The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated September 16, 2005

Belabored: the Cult of Life as a Work of Art

Much has been written about how overworked Americans are -- logging, as we do, more work hours and fewer vacation days than the famously industrious Japanese. But so far, very little has been said about a significant part of the labors Americans engage in: working on themselves to remain not just employed, but also endlessly re-employable. A multibillion-dollar self-improvement industry has grown up to meet the needs of anxious American workers who are never quite certain when they'll fall victim to the next wave of downsizing, restructuring, or re-engineering.

The past 30 years has been a period marked by stagnant wages for the average working person, the end of long-term (let alone lifelong) employment opportunities, and staggering increases in economic inequality. According to even the most rosy economic reporting -- for example, the 2005 "Economic Report of the President" -- when dollars are adjusted for inflation, working people were earning around $53 more each week in 1972 than they did last year. That's about 19 percent more earned income back in 1972 than today. At the same time, costs for basic expenses such as housing, medical care, and education have skyrocketed, far outpacing the rate of inflation. With the exception of the short-lived technology-driven bubble at the end of the 1990s, when unemployment reached record lows, job stability and employment opportunities have been unpredictable at best.

To cope with such economic insecurity, it seems that Americans have seized upon self-improvement culture in record numbers. Between 1972 and 2004 the number of self-help books published more than doubled. Estimates of the total annual revenues for the self-help industry range from $2.8-billion to $8.6-billion, with one out of every three Americans reporting that they've purchased at least one self-help book. In addition to a thriving, well-advertised, and widely televised cohort of self-help gurus, over the last decade an entirely new profession has emerged: personal and career coaches. Themselves often hailing from the ranks of the downsized, these coaches aim to help Americans find their way through an increasingly competitive economic world that has been shorn of most safety nets.

In Self-Help Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, I look at what sort of advice the self-improvement experts have been offering over the past three decades to see what it might reveal about the changing circumstances of Americans. Rather than finding that Americans are "narcissistic" or self-obsessed, as others have argued, I found instead that Americans have become belabored -- urged to work continuously on improving themselves so as to remain ever-appealing in an increasingly competitive labor market. In the process, ideals and values that had once been applied largely to the commercial arena -- for example, an ends-driven, profit-motivated rationality -- were being rapidly assimilated into the private, intimate arena of personal life, while values associated with the intimate sphere -- for example, ideals of caring and camaraderie -- have become part of management's human-resources tool kit. But perhaps because the imperatives of the market so often come into direct conflict with the values associated with the care of others, the interplay between these systems has not operated in perfect symmetry, as we will see.

In their personal lives, Americans are encouraged to avoid being "codependent," that is, to avoid giving more than they get -- to avoid colluding in their own exploitation. Although "codependent" originally referred to the behavior of an alcoholic's spouse, whose "caring" kept the addict from sobriety, a spate of books in the early 1980s on "women who love too much" helped evolve a vernacular usage: "Codependent" began to describe anyone whose personal relationships involved self-sacrifice. Increasingly Americans were urged to think carefully about "the bottom line" in their relationships. Meanwhile in their work lives, they are urged to give their all, whether that means accepting mandatory overtime or taking on an entrepreneurial attitude in everything they do. In addition to conducting routine cost-benefit analyses in their intimate affairs, these purveyors of Brand Me -- the new CEO's of Me Inc., as management guru Tom Peters has so memorably called them -- were urged to engage in endless work on themselves. The forms this work takes are varied: Readers are urged to master their attitudes, their abs, and their intentions. They are advised to manage their time and their body-mass indexes. But most importantly, they are asked to invent themselves: to dream a life and then to conjure it, to think of life as a work of art and of themselves as both artist and artwork.

This metaphor of life as an artwork -- rather than other popular tropes, such as life as a business, a journey, or a jungle -- has proved to be an enormously popular, if paradoxical, ideal. The image of life as a work of art offers a less pecuniary alternative for those individuals who are put off by the idea of imagining themselves as CEO's of their own one-person corporations, as chief executive and central product line. But, as sociology's paterfamilias Max Weber pointed out, a turn from moral and ethical values to aesthetic values brings with it some significant shifts. The moral judgment "reprehensible" gives way to the less compelling assessment "in poor taste." The pursuit of the good might be erroneously equated with, and sometimes supplanted by, the desire for the beautiful, the elegant, the tasteful, or the new. Aesthetic values -- particularly the idea of life as work of art -- began to serve as a shock absorber between the profit-driven values of the marketplace and the caring values that had been more or less sequestered in the intimate spheres of family and faith.

In the literature of self-improvement, especially in those titles concerned with career development and occupational satisfaction, the idea of life as a work of art has proved useful. Self-improvement experts suggested that not only was one's life a work of art, but that one should also approach one's work with the attitude of the stereotypical bohemian artist: with passion, commitment, and a management-friendly disregard for matters of compensation. The authors of The Artist's Way at Work, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, and Zen and the Art of Making a Living, who urged their readers to seek creative satisfaction first and foremost, found their works becoming surprise bestsellers. Even the traditional career-advice bible, What Color Is Your Parachute?, began claiming in its newer editions that passion -- perhaps even more than skill sets or social networks -- was the key to career (and life) success.

A 1995 cartoon by Edward Sorel in The New Yorker summed up the emerging trend: A male painter, laboring on a canvas under the light of the moon, turns to a woman who seems to be interrupting his work. "Workaholic?" he says. "Brokers and salesmen are workaholics. Artists are obsessed. There's a difference." Thinking of oneself as an artist justified working endless hours without compensation. When self-fulfillment or self-realization is the primary mode of compensation, a low-wage labor force readily gives way to a no-wage labor force. And this no-wage labor force was arriving just in time. Since women had been abdicating their roles as the beneficent unwaged labor force of the private sphere, the economy was in need of a new volunteer labor force. The Romantic myth of artistic obsession was just the thing to motivate an otherwise demoralized labor force beset with temporary employment, declining wages, disappearing benefits, and the new economic necessity of dual-income families.

In the shadow of these charismatic characters -- the enterprising, enthusiastic CEO of Me Inc. and the passionate, self-motivating auteur of one's life and one's work -- one finds an altogether different figure. Behind the upbeat success of the self-improvement artists and entrepreneurs, one finds Americans who are stretched to their limits. They're overworked; that's for sure. But they're also belabored: at work on themselves, struggling just to be sure they can avoid that next round of pink slips, retool in time to land a job in one of those fabled growth industries, and stay "fresh enough" to appeal in a world where good-paying jobs with the possibility of advancement have grown rare enough to serve as prizes on reality TV shows.

It seems no coincidence that as the U.S. labor movement has seen its ranks and power decline, Americans have turned increasingly to an entrepreneurial self-improvement culture in attempts to shore up their uncertain prospects -- or, failing that, at least to boost their spirits. But beleaguered and belabored Americans need something they aren't likely to find in the self-help aisles of their local bookshops. They need the sort of self-help that can help: mutual aid for mutual benefit. They need a revitalized labor movement that understands that they're no longer working 9 to 5, 10 to 6, Monday through Friday, or simple second and third shifts. They're working 24/7 -- both to maximize themselves as "human capital" and to pursue the elusive dream of pleasure in work.

In the late 1980s, self-help author Melody Beattie urged her readers to become Codependent No More. Perhaps the labor movement could take a tip from the success of the self-help and recovery movements and generate a similar best seller. It would urge American workers to stop giving more than they get, not at home, but in the workplace. It would persuade them to stop making themselves over in desperate attempts to remain "marketable." It would tell them how to stop colluding in their own exploitation. We could call it Belabored No More. Perhaps then Americans could catch a break.

Micki McGee is an assistant professor and faculty fellow at New York University's John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Humanities and Social Thought. She is the author of Self-Help Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, published in August by Oxford University Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 4, Page B17