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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Stand Firm – Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann (FP: 2014/2017)

Of all of the comments directed at me over the years one of those that has stuck with me (apart from the iconic ‘Die you Camping Bitch’) is one spoken to me by my now long ago ex-girlfriend: You’ll never get anywhere with an attitude like that. Meaning, of course, that I didn’t have the mind-set of a corporate drone (you can see why we inevitably broke up). I have always, or at least for as long as I can remember, been sceptical over the torrents of bullshit that rain down on us every day from Governments, Corporations, Advertisers, Schools, TV shows, Movies and especially the Internet. Over the years, indeed decades, I have had a great deal of pressure (and a not inconsiderably amount of flak) directed at me to conform, to dress appropriately, to smarten up, get with the programme, stop slouching and for god sakes smile occasionally! It’s all for my own good (of course) and much good will flow from it: happiness, success, recognition, money and (of course) the ultimate reward – sex.

Most people think that I’m a bit crazy even mentioning stuff like this so it’s good (I mean really good) to finally find an author from a different generation (he’s 41) and a different country (he’s Danish) who thinks pretty much like I do. Indeed for a while there as I consumed this slim volume (a mere 129 pages including Appendix) in record time I couldn’t make up my mind if it had been written for me or by ‘me’. That, naturally, was something of a problem. Agreeing with someone practically 100% is, well, boring. Luckily this book was entertaining enough and just ‘off centre’ enough, to say nothing of funny enough, to keep me interested.

Like me the author has become more than a little irritated at the way our culture (Western Democratic Capitalist) tells us how to behave in all circumstances and that failure to do so means that there’s something ‘wrong’ with us that needs to be ‘fixed’. We are told that life, in all its aspects, is speeding up and that it’s up to each of us to ‘keep up’ no matter what. We are told that we need to be mobile, flexible, and adaptable, always open to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways of doing things. We are told that roots are for losers, that relationships are ultimately disposable (especially if they don’t exclusively meet our needs). We are told that history, even our own personal history, cannot be trusted to guide us in the ever shifting present and the ever approaching and even more mutable future. Above all else we are told to smile, to have confidence and a positive attitude. That such a mind-set can get us over any obstacle and around any problem. Of course, the author says, that’s all arrant nonsense as well as being clearly absurd.

But what can we do, one individual against the whole of our culture, our family, our friends, our fellow workers? How can we possibly resist such a torrent, an avalanche of self-improvement advice? This is, naturally, where things got interesting and (as an interesting aside) validated much of what I had realised growing up in the late 20th Century West. We need, in a nutshell, to stand firm. The first step is to stop the every present naval gazing. The answers you seek are definitely not inside you waiting to come out. The answers you seek are out there in the world waiting for you to get up off your butt and find them. You need to focus on the negative – not constantly thinking about the better world just beyond your grasp but of all the things that could go wrong and all the things you could lose at a moment’s notice so that you value what you have much more than what you might have one day – maybe. You need to practice saying ‘No’ to the millions of offers directed at you every day. Saying yes to everything is impossible and frankly absurd. Saying no to somethings enables you to actually know why you’re saying yes to somethings and no to others. Stop emoting so much. You don’t need to allow your emotions to run (or ruin) your life. With a little effort you can keep them in check without being overwhelmed by the toxic backwash. When you control your emotions they are no longer controlling you and you can move into a calmer centre while all around you people go nuts over trivialities. If you have a ‘life coach’ or personal ‘guru’ ditch them. You don’t need someone else making life and death decisions for you based on the latest fad or best-selling self-help guide. Read a novel (I loved this bit of advice) rather than an autobiography – especially those who triumphed over hardship to become a better person on the other side – or yet another self-help guide. Novels give a much more rounded view of individuals in much more realistic environments than the self-edited ‘reality’ of autobiographies will ever give you. Finally dwell on the past (without the naval gazing) to put your life in some sort of perspective with narrative form and flow. See how things have changed over time. See the continuity deeply embedded in your historical and cultural environment. This will ground you in a way that you can easily shrug off the fad of the moment because you know who you are and where you came from. You’ll have roots deep enough and wide enough not to be battered by the many storms in countless teacups that seemingly upset so many so easily.

Some of you will have bells ringing with some of the above (in admittedly modern form). Even without frequent mention of the more famous practitioners I would have not been surprised that the Appendix at the back of the volume was a potted history of Stoicism. Like me the author is a huge fan of the Stoics although, again like me, he is not uncritical of some of their ideas. They have, we both believe and contend, much to teach us about surviving and thriving in a modern (apparently) fast moving world. Their teachings show us that we don’t have to be the leaves blown wherever the winds of our times take us. We can be the trees and quietly, with dignity, stand firm. Highly recommended – especially to those who find themselves struggling to ‘keep up’.

Translated from the Danish by Tam McTurk.  


Mudpuddle said...

If I wrote a book, this would be it... I totally agree with everything it says, the only difference being that I would stress that humans today are no diffent than ty always have been: sneaky, short- sighted, greedy selfish and stupid... With the occasional disconcerting propensity toward generosity, altruism, and perception, admittedly rare though those qualities are... Sounds like asan book. Il read it. Tx a bunch...

Brian Joseph said...

I am extremely skeptical of the self help, always be positive, craze.

With that it seems like there are so many ideas floating around out there, occasionally I find some that I agree with. I think that it is important to pick and choose carefully. I also agree that there is a lot more wisdom to be found in some of the great fiction writers then there is in all of the self help gurus. For a while I was on a kick recommending Shakespeare as the best self help writer out there (this may be an exaggeration :) ).

I also like the stoics but I think that they are not for everyone.

Stephen said...

This book sounds extremely compelling.

I wonder if the self-improvement obsession is a result of the individual self becoming the center of people's existence? That is, without the old things we used to tie ourselves to -- religion, country, family, vocation, whatever -- all we're left with is ourselves, and so we fixate on that.

Would you compare this book to The Age of Absurdity?

(Oh, and by the way: have you ever read The Shockwave Rider or True Names? I'm reading a book about the culture of early Internet users, hackers, etc and both came up. The first seems incredibly prescient, like an internet version of The Iron Heel. Here's an essay on it from Tor:


CyberKitten said...

@ Mudpuddle: As a species I think that we're despicable. The things we've done to each other, to other animals and to the planet we live on just doesn't bare thinking about for too long. Individually I've met some pretty neat people. In groups? Not so much!

@ Brian: Scepticism about much of what passes for culture these days is a very healthy standpoint - never more so in the 'positive thinking' craze. This is definitely a book I think you'd enjoy.

@ Stephen: This book had you written all over it [grin]. I think the self became self important [grin] from the late 1960's onward when people where told to go and 'find themselves'. The trouble started right there!

I think that it nicely compliments The Age of Absurdity.

I reviewed 'Shockwave Rider' back in Feb 2012. This is one interesting thing I said about it which is probably why you brought it up:

This book is, I think, above all else a very political book. It is a work deeply critical of modern technological society and what it does to the people – who are essentially still the same apes that trooped across the African Savannah millennia ago – forced to cope with change upon change without any opportunity to influence or effect what is being asked of them.