Ashamed to Buy "The Secret"? Try These Books Instead!

Alec Nevala-Lee samples a new wave of ‘intellectual’ books on the power of thought, and finds they’re not so different from "The Secret" after all.

Tony Dungy was in trouble. As the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, he had spent five seasons perfecting a strategy based on drilling his players on a handful of key plays until they responded instinctively under pressure. The approach worked brilliantly in the regular season, but tended to fall apart in big games.

On Jan. 21, 2007, at the AFC conference championship, it was happening again. The Colts were facing the New England Patriots, a team that had ended their Super Bowl hopes twice before, and after 20 agonizing minutes, they were behind 21-3.

In the locker room at halftime, Dungy delivered a speech straight out of Any Given Sunday: “Get your sword ready, because this time we’re going to win. This is our game. It’s our time.”

Fired up by his words, the Colts rediscovered the habits they had so painstakingly acquired, and in the greatest comeback in conference title history, they rallied to win 38-34. Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl.

Charles Duhigg, a reporter at The New York Times, argues that they won because they finally came to believe in the strategy that Dungy had pursued for so long. “Maybe they got lucky,” Duhigg wrote in his bestselling book The Power of Habit. “Maybe it was just their time. But Dungy’s players say it was because they believed, and because that belief made everything they had learned—all the routines they had practiced until they became automatic—stick, even at the most stressful moments.”

The Colts story appears in The Power of Habit as part of a longer discussion of the role of belief in habit formation. Like the rest of the book, it’s persuasively argued—but the more we look at this illustration, the less convincing it seems. Even if we buy into its larger point about the power of belief, the idea that the Colts didn’t just become better overall, but won a specific game because they believed in themselves, is oddly sentimental. Yet its presence here is revealing. Duhigg’s book is often insightful, but it’s being sold less on its merits as reportage than as a self-help book for a very specific demographic: an audience of affluent and educated readers who wouldn’t be caught dead buying, say, The Secret.

I should know; I’m one of them. As a novelist, I’ve always been a sucker for books on creativity and consciousness, and there’s been a bumper crop this season. In addition to Duhigg’s book, over the last few months alone I’ve happily devoured Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely, which comes out today.

These are all smart books you wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen carrying at a TED conference, but when I buy them, I’m secretly hoping to improve more than my conversation: I want to become more rational, more creative, more interesting. In other words, I hope that these books will change my life, even if they inevitably leave me no more creative or rational than before.

Publishers know this is what I like. In contrast to the loud, glossy covers of the self-help section, these books are tastefully designed, with blurbs from Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but in essence, they aren’t so different from the works of Napoleon Hill or Norman Vincent Peale. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which has sold something like 20 million copies, tells us that the universe will reward us for our positive thoughts, and while the science in The Power of Habit is far more credible, its underlying message is the same: we are what we think, and we can turn ourselves into better, more accomplished people by following a few elegant rules.

Much of The Secret’s power arises from a simple narrative formula, in which a surprising story—like that of the Belize energy concern that struck oil after receiving “mind power training”—is paired with a fashionable allusion to science, usually quantum mechanics, and tops off with a moral for the reader’s own life.

We find a similar structure in books such as Gladwell’s blockbuster The Tipping Point and its sequels, which employ what Christopher Chabris, in a critical review of Imagine, has called the “story-study-lesson” approach.

In Blink, for instance, Gladwell shared the story of the psychologist John Gottman, who can famously predict the future of a couple’s marriage after only a few minutes of remote observation. After a graceful excursion into the research behind rapid cognition, Gladwell leaves with the insight that such snap judgments are “a central part of what it means to be human.” Yet while Gladwell’s stories and science are infinitely more refined than Byrne’s—he’s a master at making us feel smarter simply by buying his books—the uncomfortable truth is that reading about Gottman’s case, which is interesting precisely because it's so exceptional, isn’t likely to make me more insightful than I already am, even if I’m flattered into thinking so as I turn the pages.

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Gladwell’s example has inspired countless imitators, some more effective than others. Imagine, for instance, sometimes reads like an intelligent, engaging, but not altogether convincing simulation of a Gladwell book. Lehrer has the structure down cold—he opens with a breezy account of how Procter and Gamble developed the Swiffer—but the connections aren’t always there. A section on the autistic surfer Clay Marzo, for example, relates only tenuously to the conclusion Lehrer draws, which is that we need to let go to become more creative. Similarly, a discussion of the region of the brain where insights occur (the right anterior superior gyrus, if you’re taking notes), doesn’t say much about the creative process itself, but it sounds good, and it’s part of the package we’ve come to expect.

I can’t blame Lehrer for giving readers like me what they want, but when a book like this applies the formula too insistently, it can obscure its genuine strengths. The Power of Habit, for instance, contains a lot of fascinating material, but Duhigg can’t resist using the same cute diagram of the habit cycle, with its sequence of cue, routine, and reward, even in sections where it doesn’t quite fit. In his discussion of sleep terrors, for instance, the “reward” evidently consists of the sleeper’s satisfaction at killing an imaginary assailant, which stretches the whole notion of habits and rewards to the breaking point. Similarly, Duhigg defines habit itself so broadly that it encompasses everything from employee training at Starbucks to the social networks behind the Montgomery bus boycott, a definition so general that it robs “habit” of much of its meaning, although not its motivational appeal.

Even Dan Ariely, a truly gifted writer and theorist, can’t avoid the temptation to leave us with some useful advice where there’s none to be found. His first book, Predictably Irrational, is a small masterpiece of ingenuity, the kind of book you keep wanting to read aloud to your friends, and while The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty isn’t quite as fresh, it’s still packed with so much cleverness that you feel smarter by proxy. Yet his chapters have a strange way of petering out: they all start with a gorgeous experiment—as when he shows that people are more likely to cheat on a test after writing a paragraph without the letters “a” or “n”—and end with a few unpersuasive tips on dealing with our own irrationality, when a more credible, if less reassuring interpretation of his research is that we may just have to learn to live with it.

Ariely, at least, is an original thinker, rather than a skillful popularizer, and he doesn’t try to downplay our rational shortcomings. The same holds true of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate in economics whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is the best recent book of its kind. He doesn’t try to force everything he has to say into a single neat model, and while other books encourage us to develop our intuition, Kahneman warns us against it.

For example, in contrast to Duhigg, he argues that most sporting events are largely dependent on luck, and that we tend to impose meaning on good or bad outcomes that are nothing but regression to the mean—which is also true for many of the inspiring stories so dear to other authors. (He also notes, usefully, that an argument printed in a nice font on quality paper is more likely to be believed, regardless of its validity.)

In the end, it’s impossible for such books to live up to our expectations, if only because the way we think is so personal, inflexible, and dependent on chance. Not surprisingly, these authors tend to be more interesting when they focus on groups: Imagine may not have much to tell us about solitary creativity, but it’s delightful on such subjects as collaboration in musicals and the design of the Pixar campus. As far as creativity itself goes, the best advice I’ve seen comes from Origins of Genius, by Dean Simonton, another original thinker: “The best a creative genius can do,” Simonton writes, “is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.”

In other words, the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. There are no easy answers here, just unrelenting work, a valuable reminder at a time when such books seem especially irresistible. Between Kickstarter, the App Store, and Kindle Publishing, the window between conception and execution feels narrower than ever, so that while we may not think that the universe will reward our positive thoughts, many of us secretly believe that all that stands between us and success is one great idea.

And for all my own doubts, I suspect that I’ll keep reading books that promise me this, as long as they come in the right package—because deep down, I still hope, in the words of Napoleon Hill, that I can think and grow rich.