Sunday, February 05, 2006

What the world needs now is a little hopelessness, sweet hopelessness...*

Killing time before the Super Bowl (I OD'd on the pregame coverage after the fifteenth straight hour), I switched on CNN Presents. It was a special show on weight--why Americans are so fat, what they can do if they're sincerely motivated to become less fat. The principal figure in the show was Dr. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition. Dr. Hill said something we all know already: that most people who lose weight on fad diets regain it all--and then some--within a short period of time. But he went on to say something new (to me, at least) and interesting. His organization has compiled a registry of individuals who've lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one full year. (Hill's people document and verify the claims.) After studying that database, he has identified key characteristics that appeared to enable these dieters to achieve their impressive results, and he has distilled those characteristics down to a series of tips. The very first tip is this one:


Expect failure? Not something you'd ever hear on Oprah, eh? Doesn't gibe too well with the nonstop "think positive"/"tell yourself happy stories" mantra that anchors today's entire Empowerment crusade. In fact, I don't want to presume to speak for an Empowerment guru--oh, what the heck, why not?--he or she would be apt to tell you that you "can't even consider the prospect of failure, because if you allow for the fact that you may fail, that alone may prevent you from succeeding..." And yet, at least in this case, it was the expectations of failure--combined with a certain resiliency that enabled people to keep on going--that paved the way for true and lasting success.

A rallying cry like "expect failure...but keep on trying" is a perfect example of the realistic, commonsensical middle ground that, as a rule, spells death for marketability in today's pop culture. (Can you imagine a book with a title like that? Would it sell? Would it even get as far as the shelves before somebody, presumably in the publisher's marketing department, said "Jesus, we can't release a book that says failure right in the title!" For that matter, would a publisher even offer a contract for a book with that core message?) As a society, we've been conditioned, and have now conditioned ourselves, to tolerate nothing less than the extreme message. We don't want to be told "maybe you can do it, maybe you can't"--even if it's true. We'd rather cling to the message "of course you can do it!"--even if it's false--and even if it locks us into behaviors that leave us banging our heads against the wall (or losing and regaining all that weight) again and again and again...

* For those of you born after bell-bottoms (the first time) and Disco Fever, it's an allusion to a song title.


Anonymous said...

Well, I think it's a GREAT book title.

Martha said...

Nice post.

I hope you won't consider me part of the problem, rather than solution (I've written two weight loss books...for pets!), but I do like your sharp-eyed commentary. ("Expect failure..." works when you're dieting your cat, too. I asked a vet on average how many times you'd have to refuse a cat who was begging for more food before the cat would learn to stop, and she said: "At least 50."

There's a terrific Japanese movie called "Ping Pong Bath House," which is, sort of, "Shall We Dance" with ping pong. In a small but crucial scene, a middle-aged housewife is trying to teach a tennis-mad young guy how to play ping pong. He keeps smashing the ball across the table, effectively messing up the game. Finally, she says, "To continue is to succeed." Aka, "Expect failure, but keep on trying."