Reposted from the New York Times:
In the 1920s the French psychologist Émile Coué popularized the idea that success started with the repetition of a simple mantra. Twenty times a day you were supposed to tell yourself, as one translation put it, poetically, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Prescriptions offered by many TED speakers are equally granular. The second most popular talk, measured by views on the TED site, is the one wherein Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School says that high-power poses — including standing up straighter, hands on hips — could “significantly change the way your life unfolds.” It’s strange that this advice should have such a large audience today. (For one, it’s not really news. Studies on the effects of body language are about as old as the VHS.) Ms. Cuddy does make a fascinating case, as did Sheryl Sandberg in her 2010 talk, an early look at the “Lean In” theme, which included not one but three “powerful” pieces of advice.
TED talks routinely present problems of huge scale and scope — we imprison too many people; the rain forest is dying; look at all this garbage; we’re unhappy; we have Big Data and aren’t sure what to do with it — then wrap up tidily and tinily. Do this. Stop doing that. Buy an app that will help you do this other thing. To imagine that small behavior tweaks are smart responses to big persistent challenges, like the gender gap in wages, is a stretch. These ideas don’t spread because people are rationally calculating the odds that they’ll work.
Perhaps the fact that there’s no intrusive voice from above makes this all more appealing than monotheism. Instead of sola scriptura, TED and its ilk offer more of a buffet-style approach to moral formation. I’ve talked to people who say they’ve happily dispensed with God, and don’t even find the general idea comprehensible. But a few, having announced they’re free of cant, spend many nervous hours assembling authority structures and a sense of righteousness by bricolage and Fitbit, nonfiction book clubs and Facebook likes.