Many people may not know that in 2017 Patriots quarterback Tom Brady rolled out a cookbook.
For just $200, readers could get a "living document" dishing all the secrets of the star quarterback’s heavily (and strangely) regimented diet. The “TB12-alligned nutrition plan" had a total of 89 recipes.
The notion that people would pay $200 for a cookbook—even one written by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback—might sound a bit absurd. After all, less than 40 percent of Americans have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency. Who’s going to pay $200 for a cookbook?
Apparently, a lot of people. Brady’s cookbook sold out “in a hot minute.”
Brady’s story helps show why the self-help industry is an estimated $12 billion annual industry in America, which puts it slightly ahead of MLB and slightly behind the NFL in total revenue.
In his 1989 book Oracle at the Supermarket: America's Preoccupation with Self-Help Books, psychologist Steven Starker explained how the self-help industry had become a sort of spiritual guide for individuals seeking answers—similar to the ancient Greeks who went on pilgrimages to the famous temple at Delphi.
“As is well known, the oracle of ancient Greek culture offered wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, and healing to questing pilgrims. I submit that these functions have been usurped, in America, by the self-help book, which provides inspiration, education, and hope to millions... The wisdom of self-help is dispensed, today, not only at local libraries and bookstores, but even at suburban supermarkets. Readers are provided advice on diet, exercise, sex, divorce, religion, personal growth, and virtually all other aspects of living, often with step-by-step instructions. The new oracle is firmly entrenched in American culture, and few escape its influence. It is time we gave it serious consideration."
Starker’s suggestion was that America’s self-help industry was slowly and quietly replacing the more traditional realms truth-seekers would travel to in their search for answers: churches, synagogues, and other spiritual houses.
Starker is not alone in this assessment. In his new book Awaken the Power Within: In Defense of Self-Help, sociologist Albert Amao Soria suggests self-help has become a sort of commercialized theology for people seeking to find truth or improve themselves by finding secret knowledge.
“In modern times, most ‘self-help’ programs are in essence coaching devices; that is, the practitioner assumes the role of parent, priest, or advisor,” writes Soria, founder of the Center for Spiritual Self-Awakening. “These programs serve as palliatives or mental narcotics, creating codependency, which involves emotional or psychological reliance on the practitioner, much like addiction.”
Yet it’s clear from the title of his book that Soria is not against self-help, an idea he acknowledges is woven into the fabric of American history and mythology—from Transcendentalists such as Hawthorne and Emerson, to famous self-made men such as Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.
The problem, Soria writes, is that the self-help industry has morphed into a quasi-religion. Instead of seeking ways to genuinely change and improve themselves through time-tested virtues such as self-discipline, fortitude, and temperance, Americans are increasingly seeking quick fixes.
The $12 billion self-improvement industry, he suggests, is largely a marketplace filled with “snake oil” salesmen—the term used in journalist Tom Tiede’s 2001 book Self-Help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to the Snake-Oil Peddlers Who Are Sapping Our Nation's Soul—who promise a simple technique, answer, or solution to a common problem or feeling.
“When the need is not met by a specific book or service, the seeker will resort to the next book or the next provider or practitioner, who will provide the answers, the comfort, the cure, the solution to his or her emotional or psychological ailments,” Soria writes.
The $12 billion self-help industry is not filled solely with snake oil salesmen, of course. Many people no doubt believe they have answers that can help people, and some of these solutions no doubt work to one degree or another.
So how can one distinguish “real” self-help from the phony stuff? Soria points to two red flags to watch out for: 1) the promise of a quick-fix; 2) the offer of making life problem free.
This is good advice. But one wonders if a nation increasingly confused about truth can ever be persuaded from turning their money over to those who promise easy solutions to pain and confusion, two eternal and pervasive conditions to the human experience.
Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has appeared in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Washington Times.