Book Cover

A self-help manual that puts
the concepts of self-esteem and personal agency in a broader context.

“The dominant narrative of
our time,” according to professor and social worker Ungar (Social
Work/Dalhousie Univ.; The Social Worker,
2017, etc.), is one that appears in numerous movies—tales of “exceptional
individuals achieving more than anyone expected them to achieve.” Throughout this
book, the author repeatedly addresses this notion with a sober, skeptical tone:
“For every Slumdog Millionaire,
billions of others toil in abject poverty.” He counters it with a conception of
personal fulfillment that finds opportunities for improving one’s well-being in
schools and wider communities. Ungar sees humanity as divided into two groups:
people who have advantages (“the fortunate” is the author’s term for them) and
those who have “few opportunities” but still somehow manage to find ways to
succeed. In 12 well-written and deeply researched chapters, Ungar expounds on
his central conceit that self-realization is about networking, and he
ultimately finds three aspects to “meaning in life”: “significance (‘My life is
worth it’), coherence (‘My life makes sense’), and purpose (‘My life has a
mission’).” But although Ungar states that self-help strategies have
“shortcomings” and only offer “the seduction of hope,” his book also offers
familiar pieces of self-image advice, including one that crops up in a
depressingly large number of other books: “We all need to embrace our inner
bastard,” Ungar writes. “It is to our advantage to shed our illusions of
saintliness and accept that our survival sometimes depends on looking after
ourselves.” That said, the author does cite a formidable amount of research to
back up his points, and readers will likely benefit from these sources.

A densely written guide to self-reliance
that concentrates on capitalizing on opportunities.

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