Part of the issue Everything old is new again from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
For a time, Steve Jobs liked to relieve stress by soaking his feet in toilet water. He bathed only once a week, convinced that his vegan, fruit-heavy diet meant he didn’t smell.
His obsession with outlandish, restrictive diets — in college, his friends recall him eating so many carrots that his skin took on an orange tinge — are renowned, and not just because they sound so wild. The public has gobbled up stories of Jobs’s strange habits and mystical beliefs (and famously belligerent personality), which have long been studied in the press and in biographies and cited by other founders as if there’s a counterintuitive insight to be learned from how the Apple founder lived.
Jobs might have been an early, or perhaps the most famous, example of an uber-wealthy CEO with a cult-like hold on the public imagination. He wasn’t just an inventor, shilling candy-colored computers and iPhones — he was a kind of spiritual guru for his flock. Today, there are many others emulating this Jobsian mold, from Elon Musk to Sheryl Sandberg to Marc Benioff.
It’s a phenomenon of our age that entrepreneurs are celebrities at all. Why is LinkedIn, a networking site for posting resumes and finding jobs, also a boundless library of nonsensical, self-congratulatory anecdotes from CEOs about work ethic and success? Why do the investors and software engineers of Silicon Valley have millions of people hanging on to their every dashed-off tweet? Even before he bought Twitter, Elon Musk had over 80 million followers on the platform. There are droves of social media accounts dedicated to regurgitating contextless words of wisdom from business leaders and entrepreneurs. An entire motivation-porn segment of business journalism affirms the distinctiveness of the billionaire’s mindset, repackaging interviews, speeches, and books into life hacks for the masses. And an ever-ballooning influencer sphere invites high-net-worth entrepreneurs onto podcasts and Youtube channels to dispense life advice — spiritual self-help adapted to the age of the entrepreneur.
The draw is obvious: Who better to teach the secrets of success than the superstars who have helmed incredibly profitable businesses? While income inequality has soared in the US over the past few decades, many Americans still find individual billionaires to be inspirational icons to emulate. One study published in 2021 found that people dislike hearing about the wealthy as a group, yet admire wealthy individuals, because they tend to believe their money was earned.
Billionaires are a fairly recent invention of human society, but self-improvement is old. Its well-worn maxims and bromides have been recycled and rehashed for centuries, if not longer. And billionaires haven’t updated the message even a bit. Self-help, particularly the kind doled out by the very rich, has adopted the posturing of New Thought preachers, with echoes of the prosperity gospel that found a resurgence in post-World War II America. And it looks a lot like today’s woo-woo vision boards, manifesting, and Lucky Girl Syndrome.
In the worldview of many of these masters of the universe, being self-reliant is still edifying; rugged individualism is noble. To think otherwise is being negative.
For their followers, this gospel might soothe the fear of what might happen to you in a world where no economic security is guaranteed, where people fall through the cracks every day with few social safety nets to catch them.
“The 20th century saw our adulation move from politicians, royalty, and the church to business,” says Christopher McKenna, a professor of business history and strategy at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. “We came to think that business should be the model for everything.”
Modern self-help is strongly associated with an American brand of individualism today, but it was invented in Victorian England by a Scottish doctor and writer named Samuel Smiles, who published a book, Self-Help, in 1859.
It was an age rocked by seismic technological changes. The Industrial Revolution had changed so much about people’s day-to-day lives; the Victorians were seeing “the entrenchment of industrial capitalism, the expansion of Imperial and colonial projects, movement of workers from country to city,” says Rebecca Richardson, author of Material Ambitions: Self-Help and Victorian Literature. With such sweeping economic changes, the English were also preoccupied with social mobility. Climbing the socioeconomic ladder felt more within reach, in some ways — and, in fact, Richardson argues that the modern concept of career ladders started popping up around this time. There’s an “increased emphasis on the individual subject,” she says, “as someone who can exert agency in their own trajectory.”
In some ways, self-help has long been evolving alongside capitalism, and the conditions in which people are working. In the Victorian era, self-help arose out of working-class mutual improvement societies, Harvard humanities professor Beth Blum wrote in her book The Self-Help Compulsion.
Richardson muses whether self-help became so big in the 19th century partly because industrial work was such a major disturbance. It not only meant more regimented jobs with strict schedules — it ushered in a new kind of dangerous work in structures immediately toxic to human health. “It’s unthinkable that people are going to spend the bulk of their waking hours as human beings in these horrible jobs — deep in the mine, dying early of lung disease,” she says. Of course the Victorians dreamed of improving their lot in life.
Self-help has long shape-shifted to meet the demands of various economic crises. The most recognizable entry in 20th-century self-help in America is Dale Carnegie’s 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People, which was published during the Great Depression. Amid the hardship of the era, it advised life-hacking your way to being more personable, and therefore more successful. The idea of improving your life, in a time when many Americans felt they had little control over their economic insecurity, took a distinctly spiritual turn. Napoleon Hill’s seminal book Think and Grow Rich, still popular today, instructs readers to write down exactly how much money they want and how they intend to acquire it, and then read the declaration out loud twice a day, once in the morning and once before bed, in order to manifest it.
Self-help reached its woo-woo peak, however, during a tumultuous era of downsizing and mass layoffs; New Age spiritualism infiltrated corporate culture with its amorphous syncretism of pseudoscience, appropriation of Indigenous and Eastern religions, and Transcendentalist thought, via corporate coaches, motivational speakers, and the “thought-leader” CEO, as Barbara Ehrenreich details in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Part of the CEO’s job was to soothe a workforce terrified by layoffs. Corporations began hosting events of spiritual healing — Buddhist seminars and fire walks — at work. Employers stressed the importance of optimism.
At the same time, the CEO memoir accelerated in the 1980s, when there was an explosion of business books in the US — and the nation happened to be shaking off the effects of the 1970s financial crisis. Titles like In Search of Excellence (1982), written by two former McKinsey consultants, and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), laid out a third-person perspective of why some people and companies succeed while others fail. Soon, business figures began publishing their own books.
Beloved General Electric CEO Jack Welch wrote four books detailing his tenure at the company, as well as his general advice on work and success; so has Starbucks CEO and former presidential candidate Howard Schultz. Former Facebook executive Sandberg changed work culture with Lean In, offering pragmatic counsel for career women wanting to reach the top. Salesforce’s Benioff, Michael Bloomberg, Charles Koch, Michael Dell, Nike founder Phil Knight, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman have all penned books providing a rough blueprint for success not only in work, but in life.
Many of these books arrived, McKenna says, as CEO pay began to soar far beyond what the typical employee made. Today, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio is about 399 to 1. Amid such disparities, McKenna says, “we have to really tell a story about the extraordinary difference, the leverage, that person has.
“We can’t just have a story where somebody says, ‘I was just lucky.’”
The motivational books of the ultra-rich follow a distinct formula. They often begin with a moralistic warning: There are no shortcuts, no get-rich-quick schemes. You’ll have to pour your soul into achieving your goals, but hard work will be rewarded. The world according to billionaires is essentially meritocratic and rational. All you need is to reach inside, sweep aside the distractions and detritus, and find the pure ore of willpower.
In continuing to tell parables about their incredible hard work in their memoirs, rich elites also help keep the economic status quo entrenched.
“The point of these books is to perpetuate the notion that anyone can make it in America,” says Peter Goodman, a New York Times global economics correspondent and author of Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World. “It’s all about trying to convince us that they made it through hard work, and study, and all the same stuff that anyone has accessible to them. It wasn’t privilege.”
“Everybody loves a story that ends happily,” Goodman adds. “A story that ends with amassing billions of dollars can be construed as proof of something that I think people are eager to believe — which is that the system is fair, and they do have a shot.”
Welch, as CEO of General Electric, is frequently credited with popularizing the practice of downsizing and maintaining “lean” workforces as a matter of principle, reportedly laying off more than 250,000 people during two decades at the company. He also proclaimed a deep respect for meritocracy because it makes society a better, fairer place.
“Have a positive attitude and spread it around, never let yourself be a victim,” Welch entreats readers in his book Winning, “and for goodness’ sake — have fun.”
Self-help is such an enduring genre, Blum wrote in an email interview with Vox, because life is hard. “Humans have been tackling the same problems — death, presence, family, career, spirituality, reputation — for centuries,” she says. It’s a form of literature that can provide powerful moments of uplift, highlighting interconnection rather than the solitariness of the individual.
But the new self-help can feel like it does the opposite. The billionaire narrative provides cover for vast wealth inequality; their billions aren’t evidence of an unjust society, where a few people have the lion’s share of resources while many others barely scrape by. They are merely proof of work ethic, of grit and resilience, that you alone could stand at the center of the universe, molding it this way or that.
Society, however, can’t actually be a meritocracy when so few people manage to attain anything close to a billionaire’s level of wealth — when so many people struggle to afford even basic necessities. What does never letting yourself be a victim look like when financial instability — losing a job, not making enough money, having bills and debts pile up — is out of any single person’s control, and snowballs into an avalanche of adversity?
“Self-help is a promise, but it’s also an obligation,” says Erik Baker, a Harvard lecturer whose forthcoming book covers the history of the work ethic in modern America. “The converse of ‘you can help yourself’ is, if you fail, then it’s because you failed to help yourself, to seize the opportunities that are available to you.” You didn’t have the mental fortitude; maybe you didn’t meditate deeply enough. Whatever the reason, you’re on your own.
“A lot of people in the United States, I think, feel really guilty when they struggle economically,” Baker says. “I do think that it has something to do with the cultural tradition of self-help.”
“I think it’s very alienating and sad for people to reckon with the reality that the economy is not fair,” Goodman says. “So they’re willing to be participants in a narrative in which Jeff Bezos’s fortune accrues just due to hard work and wisdom and thinking strategically. And if he can do that, then I can do that, too. That gives people a sense of purpose in their own lives.”
The long-term impact of listening to a billionaire’s relentlessly optimistic narrative about the entrepreneurial spirit is that it gets harder to even recognize potential solutions to economic precarity. “We have the capacity to solve modern problems, and yet we’re vexed by our failure to distribute the gains of capitalism in such a way that more people can participate,” Goodman says. “If everybody believes that the system is fair, or at least if large numbers of people believe that the system is fair, that’s a narrative that the billionaire class can deploy time and again to protect itself from change.”
The self-help mythos of wealthy entrepreneurs says that inequality is basically in your head. Capitalism can work as well for you as it did for them. Simply repeat the mantra twice a day.
Whizy Kim is a senior reporter at Vox covering wealth, economic inequality, and consumer trends. She writes about how powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations shape the politics and practices that affect the way we live.