2016-03-03

How To Rise Above Guru-ism

A long while back, I wrote a blog post about what I call "gurus." Here are some of my closing remarks:
The goal of a guru is to extract some money from you by selling you vagaries that appear meaningful enough to make you a return customer, but never specific enough to leave you fully satisfied. 
Guruism is perhaps the most despicable form of politics. It is the act of preying on people who have too little confidence in their own decisions to effectively stand behind their own instincts. It is the act of leading people on with no real objective other than to extract a little money from their spiritual vulnerability. 
And in today's world, it's happening in religion, politics, business, fitness, and so on. We have to learn to avoid these gurus. They are toxic.
I thought about this "gurus" blog post in light of a conversation I had recently. What follows is the paraphrasing of that conversation. Please note that, because it was a conversation, some of the ideas below did not originate with me.

A Discussion About The Quasi-Religious Mindset Of Gurus And Followers

I recently became aware of someone who started her own gym. She writes articles and does short videos for the local media. The way she discusses health fitness is vexing because much of it is Biggest Loser-style pop psychology. 

Embedded in this pop psychology is the assumption that anyone who doesn't exercise has "lost the real them." But it gets worse. She'll intimate that anyone who eats an ice cream sandwich is comforting their inner sorrow with food. Also, the flip-side: that if you exercise, it's because you're "trying to be happy." This certainly resonates with some people, but there are a lot of other reasons why people do or don't work out. It's not just "fat people = unhappy" and "fit people = happy."

I think fitness, diet, politics, corporate culture, and all similar these things share a common and oddly "spiritual" thread. Perhaps some people need to have something to believe in before they will adopt a new way of life. Perhaps some will only eat bacon and potatoes until they see some quasi-religious food movie like Forks Over Sporks and then suddenly it's all about beets. They seemingly cannot just eat spinach, it has to be psychologically - spiritually - linked to "being healthy." They won't do it unless they have a religious reason for doing it. Ultimately, we end up with a lot of these "fitness gurus" who just preach pop psychology like the woman who opened her own gym.

Of course, that quasi-religious mindset can only be short-lived. This is why, for example, non-profit organizations have such high employee turnover rates. We can be "born again" and gung-ho only for so long before the shine wears off. At that point, your beets are just beets and your spinach is just spinach. 

Then, you have to find a new thing to be religious about, and the cycle repeats: This sort of person is always in a state of catharsis, starting over again. If they're not going back to school, they're getting some new job or some new boyfriend, or starting something new. Every new religion is the promise of a fresh start, one that allows them to shirk off the baggage of their previous fresh starts. One that forgives them of all the past "false" fresh starts they've ever had and enables them to say, "This time it's real. That wasn't who I really was, but this new thing is what I always knew I could be..." And then it starts all over again.

I keep saying "quasi-religious" because there is an obvious similarity here to religion. In Hinduism we literally get a do-over, a whole other life through which to right past wrongs, until you get it right. In Christianity, your baptism absolves you of your past sins and sets you on-course to obtain a heavenly after-life. It's a do-over. Alternatively, you might change religions entirely, split off the part of you that "wasn't really you," and then start over again. Each time you start fresh, you get to disavow every mistake you've ever made and seek absolution in a new version of The Truth. 

In religion, it's part and parcel to believing in an afterlife, fine. But in true cults, it gets much worse. Anyone who attempts to steer you away from true belief is someone who needs to be removed from you life, purged. Only the cult knows who you really are, and anything that takes you away from the cult is wrong-thinking that will ultimately result in disaster for you.

Now the parallels to guruism should be obvious. 

Personal Growth: The Only Remedy

I've written previously about what I call "the idea of the perpetual beginner," and I always try to urge people to "stop beginning." If life is a book, we must eventually come to Chapter Two. You don't have to be an expert athlete, but being a novice should only last a little while. Eventually, we should progress to a more advanced version of whatever it is we're doing.

But why bother when you can just press the reset button? Why become a better biker when you can just take badminton lessons? Why become a better badminton player when there's a dance class next week? Why get good enough at dancing to actually dance in front of people when you can try your hand at rock climbing?

In many cases, fear of failure is probably at play here. "I play the piano" almost sounds like, "I play the piano, and I am a pretty good player." Acknowledging your ability to play almost implies that someone else might want to hear you. Maybe some people are afraid to disappoint. It takes a certain amount of work to be able to say "I play the piano," and even more to be able to say "I am a pianist." Thus, if you never take it seriously, then you never have to worry about (gasp!) being judged.

That's what I think most people are afraid of: Being judged, and specifically being deemed not good enough. Some people can't handle the narcissistic injury of not being thought of as good. Easier to just always call yourself a beginner, because then you're a dabbler who does lots of things, which sounds interesting and appealing. And if anyone asks you to perform, you can always say, "Oh, I'm just a beginner..."

In a strange sort of way, it's a fear, not of failure, but of mediocrity. The hierarchy seems to be like this:
  1. Being awesome
  2. Just beginning
  3. Not ever even trying
  4. Being just okay 
  5. Being good, but not good enough
As you can see, the next best thing to being awesome is your first day on the job. But wait, there's more: not even trying is better than not measuring up. Presto, fear of mediocrity.

A lot of this comes from being raised by perfectionist parents, where kids learn early that the only acceptable outcome is being first place. Not only that, some children learn that it's more efficient to give up early, hate themselves, and then move on. Being mediocre somehow works out to being worse than failure because it takes less time and effort to fail. (Do read that TLP article.)

What kids need to be taught is that being mediocre, but always trying to make progress, little by little, with no real hope of going to the Olympics, is a million times better than failing and giving up, and certainly several million times better than hating yourself for ten minutes and then having a sandwich.

Progress, of course, will not continue forever. One is bound to reach either a peak, a plateau, or a point in life at which additional progress is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Does this mean that failure is inevitable?

No. As we age, it's natural to start investing in activities that we actually can make progress on, rather than continuing down a fruitless path. It might be a career, or family, or a different kind of hobby like writing, or studying a foreign language, or reading a series of books, or whatever. But, it's not natural to do the same thing over and over with no hope or expectation of progress. We have to move beyond Chapter One. If you don't write your story toward an ending then you'll just repeat the same chapter over and over again.

To me, this explains people who go though never-ending series of religious conversions and do-overs. They might be stuck in Chapter One of the Book of Life, never reaching anything that looks like a conclusion. If we don't work toward something in our endeavors then it becomes "frantic action as a defense against impotence." The goal need not be "to win" or "to be the best." Sometimes the goal is simple, like, "to save up enough money to go to Mexico next year," or "to improve my ability to speak German," or even "to surprise Susie with a new toy."

Here's a personal example: I don't train to run extremely fast or win races anymore, nor even to achieve a certain distance. I train to keep my blood sugar down. I'm always trying to make tangible progress on that goal. It changes the way I run and affects the frequency and intensity of the runs I go on. My "book" is still moving toward an ending, but the chapter on winning races or being Mr. Awesome Running Guy ended on an engaging page on which it was revealed that I had acquired a chronic illness.

Waaaaait A Minute...

An easy criticism against what I've just written is this: In a way I've just taken the phrase "You should do XYZ to be the best" and replaced "to be the best" with "make progress." The reaction could be, "Wait, that means I'm a failure if I don't specify a goal for everything I do and constantly chart my progress?"

My response to this is twofold. 

First, yes, maybe. You might be a failure. But don't let that bother you, it happens to all of us. I am totally okay with the idea that everybody definitely fails at many if not most of the things they try to do. It would be weird to be successful at everything in life. Sometimes it's just swing and a miss, and we have to live with that. More importantly we have to live with the fact that failing in general isn't fun, but is just part of the human experience.

Second, succeeding might not even be possible. But just because it's impossible doesn't mean you shouldn't try anyway and that the process of trying even at point isn't worth it. It's either that or re-read Chapter Five. Think about being a good, ethical person. Nobody's 100% a good, ethical person, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try anyway. I'll never be a perfect husband or father, but how lousy would it be to go home every day and think, "Screw it, perfection isn't possible, so..." ?