January 21, 2019

Enough Books About Positive Thinking

“Self-help—the enemy of the uncalm—is, unsurprisingly, an American phenomenon. It evinces a sensibility well suited to a country where the self has always been the most relevant unit. One of its earliest practitioners was none other than Benjamin Franklin, whose 1758 get-rich-quick manual, The Way to Wealth, frames labor as a cure for poverty and acumen as a cure for destitution. “Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright,” he writes. “When you have got the philosopher’s stone, sure you will no longer complain of bad times, or the difficulty of paying taxes.” Franklin’s advice was as false as it was appealing—who wouldn’t prefer to pay taxes in the inexhaustible currency of self-improvement?—and it reinforced a myth that blue-collar Americans would find difficult to relinquish or escape.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Protestant working classes had developed a robust appetite for books with names like Pushing to the Front and The Way to Win, which counseled that a strong character was the key to a healthy fortune. These Gilded Age exercises in self-aggrandizement blazed a trail for the treatises on winning that began to emerge in the late sixties and early seventies, when self-help as we know it began to flourish in earnest. Born to Win (1971), Winners and Losers (1973), Winning through Intimidation (1974), and The Winner’s Notebook (1967) promised to distinguish the wealthy wheat from the indigent chaff—and thereby set the stage for Trump’s oeuvre, in which winners reign supreme. In Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life (2007), which rose briefly to the top of Amazon’s personal finance bestsellers in 2015 but which nonetheless proclaims itself the preserve of a vanishingly small elite, Trump’s ghostwriter reflects,

to be successful you have to separate yourself from 98 percent of the rest of the world. Sure, you can get into that special 2 percent at the top, and it is not just by being smart, working hard, and investing wisely. There is a formula, a recipe for success that the top 2 percent live by and you too can follow.

If the remaining 98 percent of people follow the formula, will they somehow come to comprise only 2 percent of the population? What are such patent mathematical impossibilities doing in a guide to business savvy, anyway?”

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