Despite five years of solid economic growth, ten years of impressive corporate profits, and fifteen years of a stock market so bullish that finance pundits are talking of a “new paradigm,” some Americans still worry about money. No, not those petty worries about not having money—how will we pay the rent, where will the food come to feed our children, and so forth—but rather those concerns that come with having it, and wanting to make more of it.
For those who fret over where to put their money, or how to invest it, or simply how to enjoy possessing it, there is a new breed of book ready to alleviate our fears and let us invest with impunity: Call it self-actualized investment. Like baseball players praising God for their talent and $30 million-five-year contract, America’s investors are turning to self-actualized investment guides to feel at ease with the dumb luck the stock market has showered on them. Within the last year, as the stock market has continued to reach record heights, the new field of self-actualized investment books has blossomed with it. There’s already been one bestseller—Suze Orman’s Nine Steps to Financial Freedom. A slew of hopefuls, all promising you the same rosy disposition, is on the way.
Self-actualized investment combines the put-yourself-first appeal of Tony Robbins with the spreadsheet acumen of financial authors like Jane Bryant Quinn or Peter Lynch. The animating idea might be described as feeling good about feeling greedy. The timing couldn’t be better. In the nineties, the level of participation in the stock market by so-called non-institutional investors has reached unprecedented levels. Common citizens with more-than-common wealth have eschewed traditional caches such as bank accounts and treasury bonds in favor of the no-frills world of no-load mutual funds. They’ve even chucked their brokers, trusting instead in the relatively cheap advice of tipsheets like Smartmoney.
The democratizing wonders of the Invisible Hand, right? Maybe. Another way to look at it is that these do-it-yourself pikers are driving the market to dangerously narcotic highs. It’s as if the top quarter of the U.S. income bracket went in on a trillion-dollar Ponzi scheme—but unlike Albania, everyone has somehow come out on top. Maybe it will last, maybe it won’t. But in the meantime, mere riches have done little to assuage the anxiety—and guilt—that comes with being in on the most craven financial rapine in half a century.
Which is where Suze Orman comes in. Noting the distress that has come with success, Orman has crafted nine “Practical and Spiritual Steps so You Can Stop Worrying,” a three-tiered strategy for readers to reach financial freedom—that mythic state where our money works for us, our affairs are in order, and financial advisers (like Orman) are unnecessary. But if we’re to achieve that heightened state, we’d better know what we’re dealing with. “Money is a living entity,” she writes. “It is drawn to those who welcome it, those who respect it. Wouldn’t you rather be with people who respect you and who don’t want you to be something you’re not? Your money feels the same way.”
Despite her wacky anthropomorphizing and new-age tone, Orman’s finance credentials aren’t easy to dismiss. Trained at Merrill Lynch, she did a stint as vice-president of investments at Prudential-Bache. So when she writes stuff like “one way to get in touch with your money is to actually start touching it again,” she deserves to be taken seriously—or at least as seriously as anybody else who purports to dispense financial advice. Certainly the book-buying public agrees: Her book was perched on bestseller lists for months after its release last spring.
If Orman has inaugurated a new self-help genre, it’s because she stood on the shoulders of giants—or Deepak Chopra, anyway. Since the early eighties, Chopra has preached a distinctly worldly spiritualism, where locus, centering, and other vague notions can lead to great emotional and financial success. Millions of readers bought it, as Chopra’s puffball materialism turned into a multi-volume, million-dollar empire. More recently, Stephen Covey has spun his Mormon faith into one of the decade’s biggest sellers, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a common-sense checklist by which readers might organize their daily lives in a strict, distinctly corporate framework.
So it comes as little surprise that with business and finance now seeping into every slot of life from weekend movie grosses to the burger wars, self-help and finance might miscegenate into a new genre. “If you read ordinary financial books, they tell you how you must get your priorities in order,” notes Peter Ginna, who edited Orman’s book at Crown and now works at Oxford University Press. “But that’s almost the province of therapy for some people. You first have to get people to the place where they can make those practical decisions.”
Not that much of the welter of self-actualized investment advice now coming onto the market is of much practical use. To her credit, Orman pauses now and then from her Jungnastics to explain the particulars of 401(k) plans and fixed-versus-variable rate mortgages. Not so some other hacks now scurrying to cash in on the new genre. In Don’t Worry, Make Money, for instance, Richard Carlson traces his investment strategy to a Wall Street guru named Bobby McFerrin: “When Bobby McFerrin first sang his classic song, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ I felt as it he were singing my thoughts to the world,” Carlson writes. “I began to realize that the same essential idea applies to success and money.” From there, it’s on to Kenny Rogers’ “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” (or as Carlson garbles it, “know when to bet, when to hold, and when to fold”), and the Seven Dwarves’ “whistle while you work.” Not exactly advice worth paying for but, then, Carlson’s previous, no less witless book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, tops the New York Times bestseller list as of this writing.
Which makes his brand of therapy all the more unsettling. “Worry keeps us from feeling free and joyful. We are never truly free until we break the chains of fear,” Carlson writes. “Developing wealth consciousness is what this book is all about. Wealth consciousness suggests a complete absence of money worries; an awareness that there is always plenty of money to go around.” Besides the fact that Carlson’s “plenty to go around” claim is an affront to the majority of Americans, these assurances hardly apply even for the most comfortable reader in Carlson’s upper-middle-class target audience. But it isn’t Carlson’s task to reiterate the plain fact of American income disparity, or even to explain away bourgeois guilt about such facts. He’s writing to exorcise such concerns from his readers’ psychic portfolios. Carlson has one simple goal: to leave readers with the impression that they deserve every penny they possess, and that they should feel no compunction about exploiting every asset to make more.
“Everybody approaches money and investing with a highly charged emotional state,” says John Schott, author of the forthcoming Mind Over Money: How to Match Your Emotional Style to a Winning Financial Strategy. “Some people let their greed get out of hand, while others show this moral masochism by holding onto bad stocks as if to punish themselves. Psychological investing involves mastering these emotions.”
More than Orman or Carlson, Schott—a practicing psychiatrist on the Harvard Medical School faculty, as well as an investment manager with a $160 million portfolio—is forthright about who he’s writing for. He provides seven or eight different personality types—“The Power Investor,” say, or “The Thrill Seeker”—and shows how each temperament creates unnecessary risks. “As people read, they’ll see some things of themselves,” he explains.
Or perhaps they’ll see just how inverted these authors’ conceptions of reality are. While Orman argues that a proper respect for their money is “one of the reasons the rich get richer,” for instance, she handily skips over the main reason they get richer: capital’s tendency to accumulate (and capitalists’ tendency to ensure social conditions under which their interests are protected). Perhaps it’s other people’s respect for their money that makes the rich so happy and worry-free.
Those kinds of thoughts, of course, have to be kept safely behind a shroud of Blavatskian charlatanry. Orman, for instance, leads her readers through a sort of repressed memory session: “Think back and see that your feelings about money today … can almost certainly be traced to an incident, possibly forgotten until now, from your past,” she writes. This state of suspended emotion—where we disinter our money worries in order to bury them again—is manifest throughout the genre.
But for all their Panglossian gloss, these authors and their publishers know that they’re exposed to as much risk as, say, any Wall Street jockey going “Texas long” in the options markets. A stock market correction, or two or three bearish years, could stick them with lots of unsold books. With two years of writing behind him and several months yet to go before his January publication date, Schott even admits to being anxious about it. “I’ve been hoping nothing bad happens,” he says. “I want the book to come out now.” Whether or not self-actualized investment can endure if the market turns sour—or if it may be, like the return of the three piece suit and the celebrity of Jakob Dylan, just another symptom of irrational exuberance—is yet to be seen. But until the bears are back in force, the book business is exulting in its latest creation. “Publishing being what it is,” Ginna rightly notes, “with a couple bestsellers like this, there’ll be dozens more on the way.”