Jon Gordon’s the Shark and the Goldfish, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Gordon’s 2009 text, The Shark and the Goldfish, is another in the author’s series of “positive” instructional works, the latter all clearly falling within the genre of self-help literature. Hence, in texts such as The Seed: Finding Happiness in Life and Work and The No Complaining Rule: Finding Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity in Work, Gordon tries to communicate his “positive” weltanschauung to the reader. In this basic sense, Gordon’s work speaks to a certain need within contemporary American society to address problems directly experienced by the individual , as his work remains consistent with the thousands of other self-help tomes that constitute an important part of the American book market. To the extent that these texts are all themselves attempts at trying to “positively transform” the life of the reader, perhaps this genre itself is more interesting not in terms of the particular works that constitute it, but rather in terms of the question, what does the popularity of such types of work symbolize? Their success means that people in the West and in America seem to be discontent with their lives, at least those that buy books: they believe they can find solutions to their discontent by purchasing populistic self-help books, which are entirely the product of the same society that has disappointed them. Insofar as Gordon’s work seems to fall within this context, perhaps the significance of his work can be found in the notion that it is possible to in fact rectify the greater systematic climate that itself makes self-help books in demand: In Gordon’s case, he attempts to resolve this problem by relying on an intuitive, common-sense logic that is transmitted to the world as some type of “secret” to happiness. Moreover, this logic is entirely consistent with the system that itself breeds this happiness and unhappiness: namely, the system itself functions entirely smoothly, it is rather the case that if you are unhappy it is your own individual fault, and with books like Gordon’s the individual can resolve this problem. Gordon’s texts thus emphasize individual solutions to the greater social problems that are attested to by the very popularity of the self-help book market.

Hence, Gordon tries to sell his particular narrative by developing an empathy with the reader, who has presumably purchased Gordon’s tome because they themselves have discerned that they are not living “positively” enough. Thus, Gordon (2009) begins: “If you are concerned about the future and anxious about your situation, I know how you feel. I lost my job in 2001 during the dot-com bust…I thought it was the worst event of my life…and that’s when I knew I had to change what I was thinking and doing. I read a few books, which empowered me to take control of my financial future and helped me make some important decisions through the change.” (p. xi) The opening of Gordon’s book prefigures the argument he will make: in a capitalist system based on an absurd levels of speculation that award and punish people not because of actual labor, but rather because of a desire to get rich, the road to happiness is not to question the system itself, yet rather to look inward on an individual level. Hence, Gordon’s approach was to re-think what he himself did wrong in this system, and how to use the parameters provided by the latter to improve one’s life. Notice, Gordon underscores the importance of financial freedom: despite the appearance of his book as a tone on existential decisions, Gordon only questions why he failed in relation to the system, and not the deeper philosophical question as to why the system itself may be entirely rotten.

This approach is explicit in Gordon’s (2009) message: “All success starts with belief. After all, if you don’t believe in yourself and you don’t believe there’s enough food in the ocean, you will never find it.” (p. 33) Gordon’s subtext here is explicit: society as it is currently structured gives everyone a chance to be happy. It is a mistake to question the system. Rather, if you experience some unhappiness or difficulties, the only resolution to these existential quandaries is to transform oneself on an individual level. The system, therefore, can be altered on the micro-level: the commitment to individual excellence and the belief in a positive ideology in which anything is possible become the crucial means with which to overcome distress.

Hence, arguably Gordon’s (2009) chief message is summarized through his allegorical tale of the shark and the fish: “positive fish find more food.” (p. 31) But what does positive mean for Gordon? It entails believing in oneself, which entails basically believing that the greater social system offers an opportunity for the individual to succeed: the system is rectifiable, and all problems within this system are entirely individually based. Namely, Gordon takes a particular view of society in which the latter is viewed as being constituted by individuals. Accordingly, it becomes crucial to change the thought patterns and the beliefs on this corresponding individual level. By pursuing this path, Gordon attempts to confer to the individual a sense of his or her own autonomy, allowing them to transcend the general despair through a deep commitment and faith in oneself.

The self-help genre, of which Gordon’s work is a clear example, exists clearly because a large number of people are unhappy: how else could one explain its massive success? Accordingly, books such as Gordon’s speak to a clear demand within society, and represent an attempt to address these greater concerns. The method taken is to return autonomy in the individual, as a shift in subjective perspective can possibly engender a new way of looking at the world, thus transforming the life of the one who seeks help into something positive.

Works Cited

Gordon, J. (2009). The Shark and the Goldfish: Positive Ways to Thrive During Waves of Change. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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