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Why business is the new self-help

9th April 2011 - Benjamin Lovegrove

Our One New Change shop is in the heart of London's financial district and a city gent recently graced our little 'booktique' with a request for books upon Genghis Khan. He'd been asked by his company to host a presentation about the infamous 12th-century warmonger, focusing upon his unifying methods and inspirational savvy. An oddly aggressive angle for a company to take you may think, but the more I got talking to this astute young fellow it made complete sense. He was spinning it as a talk about productivity and precision, using the Mongolian conquests as a catalyst. An idealistic redressing of war possibly, but a propos of our times also.

It got me to thinking: in our post-crash climate, is the prominence of self-help books and those with a spiritual bent fluttering away into the ether like paper angels on a violet breeze? Are the more business- and economics-focused self-development guides trumping these? Nowadays efficiency and productivity are key and with this there is restricted room and time for massaging of the soul. We need results! Now is the age of Self-Development! Calculated and serious.

Jacket image for The Art of WarNow I'm aware the books on Genghis Khan aren't specifically intended as motivational tools but the same message is there. The origins of this line of thought go back to the end of the 1970s and the repackaging of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, a treatise upon military strategy written in 6th century BC. Translated from loose bamboo sheets by the French in the 18th century, it took the powers that be a couple more centuries to see its potential when they bound it up and resold it as inspirational lore. It's still a motivational classic within management circles today.

The point is these ideas are always bubbling under and morphing, filtering though social perspective and current needs. It is often down to necessity whether we decide to unearth this information and to use it in a particular manner. The increasing popularity of books such as Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and more recently Michael Lewis' The Big Short, both containing accounts of successful businessmen or entrepreneurs, their methods and their warnings, indicates a shift in our collective conscience.

Jacket image for FreakonomicsThese are books that inform us more strategically than spiritually, feeding us crib notes on how to succeed 'out there' rather than to soothe our wilting souls within. A massively popular (and mainstream) title such as Freakonomics may address harsher truths than self-help perennials such as The Power of Now or The Secret, but it is far more universal. The battle has moved from the internal into the external arena.

These types of books have always been there, but their recent popularity speaks volumes for our current wobbly financial climate. This shift informs a more paranoid and socially alert public. Money making has never been more prevalent to our concerns. It is unavoidable. We want and need to be more aware of the concrete brutes thronging about us. Business books strike into the heart of the new British psyche. We are far more aware that knowledge has a financial use: it's a commodity in itself and that's what we love. For the moment at least.

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