In Timothy Ferris’ cult-favourite self-help book The 4-Hour Work Week, Timothy shares his secrets to a life of freedom and fulfilment. Aside from being a New York Times Best-Selling author, he is also an MTV breakdancer, a horseback archer, a national Chinese kickboxing champion and a Guinness World Record holder in tango. And lucky for us, Timothy has published the very principles for his readers to emulate as vibrant and invigorating a life as his, all while earning top-dollar from working just 4-hours a week.
If you’re skeptical that it sounds too good to be true, that’s because you’re right.
As much as Ferris and other self-help moguls advocate for their unique take on life, their trajectories all seem to parallel each other and more portentously, echo the literature of eager men who go from rags to riches all too quickly.
Ferris is but a modern day Great Gatsby: a middle-class salaryman turned self-made entrepreneur, with a self-proclaimed membership to the Noveau Riche club. And if you have read The Great Gatsby, you would know how our doe-eyed protagonist turned out.
The rags-to-riches tale often turns out to be a cautionary tragedy against the dangers of blindly pursuing things too good to be true. The American Dream shatters. The Green Light recedes further away. We should know better than to be eluded, and yet it seems that a Jay Gatsby level of idealisation is still committed by the progressively self-conscious generations of this day and age.
“Today, the American Dream has been rebranded to tech-savvy, dream-starved twenty/thirty-somethings as a mishmash of investment workshops, productivity apps, self-development seminars and get-rich-quick schemes.”
Ferris belongs to a burgeoning group of content creators who stake their claim in knowing the secrets to life’s success, before selling them to you. If you’ve recently heard buzzwords like ‘passive income’, ‘lifestyle design’ and ‘passion to profit’, you know the trend. And while we must credit these self-help gurus for their work, (there are of course great self-help books out there, and I am a fan of Ferris myself), have they knowingly or unknowingly contributed to creating a false narrative of oversold solutions and unrealistic expectations?
Today, the American Dream has been rebranded to tech-savvy, dream-starved twenty/thirty-somethings as a mishmash of investment workshops, productivity apps, self-development seminars and get-rich-quick schemes.
And yes, we all knew that zoom webinar was just a sales pitch with a paywall disguised as a free workshop. Yet, society hasn’t completely written off these authors and content creators as being unrealistic or disingenuous. After all, they do have and very well flaunt the evidence to substantiate their claim - especially after partaking in the profits of the lucrative multi-billion dollar self-help industry. So, what they’re saying must be legit, right?
But spoiler alert, just as Gatsby’s wealth was fake, these one-size-fits-all, quick-fix secrets to success don’t exist.
No, really. According to Scott Dinsmore, Timothy Ferris actually works 60+ hours a week - Timothy only chose that title because it got the most clicks in a Google Adwords test.
If anything, the huge demand and profitability of the self-help industry has revealed deep-seated insecurities and an immense pressure to be successful that’s innate to modern society, more often than not in the way society has defined success. Perhaps we can’t completely blame profit-driven self-help influencers who sell people what they want to hear, and simply harmonise to a tune people have already been singing. If that’s the case, perhaps we need to view the over-blown self-help industry as a symptom of a much bigger epidemic.
As a twenty-something with barely enough adulting experience, I have yet to find my way in the world. But my own mid-life crisis came early when I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 14, and in the throes of treatment was forced as an adolescent to confront my impending mortality and question how I wanted to spend the limited time I had left. Existential questions became a norm for me, but I found one helps realign myself to this day: ‘I fought so hard for this life, so am I living it fully the way I want to right now?’
In modern Singapore, there is an all-pervading and inescapable urge that many of us dedicate our lives to satisfying - the pressure to be exceptional. Even school-going kids are conditioned to be competitive as our definitions of success are narrowly constrained to that of academic achievement. As we become adults, many of us chase material wealth and corporate success, taking on these pre-determined markers of success as the norm without question. Many of us dedicate our lives to attaining these goals only to realise after achieving them it’s not what we want. And then, in need of serious life-restructuring, turn to self-help authors who seem to have it all for the answers.
But perhaps the right answers can only be found by first asking yourself the right questions. What are we really looking for when we turn to self-help material? To be the next Stephen Covey or Tony Robbins? Is it because of FOMO or a recommendation from a social media influencer?
Most of all - does your desire to improve arise from a genuine belief in your own potential to be better, or the self-conscious view that you are fundamentally not good enough?
I certainly don’t have the all answers and am lucky to have survived with my adulthood to test out my theories. But I did realise one thing - run your own race, and take full ownership of the time you have left on this earth.
Ultimately, the best kind of self-help is the kind that teaches you how to live life on your own terms. But even so, we cannot use it as a proxy to be living vicariously through an influencer’s success. Accept and honour your limitations as an outcome of your unique experience, rather than let self-help buttress your feelings of inadequacy.
Recognise that having the ambition to be better and confronting your own limitations are two sides of the same coin. And the best we can do for ourselves when we fall short is to fail honestly and fail forwards.
And perhaps these self-help books have been saying what the fables and fairytales of old already did before: as cheesy as it sounds, the answer was within you all along.