(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about Alfred W. McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century.)
If you are looking for a book for someone with a perverse sense of humor about contemporary narcissism, it would be hard to find a more entertaining new choice than Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement by Carl Cederström and André Spicer (OR Books).
Spicer and Cederström (shown in the photograph above) are professors of “organization studies” at different business schools. This wouldn’t necessarily indicate that they can refrain from taking themselves too seriously, but they acquit themselves quite handily in that regard. The two academics previously collaborated on The Wellness Syndrome (2015), an investigation into exercise and meditation obsessives that The Guardian called “brilliantly sardonic.”
In the course of the year they spent doing the research that became Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement, Spicer and Cederström engaged in participatory journalism in the style of George Plimptom, an approach which lead to such immersion in their project that it disrupted their home lives. Their areas of focus for this project changed monthly: this book’s 12 chapters concentrate on body, brain, relationships, spirituality, sex, pleasure, creativity, money, morality, attention, and meaning. By the time they finished writing, between them they had put on muscle mass via CrossFit; gone on a Master Cleanse liquid diet; dipped into mindfulness and yoga; gone to therapists and career coaches; made a disastrous attempt at stand-up comedy; and engaged in a jaw-dropping masculinity-enhancement workshop that includes screaming naked in the woods. There’s also an investigation into prostate vibrators that’s thorough enough to give Mike Pence a heart attack.
The two intrepid authors start off their year with determined pursuit of greater productivity, partly with the help of drugs falling on the speedy edge of the pharmaceutical spectrum. Cederström becomes a fan of Bulletproof Coffee, alleged by its creator, “biohacker” Dave Asprey, to dramatically improve cognitive performance. Cederström watches an online lecture by Asprey entitled “How I Made My Mind My Bitch,” in which Asprey describes only sleeping two and a half hours each morning and using a standing desk with his feet parked on a bed of nails. Neither Cederström nor Spicer go quite that far, but Cederström (who is Swedish) diligently pops pills which fuel many extra hours of work on writing projects, while Spicer (who is from New Zealand) commits to an immersion in the Landmark Forum, an extremely profitable self-improvement boot camp for spiritual seekers with money to burn. Although he is the one to push Spicer into Landmark and its world of burning out recruits before pressuring them to bring in more recruits, Cederström soon becomes disinterested: “I was on dexamphetamine, writing feverishly, having no time or inclination to support his personal transformation.”
The hilariously edgy, often competitive nature of the interactions between Cederström and Spicer are, to me at least, a highlight of the book. The two professors wind up behaving like vain, petty teenagers competing for leads in a school play, which is entirely appropriate given the arrested development that the book shows running rampant in the self-help industry. Here’s a typically mean entry from Spicer:
At about 8:00 a.m., Carl Skyped. He was lying on a couch under a blanket. He looked pitiful. I instantly started feeling better about things. This always happens. When Carl feels bad, I feel good. Buoyed by Carl’s illness, I continued writing. At 4:00 a.m., I clicked Save. The book was done.
Cederström also writes several books in the course of his year of living self-indulgently, one of which is a thriller that several people he consults tell him is serviceable. But when he submits the attempt at a beach novel to a literary agent, it is rejected, and the would-be novelist is left reflecting that the Samuel Beckett phrase “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” had become a favored catchphrase in Silicon Valley. Cederström writes, “Had the self-improvement industry replaced the ideals of success with failure? And when did Beckett become a self-help guru? Was there nothing that the self-improvement industry could not absorb?”
Cederström’s observation rings true when, in the midst of a month of working to convince more people to pay attention to him (on social media, naturally), he says: “As I was doing my second set of bench presses, I thought about [social critic] Christopher Lasch’s claim that in the early 1970s, as people lost hope in improving the world politically, they retreated into self-improvement. It was no small irony that our year of self-improvement was also the year when both Britain and the USA had fallen apart politically.”
Given the widespread stress caused by the current U.S. administration’s efforts to destroy anything even remotely helpful to people who aren’t millionaires, a continuation of societal retreat into 1970s- and ’80s-style self-absorption would not be all that surprising. After all, if you can’t have a humane government, there’s always plastic surgery and half-naked selfies on Instagram. ◊