In the notorious opening monologue from the 80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Bueller charms the pants of his audience with a well-packaged cliche: “believe in yourself.”
I’m not saying don’t believe in yourself; I’m not saying that you shouldn’t encourage a friend to believe in themselves. What I am saying is don’t walk around handing out this trite advice, smugly thinking you’ve revolutionized someone’s life. Don’t, in other words, be Ferris Bueller, who kicks off his eventful day monologuing to his audience about believing in themselves:
I do have a test today, that wasn’t bull-s–t. It’s on European socialism. I mean really, what’s the point. I’m not European. I don’t plan on being European, so who gives a crap if they’re socialists. They could be fascist anarchists and it still wouldn’t change the fact that I don’t own a car. (Singing in shower) It’s not that I condone fascism or any ‘ism’ for that matter. Ism’s, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ‘ism,’ he should believe in himself. I quote John Lesson: ‘I don’t believe in the Beatles. I just believe in myself.’ A good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off of people.
People often get this monologue wrong. They think the point is the sentence, “a person should not believe in an ‘ism’ he should believe in himself.” They dismiss the point about the walrus. But if we look at what the words are really doing–instead of what we assume that they should be doing–something else is happening. First, he makes the point that isms don’t solve our problems because no matter what ism to which you subscribe you still have to solve your own problems. Hence, “they could be fascist anarchists and it still wouldn’t change the fact that I don’t own a car.” That piece is actually pretty on point.
Isms give us general belief structures but having a belief structure isn’t going to change the fact that you have to act and actions are inherently contradictory and difficult. I had a yoga teacher once, white dude who loved to appropriate Eastern culture in problematic ways, but he did have one saying I liked (I don’t know if he appropriated it or correctly cited it or what) but it was this: Before enlightenment, chop wood. After enlightenment, chop wood.
Where the monologue gets wonky is when Bueller throws out the superficial, incredibly obvious, horribly trite, “a man should believe in himself.” If he were Tony Robbins on a stage in front of 3,000 people saying that, it would just be a cliche that in no way actually reflects how much of us live our lives. But when it comes directly after the statement about isms it’s something different; it’s introducing Bueller’s character. Bueller is a smooth-talking, one-dimensional man-child whose constant pursuit of pleasure–what we call the hedonistic treadmill–leaves his life ultimately meaningless. He is the worst kind of teenage archetype. It’s Cameron who has the depth in the movie, not Bueller. Cameron feels, he suffers, he thinks deeply, and is constantly tortured by life’s greater mysteries. Suffering doesn’t make him “good” but it does give him depth.
Bueller is constantly trying to distract Cameron because Bueller doesn’t know how to suffer or feel bad. He is in constant pursuit of pleasure and, at the end of the day, that is no way for an adult to live. But he’s not an adult. He’s a man-child. When Bueller spouts off one insightful idea followed by one cliche idea, the point isn’t the content of what he’s saying; it’s that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s a walking set of platitudes.
Sometimes Bueller stumbles on a profound insight, but it’s not because he’s profound, it’s because he’s gifted at pontification. His words are aesthetically pleasing but if you’re paying attention they reveal themselves to be the patterings of an immature mind.Tweet
The fact that Bueller is quoting John Lennon isn’t an accident; John Lennon represents the worst of the self-indulgent hedonistic ethics. When Lennon said, ‘I don’t believe in the Beatles. I just believe in me’ that’s not a phrase to emulate; it’s a sign of Lennon’s one-dimensional thinking.
People often dismiss the ending of Bueller’s monologue as gibberish; they skip over it. Bueller says, about John Lennon, “After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off of people.”” This line is crucial. Bueller’s self-gratifying grandstanding of “believe in yourself” platitudes have run out of steam and we arrive again at the ultimately base, self-serving impulse of the monologue: the fact that this teenager is pissy that he doesn’t have a car.
A teenager who hasn’t gotten his shit together well enough to get a car has no business telling anyone to believe in themselves any more than John Lennon has any business saying that he doesn’t believe in the very idea that gave his life significance in the first place.
Anyone who needs the advice “believe in yourself” can’t use that advice because they haven’t done the one thing that you have to do to believe in yourself: show up repeatedly and do a thing.Tweet
Once you’ve done a thing enough, however, you are no longer in the realm of belief. You are in the realm of evidence. I did not believe in myself when I started a podcast. I thought, “maybe I could do a podcast.” I didn’t believe in myself the first or third or fifth time I re-recorded this episode. I thought, “well, I should probably record a better episode if I want anyone to listen.” And, now that the episode is ready for air, I still don’t believe in myself. I have just come this far that I think I’d better finish. 50 episodes from now, I will probably believe in myself. But by then I won’t need to believe in myself, because I’ll just be a person who podcasts.
Ferris Bueller thinks it is wise and insightful to tell you to believe in yourself because he knows he does not believe in himself. He doesn’t believe in himself because he has done nothing worthy of belief EXCEPT continually con people into buying his bullshit. Remember the sister? Pre nose-job Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing fame? She hates Bueller throughout the whole movie. She and the principal are both obsessed with getting him caught. Why? Because he is a person who gets all of the benefit of being someone who has self-belief but does not do the things that would earn him self belief. He’s a charlatan. A snake oil salesman. Ferris Bueller is the anti-hero of the movie; his unearned confidence is a ruse. He’s a liar; and he’s the worst kind of liar because he lies to himself so much that he doesn’t realize he’s lying to other people. That’s why the monologue opens with his reassurance that his having a test today “wasn’t bullshit.” It’s a signal that everything else that comes out of his mouth probably is bullshit.
The fact that people miss the point of the Ferris Bueller monologue isn’t about people being stupid or the film being bad; it speaks to our willingness to uncritically give and accept cliche advice that in no way challenges our intellect, our imagination, or, our behavior.Tweet
And I’m not going to do a hack job on anyone, but I will take as a more current and relevant example a specific piece of advice that self-help guru James Clear posted on his blog:
“As I sit back and think about what I’m thankful for this year, I’ve settled on one thing that seems to have made the difference in my life over and over again. I’m thankful that I believe in myself. This quality is partially who I am and partially a result of the family and friends that have supported me throughout my life. Regardless of where it comes from, it is the one quality that allows me to not only talk about what I’m grateful for, but also to live it out.”
Clear is describing a quality of character that he has, which is believing in himself. Presumably he is telling you this, as the post will go on to explain, because he needs you to believe in yourself. If you don’t, he cautions, “nothing else will work.” Except Clear states in his third sentence that his belief in himself is an effect of two factors: who he is and supportive friends and family.
If you tell someone “believe in yourself” and then hold yourself up as an example, do not then tell that person that the reason you are able to believe in yourself is because it is “who you are.” That means that the other person, for whom believing in themselves is NOT part of who they are, is doomed to failure. It’s a self-aggrandizing statement that really points to the pointlessness of telling anyone without self-belief to believe in themselves. Don’t tell thirsty people without access to water to just grab a drink. Clear tries to democratize it with the qualifying clause, “regardless of where it comes from,” but by then the cat is, as they say, out of the bag.
What Clear should be telling you is that, if you don’t believe in yourself, find something else to believe in. Hell, he should say, “oh you’re a dumpster fire and you want to be not that? Don’t believe in yourself. You’re a disaster. Believe in me. I am a superman of a human. Do what I do until eventually you stop questioning things.” And I’m sure elsewhere he might say something like that. I’m just talking about one quote. I’m responsible enough to tell you that I’m too irresponsible to read the entire blog post. Also, I read Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. I liked and used much of it. Much of it was useless cliche. A bit of it was useful cliche. Rhetoric is complex.
When Bueller tells you “believe in yourself” it’s a trap. You are supposed to see his obvious superficiality for what it is; when you take it up as some kind of profound insight about the human experience, you are revealed to be the one without substance. @rhetoricleeTweet
Shakespeare tried a similar thing with Hamlet in the “to be or not to be” monologue as did Joseph Gordon Levitt in 500 Days of Summer. It didn’t work because everyone took them literally. Because we are all walking bundles of cliches.