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Stop Looking for Yourself

... and be more like Dennis.

A vast array of books and courses are offered on self-development, self-improvement, and self-realization. Millions of self-help books are sold every year, and the idea of personal development is ubiquitous in education and business. Our lives seem to be in a state of constant flux and change, but legions of coaches, therapists, and lifestyle counselors are on hand to steer us safely through these choppy waters by teaching us self-esteem, authenticity, and the skills of positive thinking. The message often is: Be yourself! Look within yourself for answers, and then you can achieve what you want!

This message might once have been emancipatory. When the counter-cultures of the 1960s objected to the oppressive structures of earlier times by looking inward and seeking self-realization, there was no shortage of good reasons to throw off the shackles of a rigid society that placed unnecessary restrictions on personal and human development. However, as social theorist Axel Honneth argues, while this inward turn may well once have constituted a legitimate form of resistance to “the system” (patriarchy, capitalism, etc.), it has subsequently become the basis upon which the very same system now legitimizes itself.

Our current consumer society depends upon individuals who are flexible, changeable, and constantly preoccupied with self-development and reinvention. To stand still in our society, which is based on growth and consumption, is akin to dissent. The self-realization tsunami has aided and abetted the market’s demand for a servile, flexible, and – we might say – stressed and rootless workforce, which is why, over the last 50 years, all sorts of ostensibly progressive management and organizational theories have focused on “the whole person," "human resources,” and the idea of self-realization through work. “Developing yourself as a person” is no longer a critical idea, but the very foundation of a problematic culture of consumption.

Nowadays, real resistance to the system would consist not of turning inward in search of some authentic self, but in rejecting the whole concept and finding out how to live responsibly with yourself and others instead. The sentence “I don’t need to develop myself” is rarely uttered during performance and development reviews – given the prevailing orthodoxy, it would be tantamount to heresy. Might what was previously deemed oppressive perhaps actually be liberating? Might habit and routine have greater human potential than endless invocations of innovation and change? Perhaps he who dares be like everybody else is the true individualist? Like the famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the main character, who has been proclaimed the Messiah, lectures the masses on the need to be themselves and not follow him blindly: “Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!” They must do what they think is right. To which the crowd responds as one voice: “Yes, we’re all individuals," apart from Dennis, who says “I’m not.”

Today, most of us are members of this crowd, conformingly affirming our uniqueness. Paradoxically, Dennis is alone in confirming his individuality by denying it. Maybe it’s the same with finding yourself: They who deny that it makes sense to attempt to find yourself may just be the ones who are most themselves – or at least have some kind of stable sense of self. Those who reject the whole find-and-develop-yourself ideology have more chance of putting down roots and living a life with a certain degree of integrity – with joined-up and enduring identities – and sticking to what is important in their lives. We need to be more like Dennis. Let’s try to be decent human beings instead of chasing a narcissistic dream of uniqueness and individuality.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared in The Guardian.

References

Brinkmann, S. (2017). Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. Cambridge: Polity.

Honneth, A. (2004). Organized self-realization: Some paradoxes of individualization. European Journal of Social Theory, 7(4): 463-478.

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