The Emperor’s new clothes

I used to believe that the more you read, the more you would know, and the the greater the insights that would open to you. That was before I stumbled into the world of online influencers, and their self-improvement and entrepreneurship blogs. The first few seem interesting enough, with their generic advice to do what you love, to take risks, to work hard, to seek feedback and to do something with meaning. By the time you have read ten you start to see the same themes being regurgitated again and again, and to notice the gaping holes in the evidence or ideas presented. Read a hundred and you realise how many entries are a thin veneer of received wisdom over recycled content and self-promotion. A lot of people seem to be posturing about their finery, but not to have much substance underneath, and I really don’t want to be one of them, or to support that culture. So I have been reflecting about why they have rubbed me the wrong way.

Many blogs and “channels” of thematically promoted content tell you that to become successful (read popular or wealthy) you need to emulate the tried and trusted pattern of becoming a social media self-improvement guru, and to learn to do that best you’ll need to subscribe to the premium products or insights from the person writing, and those that they have attached themselves to (and probably get affiliate fees from). It suddenly feels like a pyramid scheme without any substance. Others tell the story of the remarkable success of mould-breaking ventures, and then at the bottom of the piece acknowledge that the author is involved in these examples financially or benefits from their success, and has therefore shaped the narrative in a way that promotes their interests rather than maximises learning by admitting the real stumbling blocks along the way.

Most post from a position of privilege, and entirely fail to recognise that their success would not have been possible without their wealth, social networks, safety nets, confidence, marketable appearance or demographics. I’ve read several that think that the ability to take financial risks is a personality trait that leads to success, rather than recognising that starting at a point successful enough for that to be possible is a precursor to that ability. It is much easier to work for a year without pay or gamble your savings if you have means to still pay the rent and bills, and no dependents. To pick one example that typifies the genre, “Only do work that is incentive-based… be part of the results economy” implies you have a choice of work available to you, and that it is in a format other than a minimum wage or zero-hours contract. The same with challenges to step out of transactional relationships and into transformational ones. To say “If you’re afraid of losing what you’ve currently got, you probably won’t risk it. You’ll probably do everything you can to AVOID losing it. And therefore, you’ll have given up your WHY. You’ll have stunted your progression” blames people who are stuck in the poverty trap for not being able to take the risks of the author’s middle class educated peers with much wider opportunities open to them, and a safety net to catch them if they fall. “Increase your motivation” implies that you aren’t highly motivated to avoid the adverse effects of not being able to pay the rent or bills, or to feed your dependents. So whilst he says “one decision separates the wealthy from the non-wealthy” I think he has the causality reversed. Being wealthy and privileged allows you to position yourself where further success is more likely, and makes taking risks easier.

Or consider the claim that “extreme frugality enabled her to retire at 32” that has led this wealthy white American woman to have a Guardian article, long-standing blog and a book deal about being frugal and less attached to wealth and material possessions as a marker of success. It sounds great. Until you learn of the fact she and her husband own a million dollar plus property that is let out, as well as their 66 acre detached “homestead in the woods”, and that he works earning $200k+ per year as a non-profit executive, whilst she earns a substantial income from her writing and media work. So really they are people who have chosen to work from home more, but who are still in the top 1% for income and assets. Reducing their spend on artisanal cheese, eating out and make-up, and wearing hand-me-down and second-hand clothing does not make these people role models for frugality, because as Jarvis Cocker said so well, you can play at being poor:

But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad* he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.
*banker also works here

And that is one of the key things missing from many of these blogs. The idea that being able to save up, or use your spare time, or take risks implies that you already have those resources of money, time or energy to spare. That you aren’t living from hand to mouth, and don’t need to keep an emergency fund for if the car breaks down, or your benefits are sanctioned, or you need time off work because you are sick and get no pay because you are on a zero-hours contract or working in the gig economy. Socioeconomic status affects our perception of the world, with lower earners seeing the world as more challenging, and higher earners being more solipsistic and having a sense of being able to change the world. Autonomy is more attractive and comfortable to wealthier people, whilst those who are in lower socioeconomic groups value greater interdependence. Research shows that richer people have less empathy and less awareness of the external factors that affect success. Having an easier life means many people are more confident they will become successful, and expecting a yes based on past experience can help that confidence become socially persuasive to others (in an extreme example, it can get a business to a $9 billion valuation with $700 million of investment, without the claimed technology).

The idea that we can all “make our fortune” places systemic inequality in the background and personal attributes and effort into the foreground. The same thinking shows up with the perception that people can snap out of depression or mental health problems if they choose to do so, or put in more effort. It rests on the belief that these personality traits are under our control and can be created with the right mindset. I suspect that comes from only looking backwards from success, rather than forward from an equal starting point. It fits with the egocentric perspectives of those who have the status to give advice to others, rather than the evidence or the experience of those who have struggled with their mental health. It leads to superficially plausible ideas that we can change our mindset and then sort out all the difficulties in our lives if we choose to. Sure, there is fairly solid evidence that lifestyle changes such as increased exercise or social connection can impact upon mood, and the success of CBT shows us that challenging our thinking can also make positive impacts to quality of life. However, it ignores the external constraints. The idea that you can address your own low mood by going to the gym more, or getting out into nature or socialising suggests the funds for gym memberships, or travel, or eating/drinking out, and the time to do it in, as well as the lack of current stressors to deal with. It also suggests a frame of mind that has the capacity to plan ahead, rather than constantly fire-fighting in the present.

In the entrepreneurial world, bloggers often add in the assumption that a good idea and hard work is enough. That presupposes that you are an educated white (or possibly Asian) male, who will be taken seriously by investors or industry peers, and that you have the knowledge, resources and networks to build your minimum viable product or service, and bring it to market. That’s a lot of assumptions, particularly for women and BME entrepreneurs who find many more systemic barriers to success, and often struggle to even get a seat at the table. Take it from me, as a highly educated and relatively privileged white woman, that having the knowledge skills and networks to be an entrepreneur is really hard. Finding the right support takes time, energy, social networking, and means/willingness to travel, as well as practical support like childcare. It would be very hard to wrap around a day job, let alone shift work, unpredictable hours, multiple jobs or being a single parent or carer. So if you can make it despite these things you are an amazing exception, and running a whole different race to most of these bloggers. In fact, you’ve probably run a metaphorical marathon before reaching their starting line.

That same mentality fools people into thinking that success (and therefore wealth) is somehow a meritocracy. That the people whose ideas make it into a mass market or getting bought out by a big name player are somehow the best of the bunch. I suspect the reality is that equally good ideas and products fail all the time, because of the lack of access to the resources required to get through the early stages of development and in front of the right people. Because there is a publication bias, we hear about the success stories disproportionately, whilst the companies that fail only get mentioned if their instigator goes on to do something bigger and better that becomes a success. Then they can be spun into a narrative of persistence and resilience in retrospect, rather than the crushing and all-consuming catastrophes they feel at the time. That leads to a false belief that success is earned, and therefore open to anyone. Whilst people do acknowledge barriers to attainment, the perception is that your background is a relatively minor variable in your success, whilst hard work and ambition are the true determinants of social outcome – that is, most people believe wealth is a meritocracy. The reality is that the UK has relatively low levels of social mobility, and both here and in the USA, the meritocracy myth has been used to justify policies that increase inequality.

At the same time, we have developed a culture that increasingly exploits the more vulnerable demographics in the population in other ways, from marketing cheap unhealthy food options to them with aisle end promotions, brand tie-ins and toys, to the four times higher incidence of smoking in lower socioeconomic groups, or the ridiculous cost of credit for those who cannot access bank loans, which has become one of the primary elements of the “poverty premium” in which poorer people have to spend more to access the same services. Because decisions are made by people who have success and power, they often share the illusions that they earned their status, and thus that anyone who hasn’t gained success has somehow failed to earn it.  To quote an article I’ve linked above:

In David Cameron’s “aspiration nation”, you were either a striver or a skiver; the very act of hoping to reach upwards became a moral obligation. Those who could not draw on existing reservoirs of privilege were told to worker harder to catch up.

That’s a toxic narrative that increases inequality and blames those born into deprivation or adversity for its impact. True equality is to change things so that no matter what context someone comes from they can run the same race.
I think that is my take away from reflecting on this topic – that it is hard to recognise the impact of experiences that differ from our own, and easy to assume that our own attainments come from effort rather than privilege. I’m sure I’ve done that before, in both my personal and professional life. As a blogger I can only share from my own experience and reflections, I can’t be certain my own learnings will generalise to others. So it is another reminder to “check my privilege” and to ask a lot and listen a lot to those who really know about an issue before forming opinions. As a therapist and someone people come to for advice it is all to easy to feel like you have strategies to hand out like sweets to recipients, and to end up replaying advice that worked for someone else without considering the specific situation and history of the individual you are dealing with. In the desire to be helpful we can end up missing a core facet of what is going on for that person, or giving vacuous advice that doesn’t apply to someone from different circumstances. So it is really important not to fill in the blanks with assumptions or from your own experience, but to really listen to the experiences, ideas and beliefs of the person you are working with. That is the start of an authentic and respectful relationship, and in my view the feeling of being understood, accepted and valued is the core attribute in helping empower people to make positive changes in their lives.