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A Message of Improvement From Self-Help’s Founding Father

— How we’re governed from without is inconsequential; how we govern ourselves within is everything —

samuel_smiles.jpgHere’s my confession: In my heart of hearts, I long to be a self-help guru.

Picture me (I do) pacing across the stage like Dr. Wayne Dyer, lost in soul-stirring words, transporting, uplifting hundreds of listeners. Tears glisten upon the faces of the enraptured front row.

“You’ve transformed my life!” they exclaim afterwards, thrusting my latest bestseller across the signing table. And I, equally happy for their transformations, gratefully autograph book after book, until finally, exhausted, I depart for the airport — en route to yet another engagement (oh, so busy!).

It’s a pleasant dream, and one shared by many: you can’t swing a cat here in Southeast Portland without smacking seven aspiring (even accomplished) self-help gurus. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of self-help bloggers around the world who’re very good at what they do.

Yes, my secret dream to help millions is still long in coming. But here’s something I can do for you now: take you back to the very genesis of the self-help movement.

It all began in 1859 with a book written by a man named — very aptly — Samuel Smiles (nope, it’s not a pen name). The title? What else? Self Help.

Self Help sold 20,000 copies the first year, which a century and a half ago was one honkin’ big pile of books. Smiles quickly smiley_face1.jpegbecame a celebrity and an in-demand lecturer — kind of the Dr. Wayne Dyer of the nineteenth century.

But Self Help the book (which long preceded the movement), is not what you might imagine. It’s not about positive thinking, visualizing the future, chanting goal mantras, and such.

It’s about something more elemental.

Smiles’s first point is more political than personal. He tells readers seeking betterment to give up relying on institutions and instead rely on themselves:

Even the best institutions can give a man no active help.  Perhaps the most they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition.  But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct.

Smiles might have been discussing well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective aid programs when he wrote:

Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. Whatever is done FOR men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless … It may be of comparatively little consequence how a man is governed from without, whilst everything depends upon how he governs himself from within. 

Based on text such as that above, I suppose, Alain de Botton, another wonderful writer, has criticized Smiles as a Social Darwinist, though I’m puzzled as to exactly what that means.

I do know that I enjoy Smiles’s views on Conduct, Perseverance, Opportunity, Scientific Pursuits, Business, Money, and I admire how phrases like “patient purpose,” “resolute working,” “self-respect,” and “self-dependence” are the beating heart of his message.

To put it in the imperative form: “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

I can imagine the kinds of self-help advice Smiles might dispense were he alive today, and the tepid reception it would engender:

Need to lose weight?
Smiles: Eat less.

Lacking energy?
Smiles: Start exercising.

Need to make more money?
Smiles: Go to night school and learn a new skill.

Smiles: Volunteer at a retirement center or hospital.

Want better sex?
Smiles: Stop thinking about yourself and concentrate on making your partner happy.

So whether we aspire to self-help guru status or simple self-improvement, we’d all do well to heed the words of the movement’s great-grandfather — a self-reliant man named Smiles — and buckle down to the hard work of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

You may also enjoy:

Why “Time Management” is Nonsense—And What You Can Do About It

Daunting Task? Learn to Whip It

In Defense of “Aimless” Learning

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