Choose Yourself By James Altucher: A Review (With Notes On Self-Help)

The question of “why write” seems to be a uniquely popular, ongoing dialogue amongst writers, relative to other hobbies.  For instance, it would seem, perhaps, vaguely annoying if Kobe Bryant were asked in an interview “why he does it.”  If Thom Yorke were asked why he makes music, it would seem, likely, a reverential question, where the interviewer, in awe of the presence of Thom Yorke, would readily accept any answer as “correct” and “introspective.”  However, when Brad Listi of The Other People Podcast asks a guest why (s)he writes, it will likely be accompanied by, “Seriously, why the hell do you do it?”

“Something to this effect” was, I feel, summarized by Tao Lin in his essay, Does the Novel Have a Future? The Answer Is In This Essay!1  Tao Lin’s conclusion being that he does not wish to answer the question he raised, or perhaps that an answer could not be provided, due to the subjective nature of art, and that Tao Lin is primarily interested in reading novels that reflect an author’s own experience of existence, regardless of whether a novel does or could “improve” the art form.  Yet, unavoidably, commenting on his preference for relatively autobiographical novels provides some type of an opinion which may be perceived, wrongly or rightly, as Lin commenting on what makes a “good” novel.

Tao Lin’s preference seems to conflict with the preference proffered by George Orwell in his essay, Why I Write.2  Orwell outlines four motivations for writing: 1) egoism 2) aesthetics 3) historical impulse and 4) political purpose.  As one may suppose, given the popularity of 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell identified political purpose, or his anger over the gap between his political aims and the political direction of “society,” as his own primary motivation for writing.

Joan Didion published an essay with the exact same title, Why I Write,3 as if in a(n) historical response to Orwell, crediting him in the first sentence, then never mentions him again.  However, a connection or “comment” may be (was) inferred by the reader (me).  While Orwell writes with a passion to spread an established idea, Didion says she writes because she doesn’t know anything and wants to establish what she does or can know.  She seems to treat “passion” as irrespective of “ideas,” or at least, that a passion for an idea which an individual is predisposed, would not be a motive for writing, but rather, writing would be a means to establish the merits of an idea.

Charles Bukowski, in his poem, so you want to be a writer?4 does not address establishing ideas at all.  Bukowski, instead, more or less dismisses any conscious goal as an acceptable reason to write, suggesting:

unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.

Bukowski laments there are already too many books, written by boring people who had to rewrite and edit their work (evidence of being boring), and that only a work that seems to coming flowing out of a person, as if telepathically transmitted by a non-local consciousness or alien being (my words), is worthy of actually writing.

Poet Steve Roggenbuck, particularly popular for using phrases such as “yolo,” “666,” “democratizing the illuminati,” and “woo!  woo!  woo!  woo!”  in, simultaneously, an earnest and ironic manner, meant to be positive, motivating, and preserved forever on the internet, could be called a “poet activist.”

Roggenbuck recently made his own video essay on why he writes, “AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!” (ARS POETICA),6 suggesting that for him, medium and form are subordinate to inspiring human beings to enjoy their lives as much as possible.

Choose Yourself7 by James Altucher could be categorized as “self-help” and “business investing – entrepreneurial.”  There seems to be, to me, something slightly disgraceful in telling others you’re reading a self-help book.  Universities do not have students read self-help books per the curriculum.  Yet, self-help could just as directly achieve the aims mentioned by the aforementioned novelists and poets.

The book begins with an economic analysis, which I would summarize as “everything’s fucked in the short to medium future.”  Altucher, without using the term “Austrian economics,” provides an Austrian influenced interpretation of the financial crisis: that the Federal Reserve fuels economic bubbles via “easy monetary policy,” that by “injecting liquidity” into its large, corporate member-banks, it often encourages bad (less sustainable) investments by creating a situation where investments just “need” to be made.

Further, James argues, due to cultural and technological changes, large numbers of secure, well-paying jobs will not return (“the new normal,” “structural unemployment”).  More jobs, if they can’t be cut, if they can’t be outsourced, will become temp jobs, where businesses (legitimately or illegitimately) use the financial crisis as an excuse to cut personnel costs.  So, essentially, we’re “fucked,” and have little to lose in pursuing side projects as start-ups.

Altucher doesn’t offer any “plans” in response, no method to “fix the economy,” no series of bulleted steps to start your business and ensure success.  He doesn’t even provide a method to “find your purpose,” and instead devotes a chapter to eschewing the concept of “your purpose.”

Many of the book’s chapters contain stories of his own life.  Altucher, himself, has failed (and succeeded) repeatedly.  He’s possessed nearly no Federal Reserve Notes, millions of Federal Reserve Notes, and then, again, nearly no Federal Reserve Notes.  Altucher doesn’t offer a plan or a secret, because, based on his experience of life, such a thing doesn’t exist.  Altucher just hopes to inspire and provide methods on becoming “resilient.”

What cements Choose Yourself as self-help, rather than a collection of short stories and essays, is that the stories coalesce into consistent advice, with over-arching “morals,” and a focused narrative with a “device” of seeming to sound as casual and authentic as possible, like how Altucher would write an email to a friend.

Reading Choose Yourself may not yield some type of social/intellectual credit.  But, in my opinion, Altucher’s work is analogous to, on the self-help side, what Roggenbuck attempts to achieve as a poet.  Further, Altucher, in effect, presents the reader with “what it is like to be James Altucher,” a goal aspired by many novelists, though with the less literary aesthetic.


1. Tao Lin, Does the Novel Have a Future?  The Answer is in this Essay!,

2. George Orwell, Why I Write,

3. Joan Didion, Why I Write,

4. Charles Bukowski, so you want to be a writer?,

[5.] Steve Roggenbuck, make something beautiful before you are dead,

6. Steve Roggenbuck, “AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!” (ARS POETICA),

7. James Atlucher, Choose Yourself,

Posted in Barely Interesting Non-Fiction, Matt

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