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Why I have stopped listening to The Diary of a CEO

Is it time for us to question our relationship with so-called "self-help" podcasts and who are they actually trying to help?


Steven Bartlett with guest Piers Morgan following the filming of his podcast 'The Diary of a CEO'


“Self-help” podcasts have seen a surge in popularity in recent years and understandably so. I have spent countless hours of my morning commutes listening to popular shows such as The High-Performance Podcast or The Diary of a CEO, in what I now know to be the mistaken belief that I was in some way indulging in a form of personal development to increase my leadership, parenting or some other aspect of my professional and personal life.


But recently the illusion shattered dramatically, and I found myself asking who are these so-called “self-help” podcasts trying to help? The people who listen and subscribe or the egos of those who present?


The episode that broke the camel’s back was Matt Willis’ appearance on The High-Performance Podcast with Jake Humphrey and Damien Lewis in which he opened up with admirable honesty about his battles with fame, alcohol and drug misuse.


As I squeezed onto the Jubilee Line with one of my childhood idols in my ear, I found myself asking: Why is he telling all of this to the presenter of Champions League football and what the hell has it got to do with me?

Jake Humphrey and Damien Hughes, the hosts of 'The High Performance Podcast'
Photo Credit: Spotify

Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that Jake, the lead host, has a genuine desire to help listeners and guests to improve themselves and I know personally that Damien is a kind and generous man who has in the past given me his time and advice.


Not only that, opening up in this way may have been part of Matt’s journey of sobriety and if it helped him to talk openly then more power to him. But it sits within a recent trend of shows of this nature attempting to outdo one another to see who can delve deepest and obtain the most private details of a guest’s life.


In a recent article, Radio 1 presenter Greg James discussed his experience of being asked where he “keeps his darkness” on an episode of How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, a question he believed to be more suited to a therapist’s room than a podcast.


This honesty hits the nail on the head, shining a light on a rarely talked of tacit agreement between host and guests. In exchange for a guest “opening up” and having “conversations”, often conveniently at the same time they are promoting something, the host is able to provide a platform and a viewership that they may not otherwise have.


Many readers will remember reality shows of the early 00s with nostalgia tinged with an uncomfortable feeling. A feeling that arises from the quiet recognition that the entertainment value of shows such as Big Brother came largely from the reaction of vulnerable people with a range of issues, being subjected to stress and pressure to allow the viewers to enjoy the inevitable breakdowns, outbursts, and confrontation.


This kind of misery for public entertainment evolved over the 2010s as it become more palatable to target the working class and poorly educated through shows such as Jeremey Kyle until the collective moral conscience finally caught up and checked itself.


My fear is that we are now sleepwalking into a new age of misery for entertainment where the acceptable source has switched drastically from the most vulnerable in society to the most privileged, empowering podcast hosts and media outlets to infringe upon the most private aspects of guests’ lives to increase likes, subscribers, and viral potential.


Perhaps it’s a new currency of the 21st century landscape and perhaps that’s okay if both parties are comfortable with the exchange. But as a listener it feels like a sophisticated version of the humiliation currency that we shifted away from as shows such as Big Brother and Jeremy Kyle became obsolete.



 

The Square Ball Podcast is a popular Leeds United fanzine documenting the goings on at one of the most turbulent football clubs in England. Not something that would usually garner the attention of Champions League host Jake Humphrey given the club’s 20-year absence from the elite of European competition. But the two did engage earlier this year as Jake responded to the shows long-running “piss taking” of his comments, podcast and general outlook on life.


The genesis of the “piss-taking” lay in a 2022 tweet by Jake claiming to have somehow gone against the grain by entering a “niche” industry such as podcasting, something that the presenters of The Square Ball took exception to having started in 2009 and now being successful enough to earn full-time livings from. Thus began a series of light-hearted running jokes about Jake’s “non-negotiable behaviours” and “world class basics” which whilst meant in good humour, were symbolic of a wider social media pile on directed towards him as he become a regular target of Twitter trolls.

A Twitter exchange between Jake Humphrey and a Leeds United Fanzine who had been critical of him for a long time.

As a listener of both shows, I felt uneasy at the mocking of Jake which often felt like making fun of somebody who is not in the room. Yet on the other hand, I harboured a lot of the frustration with his messaging that underpinned the veneer of humour lurking behind the comments. One video in particular irked the Square Ball presenters, and many on social media as Jake encouraged people to live like him by “never sitting in the comfy chair”, seeming oblivious to his patronising tone and the distinct lack of self-awareness on show.


His example of moving to London with no job lined up at 21 neglected to mention that the mere fact he was white, middle class, young with time to fail, mortgage-free, child-free and had loving parents still alive, provided him with an almighty safety net that the people he was now preaching to might not have. His encouragement to people to follow their dreams and not to let fear stop them from achieving their potential is great and worthy, but it was hidden behind a self-eulogising post that served only to distort the message.


I mention this because Jake’s misguided attempt to inspire and help people is symptomatic of a wider issue within the self-help genre where hosts are not limited to being unqualified media personalities masquerading as highly trained therapists but expands to include poorly informed life coaches. Whilst Jake Humphrey’s actions may come from a good place, the same cannot be said throughout the industry, as hosts build large, personal brands as self-anointed saviours of personal development.


Whilst their intentions are no doubt noble, does their constant message of “change your life in 5 days”, “combat your trauma”, or “0 dollars to millions without any hard work”, (all genuine show titles from The Diary of a CEO), actually have an adverse effect on listeners as they are lectured on how the problems they try so hard to rectify are actually not that difficult to do so? Does the implicit undertone that insinuates that they are not doing enough make them anymore empowered or able to change their situation?


My relationship with DOAC has been turbulent to say the least. After initially being put off by the disingenuous brain dump and the “please don’t listen to this but do like and subscribe” style, I must admit, I was enticed as the quality of his guests increased exponentially and he developed some truly fascinating episodes with people such as Krept, Karren Brady and Rochelle Hulmes amongst others. But as the show’s popularity rose, the show veered down the same track as so many others as it attempted to dig further and further into guests’ innermost thoughts, with Steven purposefully directing conversations towards discussions on mental health to enable him to give unsolicited and unqualified advice.


Recent shows particularly have gone one step further, with whole episodes now dedicated to issues such as health, weight-loss and sleep, which tend to take fads and left-field solutions and shoehorn them into a catch all solution. This culminated in a more recent episode featuring billionaire Bryan Johnson describing the extreme lengths he goes to reverse his age.


Whilst I have recently bought a moisturiser that claims to if not reverse my age but at least slow down its decline, I found myself feeling more and more uncomfortable as I listened to a man try to convince listeners that taking 111 pills a day and receiving blood transfusions from his son was in some way beneficial. There might be some health benefits, I don’t know (nor really care) but it is a tough sell to convince me or any other rational person that this obsessive mindset is healthy.


I am sure that the show title “The man that is aging backwards: I was 45, I’m now 18” was eye-catching, but I can assure you, that he is in fact 45 and generally men of that age who claim to be “like an 18-year-old” are more often than not simply in the midst of a severe mid-life crisis. In this instance, it struck me more as an attempt to portray this form of body-dysmorphia as some ideal of extreme health that us mere mortals should aspire to emulate.


The preview to a Diary of a CEO episode where a billionaire claimed to be able to reverse ageing.
Photo Credit: Youtube

The point is, that however well-intentioned these shows might be, they must be aware of two simple truths. Firstly, trauma is not a form of entertainment and careful consideration should be given to exploring and unpicking a person’s traumatic experiences, especially when it is due to be played and stored infinitely on the internet. That’s not to say there is no place for high profile people to speak on subjects that could help others and promote the benefits of speaking out. Gary Neville’s recent interview with Dele Ali being the perfect recent example. But as Gary did, stay in your lane, keep your advice to what is appropriate and keep the guest opening up as the main consideration at all times.


Secondly, whilst each show has different aims and will have started with different intents, all shows in this genre should remember that with great following comes great responsibility. They must at the very least be cognisant of the potential damage they can do by taking extreme views and approaches and ramming them down people’s throats. People have enough to worry about in their lives, without the bloke from Dragon’s Den subjecting them to the sermon of some self-appointed, self-help expert criticising their breathing technique to shift his latest book.


If the presenters of these “self-help” shows are as dedicated to helping their followers as they claim to be, then perhaps now is the time for them to reflect on the true aims of their shows and the impact they are having. If they continue down the path of clumsily delving into guests’ trauma to garner viral soundbites and lecturing in order to frame themselves as some new-age gurus, then I am afraid they are simply establishing themselves as the founding fathers of the “help-self” podcast genre.




X: @ConorWilson2

@The_Enhance

Insta: @conorwilsonwrites


Featured Image: Via Twitter (@stevenbartlett)

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