Approaching the change over to 2018 and as everyone starts setting New Year resolutions, I noticed a trend on my social media: an increase in the number of advertisements for things like free e-courses and “challenges” to kickstart the new year.
Many of these ads fall into that nebulous area of finding your passion/purpose/calling, achieving happiness, etc. The facilitators for these events and products tend to be web entrepreneurs. In one case, it is a woman who created a graphic design company which she then shut down to focus full-time on teaching other web entrepreneurs how to grow their businesses.
I’d guess that most of the people offering these products wouldn’t consider themselves “self-help professionals.” But there are many parallels to things we’ve seen before.
- Selling Success
The first common “self-helpy” theme is of self-described successful people trying to sell the tools of their success to others who’d like to replicate it. “I made millions with my own business and I’ll share my secrets with YOU!”
- The *Free* Gateway Event
Another theme is this idea of using free events to hook people. Once you’re in, you’ll often be encouraged to buy something: a book, another event, someone else’s offerings. In the case of blogs that the creators have managed to monetize, it’s often e-books or online courses. The New Year is the perfect time for anyone selling a program like this to find new customers.
- The Crossover Guru
Another old trend I recognize is people finding success in one arena in which they have some education or credentialling, but then moving away from that into a place where they don’t have any certification or training. Think, for example, of the fitness instructor who then begins giving inspirational speaking events that go well beyond fitness and into mental and emotional health.
What’s the Problem?
There’s nothing really wrong with someone wanting to share his/her inspirational story. But I do worry about the progression from telling a personal story to selling advice and posing challenges that may have big consequences. James Ray, for example, began as a salesman for AT&T. He was really good at it. When he began training other salespeople, he found that he was also good at inspiring others. From there, he built up a huge and successful self-help business that included books, videos, CD series, speaking events, and retreats. I’ll give him credit for building something out of nothing.
But as the business grew, his events included therapeutic techniques he had no training in (but that required training and certification), group therapy sessions (without any background in psychology), and dangerous physical challenges (for which he had no facilitator’s training). As a result, his events became extremely dangerous, a fact proven by the deaths of 4 of his customers.
Healthy Skepticism in the Improvement Era
I may be worrying about “ifs,” but I am not ruled by my skepticism. But knowing what I know about how the self-help guru is often made, I do wonder things like:
- after this “free” event, will I be encouraged to buy something?
- what evidence is there of this person’s actual success?
- what qualifications does this person have to be selling advice on this subject?
- is there danger of being manipulated here?
This type of advertising is a significant move in the self-help world. These coaches/speakers/teachers are using social media to connect to new potential customers, something that’s easier to do with all of the data we volunteer through our online activity and the ability to target ads. Because of this ease of connection, I only see the industry growing bigger and bigger, and more difficult to define.
Tips for the New Year
If you’re looking for a challenge heading into the New Year, here’s one for you: I challenge you to think critically. Consider the information you’re consuming. Who’s delivering it and why? What do they want from you? Are they qualified to give this information? Before consuming anything that feels even remotely like “self-help,” consult our Red Flags.
And as you encounter more and more of this tailored self-help/inspirational information/personal development/self optimization stuff, let us know what you’re seeing out there. We want to hear about it!
Great article, Jean.
Re: James Arthur Ray…if he had stayed within his areas of competence (an ethical requirement for psychologists and other licensed mental health provider, which he is not) and stuck with advising people on how to build businesses, sell, and motivate, he’d likely still be viable, visible, and successful today. It was when he branched out in to metaphysics and spiritual practices that he became so toxic, not only because he was out of his depth, but also because he literally invented a spiritual backstory and credentials that he did not possess.
James is working to rebuild his brand and business today…and, true to form, he’s dispensing advice on diet, vitamin supplementation, and psychology– despite possessing literally no credentials in these fields.