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The American Project of the Self
Self-improvement as Ideology and Method
Robert A. Harsh
A week of evening, prime-time television broadcasts the message loud and clear: in America, it really is all about you in the never-ending quest for self-improvement. On “reality TV” it’s winner-take-all; survival of the fittest; ruthless upward mobility; winning a job with Donald Trump or Martha Stewart; a “complete make-over” for your house and your self; a new, thinner you; and perhaps the grand prize: instant public celebrity as an American Idol. In the same competitive spirit, game shows can make you rich and send you off in a flashy new car. It’s the primordial American Dream rolling on into the twenty-first century, always ready to re-imagine, improve, and even transform our most precious personal capital-our selves.
The literary reflection of this promise is the ever-expanding and best-selling shelves of self-improvement literature replete with strategies, diagrams, charts, and techniques for the old self made new–ever-hopeful self-help Global Positioning Systems to guide us along our upward ways. And for those willing to shed the unredeemed skin of the old self, evangelical religion can add an even deeper promise of being “born again.”
It wasn’t always this way in eighteenth-century Colonial America, which more often envisioned a repentant, pilgrim self never fully able to move on its own out of the shadows of Original Sin and alienated self-absorption. For instance, Quaker John Woolman on his travels throughout the colonies to convince slaveholders to manumit their human chattel tries hardest to keep his self subservient to God’s truth. In fact, far from being medals of honor and achievement, worldly success and wealth are for Woolman a snare, a distraction, and a waste of God’s precious time.
…if such as had great estates generally lived in that humility and plainness which belong to a Christian life…and thus led the way to a right use of things, so a great number of people might be employed in things useful, that labor both for men and other creatures would be no more than an agreeable employ, and divers branches of business, which serve chiefly to please the natural inclinations of our minds, and which at present seem necessary to circulate that wealth which some gather, might, in this way of pure wisdom, be discontinued (Woolman 262).
Woolman seeks instead a “bowedness of spirit,” “the plain ways of true virtue” (220), “perfect resignation” (280), a “meek, feeling life of truth” (326), and “the inward reward of quietness” (218) that finally negate the self, so that “[God’s] gift is pure; and while the eye is single in attending thereto the understanding is preserved clear; self is kept out” [italics added] (326). In fact, Woolman, far from the modern “dressing for success,” literally dons sackcloth as an outward sign of his inner resignation, since “the thought of my wearing hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them, has made lasting impression on me” (262). And unlike modern self-improvement guru Anthony Robbins, Woolman seeks not to “awaken the giant within” (Robbins) but instead to suppress the self as a distraction from simple, faithful attendance upon God’s word and direction.
Woolman’s paradigmatic self is thus a “congruent” servant, seeking first to ensure that right actions follow right beliefs. It is a self more confessing than improving; more dutiful than empowered; more called than driven; more humbled than self-aggrandizing.
Sharing the civic, political, and religious life of early Philadephia with Woolman was Benjamin Franklin, America’s perennial “self-made man” and arguably the quick-witted founding father of American self-improvement ideologies from then to now. While Woolman’s faith centers in self-sacrifice, Franklin instead delights in successful entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and public service as the hard-earned emblems of thrift, perseverance, and worldly-wise self-promotion. At the same time, Franklin exemplifies the broader development of American urban and commercial life out of simpler agricultural beginnings.
Franklin’s Deism, unlike Woolman’s Quakerism, reduces Christian beliefs to essential, practical truths that reinforce and inspire worldly success. Thus, while for Woolman all virtue depends on self-negating confession and prayer, Franklin instead sees religion as a reinforcement for civic and personal virtues.
I grew convinc’d that truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form’d written resolutions, which still remain in my journal book, to practice them ever while I lived. Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertain’d an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in our own natures, all the circumstances of things considered (Franklin 58).
In one portentous literary flourish, Franklin here marks the profound shift from congruent, confessional religious ethics to civic responsibility and self-reliance reinforced by religious belief. Virtue and right living are thus no longer grounded in divine revelation but instead “in our own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.” Man thus becomes the measure of his own virtue in the quest for the improvement of the self. Functionality and worldly accomplishment replace congruent faith as the standard against which success or failure are measured. The entrepreneurial, achieving self displaces the pilgrim, self-denying soul
At the heart of Franklin’s practical ethics is a list of 13 virtues underlying effective living and citizenship. These virtues include temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and–admittedly as an afterthought for Franklin–humility (83-84). Franklin then adds a progress chart (85) to track how well he practices each of the virtues to “habitude” during the seven days of each week. This method of self-improvement–listing goals, focusing effort, and charting progress–is again and again reflected in the work of modern, latter-day self-help experts, who also often pick up Franklin’s moral aesthetic of thrift, balance, and right habits both physical and moral. And common, too, with later writers up to the present is a self-conscious hierarchy of importance among the virtues, Franklin noting that “as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arrang’d them with that view….” (84). Moreover, virtue and self-improvement for Franklin and later authors depend heavily on focused motivation, Franklin describing himself as “convinc’d that truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I formed written resolutions [also a persistent self-help method]… to practice them ever while I lived” (58).
More unique in Franklin's regimen are his many commitments to effective social institutions (founding a public library and the University of Pennsylvania in Philelphia) and civic wellness, and, as we'll see below, Andrew Carnegie's "gospel of wealth" and Jane Addams's remarkable work at Hull-House bring this commitment very actively forward into the beginning of the twentieth century.
America’s industrial revolution created powerful new dynamics for both self-improvement and social progressivism. Industrial magnates and “robber barons” efficiently and often brutally gathered up natural resources, eliminated competitors, and concentrated wealth in the hands of a new industrial aristocracy. At the same time, mass production replaced yeomen and craftsmen with interchangeable, often immigrant “workers.” And concentration of these workers and their families in city slums made social inequities visible and troubling for a nation self-consciously insistent that “all men are created equal.”
Responding to these inequities and social injustices, Protestant Social Gospel theology and related reformism picked up the ideology, structural critique, and social awareness of Christian Socialism in England and brought it to bear on America’s new industrial order. Diverging from the more personalistic, evangelical piety that had earlier fueled the fires of the Second Great Awakening, this new, socially-aware zeitgeist focused less on individual faith and confession as social controls and more on the grinding poverty and other social inequities too often neglected by public services and private, noblesse oblige charity. Social Gospel leader Washington Gladden, for instance, condemned the preponderance of Rockefeller economic power as “ill-gotten wealth,” while pioneer social reformers like Jane Addams put the newly-evolving social sciences to work on behalf of the “huddled masses” in inner-city slums and working-class neighborhoods.
At her Hull-House settlement in Chicago Addams provided self-consciously exemplary reading, academic, health, arts, and vocational classes and social clubs facilitated by resident social workers and other professionals eager to apply modern academic theory to social reality. She also took direct aim at the vast inequalities of income between wealthy and poor, framing what we might now term the “mission statement” of the settlement house as an “attempt to relieve…the overaccumulation at one end of society and the destitution at the other; but it assumes that this overaccumulation and destitution is most sorely felt in the things that pertain to social and educational privileges” (83). A forceful repudiation of the Social Darwinism that instead championed the “survival of the fittest” in competition for limited resources, Addams’s ideology and methods, like the Social Gospel, would instead enable individual self-improvement through cooperative–not competitive–social interaction and the reformation of ineffective governmental institutions, including public schools, to better serve the poor and socially disadvantaged. In this sense, Addams encouraged self-improvement and social progress from the “ground up” through the empowerment of the poor to shape their own opportunities and destinies.
Contemporary steel magnate and prototypical “self-made man” Andrew Carnegie took a very different, “top down” approach to the same issues grounded in competitive market dynamics and the obligation of the rich to lift up the Elizabethan “worthy poor.” Paternalistic from top to bottom (!), Carnegie’s social philosophy envisioned the wealthy as stewards competitively selected to rise above, serve, and enlighten the less accomplished. “Competition in all departments of human activity is not to be suppressed” (Carnegie 91). And “Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance” (27).
The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization. This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial. It is well, nay, essential, for the progress of the race that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so (14).
Though themselves worlds apart in the settlement house and ostentatious mansion, Addams (in fact a child of privilege) and Carnegie (who rose from poverty) do share a common commitment to empowering the disadvantaged to change their own circumstances rather than simply distributing “alms” to the poor. Thus Carnegie insists that “There is really no true charity except that which will help others to help themselves, and place within the reach of the aspiring the means to climb” (68). (Carnegie also criticizes the inheritance of wealth from generation to generation, instead using his fortune to establish libraries across the country as a fulfillment of his senses of noblesse oblige and civic duty). Addams, on the other hand, seeks a social embodiment of democracy that would more fairly share the wealth among all citizens in more responsive social institutions and the building-up of individual ability to then move beyond poverty and class-bound social deprivation.
It is quite impossible for me to say in what proportion or degree the subjective necessity which led to the opening of Hull-House combined three trends: first, the desire to interpret democracy in social terms; secondly, the impulse beating at the very source of our lives, urging us to aid in race progress; and, thirdly, the Christian movement toward humanitarianism (83).
Personality Ethic and Character Ethic
Turning the corner into the twentieth century, self-improvement ideology now moves forward in two different dimensions: a collective, cooperative commitment to self-improvement as the living out of essential social values and more individualistic, often self-serving improvement methods that instead focus primarily on the self-fulfilling empowerment and development of the personality for its own sake. Current self-improvement author Stephen R. Covey distinguishes these two directions in his best-selling (over 15 million copies) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic as a Personality Ethic and a Character Ethic. Having reviewed American self-improvement literature back to 1776, Covey concludes that:
Because of our own pain, and because of similar pain I had seen in the lives and relationships of many people I had worked with through the years, I began to feel more and more that much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial [focused in a Personality Ethic]. It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes–with social bandaids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes even appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again (Covey 18).
He then goes on to distinguish the Character Ethic as follows:
In stark contrast, almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success–things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty and the Golden Rule. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is representative of that literature. It is, basically, the story of one man’s effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature (18).
Though these two ethics are partly reflected in Addams’s cooperative humanitarianism (Character Ethic) and Carnegie’s more competitive individualism (Personality Ethic), the self-improvement literature to come will typically be firmly grounded in individualism and the assumption of an essential, improvable, autonomous, and independent self. In this sense, and as Covey points out, nearly all of this literature can trace its root assumptions back to Franklin and the entrepreneurial self, generally eschewing any further consideration of Woolman’s pilgrim soul that seeks instead to minimize autonomy for the sake of religious, ethical obedience. And, just as Franklin sought a functional role for religion in the reinforcement of personal and civic virtues, so does this literature conceptualize religious belief as an optional commitment enriching or supporting already effective, secular methods of growing the self.
Napoleon Hill: The Pseudo-science of Success
Carnegie’s self-improvement ideology found a persuasive advocate in Napoleon Hill, whom Carnegie commissioned as a publicist who was “willing to spend twenty years or more preparing myself to take it [Carnegie’s secret for success] to the world, to men and women who, without the secret, might go through life as failures. I said I would, and with Mr. Carnegie’s cooperation, I have kept my promises” (Hill xiii).
Hill’s Think and Grow Rich is at once a “how-to” manual for personal success and a pseudo-scientific mélange of faith, desire, “sex transmutation,” “autosuggestion,” the “six ghosts of fear,” and “the sixth sense,” all elements of a sure-fire technique for harnessing human energy to the cause of personal advancement. Like some earlier and later self-improvement literature, Hill is careful to lay out his method in step-by-step chapters replete with lists of things to do, questions to answer, and errors to avoid. He also promises a central “secret” to be found within his method by the careful reader. The result is a book, like many later ones in the self-improvement genre, that reads not so much as a narrative or even a treatise, but rather as a segmented workbook that asks readers to constantly apply the methods he describes before moving on to the next chapter/method. Hill also posits in his first chapter a common assumption for many self-improvement regimens to come: the cognitive-psychology premise that it is our thoughts that create our emotions, and therefore that right thinking is the straightest road to self-improvement. Hill’s explication of this assumption is typically pseudo-scientific, suggesting that “our brains become magnetized with the dominating thoughts which we hold in our minds, and, by means of which no man is familiar, these ‘magnets’ attract us to the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with the nature of our dominating thoughts” (11). Thus “both poverty and riches are the offspring of thought” (30).
At the burning heart of Hill’s ideology and method is the harnessing of desire and faith to purpose. “You may as well know, right here, that you can never have riches in great quantities unless you can work yourself into a white heat of desire for money, and actually believe you will possess it” (19). This is the rhetoric of the previous century’s tent revivals, essentially substituting greed for faith and wealth for salvation. Hill’s metaphors are likewise a mixture of popular science, psychology, and religion when he tells us that “Faith is the head chemist of the mind. When faith is blended with thought, the subconscious mind picks up the vibration, translates it into its spiritual equivalent, and transmits it to Infinite Intelligence, as in the case of prayer” (31).
Hill also anticipates our contemporary self-help methods in his emphasis on “organized planning” that perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Covey’s current catalogs of day-timers and other organizational aids. He then goes on to hitch decision, persistence, autosuggestion, and the “power of the master mind” to the advancement of the self toward fame and riches, defining power as “‘organized and intelligently directed knowledge’…”sufficient to enable an individual to transmute desire into its monetary equivalent” (147).
Here and elsewhere Hill makes liberal and often very loose use of Freudian and other psychological perspectives to suggest that the “the mystery of sex transmutation” (Freud’s “sublimation”) (155), the “subconscious mind,” “autosuggestion,” the brain, and even a “sixth sense” can together combat the “six ghosts of fear” that can undermine the quest for happiness and riches. But here again the evidence and argument are thin and solipsistic, Hill suggesting, for instance, that “Somewhere in the cell-structure of the brain is located an organ which receives vibrations of thought ordinarily called ‘hunches.’ So far, science has not discovered where this organ of the ‘sixth sense’ is located, but this is not important” (199).
Dale Carnegie and the Interpersonal Self
With the publication of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People the self-improvement genre takes a decided turn toward a broader humanism and the Character Ethic. Less focused on personal change and more on interpersonal dynamics, Carnegie’s methods are deeply humanistic and often seemingly self-sacrificing in his emphasis on “beginning with praise and honest appreciation” and “six ways to make people like you.” Moreover, he further humanizes his methods by consistently using real-life examples in the lives of both ordinary and famous people. For example, he admires Benjamin Franklin for his willingness to admit error and do “a right-about-face,” beginning “immediately to change his insolent, opinionated ways” (Carnegie 128).
Like other self-improvement experts, Carnegie includes several diagrammatic menus in his book, though these are typically focused in effective communication with others rather than in the assertion and expansion of the self. For instance, Carnegie’s twelve principals for “winning people to your way of thinking” include avoiding arguments, admitting errors, “appealing to noble motives,” and sympathy with another’s ideas and points-of-view (200-201). And though he does remind his readers that they “possess powers of various sorts which you habitually fail to use” (232), these “powers” are always developed out of empathy and improved communication, so that Carnegie’s text sometimes reads as a surprisingly contemporary primer for effective listening and communication skills. Thus his synopsis of “six ways to make people like you” includes “becoming genuinely interested in other people”; smiling; remembering a person’s name; “encouraging others to talk about themselves and their interests”; and seeking to “make the other person feel important–and do it sincerely” (112).
It is not surprising, therefore, that Carnegie’s book is still read in business and other courses. Emphasizing concrete method over abstract ideology, Carnegie focuses self-improvement in relationships and the Quaker ideal of “friendly persuasion” exercised much earlier by John Woolman. It therefore endures as a classic text that can stand on its own apart from other, more trendy success literature.
Anthony Robbins and the Giant Within
Diverging sharply toward the Personality Ethic, Anthony Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within is arguably the current paradigm of the self-improvement/self-empowerment genre. Like previous authors (see above), Robbins notes the power of ideas in shaping actions (a central assumption of cognitive therapy), so that “It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean” (Robbins 73) and “nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning you give it” (103). (Compare Woolman’s very different focus on listening for revelation and Benjamin Franklin’s more self-centered Deism [above].) Also central to Robbins’s ideology and method are the language and techniques of asserting the power of the self by “awakening the giant within.” For example, among Robbins’s many elaborate lists and diagrams he includes “the ten emotions of power,” “creating a compelling future,” “the pathway to power,” and “the key to expansion.”
Unlike Napoleon Hill, Robbins uses a much more informed and nuanced understandings of neurology, psychology, and communication theory as rationales for his methods. For instance, in developing strategies of immediate change of undesirable habits Robbins begins with the principles of neuro-associative conditioning, concluding that “any time we’re in an intense emotional state, when we’re feeling strong sensations of pain or pleasure, anything unique that occurs consistently will become neurologically linked” (62-63).
Robbins also continuously links practical exercises to his methods, asking the reader to move on to a new topic/technique only after understanding and practicing earlier skills. As a result, the text is sharply segmented and replete with diagrams and summaries to more easily commit methods to memory and habit. But perhaps most unique in Robbins’s book is the often articulated promise of immediate change in behavior and outlook. Thus, speaking of “Identity: The Key to Expansion,” Robbins champions “the power of identity [self-understanding] to instantaneously change not only…long-held beliefs and values, but…actions, in an instant” (417).
Remarkable as well is the thoroughness with which Robbins applies both ideology and method to every sphere of personal growth, devoting several later chapters to emotional, physical, relationship, and financial “destinies” on the way to a final chapter on” The Ultimate Challenge: What One Person Can Do” (485). And while Robbins integrates religious belief and moral commitments in his treatment of values, the promise of his very well developed methods is firmly grounded in an ideology of powerful individualism and the conceptualization of the self as an endlessly improvable personal possession.
Covey’s Ideology of Commitment
Finally, Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring Character Ethic promises “Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.” Self-consciously working within what he terms the Character Ethic (see above), Covey edges ideology and method away from metaphors of power and expansion toward the language of commitment and integrity. And while retaining like Robbins a developmental ideology for “private victory” that “begins with the end in mind,” “puts first things first,” and stays focused and “proactive,” his later chapters include methods centered around “paradigms of interdependence,” “think win/win,” “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” and the “synergy” of cooperative efforts which lead to “public victory” that resonate closely with the interpersonal humanism of Dale Carnegie. (Covey often uses family experiences to illustrate his theories.)
In fact, Covey’s focus on core values and personal commitment returns full circle to Woolman’s ethic of selflessness and service to others. Thus Covey concludes that
Perhaps the most common center today is the self. The most obvious form is selfishness, which violates the values of most people. But if we look closely at many of the popular approaches to growth and self-fulfillment, we often find self-centering at their core.… There is little security, guidance, wisdom, or power [apparently in order of importance] in the limited center of the self. Like the Dead Sea in Israel, it accepts but never gives. It becomes stagnant (118).
Indeed, like St. Augustine long before him, Covey takes pains to subordinate lesser attachments–family, possessions, work, money, pleasure, church, even self–to a more essential, central moral commitment. “The ideal, of course, is to create one clear center from which you consistently derive a high degree of security, guidance, wisdom, and power, empowering your proactivity and giving congruency and harmony to every part of your life” (122). Covey then ends his text by concluding: “By centering our lives on correct principles and creating a balanced focus between doing and increasing our ability to do, we become empowered in the task of creating effective, useful, and peaceful lives…for ourselves, and for our posterity” (318).
But there is a surprise waiting in the book’s afterword, where Covey confesses that
I believe that correct principles are natural laws, and that God, the Creator and Father of us all, is the source of them, and also the source of our conscience. I believe that to the degree people live by this inspired conscience, they will grow to fulfill their natures; to the degree that they do not, they will not rise above the animal plane (319).
And so, at the end of a best-selling classic in contemporary success literature, we are suddenly back again in Woolman’s posture of confession and selflessness as Covey surrenders the ever-perfectible self back to its creator.
I believe that there are parts to human nature that cannot be reached by either legislation or education, but require the power of God to deal with. I believe that as human beings, we cannot perfect ourselves (319).
Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Signet Classics. 1961.
Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1962.
Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Pocket Books. 1982.
Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Free Press. 2004
Franklin, Benjamin, William Penn, John Woolman, and Charles Eliot, ed. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; The Journal of John Woolman; Fruits of Solitude. New York: P.F. Collier and Son Company. 1909.
Hill, Napoleon. Think and Grow Rich. New York: Fawcett Books. 1960.
Robbins, Anthony. Awaken the Giant Within. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1992.
NOTE: This paper reflects on the readings and discussions in a topical honors program seminar–The Project of the Self: Development, Transformation, and Fulfillment–co-taught by myself and Dr. Mark Beatham at the SUNY College at Plattsburgh in the fall 2005 semester. Many thanks to the students who brought energy, commitment, and insight to our work together, including Amanda Ballow, Kareemot Braimoh, Mohammed Chandoo, Courtney Defayette, Heather Duprey, Jabari George, Meagan Holderman, Heather Jones, Jennifer Joshua, Justine Maraglio, Andrew Mitchell, Lacy Niles, Brennan Ward, Jessica Whittemore, and Anna Zinko. (The class reading list also included Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Lorene Cary’s memoir Black Ice, and Amy Tan’s novel Joy Luck Club, which are not referenced in this essay.)