Living Outside The Frame: How Context Poisons Everything

Alexandra Schwartz wrote an interesting article for The New Yorker. It's called "Improving Ourselves to Death," and it's all about the problems in the modern self-help movement. It is thought-provoking, well worth reading, and it identifies many of the worst problems with the self-help movement as it exists today: its inherent narcissism, its cock-eyed optimism, its obsession with better and more. The article doesn't stop there, it also criticizes the reaction against the self-help movement for its own shortcomings: Just because you're good enough as-is doesn't mean you can stop giving a flying so-and-so about your relationship to other people.

As any such article should, Schwartz's article ends without resolving the conflicts. It's a think piece, as in, doesn't-it-make-you. We're invited to assess for ourselves to what extent self improvement is a rat race and to what extent self acceptance is lazy and narcissistic in its own way. Both criticisms hit home, but if we're going to peer into that particular void it would be nice if something peered back into us in return. Schwartz's article doesn't give us that. Instead, it gives us a frame, a new way of seeing the self-help movement.

It's an interesting frame, sturdy and ornate. But we should see what's on the other side.

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The main problem with Schwartz's article is something she herself can't escape. Of course she can't escape it, it's the main offer she's making us, it's the whole value proposition of her article. The frame. And that's precisely why her article, as good as it is, can't offer solutions. Maybe we can find those solutions, then, if we shine a light on the primary issue.

Consider the following excerpt, which might be considered the article's shark-jumping point (emphases mine):
After a while, Storr says, this rational response to economic pressures became instinctive habit: “Neoliberalism beams at us from many corners of our culture and we absorb it back into ourselves like radiation.” Like reality television before it, social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval. Donald Trump, with his greed-is-good hucksterism and his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers,” is in the White House. (“Selfie” was published in England last year; Storr is adding a chapter about the President for the American edition.) Meanwhile, parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.
The phrases I've highlighted in bold above are loaded. They say so much more than what they say because they're absolutely loaded with context. They're mini-models. They're memes, shared beliefs held widely by many people that are designed to cast life in a certain light. Is anyone out there truly neutral to the word "neoliberalism" in this day and age? No, it conjures up not just one thought, but a whole set of thoughts, a whole pattern of thinking. It's a frame, if you will.

Use of the word "neoliberalism" is not so much a stand-alone point as it is an attempt to inject a particular kind of political context into a topic that wouldn't otherwise be overtly political. Asking you to think about the shortcomings of the self-help movement is one thing. Asking you to think about how the self-help movement plays into the scourge of neoliberalism is something else entirely.

In fact, all of the phrases I highlighted in bold -- and many others used throughout the article -- inject context. When Schwartz writes these things or quotes others who say these things, she's not elaborating or elucidating, she's pointing us to a correct framing of the whole issue. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions, so long as they arrive at those conclusions through the context of a discussion about "neoliberalism," or "social media," or "reality television," or etc., etc.

Like The Last Psychiatrist used to say: The media doesn't tell you what to want, it tells you how to want.

The way out of this trap is to eradicate the context. Let's give it a try:
  • It's possible to reject the major tenets of the self-help movement without thinking anything at all about "neoliberalism" or the current state of the political economy.
  • It's possible to embrace principles of self-improvement without embracing anything provided to you by the self-help movement.
  • It's possible to pursue career success for your own reasons, without viewing it as an act of "constant competition."
  • It's possible to believe that the sky is the limit without setting yourself -- or your children -- up for failure.
  • It's possible to avoid rampant consumerism while still favoring a free market economy.
Really, I mean it. All of these things are possible. If you can't imagine how you might accomplish one of these things, it's only because you're hung up on the context I am asking you to purge.

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I know someone who doesn't like to watch exercise videos because she thinks the motivational bromides shouted at the viewer by the trainer are accusations of inadequacy. When they say, "Push harder," she hears, "You're not pushing hard enough!" When they say, "Doing it this way will burn more calories," she hears, "You're fat and need to burn more calories!"

Someone else I know told me that when people say, "You should find a romantic partner to share your life with," she thought it was an accusation that her life without a romantic partner wasn't good enough.

From the standpoint of internal motivation, I don't know why people do this sort of thing. They can take any positive, encouraging, or well-meaning suggestion and turn it upside-down, twisting it into a horrible black hole of criticism. I do, however, think I know why people do this from more of a mechanical point of view. They do this by injecting context into statements that are being made without context. They have a frame, and they intend to use it.

I use exercise videos, and I've never had a weight problem. I use them because they're fun. For me, there is no context of inadequacy through which to filter the encouraging bromides of the trainer. When he says, "Push through this set," or "I want you to give me a few more reps," I don't think he's telling me that I'm not good enough as-is. I don't inject that context into my exercise videos. When people suggest that I live my life differently, I don't always take their advice to heart, but I never think they're maligning my choices. I think they're promoting their own choices, and I am okay with that.

Motivationally, the added context serves no purpose for me. It doesn't help me achieve my goals and it doesn't give me greater insight into the statements I hear from other people. Thus, the added context is useless. I like to enter into situations neutrally and then consider the many possibilities that might come out of what's happening. I'll get a lot more out of an exercise video if I think it might genuinely help me than I will if I think it's just a bunch of spandex-clad salesmen who are calling me fat so that they can make money off me.

Maybe I'm wrong about the exercise video people, but even if so, how would the alternative viewpoint help me in my life? I reject the process of adding extraneous context to the exercise because I don't want to taint a potentially valuable tool with a mental model that presupposes criticism.

Note to all the charlatans out there: Even if you're only making fun of me, if I can benefit by being made fun of, I will endeavor to do so. That's how pragmatic people live their lives. I highly recommend it.

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The basic self-help grift works like this: First they frame your life in a novel way, and then they use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

I could write a self-help book based on the premise that human behavior is not all together different from chimpanzee behavior. I could offer many research studies of chimpanzee behavior and use loose comparisons to human studies, drawing parallels, coming up with a just-so story about how the missing piece in your life is this thing that chimpanzees are really good at, but which civilization has managed to discourage in homo sapiens. I could then sell you on a path forward: be more chimp-like. It sounds ridiculous, but it would sell. Going Bonzo: How to Unleash Your Inner Chimp and Start Taking Life by the Banana.

Or I could write what would essentially be the same book, but instead of comparing us to chimps, I could compare us to a lost tribe in the Pacific islands. Or I could compare us to a successful corporation somewhere. Or I could compare us to Holocaust survivors. Or Nobel laureates. Or some five percent of the population who hold some trait that I could seek to promote. All of these comparisons have been made in self-help books before, and will be made again, not because the ideas have merit but because that's how the grift works. First I frame your life in a novel way, and then I use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

(See? There's another trick: I used repetition to reinforce my point.)

The trick isn't selling you on my solution, the trick is selling you on my frame. The trick is providing you with the desired context through which to see your life. After that, your ultimate conclusion will be consistent with me (and my book sales), regardless of what that conclusion is. You don't actually have to adopt a "growth mindset" in order to believe you need one.

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Now back to Schwartz. I think part of her understands what I'm saying, but unfortunately the only part of her that understands it is the part that is skeptical of self-help books. The part of her that is skeptical of various political and economic beliefs, or beliefs about the modern human condition as told through the language of "neoliberalism" or "hucksterism" or "consumerism," or "the market's brutality," or etc., etc., has not yet learned to live outside the frame.

This isn't necessarily her fault, and it's not my intention here to criticize her or change her mind. My goal here is to use her article to highlight how inevitable this trap is. We really have to fight to escape the sucking sound of an all-consuming context.

Don't believe me? Them just try to celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree. "But putting up a Christmas tree is just what you do during Christmas!" Doesn't have to be. Try ordering a burger with no fries, just the burger. "But it's just not as satisfying without the fries!" It could be, if you wanted it to be. Try voting for a third party candidate. "But that just helps the party I hate win!" Uh, no, sorry.

Or, here's one: Try playing with your child without inserting the context of the parent-child dynamic. Just give it a try. Go to the playground and take your child's lead. See what happens. I dare you.

Try making love to your spouse like it's the first time. Forget the context provided by years of being together and live one night together without it. Wouldn't it be great to feel those butterflies again? You could, if you wanted to.

You could live outside the frame. I urge you to try.

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