Many critics of the so-called self help movement have tried to discredit those who share strategies and techniques that may help in living a more fulfilled life. They argue that a closer examination of those espousing self help strategies reveals that many popular “teachers” aren’t necessarily great examples of living an ideal lifestyle.
That criticism does have a certain visceral appeal. There is something comforting in being able to point at an advocate and then pointing out his or her own hypocrisy in not “practicing what is preached.” It’s easy to dismiss Tony Robbins tips of maintaining a happy marriage, for instance, by pointing out that he and his wife have divorced since the publication of his book on the subject.
It creates an “aha! I told you so” moment for critics. However, a more considerate examination of the role of self help experts reveals that these attacks actually fail to put a dent in the powerful self help message.
We can begin our analysis by going back to some of the seminal research on the subject of leadership. Weber’s early look at charismatic leadership argues that there are two different types of messengers who might aim to convey a transformative message. There are “emissary prophets” and “emulatory prophets.” Each hopes to spread the word, of course, but there is a distinct difference between the two groups.
Emissaries convey a message in hopes that others may learn from it and adopt it to improve their lives in some manner. Emulatory prophets, on the other hand Attempt to convey the message by embodying it. Whereas the emissaries want us to understand and implement the teachings, emulatory prophets want us to associate the idea with them as individuals.
This distinction is meaningful when applied to criticisms of self help instructors
Those who would dismiss a self help technique based on the messenger’s own individual fallibility seem to automatically assume that the teacher is a version of the emulatory prophet. Thus, any attack that proves them to be less than perfect of fulfilled becomes a stinging indict of the practices they share.
However, if we look at what some refer to as “self help gurus” as emissaries, those criticisms begin to become far less important. Tony Robbins inability to stay married doesn’t necessarily disprove his arguments about what constitutes a marriage, so long as he does not hold himself out to be an infallible positive proof of the recommendations, for instance. That a self help instructor hasn’t managed a perfect life doesn’t mean that the message itself is somehow deficient.
Most of those who do share self help strategies and techniques do not pretend as though they are unassailable experts who have never erred. They generally embrace their own humanness and use tales of their own shortcomings as examples when illustrating valuable points. They are acting as emissaries for a transformative message–not as emulatory prophets.
The distinction has become blurred because of the economic component associated with the self help movement. Authors and speakers do gain followings and their messages, or at least the presentation of their messages, is often carefully connected to the individual as part of the overall marketing of its economic component. Thus, a particular individual may become inextricably linked to a message in terms of public perception. It becomes easy to see a shortcoming on the part of the messenger as being proof of the self help strategy’s weakness under those circumstances.
However, realizing that the emissary of the message is not necessarily attempting to be a living idol and is instead merely offering an approach answers that indictment.
Additionally, most of those in the self help movement will willingly acknowledge that no method for self actualization is foolproof and that any individual can make mistakes that might temporarily derail his or her efforts at fulfillment. Life is complicated and its road is invariably riddled with potholes and bumps. To expect perfection from anyone is to misunderstand the nature of the human condition.
Instead of dismissing self help methods based on the presenter’s personal life, consider the advocated strategy’s logical basis and possibilities. This provides one with a far more accurate and fair way of assessing a self help plan’s chance at creating a positive change.