The history of American industry is littered with vigorous appeals to self-improvement.
“Anyone who keeps learning, stays young,” quoth Henry Ford. In 1997, a breathless Steve Jobs introduced computers that’d help us “Think Different,” like Gandhi or Richard Branson. “The World is Flat” spake Thomas Friedman in 2005—thus we are to happily compete in a globalized world and celebrate its wonders, like the world-bestriding McDonald’s Golden Arches, Mexico’s marvelous maquiladoras, and McDonnell Douglas’s smart-bombing fighter jets.
The Internet Age, in turn, has turned out pithy verses to inspire would-be champions of the 21st century economy. Among them: we are to optimize our Personal Brands, Curate our Content, fashion ourselves as Makers and Creators, Fail Fast and Fail Often, practice Radical Empathy, Disrupt, Innovate, and, ideally, produce Disruptive Innovations.
This vernacular has emerged, for the most part, from Silicon Valley—late capitalism’s sunny ideological wellspring. TED Talkers, angel investors, and babyfaced CEOs dole out these phrases like manna. Shout them in the right place and you may find yourself on a 40-under-40 list. The new idiom fills the air of MBA lecture halls and corporate conference rooms the world over, like its predecessors “Synergy” and “Six Sigma.” The business media has search-engine-optimized itself to keep up with the times—I dare you to search “curate” on Forbes.com.
With every paradigm shift in business culture, a crop of consultants sprouts up to guide bewildered professionals through the maze of de rigeur keywords and codes. In our Disruption era, a rookie class of tech entrepreneurs, executive coaches and mindset experts offers life hacks for boundless career growth.
Recently, my social media homepages started feeding me ads for one such company: Mentorbox. The headline shouted “Read like a CEO,” and featured a photo of two well-coiffed dudes sitting on a roof, an imposing skyline behind them, a stack of brightly colored books before them. Eventually, I clicked. I have now watched the 24-minute video three times, and I remain in a state of bemused dread.
Here’s what I’ve gathered: every month, Mentorbox sends subscribers a box of personal growth and business books. The company was founded by Alex Mehr, PhD, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur. Judging by his LinkedIn page, Mehr’s life has been one long winning streak: a doctorate in mechanical engineering, a stint at NASA, co-founder and CEO of the dating app Zoosk ($800m in sales, he says). Now, with Mentorbox, Mehr has created “the most powerful self-education system in the world—delivered in a convenient monthly box.” It costs $69 per month.
Mentorbox’s promotional video is a bolus of robber baron flattery, success memes, and elite cultural signifiers, delivered in the oratorical style of aspiring Davos Men. The company’s innovation is the shortcutting of works like Tony Robbins’ Money: Master the Game and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. As Mehr explains, Mentorbox distills these books into proprietary audio and video summaries, workbooks, and “speed-reading cheat sheets,” so busy customers can “absorb all the main concepts directly to their brain.” “Just like The Matrix,” Director of Content Jonathon Kendall adds.
Mehr and Kendall promote their company with the messianic zeal of the tech industry’s winner-men. Discussing The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Kendall exclaims, “there are parts of this book I would tattoo on my arm!” There are several references to things being “revolutionary.” In evangelizing Stephen Covey’s seventh habit of highly effective people, the Win-Win principle, Mehr explains that by creating happy customers and happy employees, Mentorbox aims to “[make] the world a better place.” Straight out of the show, folks.
The reading list draws from the adrenal, take-no-prisoners strategies of military culture. Extreme Operational Excellence shares lessons from the clockwork functioning of nuclear submarines. In Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin write about the lessons they learned leading the Navy SEAL unit that helped secure the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Since then, Willink and Babin “have helped scores of clients across a broad range of industries build their own high-performance teams and dominate their battlefields.” I suppose business, like politics, is war by other means.
Simplistic life-enhancing formulas also abound on the Mentorbox syllabus. Arianna Huffington’s zen tome Thrive instructs us to mind our sanity and happiness while ascending the career ladder. Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy’s Presence says that good body language unlocks success. Terri Sjodin’s Scrappy declares that “choosing to play big” will help you “beat the odds with cleverness and fighting spirit.” It’s easy to nod along here—the difficulty of disagreeing with these concepts is their strength.
To close the sale, Mehr and Kendall deploy impressive numbers and names. Of Nathaniel Hill’s 1937 titans of industry interview book Think and Grow Rich: “100 million copies sold—there’s a reason for that.” There’s much talk of bestseller lists, and of an author being the guy in his field. Finally, Mentorbox nails the optics of success. The website claims the imprimaturs of our august institutions: Harvard, Stanford, the Times. Mehr and Kendall’s perch atop a skyscraper in picturesque San Francisco assures potential customers that these guys have made it, and with a little elbow grease, you can, too.
At the end of the video, MentorBox’s core philosophy is laid bare. Reviewing Extreme Ownership, Kendall points at the camera:
“You are responsible for everything that happens in your life. I know that you’ve had some difficulties. I know that you might not have every advantage. I know everyone has problems, right? But I also know that there’s a place that you want to be…this is human nature. Everyone knows that there’s…a highest version of themselves, that they want to become. The only way you’re going to be able to actually accomplish it is by taking extreme ownership of everything in your life.”
In the Mentorbox universe, pesky problems and disadvantages exist only in the mind. Once you internalize that success is “learnable,” Mentorbox suggests, material barriers become immaterial. That’s human nature.
Mentorbox’s prescription of “continuous learning” is fresh evidence of what Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War, calls ‘responsibilization’. The concept proposes that in the marketplace of life, practical consequences—like success or failure—can be attributed only to individual effort. The system always gets off scot-free. Disciples of “personal responsibility” ignore structural reasons for why, in a society of absurd wealth, there are just a handful of winners and so many just scraping by. Those at the top earned it, they say; those at the bottom need to pull themselves up by their boostraps.
This ideology is typically associated with the reactionary right, epitomized by Margaret Thatcher’s infamous line, “Society does not exist…individuals must look to themselves first.” In the last forty years, no Big Idea has inspired more shredding of safety nets and social contracts. Government-provided services—or “the nanny state” in conservative nomenclature—shouldn’t exist, as people should provide for their own damn welfare. To maintain security, it’s on the worker to diligently monitor their labor value, and whenever necessary, reinvent themselves to suit the whims of the market.
Thatcher and Reagan’s heirs have carried this ideology into the explainer era. Paul Ryan’s pie charts-and-rolled sleeves shtick is the same zero-sum-game updated for the PowerPoint Age. The right-wing commentariat has latched onto “self-disruption” in subtler ways. The tireless Tom Friedman now exhorts the citizenry to “own their own futures.” “More is now on you,” he intones, “And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill.” Job market precarity is not cause for anxiety, you see—it’s an opportunity to learn, to become the person you’ve always dreamed of being. (Perhaps this is Friedman’s attempt at a late-punditry pivot toward the humane, after building his brand doing things like calling U.S.-occupied Afghanistan a “special needs baby.”)
Of course, slash-and-burn Republican rhetoric doesn’t mesh with Silicon Valley’s utopian mythos. Many big-name tech companies publicly support progressive causes, particularly LGBT, immigrant and refugee rights. Ninety-five percent of donations made by tech employees went to Hillary Clinton; Obama has mulled becoming a venture capitalist in his post-Presidency life.
The love affair is reciprocal. Tech workers are not just financial benefactors of Democratic causes—they’re the hippest representatives of the party’s professional class base. In his prescient 2016 book Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank tells the story of the Democratic Party’s strategic alignment with educated white collar Americans, to the detriment of its traditional advocacy for the working class. In a recent lecture, Frank discussed the names Democrats have coined to exalt the inherent goodness of their new favorite constituency:
>“[They are] ‘Wired Workers who will inherit the future’...a ‘Creative Class that naturally rebels against fakeness and conformity’...they’re a ‘Learning Class that truly gets the power of education.’...an ‘Innovation Class that just can’t stop coming up with awesome new things.”
Frank’s observation of the Dems’ fetish for “learning class” has born out quite well in official party rhetoric. In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton was fond of informing the electorate about our innovative, knowledge-based economy, “in which what you earn is based on what you can learn.” Clinton trumpeted our shiny digital tomorrow, citing growth of high-paying information technology jobs. Then, before blue collar workers could enroll in a single computer course, Clinton took a crowbar to their kneecaps: signing NAFTA in 1993 and, a few years later, fulfilling his campaign promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it.”
A generation later, the DNC is making the same blunders. In July, the party initially dubbed its platform “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages,” before scuttling “Better Skills” amid accusations of condescension. Many might ask, “what’s wrong with the skills I already have?” In this worldview, job security is ephemeral; the malfunctions of the state are excusable; everyone is on their own. That doesn’t sound like the Left.
Accordingly, the real danger of Mentorbox-esque rhetoric is not Alex Mehr, PhD’s cliches or the spurious lessons of the booklist. The problem is that Silicon Valley—like the Democrats, supposedly a bastion of liberal values—is using its cultural power to evangelize the conservative gospel of personal responsibility. Heralding the coolness of our techno-future is insufficient. We need progressive institutions to propose ideas for how that future will benefit everyone, not just those with the privilege to fail fast and fail often.
After all, “disruption” is a cousin of “creative destruction”—what Joseph Schumpeter called the “essential fact about capitalism.” If the narrative of self-disruption becomes the consensus—if workers are expected to face down precarity with continuous learning, ever keen to regenerate themselves—it becomes easier for the powerful to blame victims and to dismiss suffering under structural inequality as “the fault” of those who just wouldn’t learn hard enough.
Further, if an obsession with productivity and credential-collecting becomes a requirement for professional class security, interclass solidarity and critiques of untrammeled market capitalism will seem all the more outlandish. The privileged would claw to maintain their status, amassing diplomas, soliciting LinkedIn recommendations, and attending personal brand seminars. Meanwhile, those strivers at the bottom would be left to bang at the office door, hoping someone hears them say the right buzzword.