While reporting his new book, “Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us,” journalist Will Storr attended a week-long workshop at the Esalen Institute, the epicenter of the human-potential movement of the 1960s and ’70s. A shy, curmudgeonly Briton, Storr endures some excruciating group-encounter exercises while trying to maintain a reporter’s remove. He doesn’t belong there, and he’s sure his fellow participants agree. Then a woman from the group challenges him. “‘We’ve all been talking about it,'” she says. “‘Why the hell do you think people don’t like you? … You’re sweet. You’re funny. You can’t hide it. Everybody here likes you.'”

Storr tries to brush this off, but a swell rises in his throat. In less than a week, he has gone from eye-rolling cynic to member of a tribe. This is one of the many ways “Selfie” illustrates how slippery our identities can be and how quickly we’ll accommodate them to the world around us.

“Selfie” might appear to fit in the genre of high-end pop-psychology books that promise to shed light on the human condition while also telling us how to be more productive, persuasive or in some other way climb a rung or two higher on the winner’s ladder. But this book is no life hack. Rather, in this fascinating psychological and social history, Storr – who has published three other books and is a seasoned foreign correspondent – reveals how biology and culture conspire to keep us striving for perfection, and the devastating toll that can take.

We are, he shows, wired to seek excellence. But it’s not a question of nature vs. nurture but nature and nurture. Our brains, he tells us, plagiarize material from culture to help us fit in. “Voices from long-dead minds haunt us in the present, often without our conscious awareness,” he writes. “Arguments they’ve made, feuds they’ve waged, battles they’ve fought, best-sellers they’ve written, revolutions they’ve triggered, industries and movements they’ve raised and destroyed, all live within us.”

Storr deconstructs these influences – from the hero worship of ancient Greece to the neoliberalism of Silicon Valley – to show how Western culture arrived at its current ideal: the outgoing and athletic individualist, the fearless and talented optimist who works hard, dreams big and believes that anything is possible. He contrasts this with Eastern culture, which focuses on group harmony.

The book takes readers on a long and complicated journey through centuries of religion, literature and economics, but Storr navigates the material with remarkable clarity, frequently recapping and synthesizing. There are rare instances when the writing calls attention to itself, but overall, Storr’s portraits of individuals effectively illuminate complicated psychological concepts, and most are great fun to read. A particularly hilarious interaction: An Adonis-like techno-preneur makes Storr pancakes while blithely describing his plan to colonize space – to, as he says, “‘(get) people off this rock.'”


Storr’s essential point is that the societal cheerleading that pushes us to become the most glamorous and confident versions of ourselves actually makes us miserable – because ultimately we fall short of that ideal, and we know it.

The chapter on the self-esteem movement provides the clearest illustration of how a cultural meme can embed in the collective consciousness and perpetuate damaging falsehoods. In the 1980s, a California assemblyman named John Vasconcellos proposed bringing self-esteem education into the state’s schools, arguing that teaching children to love themselves would lead to higher grades, and lower rates of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and delinquency. The proposal made Vasconcellos a laughingstock until a panel of University of California psychologists validated the idea. Once implemented, self-esteem education spread quickly. But, as Storr discovers, researchers’ findings on the value of self-esteem education were inconclusive at best, and its benefits were deliberately exaggerated to appease the powerful legislator. The book justifying Vasconcellos’ project was, as one of its co-authors told Storr, “a bunch of scholarly gobbledegook.”

More than a decade later, psychologist Roy Baumeister performed a meta-analysis of self-esteem research and found no conclusive evidence that raising children’s self-esteem leads to higher grades or lower rates of delinquency or drug abuse. Since then, self-esteem’s stock has slowly slid, as researchers and laypeople alike observe that an abundance of self-love – be it in junior employees or world leaders – often does not correlate with good behavior.

For Storr, who as a teenager fell for self-esteem proselytizing, this is personal. “That ‘golden city on top of a hill’ I’d imagined – the place that, when I reached it, would magically transform me into the perfect version of myself – was a mirage,” he writes. “I could hardly believe it. My fight with low self-esteem was who I was.”

The autobiographical passages are a very small part of “Selfie,” but Storr’s vulnerability ends up quietly bolstering the book’s message. Storr, by his own description, is a misanthropic, frequently self-loathing introvert, the polar opposite of our cultural ideal. And yet, you like the guy. We’re instructed to revere the bold and the beautiful, but I’d vastly prefer to spend time with Storr than a glad-handing start-up founder enthusing about a world-changing app.

Sure, books promising to make you a better parent or middle manager by the time your plane hits the tarmac may offer useful tips. They may help you navigate the system, but they probably won’t ask you to question it. By exposing the cultural con that says we can be anyone we want to be, “Selfie” invites to us to relax into our flawed, limited selves.

Eckel is the author of “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.”

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