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Long Read: The Fascinating History of Self-Help

As long as people have been around, they’ve been trying to improve their lot in life but it took a while for self-help to become the industry we know today. Here’s the fascinating history of its origins and evolution.
by Tom Anderson | May 27 2020

In Autumn 1723, a young runaway arrived in the relatively new town of Philadelphia, looking to make a fresh start.

His journey from Boston had been an eventful one. He’d endured rough seas, drunken shipmates, and a grueling 50-mile hike. Even when he finally arrived in Philadelphia, his ordeal was far from over. He had made it to the city with pretty much nothing. All he had left were a few coins. His only hope was the promise of a contact for a job someone had given him in Boston. If that didn’t work out, he wasn’t sure what else he could do.

In short, things weren’t looking rosy for our runaway.

Fast-forward six and a half decades, and our now not-so-young runaway is one of the most famous men in the world. Since arriving in Philadelphia with virtually nothing, he’d mastered the arts of printing, writing, science, and diplomacy.

His accomplishments were manifold. He’d played a leading role in unlocking the secrets of electricity – it was he who coined the word battery to describe an electrical storage device – and he was instrumental in the battle for American independence; he was both on the committee which drew up the Declaration of Independence and the committee which created the US Constitution. There was very little he hadn’t achieved.

To so many, Benjamin Franklin – for those few who hadn’t already guessed our subject’s identity – is the ultimate embodiment of the American Dream.

Primarily through his own enterprise and intelligence, Franklin had risen from a fairly low station to the very top. His life stood as an example to all Americans of just what could be achieved in the new world.

Yet Franklin wasn’t just prepared to live the American Dream himself; he was also ready to share his secrets of success with others. In his celebrated autobiography, he explained to everyone just how he’d done so well. In particular, he outlined the 13 virtues which had helped him follow a life in pursuit of “moral perfection.” These virtues included Sincerity, Frugality, and Temperance, and Franklin considered them instrumental to his success.

Helpfully, Franklin’s autobiography also contained advice and tips on how he made each virtue part of his daily schedule until it became an ingrained habit. Franklin even shared his handy calendar, which helped him track his own progress – a calendar which the reader could easily copy themselves.

Many people who read Franklin’s story were inspired to greatness themselves — Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill amongst them, and the book is still inspiring people to this day.

The Birth of Self-Help

With his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin pioneered a new genre: self-help. It’s a genre that has grown and grown over the past few centuries. Today, self-help books are incredibly popular. In 2017, over 15 million self-help books were sold in the US – and this is just the print books! The figure doesn’t include the millions of self-help ebooks and audiobooks also sold.

But it’s not just the size of the self-help book market that impresses; it’s also its scope. Whatever your problem, whatever the area in need of development, there will be a self-help book to assist you. Have an issue with a messy and cluttered house? Well, there’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, to get your home, and your life in order. Perhaps you’re struggling with procrastination? Why not pick up a copy of Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy; you’ll learn just how productive you can be. And, if a lack of productivity is really your vice, then you should get hold of David Allen’s blockbuster, Getting Things Done. You’ll discover that the right task-management system won’t just help you at work, it’ll free you from stress and worry at home also.

But what does all this say about our society? Why are self-help books so popular? And why are there so many of them out there?

It turns out, the self-help book is the product of wider society. The popularity of the self-help genre, or particular topics within it, reflects the particular needs and concerns of the community.

You can tell an awful lot about a society by looking at the type of self-help book available at the time. And that’s just what we’ll do in this long-read. We’ll explore self-help at three critical stages in history, and examine how the genre reflected the problems and concerns at the time.

Our journey starts in one of the most transformative periods in human history.

The nineteenth century: The age of character

The nineteenth century was a time of immense change. Across the world, the industrial revolution uprooted traditional values, communities, and hierarchies.

One individual affected by the upheaval was Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was just a young boy when poverty forced his family to uproot from Scotland and emigrate to the United States. His father, a textile worker, had been pushed out of work by the industrialization of textile manufacturing. He was one of millions forced to migrate because of the decline of traditional industries. But just as the industrial revolution brought disruption, it also brought opportunity.

No individual took advantage of the new opportunities quite like Andrew Carnegie. Thanks to hard work, canny investments and a healthy slice of luck, he rose from impoverished immigrant to millionaire magnate in just a few decades. At the height of his wealth, Carnegie was, according to Forbes, the third wealthiest American of all time.

Andrew Carnegie had made it to the top thanks to the opportunities created by the industrial revolution. And thousands of others wanted to follow him. They wanted to make a killing in the new economic climate. But how? What could they do to go from rags to riches?

The self-help books and manuals answering this question were the bestsellers of their day. Take Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, With Illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance – the book that actually gave the self-help genre its name.

Smile’s book was released in 1859, the same year as Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. That year, Smiles’s book even outsold Darwin’s masterpiece; 20,000 copies were shifted in its first 12 months. By the time of Samuel Smile’s death, in 1904, a quarter of a million copies of Self-Help had been sold.

Central to Smile’s self-help advice – and to the advice of most of his contemporaries – was a focus on internal character. Only someone with the right morals and character could take advantage of the new opportunities that were on offer in the nineteenth century.

As Smiles says:

“Though a man have comparatively little culture, slender abilities, and but small wealth, yet, if his character be of sterling worth, he will always command an influence whether it be in the workshop, the counting-house, the mart or the senate.”

In other words, you might have nothing, but if you develop the right internal virtues, your potential is limitless.

To back up his point, Smiles gives us countless examples of self-made men (and he only focused on men) whose character lay behind their success.

For example, James Watt, whose development of the steam engine underpinned the whole industrial revolution, got to the top not because he had great intelligence or natural ability but because he had the noble virtues of hard work and perseverance.

As Smiles puts it:

“It is not the man of the greatest natural vigour and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill — the skill that comes by labour, application and experience.”

Smiles was not alone in focusing on internal character; the vast majority of self-help authors did so too. But why?

Self-help in the nineteenth century merely reflected the thoughts and standpoints of wider society.

Political and social thought in the nineteenth century was dominated by the idea of laissez-faire government and self-reliance. The prevailing belief at the time was that the government shouldn’t determine how society or the economy moved, individuals should. It was up to individuals to go forth and make their own way in the world, they shouldn’t rely on others, or worst of all, the government to help them.

As the individual — and the individual alone — was the key factor in society, it stood to reason that contemporary culture should focus on an individual’s character and moral fiber.

The self-help of Smiles and his contemporaries simply mirrored the feelings of wider society. It was up to the individual to get themselves to the top, and so self-help focused on developing their internal strengths to take advantage.

But as the nineteenth century drew to a close, a new type of society was being forged. And a new form of self-help was needed.

The twentieth century: The age of personality

In the early twentieth century, American cities were becoming crowded as people left the countryside in search of jobs and opportunities. They were joined there by millions of international migrants also looking to make it in the “new world.”

The pace of urbanization was astounding: in 1840, only eight percent of North Americans lived in cities. By 1920, 33% of the population did. To cope with this explosion in urban living, cities expanded at an incredible rate: the population of New York grew by over 400% between 1850 and 1900; the population of Chicago grew by 500%

As people jostled for position and influence in the crowded towns and cities, competition was fierce. If you wanted to secure a job or an opportunity to shine, you’d have to fight against thousands of strangers – each just as determined to get it themselves. In this competitive environment, having a strong moral character didn’t really cut it, especially if you didn’t know how to express it in public. No, what mattered in this new situation was likability and the ability to influence. In other words, what you needed was a personality.

This subtle change in society opened up a market for a new type of self-help, and into this vacuum stepped arguably the most famous self-help guru in history: Dale Carnegie.

Carnegie initially rose to success teaching young, ambitious, and entrepreneurial city dwellers the art of public speaking. He began his public speaking classes in 1912, at a tiny YMCA on 125th Street, New York. It wasn’t long before word of his unique methods spread, and urbanites signed up in droves. Before long, Carnegie courses were taught across the nation.

Millions attended over the following decades, including a young Warren Buffett, who claims he owes many of his later successes to what he learned in a Carnegie course.

Carnegie’s successes in the field of self-development eventually led to a book — perhaps the most influential self-help book in history: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Released in 1936, the book was massively successful, selling 650,000 copies in its first year.

But why was it so popular? Quite simply, because Dale Carnegie gave his contemporaries exactly what they wanted — personality advice to help people stand out amongst the urban chaos.

Like Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, How to Win Friends and Influence People is full of celebrity examples. But, unlike its Victorian counterpart, Carnegie focuses on how these people interacted with and influenced others — not on their internal character.

Take Franklin D Roosevelt. There is undoubtedly much about FDR’s internal character to admire: his strength of will, perseverance, and aptitude for hard work, for example. But Carnegie’s potential readers weren’t interested in internal character. They wanted to know how to get Roosevelt’s legendary charm, a much more important strength in the twentieth century.

Carnegie obliged. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, he says;

“Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that one of the simplest, most obvious and most important ways of gaining good will was by remembering names and making people feel important.”

Simple advice, no doubt. But it was exactly the kind that people needed to help them rise above the competition. In the decade before, such advice would’ve probably seemed shallow and unimportant — now it was vital.

As we reach the final moment in our journey, the state of self-help today, we can see a new theme rising to the top. And it’s got everything to do with the pressures of modern life.

The twenty-first century: The age of pressure

Be honest, do you work more hours than you should? How many times do you check your work emails at home? What about working when you’re sick — ever done that?

Whether you’re guilty of these offenses or not, millions are. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of women work more than 40 hours each week. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personal Development found that 40 percent of Brits check their work emails outside the office five times a day. And 4 out of 10 Americans admit to coming into work when they’re sick.

In short, work-life balance — for most of us — is well out of whack. We’re spending way too much time at work and not enough time relaxing or doing the things we love to do.

And it’s not just work that’s putting pressure on our personal lives. Social media means that we’re always distracted from our surroundings. Constantly checking our feeds, and judging ourselves and our lives against those of our friends, is incredibly stressful. How many of you do things you’d rather not, just to stand out on your social media feeds?

Added together, this all means that we try to do far too much, and we “turn off” and chill out far too little.

Faced with these very modern pressures, we’ve turned to a new generation of self-help books.

Look along the rows upon rows of self-help books in any book store, and you’ll find an
increasing number of titles around the theme of giving things up and slowing life down.

There’s those such as Minimalism by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, which advise you to sell your possessions and give up consumerism. Instead, you should aim for a less-stressful, less-cluttered lifestyle.

Then there’s Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, which advises you to stop caring about the things not worth caring about, be they people’s opinions, jobs, or pointless social pressures. Then, with the free time you have left, you can focus on the few things you really, really care about.

And of course, there’s the million-seller blockbuster, The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss, which can help any reader cut down their hours at work through outsourcing tasks and increasing efficiency, and which aim to help the reader spend less time at work, and more time relaxing or doing the things they love.

Self-help books such as these are popular because they answer a very specific need in modern society: we are over-worked and obsessed with our social position, and we need a break. So, we turn to the self-help authors who can teach us how to withdraw from the pressures and obligations of our status-obsessed society.

Whereas such books would have seemed useless only a decade or so ago — a time without social media, a time when you couldn’t check your work email at home — now they are exactly what our society needs and wants. Once again, as with Samuel Smiles and his advice on moral character, or Dale Carnegie with his tricks on developing personality, the self-help we desire changes as the demands of society change.

And who knows what self-help books might look like in the future? Perhaps with the rise of automation, the self-help of tomorrow will tell us how to keep ahead of the robots. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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