Why We Must Talk About Fight Club

By Duff McDuffee on July 13th, 2009 1

Have you seen the movie Fight Club? The unnamed protagonist lives a modern life of quiet desperation. Working as an auditor for a major automobile corporation, he flies around the country investigating deadly car accidents, to calculate a cold-hearted cost-benefit analysis for whether the company should recall the dangerous cars they manufacture. In response to his meaningless and unethical work, he becomes a hyperconsumer–purchasing his liberation in the form of cute Ikea furniture and a Yin-Yang carpet. He learns to cope with his insomnia (presumably fueled by his inner torment) by consuming cathartic experience; joining self-help groups under false pretense, he finds liberation when he surrenders to his sadness.

But he grieves for problems he does not have, for there are no support groups for what truly ails him. His addiction to these groups increases until he spots another faker. Eventually he develops a bad boy multiple personality, starts an underground full-contact boxing ring, blows up his apartment, and eventually forms a destructive cult that engages in acts of terrorism that eerily predict 9/11.

It is significant that many people–especially personal development bloggers–list Fight Club as one of their favorite movies. Why do we love this movie about a self-destructive, violent cult leader with Multiple Personality Disorder? Because we suffer as he suffers, and we find similar self-destructive solutions.

(Note: the embedded video contains violence and has one “swear” word.)

We are torn apart inside. We have meaningless work. We buy stuff we don’t need. We are addicted to consuming Personal Development books and blogs that rehash the same ideas again and again, never really getting to what is most important. But worse than that, sometimes our rebellion is even co-opted into obedience to a new destructive authority–in the name of freedom.

We Must Talk About Fight Club

Rule #1 of Fight Club is “You do not talk about Fight Club.” This is a great rule if you want to create a destructive terrorist cult like Tyler Durden. Cutting off lines of communication with arbitrary and absolute rules creates a insular culture, unable to take feedback and evolve.

The truth is, we are all already members of Fight Club. We have an inner war raging, a war between parts of ourselves. We try to kill our “resistance” to the culturally conditioned goals that we choose for ourselves because there is seemingly no alternative. We reinforce an inner dominator hierarchy using thought-stopping affirmations such that we never question the values underlying our choice of outcomes.

The Personal Development community itself is a Fight Club. Using techniques of hype and ego-inflation, we have cultivated this inner war by selectively labeling beliefs as “limiting” and then attempting to destroy our often quite reasonable fears. But why do we never talk about these things? Because unwritten rule #1 of Personal Development culture is “you do not talk about Personal Development culture.” Of the 1000’s of Personal Development books and blogs, very few engage in critical discourse, truly questioning the assumptions of any other. This is beginning to change. As the personal development blogosphere matures, it is inevitable that the dialogue will deepen.

Personal Development Itself is Developing

On a typical personal development blog post, you will see endless positive and enthusiastic comments. Less than enthusiastic feedback or critical thinking in general has typically been considered “negative thinking” within our culture. Not surprisingly, groupthink and guru-worship ensues in such an environment devoid of dialogue. But in the last year or so, more blog posts have been receiving critical feedback and dissent. Popular blogger Merlin Mann has harshly criticized the culture of blog articles with “17 Superficial Tips to Optimize Your Life!” which many of us have participated in writing and consuming. To quote Mann:

In more instances than we want to admit, tips not only won’t (and can’t) help us to improve; they will actively get in the way of fundamental improvement by obscuring the advice we need with the advice that we enjoy. And, the advice that’s easy to take is so rarely the advice that could really make a difference.

This blog will probably not be as enjoyable as Lifehack or ZenHabits. It will almost certainly have far fewer tips. But hopefully it will have more of the sometimes painful inquiry that we all really need to truly grow and develop.

While the criticism has at times been rich, there have been few clear and positive directions proposed. Some of us who have given a critique of Personal Development culture have ceased in order to engage in the creation of the very structures we criticize. Tyler Durden started out criticizing authority and culture and then created a cult of mindless obedience and terrorism, a fact so often left out of the personal development blog articles written enthusiastically with his philosophy. Do we really want to innovate like a terrorist cult leader? If we are to find truly positive directions for the field of Personal Development, we must not fall into the very errors we see presently. Rhetoric alone will not form a new paradigm–a new view must be congruent with new actions that do not recreate current problems. Even whether or not a new paradigm is needed should be up for question–perhaps an older one, dusted off a bit, would do just fine.

None of us can clearly see ourselves objectively without feedback from our peers and community. Nothing grows in a vacuum–we grow through nourishment from the sun, the Earth, and the interconnections between all things. We do not need more advocates for going at it alone. Neither do we need more $47 a month gated communities of self-help seekers. It is time for personal development to develop into a mature, online, and open-source dialogue where multiple perspectives are honored, and the complexity of what it is to be human is engaged with compassionately.

What is Beyond Growth?

Beyond Growth is a Philosophy Club, a Peace Club, a Culture Club. It’s membership is free and open to all who seek self-actualization and are deeply curious about what it means to live “The Good Life,” individually and collectively. On this blog we will fearlessly explore the hidden assumptions of Personal Development and the culture it is embedded within, as part of the wider dialogue taking place within the blogosphere. Instead of just questioning our beliefs that are counter to achievement-based consumer culture, we will attempt to hold all beliefs up for question, while understanding that this isn’t completely possible, and that inevitably we will value some things more than others. We will remain open to even questioning the very way in which we are questioning, reflecting upon our reflections, and criticizing our criticisms. I believe we can also engage in a respectful and intelligent dialogue while simultaneously acknowledging the need to “agree to disagree” when our views and values differ.

We will explore more widely what it is to be a fully “self-actualized” human in the postmodern context, in the global context, and in the face of converging crises of ecology and society. We will highlight specific techniques and discuss the pros and cons, the relative effectiveness, and the appropriate and inappropriate contexts for each technique. And hopefully, we will inspire some original thinking that could lead to true happiness and fulfillment for all of us. We hope that you will join us by subscribing to this free blog and adding your intelligent commentary in the comments section below each article.

That is what I intend for this blog at this time. However, Beyond Growth is collaborative by nature. My co-founder Eric Schiller has a different but overlapping perspective. We hope to get other regular contributors as well, perhaps even inviting particularly useful and interesting commentors to write guest posts. Part of what I value about dialogue is the notion that all of us thinking together can be smarter than each of us thinking independently. I hope to explore with you what the future of personal development can become.



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