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Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart on Binge isn’t revolutionary, writers have been in the self-help business for millennia

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Until 2010, the Texan psychologist Brené Brown was an obscure professor, working in what academic researchers call “the field of shame”. Then she gave a Ted Talk called The Power of Vulnerability, which became one of the five most-viewed Ted Talks of all time. She’s published six books since then, all of them bestsellers. Her latest, Atlas of the Heart, came out last year. Now she’s made a five-part docuseries of the same name, which is currently streaming on Binge.

Self-help is a fantastically lucrative industry. According to Forbes magazine, Americans spend more than $US10 billion a year on self-improvement paraphernalia. Brown is one of the genre’s rising stars, and the blurb for her series suggests she’s invented a radical new form of entertainment: the binge-worthy “interactive” TV show that’s also thoroughly good for you.

Actually, there’s nothing very groundbreaking about the format of Brown’s show. She stands on a stage in front of a studio audience and imparts the lessons of her book, using slides and movie clips to illustrate her points. There’s a lot of talk about “relatable learnings” and going on journeys together. There’s a lot of thanking each other for sharing.

But under the schmaltz, Brown has some substantial things to say. Human beings, she argues, are capable of experiencing close to 100 separate emotions. The trouble is that we don’t know it because our language around emotions is hopelessly impoverished.

Texan psychologist Brené Brown has taken her self-help to the screen with Atlas of the Heart.

To prove her point, Brown shows how visual artists and movie-makers have evoked various emotions over the years. She also provides money quotes from assorted poets and philosophers, which tips you off to an important secret of the self-help genre. People like Brown are doing a job that was once done – and for some readers is still done – by literature.

Helping you live your life is one of the things that books have always been for. There’s now a separate section of the shop for books that claim to do that thing only. But it seems significant that these cutting-edge life manuals are always peppered with quotations from old-school imaginative writers such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

The truth is that writers have been in the self-help business for millennia. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which hit the stores around AD 180, originated as a self-help book, in the sense that Marcus wrote it for his own guidance, and didn’t expect it to be read by anyone else.

But as well as being a philosopher, Marcus was a successful Roman Emperor. So other political high-fliers have always looked to his book for tips on ethical leadership. Frederick the Great was a fan. So was Bill Clinton.

Indeed, the recent Modern Library edition of the Meditations is classified, on the back cover, as a work of “Philosophy/Business.” And in a modern American translation, Marcus does sound uncannily like a head-miked 21st-century self-improvement guru. “Give yourself a gift: the present moment,” Marcus wrote. No doubt that sounded much better when a million other writers hadn’t written it before. “It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control.” That’s Marcus talking, but it could just as easily be Deepak Chopra.

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius;  actor Peter O’Toole as the emperor in the film Gladiator.

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; actor Peter O’Toole as the emperor in the film Gladiator.

Self-help took off as a stand-alone genre in 1859, when a Scottish physician named Samuel Smiles published a book entitled – appropriately enough – Self-Help. Smiles was a crusading newspaper editor, who had long campaigned for women’s suffrage and Parliamentary reform.

But after years of trying to improve Victorian Britain from the top-down, Smiles decided to try improving it from the bottom up, one individual at a time. Hence the book Self-Help. “The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual,” Smiles wrote. “Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.”

Self-Help was an international hit, establishing its author as a kind of Victorian Dr Phil. But when the book was reissued in 1866, Smiles said he wished he’d given it a different title. Too many people thought he’d written a “eulogy of selfishness,” when he’d set out to do the opposite. “The duty of helping one’s self in the highest sense involves the helping of one’s neighbours,” he stressed.

It now seems odd that Smiles turned against his book’s title. It’s not every day a writer comes up with a title that launches a whole new genre, a whole new industry, a whole new section of the bookstore.

That genre was bound to catch on big-time in America, the land of thrusting individualism. The first home-grown star of American self-help was a lavishly moustachioed go-getter named Orison Swett Marden. As a teenager, Marden found a dusty copy of Smiles’ Self-Help in an attic. That “red-letter day,” Marden said later, “marked the turning point in my life.” From the moment he read Smiles’s book, “a voice within” kept telling Marden “you can be somebody.”

Scottish sugeon, writer and social reformer Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help.

Scottish sugeon, writer and social reformer Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help.Credit:Getty

To start with, Marden became somebody by buying a bunch of posh hotels. But what he really wanted to be was an inspirational writer, like Smiles. He spent 15 years drafting a motivational masterwork of his own. But in 1893 the only copy of his manuscript was destroyed when one of his hotels burnt down. In the spirit of self-help, Marden instantly bounced back. Remembering one of Smiles’ watchwords – perseverance – he bought a notebook and began rewriting his book from scratch, supposedly while the ruins of his hotel were still smouldering.

Loading

Marden’s book caught fire again, this time in a good way, when it was published the next year under the slightly aggressive title Pushing to the Front. People called Marden “the American Smiles”. His celebrity fans included Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. “It is doubtful whether any other book, outside of the Bible, has been the turning-point in more lives,” Marden’s publisher claimed. Self-help wasn’t quite bigger than Jesus, but it was getting there.

In 1921, the critic H. L. Mencken observed that Americans seemed to have a bottomless appetite for the “canned sagacity” of writers like Marden. And those writers, Mencken noticed, were already starting to explore the possibilities of tie-in inspirational merch. “The fruits of their fancy,” he wrote, “are not only sold in books but also displayed upon an infinite variety of calendars, banners and wall-cards.”

The self-help craze reached new heights, or possibly new depths, when Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. The book sold 250,000 copies within three months of its publication. It has now sold 30 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 36 languages.

“This is an action book,” Carnegie declared in his introduction. In other words, Carnegie had no time for any namby-pamby shit about self-cultivation and the importance of community. His book was a manual for manipulation. His chapter titles included such doozies as “How to Make People Like You Instantly,” “How to Get Co-Operation,” and “Making People Glad to Do What You Want.”

The key to success, Carnegie argued, lay in working out what other people wanted, then using that knowledge to get what you wanted instead. “Begin in a friendly way,” he suggested. “Make the other person feel important …The only way on earth to influence the other fellow is to talk about what he wants and show him how to get it.”

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Over the years, Carnegie’s famous followers have included the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett. But he’s also had some less savoury devotees. In 1957, the young Charles Manson signed up for a Carnegie course in prison, while doing time for car theft. Carnegie’s teachings, Manson found, formalised many of the manipulation techniques he’d been instinctively using for years.

Later on, Manson applied Carnegie’s doctrines in a cult setting. He won disciples and he influenced them. Apparently, his favourite Carnegie maxim was the one about letting other people believe that your idea is really theirs.

Reading Carnegie today, you can see what Manson saw in him. There was definitely something soulless about Carnegie’s worldview. His book had a chapter on “How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” but offered no advice on what your way of thinking should be. Carnegie didn’t promise to make you a better person, only a more successful one.

The best self-help writing isn’t like that. At its best, the genre has always had an ethical dimension – an awareness, as Marcus Aurelius put it, that “We came into the world for the sake of one another.”

Brené Brown’s work has that dimension. Indeed, it bends over backwards to advertise its commitment to interpersonal respect. Brown is nothing like Carnegie, except that she too is very American. Her work showcases an array of tics and tendencies that originated in America, and should ideally be left to stay there: relentless folksiness, a nervous urge to keep genuflecting to current pieties, and above all an inclination to view life as an endless group therapy session.

Loading

In the spirit of emotional openness that Brown encourages, I’m bound to say that I found those aspects of her show more cringeworthy than bingeworthy. On the other hand, her basic message seems more than sound. The point of life, she says, is to form “meaningful connections” with other people. After two years of lockdowns, who would argue with that?

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.

To read more from Spectrum, visit our page here.


Until 2010, the Texan psychologist Brené Brown was an obscure professor, working in what academic researchers call “the field of shame”. Then she gave a Ted Talk called The Power of Vulnerability, which became one of the five most-viewed Ted Talks of all time. She’s published six books since then, all of them bestsellers. Her latest, Atlas of the Heart, came out last year. Now she’s made a five-part docuseries of the same name, which is currently streaming on Binge.

Self-help is a fantastically lucrative industry. According to Forbes magazine, Americans spend more than $US10 billion a year on self-improvement paraphernalia. Brown is one of the genre’s rising stars, and the blurb for her series suggests she’s invented a radical new form of entertainment: the binge-worthy “interactive” TV show that’s also thoroughly good for you.

Actually, there’s nothing very groundbreaking about the format of Brown’s show. She stands on a stage in front of a studio audience and imparts the lessons of her book, using slides and movie clips to illustrate her points. There’s a lot of talk about “relatable learnings” and going on journeys together. There’s a lot of thanking each other for sharing.

But under the schmaltz, Brown has some substantial things to say. Human beings, she argues, are capable of experiencing close to 100 separate emotions. The trouble is that we don’t know it because our language around emotions is hopelessly impoverished.

Texan psychologist Brené Brown has taken her self-help to the screen with Atlas of the Heart.

Texan psychologist Brené Brown has taken her self-help to the screen with Atlas of the Heart.

To prove her point, Brown shows how visual artists and movie-makers have evoked various emotions over the years. She also provides money quotes from assorted poets and philosophers, which tips you off to an important secret of the self-help genre. People like Brown are doing a job that was once done – and for some readers is still done – by literature.

Helping you live your life is one of the things that books have always been for. There’s now a separate section of the shop for books that claim to do that thing only. But it seems significant that these cutting-edge life manuals are always peppered with quotations from old-school imaginative writers such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

The truth is that writers have been in the self-help business for millennia. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which hit the stores around AD 180, originated as a self-help book, in the sense that Marcus wrote it for his own guidance, and didn’t expect it to be read by anyone else.

But as well as being a philosopher, Marcus was a successful Roman Emperor. So other political high-fliers have always looked to his book for tips on ethical leadership. Frederick the Great was a fan. So was Bill Clinton.

Indeed, the recent Modern Library edition of the Meditations is classified, on the back cover, as a work of “Philosophy/Business.” And in a modern American translation, Marcus does sound uncannily like a head-miked 21st-century self-improvement guru. “Give yourself a gift: the present moment,” Marcus wrote. No doubt that sounded much better when a million other writers hadn’t written it before. “It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control.” That’s Marcus talking, but it could just as easily be Deepak Chopra.

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius;  actor Peter O’Toole as the emperor in the film Gladiator.

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; actor Peter O’Toole as the emperor in the film Gladiator.

Self-help took off as a stand-alone genre in 1859, when a Scottish physician named Samuel Smiles published a book entitled – appropriately enough – Self-Help. Smiles was a crusading newspaper editor, who had long campaigned for women’s suffrage and Parliamentary reform.

But after years of trying to improve Victorian Britain from the top-down, Smiles decided to try improving it from the bottom up, one individual at a time. Hence the book Self-Help. “The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual,” Smiles wrote. “Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.”

Self-Help was an international hit, establishing its author as a kind of Victorian Dr Phil. But when the book was reissued in 1866, Smiles said he wished he’d given it a different title. Too many people thought he’d written a “eulogy of selfishness,” when he’d set out to do the opposite. “The duty of helping one’s self in the highest sense involves the helping of one’s neighbours,” he stressed.

It now seems odd that Smiles turned against his book’s title. It’s not every day a writer comes up with a title that launches a whole new genre, a whole new industry, a whole new section of the bookstore.

That genre was bound to catch on big-time in America, the land of thrusting individualism. The first home-grown star of American self-help was a lavishly moustachioed go-getter named Orison Swett Marden. As a teenager, Marden found a dusty copy of Smiles’ Self-Help in an attic. That “red-letter day,” Marden said later, “marked the turning point in my life.” From the moment he read Smiles’s book, “a voice within” kept telling Marden “you can be somebody.”

Scottish sugeon, writer and social reformer Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help.

Scottish sugeon, writer and social reformer Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help.Credit:Getty

To start with, Marden became somebody by buying a bunch of posh hotels. But what he really wanted to be was an inspirational writer, like Smiles. He spent 15 years drafting a motivational masterwork of his own. But in 1893 the only copy of his manuscript was destroyed when one of his hotels burnt down. In the spirit of self-help, Marden instantly bounced back. Remembering one of Smiles’ watchwords – perseverance – he bought a notebook and began rewriting his book from scratch, supposedly while the ruins of his hotel were still smouldering.

Loading

Marden’s book caught fire again, this time in a good way, when it was published the next year under the slightly aggressive title Pushing to the Front. People called Marden “the American Smiles”. His celebrity fans included Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. “It is doubtful whether any other book, outside of the Bible, has been the turning-point in more lives,” Marden’s publisher claimed. Self-help wasn’t quite bigger than Jesus, but it was getting there.

In 1921, the critic H. L. Mencken observed that Americans seemed to have a bottomless appetite for the “canned sagacity” of writers like Marden. And those writers, Mencken noticed, were already starting to explore the possibilities of tie-in inspirational merch. “The fruits of their fancy,” he wrote, “are not only sold in books but also displayed upon an infinite variety of calendars, banners and wall-cards.”

The self-help craze reached new heights, or possibly new depths, when Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. The book sold 250,000 copies within three months of its publication. It has now sold 30 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 36 languages.

“This is an action book,” Carnegie declared in his introduction. In other words, Carnegie had no time for any namby-pamby shit about self-cultivation and the importance of community. His book was a manual for manipulation. His chapter titles included such doozies as “How to Make People Like You Instantly,” “How to Get Co-Operation,” and “Making People Glad to Do What You Want.”

The key to success, Carnegie argued, lay in working out what other people wanted, then using that knowledge to get what you wanted instead. “Begin in a friendly way,” he suggested. “Make the other person feel important …The only way on earth to influence the other fellow is to talk about what he wants and show him how to get it.”

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Over the years, Carnegie’s famous followers have included the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett. But he’s also had some less savoury devotees. In 1957, the young Charles Manson signed up for a Carnegie course in prison, while doing time for car theft. Carnegie’s teachings, Manson found, formalised many of the manipulation techniques he’d been instinctively using for years.

Later on, Manson applied Carnegie’s doctrines in a cult setting. He won disciples and he influenced them. Apparently, his favourite Carnegie maxim was the one about letting other people believe that your idea is really theirs.

Reading Carnegie today, you can see what Manson saw in him. There was definitely something soulless about Carnegie’s worldview. His book had a chapter on “How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” but offered no advice on what your way of thinking should be. Carnegie didn’t promise to make you a better person, only a more successful one.

The best self-help writing isn’t like that. At its best, the genre has always had an ethical dimension – an awareness, as Marcus Aurelius put it, that “We came into the world for the sake of one another.”

Brené Brown’s work has that dimension. Indeed, it bends over backwards to advertise its commitment to interpersonal respect. Brown is nothing like Carnegie, except that she too is very American. Her work showcases an array of tics and tendencies that originated in America, and should ideally be left to stay there: relentless folksiness, a nervous urge to keep genuflecting to current pieties, and above all an inclination to view life as an endless group therapy session.

Loading

In the spirit of emotional openness that Brown encourages, I’m bound to say that I found those aspects of her show more cringeworthy than bingeworthy. On the other hand, her basic message seems more than sound. The point of life, she says, is to form “meaningful connections” with other people. After two years of lockdowns, who would argue with that?

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.

To read more from Spectrum, visit our page here.

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