investing · Personal Finance · Self-Improvement

The Problem With Self-Help

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been an explosion of new self-help guides on the internet dot com. Old legends like Tony Robbins keep cranking it out, while young orangutans jostle for their piece of the pie. Almost every online following seems to devolve into the genre with varying degrees of intensity and commitment.

That’s all good, but an unfortunate theme appears to pervade most of the books: complete disconnect from reality. I happened upon this realization after reading through The Compound Effect  by Darren Hardy. It’s a short and compelling read that rehashes the timeless principles you typically hear, such as:

  • That $4.00 coffee at Starbucks every day adds up to $51,833.79 after 20 years.
  • If you make only $40,000, bring a bag lunch and cancel your magazine subscriptions, plus change your cable provider. This will save you a lot of money which could be invested for a higher return.   
  • If Stacey puts $250 in her Roth IRA each month starting at age 23, she’ll have $1 million by age 67, in this case ASSUMING she gets an 8 percent return, compounded MONTHLY.
  • If Chad does the same but delays his start by a a few years, he’ll have only $300,000 at the same age.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and energy.
  • You’re 100 percent responsible for your actions/decisions/choices.

The last hyphen point is especially interesting. Hardy does attempt to push the gospel of self-improvement, laying into the folks who blame other elements for their misfortune, such as family or the government. He hoists the individualist banner valiantly, yet towards the end of the book there is a brief disclaimer which can be summarized as follows: You’re 100 percent responsible for whatever you do, but those choices are INFLUENCED by powerful external forces.

At precisely this moment, the “Stop complaining and focus on yourself” mantra is dealt a fateful blow. Obviously one can apply all those principles, but there is nothing preventing a Black Swan from tossing it all back to square one again. These gurus seem to forget that prior to the 2008 collapse, companies like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns were well-respected, with both residing in various investment and retirement portfolios. Concurrently, there was no shortage of self-help spin doctors encouraging people to “Save every penny so you can invest” for the future. No doubt others adhered to those philosophies, but nothing stopped the macro-level malevolence of corporate and governmental interests.  We can look at the oil collapse of 2014 (and even 2020), along with the Coronavirus financial spanking to see a steady dynamic afoot. The train rattles on.

I suppose the takeaway should be that for all the benefits of helping yourself and “being an individual,” there are always factors at play well beyond your control, and those unwelcome guests can easily crash the self-reliance party.

Anyone bring the Natty Light?