Why bootstraps isn’t the only approach.

Why bootstraps isn’t the only approach.

In a recent interview with the podcast Left Anchor, Pete Davis, a civic advocate and author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing, laughed about the fact that his book is categorized in the Dewey Decimal system as “self-help.” The book—an exploration of a particular state of “options-open” indecisiveness that Davis diagnoses as a condition of modern life, a call to refocus on collaboration, and a celebration of what Davis calls “long-haul heroes”—is indeed a prescription for human thriving, but it’s far from typical.

Can life advice be called “self-help” if it might take decades to work, help others more than you, and/or make you intermittently miserable along the way? Davis argues that it can. We spoke recently about the shortcomings of traditional self-help advice, Davis’ decision to move back to his hometown, and how totally annoying collaboration can be.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: There’s an argument, that I happen to think is pretty credible, that the self-help industry in the United States is conservative in the “bootstraps” way: that it prescribes individual fixes in a way that forecloses structural improvement and reinforces the idea that individuals can, and should, self-improve their way toward wealth, at all costs. Reading your book, I was also thinking about how, in American culture, the idea of “commitment” is often tied to institutions that are now coded conservative: small towns, the military, church, marriage. So your book about commitment as a form of lefty self-help is swimming against the current on multiple counts.  

Pete Davis: There’s so much mainstream self-help that’s about a spark of agency inside you that can help you triumph over circumstance. One of the things that I tried to do with this book was to say: I agree! The book has a lot of “Go get ’em, you can do it” sections. I talk about, if you see a trash heap across from your house, go plant a community garden there, like Karen Washington did.

But the thing I’ve seen in the “agency over circumstance” genre of self-help is that it’s almost always agency for private interests, not for public interests. As a Ralph Nader fan, I’m attempting to write something you could maybe call public-interest self-help. I’m saying, it doesn’t have to be “millionaire mindset”—it could be “mentor mindset,” “town revival mindset,” or “pastor mindset.” It doesn’t have to just be You’re poor and you can become rich. It can be about, Your institution is corrupted and you can rectify it; your government needs reform and you can do it; the kids in your town need help and you can help.

In a lot of mainstream self-help books, every example of a success story is a startup. I wanted to write about different success stories—like Peggy Berryhill, who’s kept a radio show running for 45 years that has kept the West Coast Native community informed, or Evan Wolfson, who worked to legalize gay marriage for 32 years.

My other departure, though, is that self-help is not just about empowerment. It can also be about relationships. One of the ways you can become happy—though actually, I try to avoid the word happy in the book; I say joyful, which is a distinction that matters to me—can be through relationships. Not just asserting agency over structure, but through relationships. A lot of these self-help books are about becoming superheroes—life hack wizardry, perfecting yourself. You listen to The Tim Ferriss Show and it’s like, Here’s another tactic to become superhuman. And I did want to talk about some of that—like, here’s Kimberly Wasserman, who shut down coal plants through her dedication, or Sarah Kliff, who is able to write really quick health policy stories because of her depth of expertise—but I wanted to say that commitments are not just about having an impact in that way. It’s about entering into relationships.

Or thinking of how, as you gain skills, which is a type of self-improvement, you’re joining a community of people who have that skill. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes about this—like, there’s no point in having basketball skills unless there are other people in a community who can play with you, can create and cultivate and steward the practice of basketball. I tried to talk about the way that careers can be a shared community of competence that has practices, that has moral codes. That you are in a conversation, when you’re committed to a career: Is this the way the law should go? Is this the way journalism should go? Is this the way plumbing should go? It’s a community.

I wanted to ask you about the role of well-earned cynicism, as a barrier to people taking up this advice. As a former aspiring academic in the humanities, and present-day writer online, I have seen a lot, a lot of people who wanted nothing more than to commit to a community of practice—to treat their jobs with love, and to become long-haulers within the profession, as you would call it—get locked out, discarded, and treated like crap. They were there for it, but those professions weren’t there for them. I think one thing that holds people back from this kind of commitment is fear: We see how easily you can be betrayed by falling in love with a profession.

I have had a lot of people ask, Do we live in a time when more people get stuck in infinite browsing mode than in a previous time? I tried not to over-rely on polls in the book, but one of the poll results I felt I needed to include was the overwhelming one about people in our generation—I’m a millennial—who have much less trust in and approval of things larger than ourselves than previous generations did. Pretty much any institution: religion, a nation, the idea of political parties … there’s a very clear decline, generation to generation.

And when I put that in there, I am not saying that’s the young people’s fault. It’s the institutions’ fault. This isn’t necessarily a call to trust them or stop being so cynical about them. But there’s a metaphor I use around the end of the book, that it’s like we’re living in a desert after a flood has washed everything away. And part of the story of that flood is the story of the corruption of these institutions. Even if they weren’t actively corrupted, so many have just had, baked in, so many injustices and inequalities, that they can’t exist in their present form anymore. We can’t tolerate it.

And so the message isn’t, Start trusting them again. It’s just to say, if we want any of these original missions that these institutions or communities talked about, and in many cases were lying to us about following, to exist—if we care about a journalism that reports the truth, community groups that gather people together, universities that educate, health systems that take care of people—we have to do sort of a reforestation project. Some of these institutions and communities that weren’t there for us turned out to be bad. But us being all alone and having no institutions is also bad!

The message of the book is that we have to perform a sort of miraculous thing. Even though everything in our life might say, That’s not a good idea, don’t try to be part of something bigger than yourself, we have to find a way to still do it.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: I liked how you talked about how a smaller barrier to entry, but a real one, to this kind of connection-based “self-help” can be the annoyance of committing to something. This happens to me all the time: I think, I should start a book club; I bet that would be great, then I think, I cannot deal. There will be coordinating; there will be fights; it’s going to be a whole thing.

Yes! I was very proud that one sentence I wrote on that topic made it into the final draft of the book. Here, I’ll read it: “This work is hard. Other people bother, annoy, ask too much of, impose on, misunderstand, disappoint, scare, condescend to, judge, talk the ear off of, hurt, and belittle each other. But there is no community building without chaos.” I wanted to acknowledge this because I don’t want people to read this book and think, Oh, easy for him to say! Has he been to a meeting?

You moved back to the place where you grew up. As a person who didn’t do quite that, but who moved to the town where my husband grew up, I’m very interested in that as a “commitment” move. This is a little more of a hot-button issue for some millennials right now, who may have moved “home” during the pandemic and are figuring out what to do now. The choice highlights a dynamic that you’re interested in: Sometimes, you gain by committing to something that, on the surface, seems to foreclose options. If you’re willing to say: How did you decide to move back?

I was at a very lost part of my life, in my mid-20s. I had done that very classic thing—well, not classic among everyone, but classic among people who go to law school!—and applied to law school because I was confused. I wasn’t diving into law as a commitment. I was more like, What am I going to do? I have to grab onto a branch in this river of life. So I did that, but I knew it wasn’t fully me.

And I thought about the thing I was most rooted to, and it was this community where I came from, which happened to be a pretty civically active place. This was the part of me that gave me purpose, community, impact, and joy. So I made the decision, OK, I’m going to go to law school, but I’m going to commit to come home to my hometown right after that. And as soon as I made that decision, I got a total sense of calm and sense of purpose. I tried to capture that spirit a bit in the book, which is about how by making one commitment, it helps you make sense of the other open options.

But also, it’s not for everyone. I’m part of this intellectual community of localists—there’s this localist organization called Front Porch Republic that I love, and I like reading books about people who love their towns and their neighborhoods. But when I talk to my friends about localism, some of them said, You know, some people are not called to be rooted to a place. And what I realized that I loved about localism was not the fact of place-based rootedness; it was rootedness in and of itself.

And so I want to argue that it doesn’t have to be a commitment to a place. There can be people who love the people around them, and are in it for the long haul; this shows a kind of faithfulness. This can be applied to projects, or the maintenance of institutions, or craft practices, or even companionship. The core of it—community, commitment, and rootedness—is what I found in localism. But other people might find it in something else.