How the Earth Became Flat

If I brought my lips to your ears and softly whispered, “The earth is flat,” what would you think?

Well, first you would probably think, “Should I call the cops or the psych ward?” But let us pretend that I (still whispering softly) manage to convince you of my sanity. What would you think about next? What images does “the earth is flat” bring to mind?

Quite a few of us, I think, would recall the story of Christopher Columbus.

File:Possible portrait of Christopher Columbus.jpg

Though nobody pays attention in history classes (I probably spent more time drawing mustaches on the faces of American presidents than taking notes), we Americans somehow finish our education believing in the same Columbus story.

The story goes something like this. I quote from’s Christopher Columbus for Kids:

“Columbus [wanted to get to India and China] and thought that he had the answer. He felt that since the earth was round, like a ball, if he sailed to the west and sailed long enough, he could sail right around the world to China in the east. He had two big problems though. First, he did not have enough money or ships to make this trip. Second, most people in those days thought the world was flat, like a table top. They thought that if you sailed too far from land, you would sail off the edge and be killed!

Great story, but—as some of you history buffs already know—the story his mostly false.

In Christopher Columbus and the Manufacture of Identity, I looked at how the historical events of Columbus’s voyage were whitewashed and edited to create a national mythology.

In this second part of the series (surprise, it’s a series!), I’ll be looking at another side of the Columbus myth—the lie of the flat earth.

To be honest, I don’t care much for Christopher Columbus or his history. Instead, the focus here is to understand how stories, dramas, and mythologies affect and shape our understanding of the world.

The Flat Earth Lie

Contrary to what I learned in school, no educated person in 1492 believed that the earth was flat.

Two thousand years before Columbus, Greek thinkers like Pythagoras and Aristotle had already asserted that the earth was round. And, despite what some think, this knowledge was not lost to the Dark Ages.

Indeed, the earth’s roundness was so accepted that it’s hardly worth debating. Or, as historian J. B. Russel puts it in a talk at Westmont College,

“ …with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.

“A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. … Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few–at least two and at most five–early Christian fathers denied the sphericity of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.”

What’s more, this is old news.  Historians, says Russel, have known about the flat-earth lie for almost a century (if not longer):

“Historians of science have been proving this point for at least 70 years … without making notable headway against the error. Schoolchildren in the US, Europe, and Japan are for the most part being taught the same old nonsense. How and why did this nonsense emerge?”

Even if you know zero history (and I don’t know much), there’s something not quite right about the story. Columbus never sailed around the world; he sailed to the Americas and back. It was Magellan, decades later, that circumnavigated the globe.

Something interesting is going on. We have two mysteries to solve: (1) Where did the flat-earth lie come from? and (2) Why, despite nearly a century of protest from historians, do we continue to believe in it?

How to Flatten the Earth

In his book Inventing the Flat Earth, Russel points out that the flat-earth lie is a recent invention. Before the 1830s, nobody believed it.

One of the lie’s origins, says Russel, can be found in the work of novelist and essayist Washington Irving (1783 – 1859). Among ordinary folks today, Irving is known for writing stories like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

But among professional historians, Irving is known for writing bogus history. According to one historian, his popular biography of Christopher Columbus is “pure moonshine … the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.”

Irving’s biography tells the now-familiar fictional tale of Columbus as a bold, forward-thinking adventurer facing off against backward-thinking clergymen and theologians who stubbornly believed that the earth was flat.

The story fused with other bits and pieces of fiction, entered American schoolbooks, and passed down over nearly two centuries, to us here in the 21st century.

For a more detailed history, see Wikipedia’s page on “the myth of the flat earth.” For now, let’s turn to the mystery that interests me: Why, despite a century of protest from historians, does the myth refuse to go away?

History becomes myth and myth, confused with history, is captured in paintings like this one.

History as a Soap Opera

If the flat-earth lie was an ordinary historical error, it should have been corrected by now. The fact that the story survives until today suggests that there is something more at stake here than “mere history.”

In A Late Birth of a Flat Earth, evolutionary biologist and prolific essayist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the flat-earth lie persists because it sustains a useful fiction—a mythology now so prevalent in our culture that we hardly think about it.

This mythology tells of a war between good and evil, between light and darkness:

“[The early 19th century] featured the spread of an intellectual movement … [that portrayed] Western history as a perpetual struggle, if not an outright ‘war,’ between science and religion, with progress linked to the victory of science and the consequent retreat of theology. Such movements always need whipping boys and legends to advance their claims. … How could a better story for the army of science ever be concocted? Religious darkness destroys Greek knowledge and weaves us into a web of fears, based on dogma and opposed both to rationality and experience.”

History, argues Gould, has been rewritten as an ideological drama where bold, science-loving heroes (Columbus) square off against idiotic, backward-thinking lovers of religion (flat earthers).

The drama even reveals itself in the language that we use. The “light” of the Enlightenment is set against the “dark” of the Dark Ages. All of this, says Gould, helps create the following narrative:

“…the intent of Darks and Middles could not be more clear — to view Western history as possessing a Greek and Roman acme, with supposed loss as tragic, followed by the beginning of salvation in Renaissance discovery.”

What’s ironic to me, though, is that this drama takes old Christian themes of the lost paradise of Eden and salvation through Christ and replaces them with secular interpretations: The paradise is now Greek knowledge of a round earth (lost to the Dark Ages) and salvation now comes to us through the forces of science, reason, and progress.

Every story needs a hero, and every hero needs a villain. If the hero of the flat-earth story is science, then its villain, in this case, is religion:

“The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists [in service of Darwinism]. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: ‘Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?’”

History is often manipulated to give false justification to why one particular group or race is superior to another. Science, I guess, is no exception.

A Very Human Endeavor

I am more or less an atheist, and I don’t doubt the truth of Darwinism. But what interests me here is how political and historical manipulation were used to campaign for the advancement scientific theory.

Pop culture likes to portray science as “nerds on blackboards”—as something sterile, rational, objective, and pure; something free from bias or worldly worry.

But science is an activity done by humans for humans. It takes incredible emotion, imagination, and passion to do well at all. If anything, science more art than accounting.

Or, as the philosopher Mary Midgley writes in Evolution as Religion,

“Merely to pile up information indiscriminately is an idiot’s task. Good scientists do not approximate to that ideal at all. They tend to have a very strong guiding imaginative system. Their world-picture is usually a positive and distinctive one, with its own special drama. They do not scrupulously avoid conveying any sense of dark and light, of what matters and what does not, of what is to be aimed at and what avoided… Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organize themselves into some sort of story, some drama. These dramas can indeed be dangerous. … The only way in which we can control this kind of distortion is, I believe, to bring the dramas themselves out into the open…”

Stories, myths, and dramas shape the questions that we ask and the worlds that we perceive. How could they not affect and direct scientific inquiry?

The danger comes, as Midgley points out, when we refuse to admit and recognize that all thought is in some way touched by mythology, madness, drama and story. For it is when we are unconscious of stories that they grip us the most.

Christopher Columbus and the Manufacture of Identity

When I first visited Japan a decade ago, I was surprised to learn that Japanese schools did not teach students about the systematic murder of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians at the 1937 “Nanking Massacre”.

Mariko Oi at the BBC says that, as a student, her textbook only had a single footnote about the event:

“There was one page on other events leading up to the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 – including one line, in a footnote, about the massacre that took place when Japanese forces invaded Nanjing – the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing.”

Later, I learned that this whitewashing of history happens all the time and is not at all unique to Japan. For example, the story of Christopher Columbus—a name any American student knows—has been edited, whitewashed, and re-written to the point where it is more myth than reality.

Recently, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about how stories shape our beliefs, personalities, and well-being. In this two-part series, I’d like to use the story of Chistopher Columbus to further illuminate the function and purpose of story in our lives.

When someone treats you with kindness, enslave them and kill their families

In the US, most of us are fed the same story about Christopher Columbus. Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall captures it well in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

“I recently asked my first-grade daughter, Abigail, to tell me what she learned in school about Christopher Columbus. Abby has an excellent memory, and she recalled a lot: the names of the three ships, the fact that Columbus discovered America by sailing the ocean blue in 1492, and that Columbus proved that the earth was round, not flat. It’s the same thing they taught me in elementary school thirty years ago, and what my parents learned before me.”

The reality of Columbus’s arrival was quite different. Upon landing at the island of San Salvador, Columbus wrote the following in his logs:

“I gave to some of them red caps and to some glass beads, which they hung on their necks, and many other things of slight value, in which they took much pleasure; they remained so much our friends that it was a marvel; and later they came swimming to the ships’ boats … and brought us parrots and cotton thread in skeins and darts and many other things … everything they had, with good will.”

So far, so good. Then, Columbus wrote:

“These people are very unskilled in arms … With fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”

Within 60 years, Columbus managed to enslave or exterminate the entire local Arawak population. The historian James Loewen writes, “He probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual… other nations rushed to emulate Columbus.”

Apparently, there’s a hot debate going on about whether or not we should revise our textbooks so that Columbus appears as less of an American hero.

I don’t have much of an opinion about that. Rather, I’m curious about why the story changed.

Secular myths for secular times

There are a lot of reasons why history is deleted or fictionalized, and I won’t pretend to understand it all.

However, Gottschall suggests that the story has changed in order to better suit our cultural needs for a unifying story:

“Revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn and James Loewen have argued that American history texts have been whitewashed so thoroughly that they don’t count as history anymore. They represent determined forgetting—an erasure of what is shameful from our national memory banks so that history can function as a unifying, patriotic myth. Stories about Columbus, Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, George Washington’s inability to lie, and so on, serve as national creation myths. The men at the center of these stories are presented not as flesh-and-blood humans with flaws to match their virtues, but as the airbrushed leading men of hero stories. The purpose of these myths is not to provide an objective account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together…

Why do we need unifying stories? Well, Gottschall points out that, at their heart, stories are deeply moral. They teach us what is good and what is bad. And, when everybody in our community or culture learns those stories, it brings us together and gives us a common identity.

In a beautiful paragraph, Gottschall writes:

“Story … continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction ‘is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

Religious fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Myths and religious stories were never meant to be read literally. Rather, they were sources of metaphorical wisdom that captured important truths about how to live.

Now, in a time where faeries, spirits and talking clouds makes us uncomfortable, mythology needs to come from a source that is palatable to our scientific minds. I suppose history is one such source.

If the story of Christopher Columbus is to serve as a moral guide, it’s no surprise that the ugliest aspects of his story have been whitewashed and eliminated. We don’t want our mythologies saying, “Hey, if someone treats you nicely, you should enslave them, infect them with disease, and slowly commit genocide on their entire race.“

Likewise, it’s not a surprise when completely fictional events (such as the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree) are added into the stories. In a way, we’re doing R&D to try and produce the best possible mythology—better than anything real life can provide.

Of course, it’s a problem when people confuse myth for reality and literally think that Columbus was this wonderful guy. But I guess that’s what happens when you have to get your mythologies from history and not from, well, mythology.

Source: XKCD

Blueprints for action

Another way to think about stories—both the true ones and the mythological ones—is that they serve as “blueprints for action.”

Children and teenagers form their personalities by identifying with a particular social category or group and then trying to become more like the people in that group. This is driven by our fundamental desire to belong to a tribe.

At the same time, we also have a drive to succeed within whatever tribe we belong to. It’s not enough to be in the DDR club, we also want to be the best player in the DDR club.

In his book Selfie, the journalist Will Storr says that we look to our cultural environment for guidance on how we can succeed:

“…the thing all human selves fundamentally wants is to get along and get ahead. Everyone has this in common. When we’re born, our brain looks to the environment to tell it who we ought to become in order to best fulfil this deep and primal need. What it’s looking for is the model of the ideal of self that exists in its cultural surroundings.

Where do does the model of the ideal self come from? Well, they come in part from stories:

“From the fairy tales we hear as children, to films and works of literature, to the documentaries and news stories that narrativize the world more directly, to ancient parables in holy books, stories work as both entertainment and a kind of shopping mall for the self. ‘Culture provides each person with an extensive menu of stories about how to live,’ writes [psychologist Dan] McAdams, ‘and each of us chooses from the menu.’ We build our sense of who we are by ‘appropriating stories from culture’.”

I guess you can think of mythical heroes as the ultimate role models. We may never be able to become like Jesus, Joan de arc, or Superman, but they gives us something to aim for.

So, in a way, you could say that we’ve (perhaps unconsciously) edited and updated the story of Columbus to make him look more like how we want our heroes to be.

We want Columbus to be a nice guy who is also courageous, bold, and explores new territories. What we don’t want is for him to be a mass murderer and slave trader with a lust for gold.

Curtain call

Last year, I couldn’t quite understand why certain public intellectuals—Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson comes to mind—were so worried about postmodernism and its systematic dismantling of traditions, mythologies, and values.

But if cultural stories and myths are important for (a) feeling life is meaningful, (b) cooperating with your community, and (c) orienting yourself morally in the world, then I guess I can understand why they may be worried.

What do you get when cultural stories are removed? Nihilism? Happiness? Depression? And, if we need stories, where do the new ones come from? Vampire novels? Comic books? YouTube? 

Honestly, I have no idea.

In the second part of this two-part series, I’ll be looking at another equally interesting side of the Columbus myth: His supposed “discovery” that the earth was round.

A Few Principles for Thinking Clearly

One of my favorite essays I wrote this year was A Few Principles for Intellectual Freedom.

In that piece, I took scenes from the life of the scientist James Lovelock to illustrate some principles for pursuing a life of intellectual freedom. In this essay, I’d like to do something similar with another inspirational character—the Czech-Canadian polymath Vaclav Smil.

File:Vaclav-smil.jpgSmil was a little-known academic until he rose into public awareness thanks to Bill Gates. Gates has read all of Smil’s books (over 30 of them) and goes as far as to say, “I learn more by reading Vaclav Smil than just about anyone.”

Many of Smil’s books focus on environmental themes such as population growth, climate change, and energy transitions. These fields are rife with political bias and emotional reasoning, but Smil manages to say important, interesting things in a way that is neither deluded nor dogmatic.

Here are a few things I’m learning from him on how to think clearly.

Read widely, with maximum curiosity

As Philip Tetlock has shown in his book Superforecasting, the clearest thinkers tend to be those that draw from multiple disciplines. I call these people dragonfloxes—they can do many things (like a fox) and also see the world in many ways (like dragonflies, which have many eyes).

Smil is a dragonflox. At age 74, he continues to read 80+ books a year (while still finding the time to write up to 3 books in a single year):

“I’ve read about 80 books a year for the past 50 years. I come from cultural breeding. I don’t have a cellphone. When you spend all your time checking your cellphone messages, or updating your Facebook (of course I don’t have a Facebook page) then you don’t have any time for reading.”

This habit of learning, it seems, started when Smil was still a student:

“Smil completed his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Charles University in Prague, where he took 35 classes a week, 10 months a year, for 5 years. “They taught me nature, from geology to clouds,” Smil said. After graduation he refused to join the Communist party, undermining his job prospects, though he found employment at a regional planning office.” (Wikipedia)

Put reality first and theory last

Though I don’t know the details, I find it interesting that Smil refused to join the Communist party as a student. One problem with Marxism is that it puts too much faith in its model of how history works. Marx thought that history moved in predictable phases, converging on a paradise in the future where humans lived as equals.

Confusing models with reality is a cardinal sin of clear thinking. If you believe too strongly in your models of the world, you can start to ignore evidence that your model is wrong.

Smil is not a fan of models. When, in the 1870s, the influential book The Limits to Growth used a computer model to predict impending doom, Smil was skeptical. 

From an article in Science magazine:

“Smil was intrigued and taught himself programming to re-create the model for himself. ‘I saw it was utter nonsense,’ he recalls; the model was far too simple and easily skewed by initial assumptions. He constructed a similar model of how carbon dioxide emissions affect climate and found it similarly wanting. He understood the physics of the greenhouse effect and the potential for a carbon dioxide buildup to warm Earth, but models seemed too dependent on assumptions about things like clouds. Ever since, he’s held models of all kinds in contempt. ‘I have too much respect for reality,’ he says.

If you look at history, it becomes clear how easy it is for humans to fool themselves with faulty forecasts and myth-driven theories. In the face of that, the only proper stance, I think, is intellectual humility.

Smil has humility. He refuses to make long-term forecasts (because he knows they are useless) and instead focuses only on saying what is worth saying:

“I never push anything hard because I do not believe that any individual has all the solutions… I try to illuminate complexities, raise concerns, and suggest some desirable tools and sensible outcomes.”

This is the opposite of what many pundits and political commentators do. People will always need certainty where no certainty exists. In this sense, pundits and long-term forecasters are the priests and faith healers of our time.

Those interested in the truth, though, will have to learn to live with uncertainty.

Keep money and status out of it

Another interesting thing about Smil is that he has principles. In particular, you can tell he that he values intellectual honesty far more than he values fame or material wealth.

Smil lives very simply, hates interviews, and does not own a smartphone. And, despite his friendship with Gates, Smil hasn’t done anything to, as marketers would say, to “leverage the relationship”:

“…Gates has opened doors for Smil: Swiss banks weren’t calling for his advice before. But they keep the relationship pure. ‘I would never ask him for any favor—never ever,’ Smil says. ‘As simple as that.'”

In economics, there’s something called Campbell’s law. The basic idea is that, when you reward people for a particular measure—clicks, dollars, likes, etc.—people will find a way to “game” the system.

The classic example of this happened in India. The government offered rewards to people who caught and killed snakes. Unexpected result: People started to breed more snakes in order to get the rewards.

If college admissions require essays, rich parents will pay essay-writers to write those essays. If journalism is fueled by clicks, journalists are going to write sensationalist clickbait. Of course, scientists and academics are in no way exempt. 

This is the danger of getting paid for your ideas: It’s easy to sell out or self-censor because you’re afraid of (a) financial or (b) status pushback.

The cure—as far as I can tell—is to hold fame and financial success in low regard. In fact, it might actually help to look down on people who are interested in getting rich and getting ahead.

I don’t know if Smil does this intentionally, but his intense privacy and frugal lifestyle seem to me like signs that he is trying to protect his ability to think clearly.

Lately, I am trying to modify my life in the same way. Until recently, I accepted monthly contributions of $100 on my Patreon page in exchange for a monthly phone call. The money was nice, but I started to feel pressured to cater to these donors. It found it hard to disagree with them or write things that they might not like.

Manage your identity

Y Combinator’s Paul Graham has an excellent essay titled Keep Your Identity Small. The key idea is that the more a particular issue is wrapped up in your identity, the harder it is for you to think clearly about it.

It gets worse. When people are exposed to evidence that contradicts their identities or tribal affiliations, they’ll actually double down and become more confident in whatever they believed. This is why it’s important, when trying to think clearly, to avoid identifying with any particular tribe.

Take dietary advice. I find it hilarious how the paleo, primal, keto, vegan, and vegetarian diet camps are always quibbling about minor things when they share so many similarities (avoid processed foods, eat vegetables, etc.).

Smil has a book titled Should We Eat Meat? . In it, he refuses to identify with any tribe and instead says that (a) it’s fine to eat meat but (b) we shouldn’t eat too much of it.

Here he is in an interview:

“Meat eaters don’t like me because I call for moderation, and vegetarians don’t like me because I say there’s nothing wrong with eating meat. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage! Meat has helped to make us what we are. Meat helps to make our big brains. The problem is with eating 200 pounds of meat per capita per year. Eating hamburgers every day. And steak. You know, you take some chicken breast, cut it up into little cubes, and make a Chinese stew—three people can eat one chicken breast. When you cut meat into little pieces, as they do in India, China, and Malaysia, all you need to eat is maybe like 40 pounds a year.”

Humans are tribal creatures, and I don’t think we can fully escape the need to identify with a group.

If you have to choose a group, though, I think the best thing to do is what Annie Duke suggests in her book Thinking in Bets: Identify with a group that values the truth.

Skin in the game

I’m not sure how related this is to “clear thinking”, but another thing I find inspirational about Smil is how he lives in accordance with the advice that he gives.

Some examples:

  • Smil lives in a modest home, which he built to have 50% more insulation than your average home. The furnace uses natural gas, and it is 97% efficient.
  • He eats meat, but only an average of once a week, usually Asian-style in stir fried dishes.
  • He drives a Honda civic, which he calls “the most reliable, most efficient, most miraculously designed car.”

I suppose it’s like that old saying of how chefs should eat their own cooking and architects should live in the houses they build. If you’re going to give advice, then you better make sure you live by it.

Some final thoughts

Somehow, I don’t think that Smil would be happy to know that I wrote this essay. I probably got some things wrong, and maybe he doesn’t see things the way that I see them.

Still, I think that this was worth writing. Reading about Smil has encouraged me to re-organize my life. Perhaps it provide some hints for some of you as well.

The Duchess of Poker — Annie Duke on How We Can Make Better Decisions

On this episode of The Polymath Project Podcast, I speak with former professional poker player and poker champion Annie Duke about her latest book, Thinking in Bets: Making Better Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts.

After retiring from poker, Annie now teaches people, companies and institutions how to make better decisions in the real world.

Some topics we cover:

  • Why poker is better than chess at teaching you how to make real-world decisions
  • The fundamental problem of decision-making
  • The importance of a “truthseeking” community
  • How poker can help you manage your emotions
  • How education is failing to teach kids important skills that they need, and what Annie is trying to do about it

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen

Resources & Links

Books mentioned on the podcast:

Other links:

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit to get a free audiobook copy of David’s book (or any other book) and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Bad Self-Help and the ‘Myth of Perfect Perfectibility’

You know that ugly feeling you get when you eat a bad slice of cheesecake? That raw, hollow ache that seems to fill your whole stomach?

Well, in the past year, that’s how I’ve started to feel about self-help advice. Actually, I started feel that way about my own self-help advice.

Recently, I tried to put that discomfort into words on Twitter:

The tweet got a surprising response, which tells me that other people are getting tummy-aches too. In this essay, I’d like to elaborate a bit on what I meant in that tweet.

1. Self-help equates success with high status

If I remember correctly, one of the most-read articles on Medium last year had a headline like this: If You Want to Be Successful, Do These 32 things.

I forget what the 32 things were, but I’m sure the listicle had some variation of the classic self-help hacks and secrets. You know, things like waking up at 5 a.m., drinking chia-seed protein shakes, soaking your testicles in ice water (sorry ladies), power posing in public restroom stalls, drawing crop circles in your Moleskine notebooks, and so on.

What bothers me most about these articles is what they don’t say. Despite the promises to make you successful, nobody seems to take to time to tell you what they mean by “success”.

Recently, I realized that this is because modern self-help doesn’t need to define success. To self-help, “success” is simply whatever everyone else sees as high status—driving a battery-powered sport vehicle; living in a twenty-room mansion with the Cuban women’s lacrosse team; receiving six-figure paychecks; and so on.

Put another way, modern self-help is ethics-agnostic. It assumes you already know the answer to the great philosophical question “How should I live?”. All that is left is to give you the tools to help you get there.

I don’t think that the key to the good life can be found in a 10-step program, and I certainly don’t think copying everyone else is going to get you there.

2. Beware ye fairy tales


Terrible idea, unless you like screen glare and sand in your keyboard. (Source)

Another problem with modern self-help is that it’s core narrative is based on a fairy tale. The 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote:

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Keynes point was that our beliefs and actions are influenced by thinkers from past that we’ve may never have heard of.

It’s the same for self-help, I think. Self-help has historical influences, but few of its fans know what they are. Books like Byrne’s The Secret or Anthony Robbins’ Unlimited Power share a history with believers in “mind-cures”, who thought that faith could solve all our problems.

From the City Journal:

“The [self-help] genre truly gained steam, though, around the turn of the twentieth century, when a philosophy known as New Thought made self-help more user-friendly by relaxing its fixation on hard work. Rather than seeking worldly success by following God’s principles, proponents of New Thought—a tradition that arose out of both transcendentalism and “mind-cure” proponents, who believed that right thinking could heal ills—advised readers to communicate their desires to God (or some power), who would provide. Attitude is everything; if you believe it, you can achieve it.”

The New Thought movement is alive and well, with Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret selling over 30 million copies.

Too skeptical for this voodoo mumbo-jumbo? Don’t worry, there’s a version for “intelligent” skeptics too. Take the same idea, repackage it with scientific salad dressing, and you get terms like grit, growth mindset (“successful kids believe“), ego depletion (“willpower is a muscle”), and the 10,000-hour ruleSame magical thinking, but sugar-coated with science to help the voodoo go down.

I’m not saying that this advice doesn’t work. What you believe does change your behavior. But it’s easy to take this too far. At one point, I truly believed that mindset was everything. All I needed was 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and I could be the best in the world at anything.

It says something, I think, that—despite its wild popularity—much of this “science” has since failed to replicate. People want this stuff to be true. And, I have to wonder: Did the scientists (unknowingly) do their research already knowing they wanted to find? If so, it’s no surprise that they found it.

3. Naive optimism

Image result for james stockdale

James Stockdale, a fighter pilot, spent nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In the camps, he noticed that optimists, not pessimists, were the first to die.

And modern self-help is full of such optimism. Here’s Alain de Botton on the trend:

“[Modern self-help is full of] people who are reclothing the Christian message so as to promise a financial heaven if we believe in ourselves, have faith, work hard and don’t despair. Or else those with a passing acquaintance with Buddhism, psychoanalysis or Daoism. What unites modern practitioners is there fierce optimism. They make the grave assumption that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that all will be well. They are utterly cut off from the spirit of their more noble predecessors, who knew that realism could also have its therapeutic benefits.”

The optimism that makes me the most uncomfortable is what I’ve been calling the myth of perfect perfectibility. This is the belief that (a) there’s some perfect life in the future waiting for us and (b) we can achieve anything we want, as long as we try.

Again, sounds a lot like the idea of heaven, but repurposed in a way that a skeptical mind can accept. Heaven isn’t in the afterlife; It’s here, now. You just need hard work and the right 10-step program to get you here.

If paradise is here and now and all you have to do to get there is to believe, one has to wonder why nobody in history (as far as I know) has managed to get there.

Here’s philosopher Julian Baggini in Microphilosophy praising concert pianist James Rhodes’ critique of self-help:

[Rhodes] main complaint is that the self-help culture encourages us to think we are more perfectible than we are. The “good-enough human being” should indeed be good enough. “The human condition is one of fragility,” he said. “Just because we are not happy it doesn’t mean that we are unhappy. There is a huge amount of space between happiness and unhappiness and someone in between is OK.” Well said.

Modern self-help promotes unrealistic expectations.

Even if self-help does manage to make you rich, beautiful, and high status, life’s problems do not go away. You’ll still fall in and out of love. Your job might get better or worse, but it will never be problem-free. Friendships will fade; New ones will develop. You’ll get hungry, grow old, develop aches and pains, and eventually die.

I live in Japan, and the Japanese—despite all their problems—know how to find beauty and joy in life despite its imperfection and impermanence. In the West, we seem more inclined to try and will imperfection away.


Photo credit: Pelican

4. It’s your fault when you fail

It might not seem like such a bad thing to say, “You can be anything you want to be.” But there’s a dark side to thinking that you are 100% in control of your destiny: It’s also 100% your fault when you fail.

Though this clearly isn’t everyone, some people go as far as to say that poor people are poor because they didn’t try hard enough. All that’s necessary to pull a country out of abject poverty is effort.

I’m a prime example of how deluded you can get with this kind of thinking. In school, I aced all my tests without studying. I scored top 1% on my SATs, including a full 800 on maths. I rarely studied, except the day before a test. Despite overwhelming evidence that school was easier for me than others, I proceeded to look down on everyone else who did worse than me, saying, “They just didn’t try hard enough.”

Effort and self-help advice can help, bust—like medicine and exercise—they helps the most when you’re (a) a beginner or (b) very sick. Most gains to be had are the low-hanging fruit; after that, there’s a limit to what self-help can do.

Most readers are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I find it interesting that, towards the end of his life, Maslow began to have doubts about his own pyramid. Maslow noticed that those with an inflated sense of personal agency seemed to be narcissistic assholes:

‘High scorers in my test of dominance feeling, or self-esteem, were more apt to come late to appointments with the experimenter, to be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, less tense, anxious and worried, more apt to accept an offered cigarette, much more apt to make themselves comfortable without bidding or invitation.’

I’m not sure if this applies to everyone, but it certainly applied to me. Boy was I an asshole.

5. Still operates on 70s blank slate ideologies

I already wrote about this in The Greatest in the World Fallacy, so just a few more points here.

In her book The Nurture Assumption, developmental psychologist Judith Rich Harris argues that your parenting had little to no effect on the personality you have today. 

Most people in the West read this and it sets off alarm bells. It’s so obvious to us that parenting is incredibly important, that we find it near-impossible to consider that it doesn’t.

But many cultures outside of ours do not believe that parenting is so important. Indeed—making parenting important doesn’t make much sense evolutionarily—most of our ancestors would have lost one or both parents well before they reached adulthood.

The mistake researchers make, says Harris, is failing to separate genes from the environment. Angry parents can produce angry children not because of parenting, but because of their genetics.

Self-help makes the same mistake as the scientists did. It’s full of blank slate thinking, which ignores the effect of genes & human nature on life outcomes. There are self-help books that teach you how to be an extrovert, how to be less anxious, how to be more productive, and so on. Biology influences all of these things, but I’ve never seen a self-help author mention them.

Again, I’m not saying that self-help advice doesn’t work. Some of it does. And no, genes aren’t everything—not even the biggest idiot in the world thinks that. But it’s a problem when people who do well in life because of genetics/talent tell you they succeeded because of effort and then try to sell that advice to you.

What I really mean

Okay, I’m done. There are many other good criticisms of self-help, but the above are the ones  I find most interesting.

After writing this, I realized that I’m really trying to make a single, interrelated point:

  • Modern self-help (lets call it “neo-self-help”) falls for the myth of perfect perfectibility.
  • This myth inflates expectations. Expectations of paradise on Earth make it hard to appreciate the here and now. We are more likely to sacrifice the present (which is imperfect, impermanent) for an ideal future that is unlikely to come.
  • This myth also undervalues relationships and institutions. Human flourishing doesn’t come purely from within; a lot of it is contingent on institutions, governments, communities, etc. These things should be preserved.

The science fiction legend Theodore Sturgeon once wrote that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”

I think this applies to self-help as well. The crap is really crappy, but there’s some great advice out there. Philosophies like Buddhism, Stoicism offer helpful advice that is over a thousand years old, and—as long as we don’t engineer our own extinction—I’m confident that their teachings will continue to apply for the next thousand.

I used to wholeheartedly believe all the things I criticized in this essay. I can’t promise that I’ll always be right, but what I can try to do is to write as honestly as I can and share my thoughts when I change my mind.  I know some of you appreciate that, and it is for you that I write.

I end with a quote from Will Storr’s recent book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing To Us

“Western culture prefers us not to believe we’re defined or limited. It wants us to buy the fiction that the self is open, free, nothing but pure, bright possibility; that we’re all born with the same suite of potential abilities, as neural ‘blank slates’ … This seduces us into accepting the cultural lie that says we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can be whoever we want to be. …it means that the men and women who lose simply didn’t want it badly enough, that they just didn’t believe — in which case, why should anyone else catch their fall.”