Heather Havrilesky: There Are Too Many Gurus in America
And Why We're Better Off Ignoring Them
When the gurus on your block outnumber the tradespeople or teachers or artists, surely that’s a sign that the world has lost its footing. Because even as the guru seduces you with his wicked poetry of self-actualization, each lesson is filthy with reminders of your relative shortcomings. There is always the faintest hint that you haven’t arrived yet, that you can and should do better, and if you fail, you deserve your fate. There is always the not-so-subtle implication that you have already squandered your gifts and will continue to do so until you learn to exert control over every dimension of your existence. But if you do somehow manage to rise above your current circumstances, there will be no more suffering or second-guessing, no more rage or injustice, and the bounty of the earth will be yours to plunder. The guru’s words are haunted by the looming shadow of your so-called best life, an implicit rejection of the life you’re living right now.
The guru is not an expert in happiness or inner peace, although he plays one on the internet. He is not a role model in the realm of fighting injustice or saving the world from disease or throwing his body onto the battlefield. He is a champion of the self. His livelihood relies not only on the defeat of human emotions, but on a denial of the existence of prejudice, of resistance, of the machinery of oppression, of the impenetrable forces that maintain the status quo, of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, of the disastrously callous habits of the overclass and the bought-out legislators who serve them. The guru will not instruct you on how to navigate a world that distrusts or despises you, nor will he acknowledge that the landscape you inhabit was built to keep you poor, powerless, and suspect.
In other words, the guru is an expert at gaming privilege. Many of his so-called life hacks are just that, hacks—sly methods of disrupting other people’s resources for the sake of your own. If you happen to have a few demographic advantages, plus the raw self-loathing and lack of affection for humanity that tend to accompany any sustained imperative to maximize your own delicious supremacy behind fortress walls, the guru can make you king or queen of all that you survey. Everyone else can, of course, get fucked.
Wildly popular guru Timothy Ferriss is undoubtedly a smart, driven human being with countless helpful tips on how neurotic slackers trussed up in business casual like himself can jimmy the locks on the realm of the elite. Even though Ferriss’s publishing success began with that paean to lazy privilege and its spoils The 4-Hour Workweek, then moved on to interval training, “increasing fat-loss 300%,” and inciting “The 15 Minute Female Orgasm” in The 4-Hour Body, he has since broadened his appeal to gather wisdom from an unwieldy gaggle of tech CEOs, chess masters, athletes, hedge fund managers, poker players, and a few fellow gurus.
In his new book, Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, Ferriss fires the same 11 questions at each of his “mentors,” and their answers—short or long, concise or rambling—are printed and sold (with Ferriss, we can safely assume, pocketing the profits). A similar harvesting occurs on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, which often features guests holding forth at length, with no interruptions from our host, calling to mind a hastily prepared TedX Talk or not very well-produced infomercial. Like Ferriss’s blog and podcast, much of the material in Tribe of Mentors focuses on pragmatic methods of “extracting your max” (as a language-slaughtering guru might put it): “What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life?”; “In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?”; “What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?”; “How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for success?”“The guru is not an expert in happiness or inner peace, although he plays one on the internet. He is not a role model in the realm of fighting injustice or saving the world from disease or throwing his body onto the battlefield. He is a champion of the self.”
But whether Ferriss’s mentors answer questions about what message they would write on a giant billboard or what advice they’d give to college students about to enter the “real world,” they can’t help to conjure the same self-optimizing flavor of Timothy Ferriss himself. Even when they sing the praises of meditation or richer connections with others or fighting for a better planet, like all Ferriss-branded content, their words boil down to the same quest: to minimize the tedious hassles of survival so you can spend more of your time flying first-class to surf spots around the globe with similarly enlightened extreme athletes and tech bros.
“Greatness is not a final destination,” Maurice Ashley, the chess master, author, and ESPN commentator, advises Tribe readers, “but a series of small acts done daily in order to constantly rejuvenate and refresh our skills in [an] effort to become a better version of ourselves.” “When I am feeling unfocused, the first question I ask myself is, ‘Am I rehearsing my best self?’” offers Adam Robinson, cofounder of the Princeton Review, “And if the answer is no, I ask myself how can I reset.” “Social media works best when you provide massive value. I paid attention to analytics (likes, dislikes, views, etc.) and curbed my postings to fit what was trending (what was most valuable),” says Jon Call, who has apparently leveraged this approach to secure a career as an “anabolic acrobat.”
For hundreds of pages, we encounter a vast range of secrets and tips and suggestions, some of them useful (Chef Eric Ripert advocates “altruistic actions” and “being mindful of others” as the way to true inner happiness), others less so (Call recommends the use of smelling salts when you “can’t get your mind off sex and have no way to release”). But somehow after perusing advice about eliminating inefficient meetings and the futility of endurance cardio and the importance of good personality tests for evaluating hires, it’s hard to ignore how many of these “mentors” were selected in Ferriss’s image. Even if they care deeply about solving the world’s ills, they repeatedly return most enthusiastically to enhancing the self, as if the self were a stock portfolio that needed better diversification.
After a while, it’s hard to avoid the sensation that many of Ferriss’s mentors are the sorts of people who read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance over and over again but never read other works of fiction or essays or even the morning paper. Their recommendations are often so abstract, yet so devoid of any evidence of real struggle or adversity, that it’s difficult not to imagine a tech CEO with artistic photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., on his walls who, nonetheless, isn’t completely sure what the point of Black Lives Matter is. There is a lot of quoting Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning but a notable absence of any attempt to address the real-life nazis outside our doors.
But maybe that’s just how warped their intentions become when their words are curated by Ferriss—or by whichever stooge he’s outsourced for such tedium while he’s either sampling the fine wines of the world or retaking his own 30-Day No Booze No Masturbating Challenge. The demonic shadow of your best life that haunts everything Timothy Ferriss touches, in other words, is actually Timothy Ferriss’s best life.
This is why, on each page, instead of reaching for some higher realm of consciousness, we seem to be reminded of the oddly bland but hopelessly macho hustle this Übermensch has managed to pull off, day after day. But isn’t that the true mark of the successful guru? His sole aim is to become an unimpeachable brand with a central message that boils down to no message at all. Any real, substantive message—political or emotional or philosophical—would only expose him to disapproval. Instead, what the guru stands for is simple greatness, bestness, aspiration itself. This is why we’re so often treated to photos of Ferriss online posing with Jamie Foxx, Laird Hamilton, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and offered footage of all of his megarich and powerful bromances.
Considering the large volume of Timothy Ferriss-branded material currently in circulation, we know relatively little about Ferriss’s inner life, his struggles, his emotional connection to what he creates. We rarely hear about his politics, or whether he’s depressed or energized by the state of the world. We know enough to grok that his friendships often double as cobranding opportunities and his most heartfelt sentiments often double as marketing messages. And we know that, instead of being suspicious of those who never share their wealth or their energy with the poor or the oppressed, Ferriss is suspicious of those who haven’t professed loyalty to his brand. In one episode of his podcast, he brings up another fitness guru, adding, “He may or may not be a fan of my stuff. He’s not a fan of a lot of people. But that’s fine. I’m okay with it. Because even if he doesn’t like me, I think he’s a good resource for intermittent fasting.” He has inadvertently revealed his default operating system: Swear fealty to my brand and only then might I consider doing the same for yours.“Their recommendations are often so abstract, yet so devoid of any evidence of real struggle or adversity, that it’s difficult not to imagine a tech CEO with artistic photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., on his walls who, nonetheless, isn’t completely sure what the point of Black Lives Matter is.”
But what is the point of all of this maximized, optimal, highly efficient, connected, charismatic effectiveness? If Ferriss himself is any indication, it’s to be a cipher that stands for nothing beyond success itself, a brand that touts its best-seller status like a street barker, that boosts itself on the shoulders of other such brands, that throws a never-ending party for itself. Like his guru ilk, Ferriss manages to be invisible, efficient, and enviable, without daring to be honorable or righteous or admirable. He is, in other words, the ultimate American hero, the Greatest of Gatsbys, an evanescent tech-bro heartthrob, an emperor with no face. If his bibles for better living could be reduced to a single phrase, it would be: “Become less human.”
This goes back to the core religion of the guru, of course: More than anything else, the modern guru denies the existence of external obstacles. Racism, systemic bias, income inequality—to acknowledge these would be to deny the power of the self. They are sidestepped in favor of handy modern conveniences, or the importance of casting off draining relationships, or the constant quest to say no to the countless opportunities rolling your way. What an indulgence it must be, to have your greatest obstacles be “sugar” or “anger” or “toxins.”
In many ways, the artist might be seen as the polar opposite of the guru. The artist (or at least some imaginary ideal of the artist) leans into reality—the dirt and grime of survival, the sullen, grim folds of the psyche, the exquisite disappointments, the sour churn of rage, the smog of lust, the petty, uneven, disquieted moments that fall in between. The artist embraces ugliness and beauty with equal passion. The artist knows that this process is always, by its nature, inefficient. It is a slow effort without any promise of a concrete, external reward.
In order to create, the artist can’t live behind walls or embrace fantasies. The artist must recognize that the real-world stakes are high, and control is hard to come by. The artist can’t hide or sidestep total honesty or avoid taking a stand. How could the artist make something meaningful without revealing himself and his position in the world? He can’t deny his emotions. He is forced to slow down and grapple with the injustices he encounters at every turn. To the committed artist, “extracting your max” sounds like yet another masturbatory pro tip, a way of turning inward as disappointments and upheaval threaten your good life.
In the introduction to Tribe of Mentors, Ferriss writes, “[S]uccess can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations we are willing to have, and by the number of uncomfortable actions we are willing to take.” The guru’s words sound so wise in a vacuum, or printed on a poster, or tapped out in a tweet. Yet Ferriss neglects to address the fact that it matters a great deal what kinds of conversations we have, what kinds of actions we take, and on whose behalf we act.“The artist (or at least some imaginary ideal of the artist) leans into reality—the dirt and grime of survival, the sullen, grim folds of the psyche, the exquisite disappointments, the sour churn of rage, the smog of lust, the petty, uneven, disquieted moments that fall in between.”
It makes perfect sense, really, that Ferriss begins his book with this question: “What would this look like if it were easy?” The point is not to dig into hard things. The point, always and forever, is to clear an effortless path before you. You are to avoid “unnecessary hardship,” by asking abstract questions like “[W]hat happens if we frame things in terms of elegance instead of strain?”
Here’s what happens: We elegantly proceed to publish sterile, platinum-elite “wisdom”-lite, assembled into a 589-page tome that exists only within a hermetically sealed bubble of the self. Such a book will be a comfort to your personal tribe of fledgling, wannabe gurus, because their goals match yours: to float high above the grime of life and the rage of injustice. The aim is always to maximize your own gains while thoroughly expunging the inconvenient humanity out of yourself. Ideally, we will all evolve into disease-free, highly efficient, healthy, joy-seeking low-body-fat robots, safe in our bunkers, free to snack on cashew cheese and sulfate-free wine and peruse inspirational quotes as the world burns down outside our doors.
But the real moral of Tribe of Mentors lies elsewhere within the book’s pages: “Don’t trust gurus, whether a marketing guru or a life guru,” writes entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Jérôme Jarre. “The guru separates himself from the rest of us. Anything that creates separation is an illusion. In reality, we are all united, all the same, all smart parts of the same bigger thing, the universe.”
Jarre then pinpoints the state of affairs that keeps the entire guru industry afloat: “Most of the world is asleep today, playing a small role in a gigantic illusion. You don’t have to be. You can choose a different life. It’s all within. You will know the answers when you take the time to find yourself and trust yourself.” This message necessarily counters much of Ferriss’s offerings, since it entirely obviates the need for the products he peddles so relentlessly. And not surprisingly, this message alone upstages most of Ferriss’s repetitive tome: You don’t need more of anything to find your true path. You have everything you need already.
What Jarre implies but doesn’t spell out is that this realization tends to transcend the self, building momentum until it becomes something much bigger and more expansive and porous. Because once we learn to cultivate compassion for ourselves without improvements or upgrades, we also learn to have compassion for other people, as broken and flawed and different from us as they might be. And if we’re ever going to recognize that our survival is inextricably linked, this is how we’re going to get there. We can no longer close the doors to the outside world and expect to survive. In fact, we have to resist the temptation to handle our fear by placing ourselves above others, or by building up our fortress walls. We are called to reject the “gigantic illusion” of our separateness and see reality clearly at last.
In other words, at this late date in human history, it would behoove most of us to think less like gurus and more like artists—deeply connected to ourselves and each other, painfully, beautifully aware of reality, and exquisitely alive to the moment—in order to build a new world outside of the toxic illusions of this one.
From What If This Were Enough? – Essays. Courtesy of Doubleday. Copyright 2018 by Heather Havrilesky.