Our take on ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ by Svend Brinkmann
Our take on ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ by Svend Brinkmann
Our take on ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ by Svend Brinkmann

Our take on ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ by Svend Brinkmann

When Management Futures team member Dee Donnelly was listening to Radio 4 recently, she heard an interview with Svend Brinkmann. He was an engaging guest and argued against the ‘craze' for self-improvement. One of his key points was to advise people to sack their coach! As you can imagine, this piqued our interest so we had a look at a presentation he gave to understand in more detail his arguments. Phil went one step further- ordering and reading his book then reviewing it. Here is Phil's review...

Brinkmann is a Danish psychologist who has achieved substantial sales and fame on the back of this book: Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze

He is an engaging speaker – you can judge for yourself by clicking here.

This is what the cover ‘blurb’ tells us about the book:

How can we resist today’s obsession with introspection and self-improvement? In this witty and bestselling book . . . Brinkmann argues that we must not be afraid to reject the self-help mantra and to ‘stand firm’. The secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others. By encouraging us to stand firm and get a foothold in life, this vibrant anti-self-help guide offers a compelling alternative to life coaching, positive thinking and the need to always say ‘yes!'

Chapters include: 

  1. Cut out the navel-gazing
  2. Focus on the negative in your life
  3. Put on your 'no' hat
  4. Suppress your feelings
  5. Sack your coach
  6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography
  7. Dwell on the past

There are numerous other anti-self-help writers exploring parallel themes – you could check out:

Neel Burton’s “The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self-Help Guide”
Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”

Or read Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian who as far back as 2007 was writing about “The rise of the Anti-Self-Help Movement”.

Brinkann’s book has some strengths and some glaring weaknesses and the chapter on coaching offers provocative propositions for those of us engaged in coaching - either as coaches or as clients. 

Brinkmann describes the growth of the self-help industry as a reaction to an historically repressive and controlling culture that demanded conformity. The various counter-culture movements of the 60s, 70s and 80s have spawned a new dominant philosophy emphasising the value of exploration, development and unbridled expression of the self. Personal development has become a cult emphasising growth for its own sake. Thus, we have become unhealthily obsessed with ourselves and dependent on a range of gurus to support us in our inner search for authenticity, meaning and relentless personal growth. Self-development has become a new kind of religion and its precepts are firmly embedded in most walks of life - including the organisational ‘Personal Development Plan’.

This, he argues, has taken us away from valuable principles of constancy, social duty and a deeper connection to our cultural and personal roots. He draws heavily on the precepts of classical stoicism in making his argument – for example citing the ancient stoical practice of daily reflection on the inevitability of death as a means of helping us to value life. He argues that introspection and self-searching is fruitless and counter-productive and that ‘right living’ is dependent on developing our ‘constancy’ as people – standing firm, to quote the title of the book. We should switch our attention to becoming reliable, ethical, trustworthy citizens who derive happiness not from developing the self but from connecting better with our cultural heritage and with other people. In each chapter he offers practical tips as to how we can do this.

Looked at through a wide lens his argument creates a stimulating counterpoint to the self-improvement ‘craze’. However, in each facet of his argument we can find flaws.

Perhaps the biggest of these is his tendency to generalise and lump things together - including at one point describing a homogenous group consisting of ‘psychologists, therapists, coaches and astrologers’!

He frequently conflates fundamentally different concepts - for example ‘Positive Psychology’ and ‘Positive Thinking’ are often referred to synonymously or interchangeably. 

In his chapter “Sack Your Coach” there are numerous assumptions and judgements that certainly do not apply to the form of business/executive coaching we aim to provide at Management Futures. His claims about coaching include:

  • That coaching clients become ‘dependent on gurus’ – when in fact we explicitly encourage independence and short coaching encounters.
  • That coaching is based on constant development and change ‘regardless of direction and content’ – when we are scrupulous in helping clients move towards holistic, sustainable change, rooted in consideration of fundamental values as well as goals.
  • That hiring a coach is about ‘buying friendship’ – when we are completely clear about the professional separation between the role of coach and friend.

The pattern of his assertions does not reflect good coaching practice nor much of the reality of what happens in coaching as we know it at Management Futures. Far from being the self-indulgent navel-gazing he asserts it to be, coaching is usually about the need to draw deep on experience and reserves of strength to make necessary and often extremely challenging changes. He grossly underestimates the intelligence and general resourcefulness of real clients and it is this which in my view undermines his case the most.

However, as a challenge to our coaching practice and to the whole of the self-help community he poses some relevant challenges and I would encourage you to at least look at the link.

Coaches need to be able to answer each of his challenges and clients can gain further insight into what constitutes healthy development as opposed to obsessive fad-surfing.

For these reasons Brinkmann’s book serves a useful purpose, though perhaps not the purpose he thinks he is serving.