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The Museum of Subtle Arts of Selling Ferraris
When the self-help book met the LinkedIn influencer cycle.
Yeah, I missed a month of writing. I’m not the biggest fan of it, but personal and professional had taken a bit of toll on me in July. I also did some travelling in the same month, and that was the good thing about the month. But this piece has little other reason for delay.
However, it is here, and this is a fairly personal story for me. While it is the standard deep dive you might expect of Hot Chips, it was inspired directly by an incident whose details I’ve not explicitly mentioned in this piece. I enjoy being inspired, but I do not enjoy mishaps happening to me. Something about art only coming from pain etcetera etcetera.
Anyway, customary playlist. I have had no time to make one because I could only do so much while being sick. But here’s one (hopefully) long enough song to make it stick!
One more note: this piece is not at all a value judgement on readers of self-help books! I have no intentions to have it be read as an attack on anyone :) I use it primarily as a lens to look at something else, while, of course, providing my personal opinions on them!
You know, legal notices founded on a claim of defamation can really change your life.
This one night, after receiving said legal notice, I found myself explaining to my mother the supposed business of content. It was only the other day that acclaimed director Shoojit Sircar gave us a piece of his mind on this business, and he’s pretty good at cinema. There’s a lot of content everywhere — the proliferation of text-based content is a lot more (annoyingly) overwhelming than visual or audio. Lately, everyone feels this way about content.
Sometimes, when you feel a certain way about problematic content and express that online, your probability of potentially getting called to court increases with how popular that expression becomes. But by the end of this entire ordeal — which is a fun story for another day — I didn’t harbor negativity for the person who wanted to intimidate me.
All I had done was call out a LinkedIn post that made use of a clickbait-y headline based off of a mass layoff in a multinational, only to sell a course. It was insensitively worded even to the untrained eye, but I guess the business of content works that way. In effect, I had only earned the brunt of the worst of the platform’s dynamics. The dynamics that promote the most cookie-cutter writings — some wildly questionable that make you wonder who hired them.
The explosion of LinkedIn as a creator-friendly app has also seen the unfortunate templatization of content that we all rue today. I think most people will agree that what you read on the platform is fairly flavorless. And Indian users are responsible for much of this activity on the platform. What I also believe that how you write is often a function of what you read.
And we read a lot of things about self-help.
A system I’m truly enamored by is the marketing insights industrial complex.
Once you follow enough content writers and ghostwriters on Twitter, you realize that all of them have “insights” on human behavior and the human condition to offer. And it’s really vague what kind of insights these are. What do you know about the human brain that decades’ worth of philosophy and neuroscience haven’t already spoken about at length?
Maybe that last statement was a little reductionist, but man, there are a lot of experts on the marketing of marketing and the psychology of psychology. It creates newsletters that are about marketing newsletters, and after a while, you wonder whether you’re insane or if this is just a labyrinth full of faff? But that’s just Twitter.
I feel very similarly about self-help books, which has existed for much longer as an industry, and it may not be a stretch to call it a predecessor. Both spaces have a significant overlap — in that they become about the human brain, its motivations, its twirls, and how to control them. In India, an economy striving for middle-income status, self-help books have had their own journey. Some written by people within, and others by people outside the country.
In 1999, a Canadian Indian lawyer named Robin Sharma wrote a book called The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It’s about a lawyer named Julian, who had most materialistic things a human could hope to own but gets struck with a bout of chest pain while in court. A doctor tells him that his job is taking a massive toll on his life. From there on, Julian sells everything he possessed goes on a spiritual journey to — where else — India. He learns 7 lessons in that journey, that are supposed to contribute to a healthy and worthy life.
This was a self-help book about rejecting materialism. India underwent a series of economic liberalization reforms in 1991 and fully embraced capitalism, in the hope of jumpstarting economic growth. There were seemingly more opportunities for money to be made, now that the market had become freer. In that vein, it might have been a good idea to remind everyone in the country of their spiritual, non-hedonistic roots. Robin Sharma’s book assumed the front shelves of many bookstores for years.
We were also reckoning with trying to be a nation among nations. In 1999, the late APJ Abdul Kalam released Wings of Fire. I remember seeing so many of my school mates carry the book around. It was a staple in our library — and for much of India’s youth at the time. Kalam’s story from being the son of a boat owner in Rameshwaram to becoming the premier missile man in India inspired many. It also marked our tryst with (auto)biographies — a category of books we would continue to love dearly.
We also read a lot of books that one might associate with being more individualistic, more libertarian, and (supposedly) more meritocratic. Until 2007, Indians searched on Google for the words “Ayn Rand” more than any other country, and even after that only ceded the top spot to the USA. And as of 2012, she continued to be one of the top 20 writers on Flipkart by sales. It’s taken us a while to shed the dangerous philosophies of Objectivism.
These major ideas gripped the pulse of a middle-class India that now wanted to capture some upward mobility for itself: a penchant for biographies, a desire for (some version of) meritocracy, and an on-off relationship with materialism and inner peace. All 3 ideas have morphed in both form and popularity over time and branched into variants. Like the expletive-filled brutally honest book that derides conventional self-help books. Or the books about dealing with people. Or the books about habits and mindsets. And the books about money.
Stranger Than Fiction
Debasmita Bhowmik, an editor at a publishing firm, tells me a truth that one may find concerning, “In India, the division between non-fiction and fiction is widening.”
Non-fiction has lately been eating fiction’s share of Indian reading. Of that, biographies, conventional self-help and spirituality take a nice pie. There’s a reason that to this day, you can see roadside booksellers in Delhi continue to advertise Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs.
A search for the phrase “bestseller books” on Amazon is extremely likely to show you a bundle of books written by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and James Clear. What’s insane is that books written more than 80 years ago like How To Win Friends and Influence People continue to hold their own against a more recent release like Atomic Habits. Books like these are traditionally called “backlists” — they are perpetual revenue generators for publishers.
However, this brand of books has spawned the anti-self-help book, where an author like Mark Manson (of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**k fame) may thrive. Or even popular YouTubers, who have decided to enter this royal rumble ring. Shwetabh Gangwar, a creator who makes videos on (pop) psychology and philosophy, released his book titled “The Rudest Book Ever”, which promises to “make you rethink everything you taught”. The Guardian even had a funny term for books like these: Tedcore, based on the fact that these authors would have likely given popular TED talks before, and often use dubious and irreplicable research to back their claims.
The game has also flipped for publishers. Radhika Marwah, an executive editor at Penguin Random House, says, “Publishing is a small industry that’s fighting to stay alive. The creator economy is booming now, so publishing has to ride that wave.” Influencers naively expect book deals to be big bidding wars. But publishers often have to chase them by offering the lure of physical distribution. “Most influencers aren’t writers and they won’t write fiction. The most obvious choice, then, seems to be self-help”, says Radhika.
We talk about self-help gurus here, but in India’s case, the guru might be more literal. Autobiography of a Yogi is a book that continues to one of the bestselling books on Amazon India. The book continues to be aggressively marketed both in the West and in India by the organizations founded by the author Paramahansa Yogananda — the Self-Realization Fellowship and the Yogoda Satsang. In fact, the language of this book provoked an Indian-American literature academic to term the style “Guru English”. In 2016, Jaggi Vasudev / Sadhguru wrote “Inner Engineering” and became a New York Times bestseller. He follows a similar marketing strategy as Yogananda did, but his Western popularity is only more recent. There is Gaur Gopal Das’ Life’s Amazing Secrets, a top result on Amazon and Flipkart both for the phrase “bestseller books”.
As of recently, we have also flirted with the book that aims both at creating wealth (as opposed to making money) and inner peace for oneself — where one need not be sacrificed for the other, and you can achieve the latter through the work you choose to do. That you can have your cake and eat it too. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, by the eponymous entrepreneur and investor, may fall under this category.
Bookstores, especially chains, have a massive role to play in how widespread the acceptance of self-help books has become. Nithya V, a designer at Zubaan Books likens the collections at bookstores to be akin to social media algorithms. “The consumer’s work is cut out because of such book placement, so there’s little incentive to deeper within the shelves”, she says. The publisher will likely pay the bookstore in exchange for front-and-center exposure. Hilariously, Nithya tells me how this also shows up in another annoying algorithmic manifestation — the dating app. “You’re not reading stories about people, about lived experiences, it’s just men writing for men”, says Nithya.
It’s not like these books are only for the enjoyment of an English-speaking audience, though that is certainly the dominant consumer set. Self-help books are now being translated in multiple Indian languages, too. Radhika tells me that while the Indian market traditionally follows America in terms of the popularity of a self-help book, some books like The Psychology of Money had it the other way round. Which might explain why the book is available in Gujarati and Hindi as well.
In comparison to other books, the self-help genre markets itself. “Non-fiction books on politics and history are better promoted through events involving debates, where you invite the press and other distinguished people. Books by business leaders have physical events”, says Radhika. Both forms of marketing are fairly low ROI, but a self-help author will likely need pure digital marketing. It also helps that print runs for these books tend to be significantly bigger than that of any other.
There was a time before Atomic Habits when James Clear was a darling on (dead?) social media platform Quora. In 2016, Ankur Warikoo decided to begin something called “Warikoo Wednesdays” on LinkedIn. Neither had any idea that they would be starting an epidemic.
It’s Only Words
In 2016, Microsoft acquired LinkedIn in a whopping $26B deal. Since then, the platform has moved mountains to increase user engagement.
This piece from The Ken outlines LinkedIn’s various product experiments. One of them had something to do with editorial guidelines, where posts by users were classified as gold (viral stuff), green (non-harmful), grey and red (which represented the range of unprofessional content). LinkedIn didn’t just want to be job portal anymore, but its ambitions to be a social media feed probably already existed in some form way before. The now well-known Top Voices program — that lists the most popular writers in a particular subject from each country — seemed to be a thing beginning 2015, if not formalized. It also brought back polls in 2020 — a feature it removed way back in 2014 — in an attempt to cash into the increasing amount of time everyone was spending online in the pandemic. And for the record, there was a 55% increase in year-on-year engagement on LinkedIn since March 2019.
Sukhada Chaudhary got her first international job, and second post-MBA gig through LinkedIn. She has been a longtime user of the app and was also a Top Voice in 2021. When she journeyed as a freelancer, the platform was her strongest lead generator, and was easier to use rather than building her own website from scratch. She has seen every significant evolution of the platform, from its “corporate bulletin” feel to the doomscroll it is today.
“LinkedIn inherently rewards a reductionist thought and has little time for nuance or deep thinking”, says Sukhada. While she views it as a net gain because it still means visibility for good content, the issue then is that reading on LinkedIn becomes a substitute for any actual reading. “Everything is going to be read from the perspective of optimization: ‘is this going to help me in my work’”, Sukhada continues. She likens it to an attitude that only cares about the bottom-line.
But more importantly, this has also manufactured a need online to sound more insightful, even at the expense of faffing. This need may even have real-life precedence. Sukhada recalls how a senior manager at her first job would narrate a very personal incident and pass it off as consumer behavior with little argument from anyone because, hey, he’s senior, so he must be right. Under normal circumstances, one would undergo brainstorming and rigorous analysis to find out how people interact with your product. I’m tempted to call this the Atomic Habits syndrome, but such mindless narrative extrapolation has existed before it became so widespread on the internet.
This isn’t even the worst turn of insight mining. It wasn’t long ago that Deloitte India fired an employee after he decided to sift through a book about the conditions that fostered the rise of Adolf Hitler for business lessons. It was a #FridayInspiration post, meant to find dazzles of efficiency and productivity from the good and not-so-good of a clearly bad guy in history. Of course, this may also have some precedence in Mein Kampf being a consistently top-selling book in India, sold by multiple major publishers — besides being, at some point, a B-School darling.
“Unlike Twitter, LinkedIn is not a confrontational platform”, says Sukhada. And her (if I may) insight makes a lot of difference. You’re not likely to get a well-thought-out reply to a certain post on LinkedIn, you’re likely to get a “great insight” or a “great post” from a commenter. It’s an annoying response because it doesn’t add anything to the discussion. But comments make your posts likelier to be shown on someone’s feed.
tweets posts, and then you can always mute the tweeter. A horde on X can completely trash your confidence — something that won’t happen on LinkedIn because of its non-confrontational nature. “One of the greatest threats to confidence is the laughing emoji, because it indicates sarcasm. LinkedIn now has a cute “haha” react instead”, says Sukhada. And much like business lessons, overdone humor has become a staple on the platform.
None of this matters more than LinkedIn’s trump card faux-feature — the ability to attach photos (or carousels) with your post. Why is this important? Because a post with a photo is significantly more likely to grab eyeballs, which is not something the platform says explicitly. On the other hand, a post with an outbound link is automatically downgraded in the algorithm. A lot of the posts that draw significant attention have a question at the end that begs for engagement in the form of reacts or comments. “What do you think?”
And now that LinkedIn richly incentivizes creators, the pressure to appear a certain way consistently gets higher. LinkedIn was active early on in trying to source voices from outside the corporate realm. People belonging not to managerial posts or business functions, but professions like doctors and fashion designers have featured on the yearly Top Voices list. Instagram influencers have also decided to build their network effects on the platform.
While many of these creators do bring in their expertise in certain fields, the internet ground is ripe for templatized content from rookies who rely precisely on the limit of their knowledge to write. This became much easier with the advent of GPT-4 generating content for you whenever you need it. If you’re an influencer with a substantial LinkedIn following, you probably have a content schedule of the prompts you want to write about when.
The circle of knowledge for this set of creators extended on how to make a piece of content pop on the feed. For YouTube, it usually means catchy, almost bait-y video thumbnails. Twitter is just outright funny or controversial, there’s little middle ground. LinkedIn takes its playbook from the writing style employed in self-help books. This is not to say that Twitter hasn’t had its fair share of self-help content: the term threadboi has already made its way into Urban Dictionary.
And Words Are All I Have
How To Win Friends and Influence People was the result of Dale Carnegie doing a lot of lectures on public speaking across America. The book has sold 30M copies since its release in 1936. Now, its admirers are vast and varied. A couple of priests who were kidnapped in Russia in 1998 tried using the book’s strategies to appeal to their captors’ good natures, if those were still there. But also, a good chunk of Nazi Germany and Charles Manson also found inspiration in it. Carnegie found the former loving his book hilariously concerning.
What I really want to highlight, though, is Carnegie’s writing style. He uses a personal story and finds one flimsy string from there that he can connect to something (or someone) bigger and better known. It’s not necessarily the style he follows in every chapter, but he’s quoted stories about everyone ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Abraham Lincoln to Charles Schwab. And line breaks. Lots and lots and LOTS of line breaks. A tool deliberately abused to make the easiest read possible.
Here’s some of that writing:
If you read this story and thought this belonged on LinkedIn, I wouldn’t blame you.
This is just one style of writing that self-help has seen. There is also the conversational mode of writing, where one person asks questions and the other provides answers. Usually, the latter person is someone who is presented as an all-seeing, all-knowing, stoic character who has been through the highs and troughs of life. The former person might be someone much younger. This is a strategy followed by Robert Kiyosaki in Rich Dad Poor Dad. I assume that years later, Ankur Warikoo followed suit with his second book, Get Epic Shit Done.
His first book, Do Epic Shit, followed a very simple bullet-style of writing. Incessant line breaks, not a single paragraph more than 5 lines, attempts to write quotables ever so often, and lots of advice. Here’s an example, in the particular format that is present in the book as well:
“As adults, the single biggest hurdle to learning is pride!
I’m a grown-up now. I know everything!
Most adults repeat this to themselves in some shape and form, thus living in a prison.
It’s okay to not know!
It’s okay to accept things you don’t know!!
It’s more than okay to learn even after you’ve become an adult!!!
Because those who learn, irrespective of their age, are the ones who continue to grow.
The greatest illusion is that life should be perfect!
People who are enjoying their lives are at a competitive advantage.”
These are two writing styles that have dominated LinkedIn’s content pipeline. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either way, but the bigger issue is one where everyone ends up sounding the same. It’s hard trying to discern a unique writing voice from anyone. And coupled with hacks like adding an engagement question at the end, or an unrelated photo, makes this practice almost insufferable.
There is also the obsession with human psychology in these books. The principal foundation of Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” is that there are two ways to influence behavior: manipulation and inspiration. Tiny changes in the form of habits make all the difference in the world. The idea that mentalities and mental toughness are apparently such easy solutions to problems drives much of the self-help industry. Here’s someone using a supposedly real-life bank robbery in Zimbabwe to talk about mindfulness and some MBA lessons. Note that this is only part of the post:
This piece by Mashable distills every bit of self-help content into 11 rules, most extremely obvious, some not as much. But it’s such a brilliant hack into writing the easiest kind of self-help article. Radhika tells me that for self-help, language is not necessarily the #1 priority. In this PhD thesis submission, the researcher seems to figure that the self-help book has a lot in common with a children’s book. It’s also an incredible paper that does a lot of linguistic and numerical analysis of how authors use certain moves in narratives to drive take-home lessons, or how often the word “you” (or “yours”) comes up.
One idea that the paper touches on is that of the author-reader relationship. How much do you, as an author, want to be seen as someone who only has imperatives to sell? Or do you make suggestions that may or can help you? The benefit of using imperatives, as one author the researcher spoke to says, is that it cuts out fluff. There’s no “can” or “may”, it’s “just the facts”, so to speak. It may be an honest attempt to create an equal power relationship with the reader, but once you get a hive of fans that agree with your book, it’s not so equal anymore.
Many junior and mid-level employees in corporate India have taken personal branding extremely seriously. It offers the allure of a solid network (and cool opportunities by virtue of that) that consistent posting on LinkedIn offers. On some level, I worry that it causes people to be something they are not.
It’s worrying that we increasingly use mass layoffs and unfortunate deaths as opportunities to advance our personal brands. You could say that no self-help book explicitly advocates this, but this trend follows the same playbook as using any random incident for a fable. Moralistic stories are dangerously charming in their own right, but this is no bedtime story. These are stories that people buy without a second thought because it comes from dedicated careerists.
To Take Your Heart Away
It would be a hopeful measure to track whether the self-help book as we know it today leads to a funnel where people read harder, more challenging, more imaginative books. Both Debasmita and Radhika felt that this didn’t really hold true, and might not change too much in the long run.
Debasmita says that the above is often an argument heard in favour of easygoing, masala-filled fiction that was characteristic of someone like Chetan Bhagat, that he brought reading (in English, at least) to a larger audience in India. Or did he? It’s hard to tell whether reading in India has changed vastly over time. More people in India read books today, but does it get everyone to go beyond their comfort zone?
A LinkedIn post that I came across said, “Read non-fiction to raise your floor. Read fiction to raise your ceiling”. I’m not sure why we need a case to read either, and why it has anything to do with floors and ceilings. The quote likens reading books with the hyper-optimization of the human being, as if that was all books were meant to do. This is also not unconnected with the idea of reading books as a compulsion rather than for pleasure.
Let alone the fact that self-help books get away by being individualistic, apolitical and negligent of systemic issues — a criticism that has existed for long (though this book by a literature professor argues in another direction). The tables have turned to an extent where we use “why reading fiction is important” into another piece of bulleted content for our followers. I doubt that it is anything beyond self-serving.
LinkedIn was never meant to be anything more than a place to talk only shop and work, and that’s completely fine. And it’s also fine that self-help books find an audience there. But the platform has now become a content machinery that is incapable of budging out of a certain hive mind. We live in an age where we run the risk of classifying everything as content. LinkedIn is no exception, but it is also an exemplar into the worst outcome of that risk. There’s a reason that a subreddit parodying posts that come out of this machinery exists.
When it comes to India, it’s only a small audience with access to great jobs, education and networks that exerts so much influence on the platform. None of it is deliberate or evil or misleading. But it has the hallmark of a broken clock with little cognizance of much else besides being right twice a day. Yet everyone around you has one such broken clock, and these broken clocks have been selling well forever.
I remember feeling angry, then sad, then just hoping that my legal notice didn’t turn into a lawsuit, or that my employer didn’t take this complaint seriously. The influencer that sent me the notice had a lot of linguistic similarity with the writing styles I’ve mentioned above. I was rendered more helpless when the influencer put up a second post about me (without any details about me or my tweet), framing to their followers my callout against them as defamation. My anxiety was through the roof for an entire week.
You know what I couldn’t help but admire? That even this second post was so immaculately framed as “overcoming the odds” that their followers ate it up without context into what I said. As a “we fight fire with fire” tale. It was so reminiscent of a self-help book. I saw the post that I had initially called out later on r/linkedinlunatics, which had the most hilarious comment section. Much later, fortunately, this whole saga became just a cool “2 truths and a lie” story that I like to tell friends over the dinner table.
I love content, and I believe everyone has a unique writing voice of their own that doesn’t necessarily have to be in English. Social media has made it possible for everyone to share their unique stories. You can find them even on an all-work-no-play platform like LinkedIn. What is worrying about is the number of people who copy writing voices without a specific expertise. Everyone does it in the hope that they get a robust following.
However, when I searched for the person who post the “lessons from a Zimbabwe bank robbery” story on LinkedIn, I found at least 5 more people who shared the same story. Word for word.
When everyone’s super, no one will be.
Do you agree?
Special thanks section!
Debasmita Bhowmik: Friend, advisor, and an editor of books. For being the first person to riff on this piece with me, this story wouldn’t be as fully fleshed without her. She runs a platform that enables some wonderful writing on culture called Incurato.
Sukhada Chaudhary: Besides being extremely well-read, Sukhada is a ball of good-natured optimism who has a great Twitter. She leads marketing at a social impact startup with a mission that she passionately believes in and advocates for, here.
Nithya V: For being kind enough to give me a candid interview. She has a cool Instagram page that she uses for her slick designs, here.
Radhika Marwah: For giving me incredible insights into the world of publishing in India, and some crazy stories about editing self-help books.
Sunaina Bose and Molina Singh for being the most selfless proofreaders, and Mansi Dhanraj Shetty for introducing me to Radhika. And Shephali Bhatt for an early discussion around LinkedIn (and one rant about the legal notice :)).