would really argue with the idea that it's better to be in the habit of reading than of watching TV? Or better to be open to change than to fear it? Or to be forgiving instead of holding a grudge? Not many.

We like to tell ourselves a pretty lie about how easy it is to embody these kinds of attitudes simply by recognizing the value of them and then "doing it," but in reality, it's far from being that easy. Fearful emotions and responses come from somewhere, even when they're irrational or disconnected from the reality at hand. You can't just wish them away anymore than you can wish away that funny noise coming from your car's engine; you have to get under the hood and figure out what's going on.

Unfortunately, the myth of easy choice makes people less and less likely to do that sort of looking. Trying to root out the causes of your envy, your critical attitude, your fear or your compulsion to lazy unplugging requires admitting that you have those feelings. And we're not supposed to have those feelings, because what kind of icky person would "choose" to have those feelings in the "first place"?

Well...someone who's scared, of course. Which is pretty much everyone, at times.

The rare times when we do admit to having these feelings, we tend to be so ashamed that we look for ways to avoid taking ownership of them. The most common means of doing this is to attribute the attitude to something external rather than our own internal makeup and collection of neuroses. You know the sort of thing: she made you angry, that performance by your rival objectively sucked, everything has to be quid-pro-quo because that's just the way the world is,  what he did was unforgivable. We avoid "I" statements, we avoid responsibility. We are victims of our circumstances.

Now...here's where it gets interesting...

If I was going to follow the standard-issue sort of self-helpy, motivational line here, I would say something about how the best way to move past this mentality is to pull yourself up by your own psychological bootstraps. I might then illustrate this point by talking about a time in my life when I was predominantly angry, scared, unmotivated, critical, obsessed with what I was entitled to and always asking what was in it for me. Naturally, the turning point in my story would go like, "blah blah blah, and then one day I REALIZED it didn't have to be that way, and then blah blah blah."

But that would be bullshit (pardon my French).

I did have a period in my life like that. However, I didn't just wake up one day and suddenly realize that the world could be all positive, confident, believe-in-yourself and collaborate goodness where cheaters don't prosper, hard work pays off and the success of others won't take away from mine. These were not new messages to me. What changed is that I came to believe them, and I believed them because other people convinced me.

There is no possible way I could have done it on my own. Sure, I figured things out, I fought, I did the work I needed to do, but I had massive help every step of the way. I had a husband who was loving, patient and insightful beyond any reasonable expectations. I had family members who wouldn't hang up on me even when it was painful to keep talking to my sorry, inconsolable and tantrum-throwing ass, who gave me financial support when I needed it and gave it with no strings attached.

I had the help of perfect strangers in a society that, for all its flaws, has advanced. Where once upon a time, a suicidal person could expect to be threatened with Hell and public execution, I pressed three buttons on a tiny machine in my pocket and got real, compassionate help and protection. I had friends who visited and supported me in this time. I had psychiatric medication, and when the medication outlived its usefulness, I drew upon a wealth of helpful information researched and published by total strangers in order to be able to help myself out with changes in diet and lifestyle.

In addition, I had books written by experts that elucidated aspects of the human condition and psychology with brilliant honesty and insight, helping me to understand what was going on with my emotions and my mental health. I had free access to these books because of a public library system, which I used because my mother raised me to.

Okay...you see what I did there? I believe that's what MaryEllen Tribby would call giving other people credit for my victories. That's a "successful" habit, but that's not why I did it: I did it because it's the truth.

I do wonder what someone like MaryEllen might say about that. As far as I can tell, her self-help website (workingmomsonly.com), for whatever genuine value it may have (and I'm sure there's plenty), doesn't seem to deviate from the standard "pull yourself up by sheer willpower" model. It seems to very much follow the popular formula for magazines and websites of this genre: explain what the habits of success are...but don't bother asking how we can get ourselves to follow them or, most importantly, why we don't now. Much like the weight loss industry, the self-help industry thrives upon repeat business - meaning, of course, people who aren't really being helped.

Looking at this infographic, I can see why: for all the time it spends hanging out in the world of the left-hand side of this image, this industry also spends an awful lot of time playing into the fear-based attitudes of the right-hand side. The very idea of self-determined, independent self-help is an attitude based in fear, for it assumes that you have to help yourself because hey, no one else will. Attitudes of entitlement permeate the business - how many times have you seen a book, seminar or video promising it'll help you get the life you "deserve"?  Promises of hoarded, valuable information are commonplace, along with "secrets" to success that'll blow away your competition. It nutures grudges as it tells you to stay away from certain kinds of "toxic influences" or "crazymakers." It uses celebrity appeal - the better to attract those who are more interested in people than ideas. Above all, it fosters an attitude of competition, a sense of how important it is to be a "winner" and separate yourself from the "losers."

Honestly, though, I can't be too hard on the folks in the self-help industry. I don't think they have any evil, manipulative agenda in mind, they're just reflecting the general cultural attitude. That attitude is...confused, to say the least.

It's time to stop looking at happiness and success in terms of what we should do and start looking at them in terms of what does happen. The reality. And the reality is, success doesn't come from free will and rugged individualism. It comes from love.

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