Walking through the local Waterstone’s trying to decide whether to buy the copy of On the Road I was carrying whilst simultaneously managing Beth’s expectations about the children’s section, although we would inevitably end up there the fact that I get no signal that deep in the bowels of the store and that I can’t let Beth go alone meant we browsed through numerous other sections first, an observation struck me. I had been discussing with a friend the proliferation of self-help texts and was actually looking for a business text when I made a scary observation. Of all the professional sections only business had self-help books! The artists seemed to manage with various histories and collections, the builders and architects with technical manuals and lawyers with books of law; but not business?
About half the texts we self-help books of the type found in the self-help section only with success and riches replacing well-being. Now at this point I have to admit to never having read one – no, that’s a lie, I once read one after a friend went on about it so much I thought I ought to. It took a couple of hours to scan through and was about as profound as a telephone directory (do they still exit?). This got me thinking (Waterstone’s not the book) and questioning why. Why it is that people need self-help books in business and not in art or other professions. Why is it that so called rational investors, entrepreneurs, businessmen and would be Dragons need to read a Californian pastiche of eastern religions in order to get through another day? Thinking sideways to people I know, statuses and blogs I read and the narratives around business it became apparent that there is a simple disconnect here.
Most people involved in business (sweeping statements being a speciality) are interested in the outcome not the process. They are interested in the car, the clothes and the position not fixing problems and finding new ways of working. I mean have we not spent the last week hearing how taxes are a disincentive to do business? Can you imagine an artist or a musician refusing to get out of bed for less that £1k a week? The art of business is there, it exists, but artists are rare. The linking of consumption with success is essential for the growth of consumption (guilt and fear of being perceived as a ‘failure’ being a powerful motivator) but these also seems to have sown the seeds of consumptions own limit.
Self help books will happily tell you it is all about the power of positive thinking or about having a vision or personal brand (funny article in Guardian Weekend on personal brands this week). Of course this implies that if you have not succeeded it is through lack of effort on your part – nothing external. Nice trick – quick buy another book to help you on the path to enlightenment. Of course this comes down to happiness I guess and worryingly we see that Cameron is going to measure that for us. There isn’t space to explore happiness here, and I am certainly not qualified to do so. However it strikes me that the link between happiness, success and consumption is flawed. When I think of my own life I certainly know I gain more happiness from the odd funny or sweet email than I do from any purchases I make, I know I enjoy more being in the middle of a construction, education or general business challenge or problem than I do from accolades associated with its completion or execution.
Rachel Cooke quotes Mill in her Guardian article today “"Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" Mill answered, for himself, “no” and I believe that this would be true for most people. Let’s face it why are we surprised that some (so called) celebrities that seemingly have everything seem so miserable, so dissatisfied, so greedy for more? Now, although I have never met them, it strikes me that some of the great actors of our time have actually been wealthy and content, that their wealth is a pleasant addition to something they enjoy and in no way an end in itself (maybe Eastwood, Samuel L Jackson, Audrey Hepburn?) – of course artists like this are not immune from battles to maintain mental health (Brando being a classic example perhaps) but I am wondering if those that love process rather than the trappings of success are simply happier and, ironically, better artists?
Here is a simple test for you. How much money would you need before not having to do what you do each day? I think if you can answer that you may have already failed. A dream to be a CEO ‘so I can retire on a good pension’ sounds like a failure to me (Buffet has a really funny quote on this but it’s a bit naughty – Google Buffet “work for McKinsey for a few years “ if you must). The number of status updates I read complaining about having to go to work, about being at work or calling for wine at the day’s end suggests to me there are a lot of people ‘looking for love in all the wrong places’ – and probably some more sales in Waterstone’s that weekend.
Oh and by the way, after flicking through a few pages in embedded Costa Coffee cafe I chose not to buy On the Road. Too many references to drugs. Not that I am a puritan, but I do find that oh so very boring at times.