In "Death of a Salesman" (1949), Arthur Miller taught us the importance of avoiding being "liked, but... not well liked." That phrase came to mind in reading Professor Louis Menand's critique of several self-help books. Being liked is OK, but being well liked is the winning ticket in life's lottery. If this is the (fair & balanced) solving of one's problems. so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Life Biz
By Louis Menand
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Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (2016) is Charles Duhigg’s follow-up to his best-selling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, which was published in 2012. The new book, like its predecessor, has a format that’s familiar in contemporary nonfiction: exemplary tales interpolated with a little social and cognitive science. The purpose of the tales is to create entertaining human-interest narratives; the purpose of the science is to help the author pick out a replicable feature of those narratives for readers to emulate.
What enabled the pilot to land the badly damaged plane? How did the academic dropout with anxiety disorder become a champion poker player? What made “West Side Story” and Disney’s “Frozen” into mega-hits? All that was necessary, it turns out, was one key tweak to normal mental functioning or group dynamics. “Mental models” helped the pilot land the plane. “Bayesian thinking” transformed the basket case into a winner at cards. An “innovation broker” brought “West Side Story” together, and “Frozen” became the highest-grossing animation film of all time because of a principle known as “intermediate disturbance.”
Other tweaks on offer in Smarter Faster Better include “creating disfluency,” “a bias toward action,” “SMART goals” versus “stretch goals,” and the concept of “psychological safety.” There are a few mind-sets to avoid as well (side effects may include crashed aircraft and the Yom Kippur War): “cognitive tunneling,” “reactive thinking,” and an exaggerated disposition for “cognitive closure.” Basically, the good stuff boils down to organizational buzzwords like “lean,” “nimble,” “flexible,” “innovative,” and “disruptive.” Negative stuff has to do with mindless routines, mechanical thinking, and the need for certainty.
There is not much to disagree with here, and that is one of the intriguing things about the genre this book belongs to. Not dozens or hundreds but thousands of titles like Smarter Faster Better are published every year, and they account for a disproportionate percentage of total book sales. Yet they mainly reiterate common sense.
Does anybody think it’s unwise to be lean, nimble, and innovative? Who needs a book to know that rote behavior and fear of uncertainty are not going to take us very far? It’s not startling to learn that organizations that nurture a “culture of commitment” are more productive than organizations that don’t, or that setting ambitious objectives can jump-start innovation. “People who know how to self-motivate, according to studies, earn more money than their peers, report higher levels of happiness, and say they are more satisfied with their families, jobs, and lives.” I can believe that. “Determined and focused people. . . often have higher paying jobs.” I won’t argue. “An instinct for decisiveness is great—until it’s not.” An impregnable assertion.
Probably the most famous book of this type is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which was published in 1936 and has never gone out of print. It is reported to have sold more than thirty million copies. I can tell you the lesson of that book in one sentence: If you are nice to people, they will like you. You just saved yourself sixteen dollars. (Not to spoil the reading experience, but the lesson of Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, is: Replace bad habits with good ones.)
As always, of course, the question is not What would Jesus do? but How, exactly, would He do it? Being super-nice to everyone is a virtuous aim, but, for most of us, it’s actually not that easy. Similarly, life’s unpredictability is universally acknowledged, but people get anxious anyway. The promise of books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Smarter Faster Better is not to tell us what we should be like but to give us tools for becoming that way, devices to get us from our native diffidence and clinginess to where we already know we want to be, friendly and adaptable.
So Carnegie didn’t only preach niceness. He provided tips for being nice. “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language” is one of his “Six Ways to Make People Like You.” (I can tell you from experience that this is true only if you know how to pronounce it correctly.) Duhigg’s advice is less concrete: “Find a choice, almost any choice, that allows you to exert control,” “Envision multiple futures,” and so on. But the idea is the same.
These all sound like ways to help you feel better about yourself, and maybe even be a better person. But the books are not beauty products for the personality, and that is not the reason people buy them. Most functioning people are probably OK with the personalities and temperaments that the Good Lord or natural selection has given them. They’ve learned work-arounds for their grumpiness and fretfulness. What they’re worried about is how others see them and, specifically, how employers see them. The clue to the real purpose of these books is the section of the bookstore you find them in. They’re not in the psychology section, and they’re not in with the diet and exercise books. They’re with the business books.
This is because books like How to Win Friends and Smarter Faster Better are essentially applied management theory. They try to sum up current thinking in the business world about “human resources” and transmute it into a manual for self-improvement. People don’t read these books to find out how to be better human beings. People read them to figure out how to become the kind of human being the workplace is looking for.
A great deal of the appeal of the books, and what makes them fun to read, is the exemplary-tales part. Duhigg’s are cleverly written, and in a detective-story style. This feature dates back to the very beginning of the genre, Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, published in 1859 (the same year as On the Origin of Species). Self-Help is a commodious compendium of exemplary tales, the stories of (almost exclusively) men who have made it in nearly every imaginable arena of human endeavor. One chapter has a discussion of great potters.
For Smiles, the key ingredient of success is perseverance. (Smiles was a Scotsman.) Josiah Wedgwood wasn’t smarter or more privileged or even luckier than the rest of us. He just kept at it. The important thing about perseverance is that everyone has it, or can potentially have it. For the premise—and the selling point—of these books is the insistence that the game is not rigged. If the prize is out of reach no matter what you do, there is no reason to improve yourself; writers like Smiles, Carnegie, and Duhigg are here to tell you that the prize is within reach. You just need to persevere, smile, tweak, get up an hour earlier in the morning, practice TM—whatever it is.
We buy the books because, deep down and until the universe compels us to admit otherwise, we all believe this about ourselves. When I was twelve, I was sure that, just by putting my mind to it, I could become a star basketball player. I would have bought any number of books offering to explain the secret ingredient of athletic success. I was eventually obliged to concede that factors beyond my control made basketball stardom unrealizable. Basically, I never had a chance. The game was rigged, in favor of people with, well, talent. Still, no one wants only what is there for the taking. What would we be if we didn’t try?
The key ingredient, the replicable feature of all success stories that explains why some people do better than other people, is not arbitrarily chosen. It reflects the nature of the economic times. When Smiles published his book, in the laissez-faire era of industrial capitalism, the novel feature of contemporary life for the sort of person who bought books like Self-Help was economic and social fluidity. Upward mobility was newly possible for many people, but so was downward mobility. Many of the novels of Smiles’s contemporary Charles Dickens are illustrations of the latter. Smiles made the case for diligence and dedication as the ticket upward.
Smiles was distressed when readers complained that “self-help” meant selfishness, or the pursuit of self-interest, and, in a later edition, he explained that “the duty of helping one’s self in the highest sense involves the helping of one’s neighbors.” This was not wholly coherent, and when the book came out it didn’t matter, because in a laissez-faire economy the pursuit of self-interest is a virtue. There’s nothing wrong with it; on the contrary, it’s supposed to be what makes markets work. (On the Origin of Species described the natural world similarly, as a place consisting of, at bottom, nothing but organisms single-mindedly pursuing reproductive success.)
One striking thing about the exemplary tales in Self-Help is the all-consuming nature of the careers they document. There is no separation between work life and private life. Personal prosperity and professional success coincide, and this elision became a staple of the genre. The secrets of success in business are the secrets of success in life. The reason that the nature of the secrets changes is that the nature of work changes. Different modes of work call for different types of people.
Let’s say you were running a steel company a hundred years ago. You would want the workers in your factory to perform physical tasks as efficiently as possible. You’d want them to be able to move large objects around quickly and operate heavy machinery with a minimum of rest or redundant effort. You’d be looking to maximize the ratio of output to time; that would be your measure of productivity. You would therefore want your workers to become habituated, through repetition, to a specified mechanical routine. You would not want them to do a lot of thinking on the job. You would reward the most efficient workers with higher wages.
The buzzword in this manufacturing economy was “efficiency,” and its bible was Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, first published in 1911. Taylor didn’t want workers to think about what they were doing; he wanted their actions to be designed scientifically by management to maximize speed. His chief illustration had to do with pig-iron handlers, men who moved large pieces of iron all day. That example might not seem a model for the practice of daily life, but, as Jill Lepore showed in these pages a few years ago, the value of “efficiency” was duly imported into the home in the form of home economics, a scientific approach to baking pies and cleaning dishes. “Efficient” moved over from a term of business to the name for a personality type.
If you owned an advertising agency fifty years ago, on the other hand, you wouldn’t care how much pig iron your workers could carry in an hour. You would want your account executives to have winning personalities, to be able to bond easily with other people, to be likable. You would want them to have manners tailored to attract the patronage and retain the loyalty of your customers. Their task would be to persuade, not to push. You would therefore want them to be able to conceal, maybe even from themselves, the manipulative and possibly mercenary nature of their relationship with clients, and to transform a business transaction into a friendly quid pro quo. You would reward the most successful account executives with lavish expense accounts.
This is, of course, the service-economy world of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Among the things that the book promises to do for its readers (in the original edition; these were omitted in later printings) are: “Enable you to win new clients, new customers,” “Increase your earning power,” and “Make you a better salesman, a better executive.” It’s nice to be nice, but it also pays.
The constant emphasis, reinforced by books like Carnegie’s, on calculating what other people think of you became a major subject for mid-century sociologists like David Riesman, who, in his best-selling book The Lonely Crowd (1950), distinguished between other- and inner-directed personalities. But, for readers of How to Win Friends, other-directedness was only an internalization of the advice to be likable. Other-direction had positive career value.
Today, if you were starting up a tech company (hey, maybe you are!), you would simply outsource your customer relations. In house, you would want your employees to be innovative and flexible, able to work in teams and adjust to new goals as they arose. You’d want to encourage your employees’ creativity by making them feel valued partners in the enterprise, active agents rather than code-writing drones. You’d be looking to maximize the ratio of brains to adaptability. You’d try to insure your employees’ commitment by making them feel that they were generating their own tasks and measures of performance, by having them “take ownership” of the workplace. You’d want reliable people who can also think “outside the box,” not people who think that successful performance means merely meeting preset goals. You would reward the most loyal employees with stock options.
Smarter Faster Better is a book for this economy, the information economy, and there are many more like it. One huge best-seller from a decade or so ago is Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? An A-Mazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life (1998). The book is an allegory about two mice and two Lilliputians looking for cheese in a maze, and the lesson is: Those not ready for change will be left behind. The values of flexibility, innovation, and so on all reflect this distinctive characteristic of the twenty-first-century workplace, where startups boom and crash daily.
I don’t work in a startup. I work in a brick-and-mortar university, one of the most institutionally conservative workplaces in the world outside North Korea. But my colleagues and I all value flexibility and innovation. We are against routine thinking and rote learning. We teach our students to think outside the box and to be comfortable with failure. We stress the importance of teamwork and interaction; we seek to have our students take ownership of the classroom and to insure that they have a psychologically safe space in which to discuss their ideas. We want them to be smarter, faster, better. If someone said, “Sounds like you’re running a startup,” most of us would be quite offended.
We didn’t consciously adopt those values from the contemporary workplace. But we have internalized them from the general culture. They are today’s praise words for a certain kind of human being. We admire people like this, and think they have a better chance for a fulfilling life, just as Samuel Smiles admired people who stick to one task through thick and thin, and thought they would be better human beings. Today, we would call most of those people inflexible and consider their single-mindedness a recipe for unhappiness, just as we tend to suspect people who are overly friendly of being manipulative or insincere.
It’s not surprising that every era has a different human model to suit a different theory of productivity, but it is mildly disheartening to realize how readily we import these models into our daily lives. We apply technologies of the self to our own selves, and measure our worth by the standards of the workplace. We can even be a little self-punishing in our efforts to become the sort of person who matches the model.
In his earlier book, The Power of Habit, Duhigg used, as an example of replacing bad habits, his own effort to stop interrupting his work every afternoon to eat a chocolate-chip cookie. For various reasons, this habit seemed to him undesirable, and he undertook a time-and-motion study (not unlike the kind Frederick Taylor pioneered, more than a century ago) to figure out why he did it. After several days of documenting the events leading up to the purchase and consumption of the cookie, he decided that he regularly wanted a distraction from his work at a certain time of day, and that this led him, other options not presenting themselves, to take a cookie break. He vowed to use that time every afternoon to chat with a colleague instead. He soon found that he no longer needed the cookie. He had management-theorized himself into becoming a more disciplined person. The story made me sad. Mr. Duhigg. Charles. Life is short. Eat the cookie. Ω
[Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001. His book The Metaphysical Club (2001) was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. Additional books by Menand are shown here. Menand also is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. Menand received a BA (English) from Pomona College and a PhD (English) from Columbia University.]
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