FETISHIZING SUCCESS

Silicon Valley’s quest for self-improvement exposes everything that’s wrong with late-capitalist society

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

According to ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind a gift that would unlock the secrets of civilization: advice from business gurus. Armed with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Hunter-Gatherers, Prometheus knew human beings would attain synergy, seize opportunity, and climb from the slimy muck to the heights of transcendent self-actualization.

Okay, so the Prometheus myth doesn’t go quite like that. But you might think it does after reading Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal’s hit book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy Seals, and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work (2017). The book uses Prometheus as a metaphor: Much like the titan of old, Kotler and Wheal are here to bring mankind secret knowledge. “Things get exciting,” they gush. “Insights pile up.” Spiritual transcendence will be delivered to you in the blandly crass language of mediocre marketing copy.

Stealing Fire is not exactly a self-help book. Instead, it’s an example of a growing nonfiction genre that might be called self-tech. Books like Angela Duckworth’s Grit (2016), Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus (2016), or anything by Malcolm Gladwell don’t provide straightforward advice for improving your self-esteem or achieving success in business or romance. Instead, they offer science and technology buzzwords that can help us achieve success. Grit, flow, tipping point: These all serve to suggest that human achievement is an algorithm that anyone can solve.

The goal of self-tech isn’t simply self-improvement. It’s about unlocking your personal utopia to change the nature of humanity and transform the world. But the aggressive solipsism of this genre serves to obscure social and political issues. Donald Trump spews bigotry; Paul Ryan tries to kick 24 million people off health care; our prison system continues to chew up thousands upon thousands of lives—and self-tech barely notices. Don’t organize, self-tech says; just gaze inside your navel for the next Big Idea.

The big idea in Stealing Fire is ecstasis—an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. You can achieve ecstasis by taking controlled substances, participating in extreme sports, or attending raves. It also helps to be very, very rich. Kotler and Wheal casually mentions that many billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” Most psychedelics are controlled substances; if you’re not a billionaire, you might be arrested for using them. But it’s a nice shortcut to spirituality if you’ve got the right connections.

Kotler and Wheal also enthuse about the awesome prowess of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Brin, they explain, is an “action sports enthusiast” who “topped the leaderboard on an EEG mindfulness training demo” at a TED conference. The tech guru is portrayed as an almost eugenic superman, an advanced visionary dipped in the validating fire of ecstasis.

It’s no surprise that self-tech writers worship those in power; it’s the logic of the genre. If success is a predictable algorithm, hackable through skill and knowledge, then it follows that those who are most successful are also most skillful and knowledgeable.

“The highly accomplished were paragons of perseverance,” Angela Duckworth writes in Grit. “No matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination.” That may well be true—but what about people with ferocious determination who aren’t successful? What if you’re born into poverty, or get post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a sexual assault, or get shot by a cop because you’re black? What about people like Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Chelsea Clinton who, regardless of their determination, got where they got in no small part because they inherited money, social position, and power? Some people may have tons of grit, but still not be able to overcome adversity. Other folks may have very little adversity to overcome.

The fetishization of success in self-tech is also dangerous because it can bleed so easily into a fetishization of power—not least military and police power. Duckworth refined her grit scale by working with West Point applicants. Jon Ronson’s 2004 self-tech adjacent Men Who Stares at Goats is fascinated by US military experiments with New Age spirituality and psychedelics. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (2000) infamously justified and popularized the New York stop-and-frisk policing tactics, now widely agreed to have been racist and ineffective.

Stealing Fire, for its part, opens with a breathless account of the ecstasis attained by Navy SEALs on anti-terrorist raids. The book calculates that it cost $500,000 to train each SEAL, and argues that this massive amount—about seven times the median US household income—is money well spent. Seeing a terrorist’s surprised face when the SEALs arrested him was “priceless,” an officer boasts. The book might as well be an advertisement for US special forces.

Self-tech loves technology; it loves gear; it loves efficiency and training and focused minds in hard bodies. It sits at the intersection between self-help empowerment fantasies and superhero empowerment fantasies. With the right training and attitude, you can make yourself into an ecstatic, career-oriented Batman, that ultra-fit billionaire.

At the conclusion of his semi-dystopian self-tech treatise Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari half-warns, half-hopes for a future singularity, in which some humans make the leap to cyborgs or genetically advanced transhumans. Harari warns that if this happens, some people may be left behind, creating a two-tier world in which only the powerful matter.

The twist, though Harari doesn’t seem to realize it, is that a future in which only the powerful matter isn’t a future at all. It’s the present—and self-tech celebrates this reality. Self-tech is self-help for the transhumans who already walk the earth, or for those who would like to imagine that they are those transhumans. People with wealth and power can use the latest drugs, psychological insights, and technology to make themselves into super-soldiers and billionaires, gamboling from Burning Man to cliff-diving while acing the SATs in an orgy of enlightened meritocracy. Meanwhile, everybody else can sink quietly and anonymously into grit-less, flow-less irrelevance.

Or, alternately, we could take some of that Promethean fire and redirect it toward building a bonfire that’s big enough for everyone to gather round. Trying to hack individual success for select transhumans is both immoral and futile. We’re social creatures; if you want to be a better human, you need a better culture to live in. And so, if we get to utopia, it won’t be via success tips from self-tech-primed billionaires. It’ll be by caring for those who are least successful in our families, our communities, and our country.

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