Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Self-Help For the Wealthy, Beatings For the Weak

Steve Olsher, What Is Your WHAT: Discover The One Amazing Thing You Were Born To Do

I fear I’ve grown jaded. Authors and publicists send me books like this, anticipating the glowing reviews I’d have written before I slid backward on society’s ladder two years ago, and I can’t write them. These authors say something which sounds right, sounds ennobling, sounds humane, and I think: “Yes, yes, yes!” Then they inevitably say something that bitchslaps the poor, and I pull a facepalm, moaning “no, no, no!”

Psychological theorists like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and their heirs have written copiously on how every human has a purpose they’re born to fulfill. Psychologists call this “disposition;” theologians call this “calling.” Until we find that purpose, we’ll drift unmoored through life. Many have written on this; Steve Olsher proffers a systematic approach to finding your purpose. Following Olsher’s very specific steps may help unlock what you subconsciously know.

Olsher’s approach involves unpacking your history to recognize patterns. Thus, it probably helps adults more than youth, especially people trapped in unfulfilling careers and lives. It relies on the Four Stages of Learning, famous in educational circles, to help readers realize what they don’t previously know about themselves. While hints of this approach resemble Larry Winget or Rhonda Byrne, Olsher’s presentation combines multiple influences smoothly and dynamically.

I’d appreciate Olsher’s message if he stopped there. His arguments against passively accepting life’s circumstances are energizing, his exercises concise, and his approach straightforward yet potentially very surprising. Rather than surrendering to life’s whims, getting blown around “like a windsock,” as Olsher repeatedly puts it, we have responsibilities as freethinking adults to take ownership and pilot our own lives. So far, so good.

Yet Olsher inevitably keeps talking. Worse, I doubt he’s listening to himself, or he’d realize how rich, urban, and white he sounds. He openly disparages people who accept undesirable circumstances as life’s necessary trade-off. I got downright angry reading this statement: “If you’re working in a dead-end job, it’s because you choose to be there.” I don’t quote out of context; Olsher really says something so tone-deaf and economically obtuse.

Consider what this statement means. Accepting work beneath your capabilities because the local economy can’t absorb your skills, is a moral judgment on you. Taking what you can get to stay close to family, friends, and the life you’ve made, means you have failed. Nor does Olsher stop there. If you persevere in a struggling marriage or can’t shed scars of childhood abuse, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Moreover, imagine the implications if everyone “follows their bliss,” as Joseph Campbell put it. Consider how many people really, really want to be actors, novelists, stay-at-home parents, or (let’s not kid ourselves) drunks. People become self-supporting in these fields only after years of effort and investment, during which time food never becomes optional. Does Olsher really blame them for choosing bodily sustenance over the uncertain dream?

It’s tempting to say “we can’t all be Steve Jobs.” But as Malcolm Gladwell has demonstrated, even Steve Jobs couldn’t have been Steve Jobs if circumstances broke differently. Wealthy, successful, happy people get that way because they’re prepared, Gladwell proves, but also because circumstances break their way. We shouldn’t bend to life’s whims, like Olsher says, but we’re all beholden to conditions we can’t control.

Nobody wants to clean sewers, wait tables, or operate assembly lines. But we make compromises in life. We have to. Immanuel Kant writes of the “categorical imperative”: imagine the consequences if everyone did what you propose to do now. Hopefully Olsher would agree, we must honor first commitments first. If you have a spouse, two-point-four kids, and a mortgage, you can’t drop everything to dance banghra in a traveling circus.

When Olsher moralistically blames poor people, rural laborers, and disfranchised minorities for not knowing how to sort their hash, he really pisses me off. My reaction is only compounded by the fact that, up to the moment he says something so bone-headedly outrageous, he’s absolutely right. It really frustrates me that an author can have such intellectually solid, morally defensible foundations, and build such an ugly, offensive house upon them.

Olsher joins other recent books, like Zebras and Cheetahs and Give Yourself a Raise, that dogpile on poor people and ratify an essentially wealthy agenda. Worse, I fear these books conspire (perhaps unintentionally) to construct a moral framework letting rich people blame the poor for their poverty. I’m no socialist, yet I fear such blatant displays kicking the weak cannot end well for a capitalist society, or for our democracy.

CODA: After I posted an abridged version of this review on, the author posted a strange, incoherent comment (subsequently deleted under pressure) stating, among other things: "I thank God daily that morons like you... exist because you don't have the wherewithal, ability, or desire to make an inordinate difference in our world." He also claims that nobody could interpret his book any way other than how he intended, unless they didn't actually read the book.

When I wrote this review, I was angry at Olsher's implicit prejudices and judgmentalism, but considered him misguided. I repeat, he has a solid premise, but appears unaware of its ramifications. Following this comment, which includes personal insults and attempts to silence dissent, I fear he's something worse. After 140 consecutive positive reviews, answering one negative review with personal abuse, then acting contrite eighteen hours later, is domestic abuser behavior.

Olsher's opinions are arrogant and elitist; though in fairness, this could be accidental, a simple failure to anticipate poor laborers' differing needs. Steve Olsher himself, however, is potentially dangerous.

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