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Motivational speakers and other disciplines (eg. personal finance, health and wellness-related), and even some well-intentioned mental health clinicians who dedicate their energy to improving the lives of their clients, who I will term personal change professionals, have long bemoaned the lack of utility and the potential detrimental effects political and social information and rhetoric have on creating the change their clients need. (the term “client” is used here loosely as these solutions tend to be offered in a one-to-many fashion which has its own sociological grouping effects) In a way, this is deserved. Studies have shown an adverse correlation between negative news and work performance. However, to not account for the whole of the environment affecting a specific realm of a client’s existence does a huge disservice to the client and, needless to say, to society. For the purpose of causing “immediate change,” personal change professionals tend to use a deductive and reductionistic framework that does not look at whole systems within which their client lives (literally and figuratively), or if it does look at systems, only steps as far back as the interactions between behaviors the client adopts and other behaviors in their life. Our society and hence our problems are ever-increasingly complex. People are desperate for solutions for their health, finances, and personal relationships, and we need a new approach that considers all relevant factors to ensure the most people possible get the help they need.
Rule #10 of the “rebellion” on a website called “Nerd Fitness” encapsulates the problematic mentality (if I can steal the terms of this subculture perhaps in denial of being one) perfectly. “Too many people blame their unfortunate situation on the government, the weather, their genetics, global warming, the economy, their parents, etc. Not us. We don’t expect anything to be handed to us; we are not owed anything by anybody.”
The last part kind of seems like common wisdom but of course common wisdom would know where this reasoning breaks down, unlike a dogmatic code of forced exclusion of relevant factors. And I don’t know about you but I prefer the kind of rebellion that identifies problems in the system and tries to fix them, not ignoring the system and effectively blaming the victims. I do like motivation sometimes too. Hence, I greatly appreciate those who are able to understand that the person in a dispossessed or adverse situation still has agency and can use their own ideas and reasoning based upon their situation without “blinders” in order to help themselves and help to develop a new system that acknowledges and helps tp address adverse circumstances on a population level.
One of the greatest showings of how these two work together is the punk band H2O’s album FTTW. In the song Black Sheep they basically put to a hardcore soundtrack (like many bands in the positive hardcore and straight edge scenes) some of the ideas of the self-help people, “I’ll never find my place in a 9-5 world,” and “gotta keep that PMA” (short for Positive Mental Attitude). Then, in their song Empty Pockets they attribute problems like crime to be “all because of empty pockets.” The really awesome thing about punk ideology (and it’s counterparts like skate culture) is that it doesn’t accept defeat but it also doesn’t ignore reality. That’s precisely what you need to do in these kinds of cases where social ills cause problems in one’s existence.
Now, how does the obvious get obfuscated in the information the public relies upon to improve their lives? It happens like this: in the cases wherein the problem is solely or primarily the client’s behaviors, the solution often works. The client gets better. Hence, this affirms the modality utilized by the professional and further entrenches them. If it’s not broken, why fix it?
Except that outside of these cases where the client’s situation improves, which in the instances of some modalities or disciplines (in particular personal finance), may actually be closer to edge cases than the most common case, the solution yields suboptimal results. Real life situations, unlike optimal conditions used to test methologies, rarely are dominated by a single factor that controls outcomes in a linear fashion. But the positive feedback from the ideal cases has settled and caused the professional to believe that if the solution does not work that it is the subject’s failure to properly implement causing the failure, not the inappropriateness of the solution or its failure to consider factors which are taboo or seen as the province of “social justice warriors” or “wimps who aren’t successful.”
To hide this, selection bias takes hold and results in the incessant parading of the successes to the point of insulting the capacbilties or even the humanity of those who are outside of the domain who are best suited to benefit from a modality. Mention “social justice,” “systemic failures,” “low socioeconomic status,” or even “regulatory obstacles” (ironic), and you are not of the elect who are predestined to the fate of success and only by ignorance of your own obviously true reality shall you prove yourself to be of the elect who will not face economic damnation in this life. Even though you are in circumstances that but for their existence you would be able to get yourself out of your problems, your wisdom will be proved in your ignorance and submission to the authority of the all-powerful guru. If this sounds more like philosophy or false religion than social science, that is because it is. The irony, of course, being that many of the “successful” practitioners of these disciplines on the Internet would berate me for spending time and money on a “worthless” liberal arts degree, which helps give me the knowledge to root out what they’re actually doing.
The solution is this: the personal change professionals are correct in working to first solve the problem at the level of the individual unit, in fact, creating solutions from the top downward by people who have no true familiarity with the circumstances of each person and community is the greatest cause of overcorrections leading to what systems thinking terms “fixes that fail” pathology. Fixes That Fail is the problem that plagues many policy interventions, particularly for social welfare issues. That and excessive bureaucracy that, in the name of accountability and consistency, expensively applies a solution that does not work well in unique, individual contexts (which thus amounts to a type of “fix that fails”). This is why I strongly endorse the use of a “DIY ethos” in the implementation of solutions to systemic pathologies. This is because you can have the freedom to be truly creative rather than be stuck in the mold of the system that probably created or contributed to the problem in the first place, tailor make a solution to each unique problem and context, test its limits, find problems and fix them, and then take it forward to as many people as it can help. More importantly, you can see any newly created pathologies right there in the flesh before magnifying their scale by using them on a larger population. These solutions that are developed at the individual level should:
- Be attentive to the context of the person.
- Understand its contribution to the problem.
- Understand the cultural inclinations of the person and the community and how they relate to the solution being implemented.
- Incorporate these aspects of the problem into the solution by finding viable redirects around the flawed system or working with it better and NOT demand without good cause that aspects of the person’s experience be ignored, or worse mindlessly bludgeoned out of the person to make way for the culture, preferences, and ideology of the solution developer.
- Allow the greatest level of agency reasonably possible to the client.
- Be analyzed both in results and causes of results. When a solution works, know why it worked. Did it work because of specific factors in the client’s life that have nothing to do with the solution? What types of privilege does the client have? What did your solution do right for the client’s context?
- (Possibly) become generalizable. Once you can see what worked and didn’t and why it did or did not, see what can be generalized, or shared with others. This is how you build a solution outwards to the system.
But working from the bottom is a pretty tough place to be. It’s frustrating and way harder for you than it is for someone at the top to flip a switch, so to speak. And that is where some of these personal change methodologies can fit perfectly into a strategy to empower the people working to solve a problem in their lives, then outward through their spheres of influence, and into the greater community. But they absolutely, positively must be cognizant of factors that would impede their efficacy and be implemented in a fashion that is adaptive to circumstance, not blinded to it. If the people you are listening to are telling you that your progress being proportionately slowed by having to work two jobs and making below the cost of rent in your area is “not an excuse” and makes you “lazy,” then you have my permission to ignore them. You’ve got two choices, find people who get these circumstances and understand individual deviation or use your own discretion to build in adaptations to your circumstances. The latter is harder to do and even though it prevents the fixes that fail outcome of quitting because you believe your minimal progress makes your efforts futile, it can create an opposite counterreaction of eliminating your drive to solve problems within the limits of your own level of agency and resources. The personal change professionals want you to believe this last part will happen the second you start looking at reality, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Making these kinds of adjustments and reasonably practicing a high level of freedom while making progress is the way a DIY ethos is supposed to work.
Bottom line is that solving social problems and problems in the collective is closely connected to problem-solving in individual contexts like that which the self-help field prides itself upon mastering. The two are inextricably connected and but for the attempts of salesmen to oversell and the personal and political biases of the generally successful people (merits aside) who proffer these solutions, this should be obvious. The great hope here is that once you understand that the political/society end and the personal problems end are connected, you can use your own knowledge to solve both more efficiently and effectively than a blind methodology, hence getting a better outcome than the other side. You can also make sense of the world around you in the context of your own problems, which would otherwise send you to the side of the “not elect” for even having these thoughts of “negativity” enter your mind. An approach that deals with circumstances in a manner that optimizes (not avoids) the chance of attaining personal change objectives both solves the cognitive dissonance created by those who tell you to basically ignore the outside world and avoids the defeatism of those who believe that these kinds of problems can only be solved by a “switch” somewhere in the strongholds of political power.
Furthermore, for those who become part of the power structure of society, you don’t lose your roots and stop thinking about other people in favor of a model that basically tells you not to care about other people in a meaningful way because it’s bad for you. The world around you will still exist whether you make $10,000, $100,000, or $1 million a year and when you have that kind of power and influence it will help you in the long run to understand people in circumstances like the ones you are in right now. These will become the people your influence extends to and who will become a thorn in your side through politics and the media if you lose touch and do evil stuff with your “success mindset” blinders on. Through many diverse iterations, holding these two seemingly disparate ideas of real circumstances and real agency together will help to build a more just society, starting from our own agency and power.
Next time, I will explain how to begin practically implementing this approach to solve problems, from the inside or from the outside.