Why are business best-sellers so frequently idiotic, when businesspeople themselves are not? Peter Hansen’s review of business books like Who Moved My Cheese? suggests a few answers. (Also, it’s astounding that a blog for a fairly obscure think-tank publication could attract this much comment spam.) It may be that motivational business books are primarily escapist vehicles offering a simplistic world of easy answers, many of which any sentient reader will have already thought of his own. This makes a reader feel smart and secure, reassuring him that his own thoughts are probably sufficient enough to help him weather any career crises. But for those nonsentient denizens of the cubicled world, they are escapist by allowing people to dream of taking clear and simple steps toward success (always simplified into sheer wealthiness) while sitting around having facile fables decoded for them in third-grade level prose. As Hansen puts it, “People who merely dream of being big winners in the rat race are the ones actually reading these books; the real winners, the successful entrepreneurs and executives, can’t have time for such distractions.” Achievers don’t need their intellect flattered by reading silly books and anticipating their self-evident arguments. They actually confront the challenges of surviving capitalism’s brutal competition. (A side thought: capitalism’s defenders always like to tout the healthful benefits of competition to character, yet it seems that the loudest defenders of competition against welfare-state interventionism are those who know full well that the game is already rigged in their favor).
Hansen also points out the dark side of these books, what he calls their “peculiarly American nihilism” which suspends all ethical judgments and reduces all forms of friendship to self-interested manipulation, what economists sometimes like to call “rationality.” This generally culminates logically in advice to be a kiss-up, kick-down management stoolie in order to get ahead in hierarchical power structures. Such books refuse to acknowledge a skill as useful if it can’t be used to help a corporation grow: “One subtle effect of books like [Now, Discover Your Strengths] is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers.” In Hanson’s view, this fosters a false consciousness that redeems the emptiness of our atomized lives (stripped as they are of meaningful community or family ties) by stressing the workplace as the arena where one discovers identity. I’m more inclined to think they rationalize the absence of meaningful work for most people in this economy and try to drum up significance for workplace accomplishments that leave most of us feeling hollow. Soul-crushing jobs and rote consumerism don’t add up to fulfillment, no matter how much family joy you inject into it.