Friday, December 29, 2006

Hey, life is a snap. Just be successful!

Wednesday's GMA featured an interview with life coach Cheryl Richardson. Realize for starters that Richardson gets to be a TV life coach not so much because her advice is better than most other folks', but because her face is. She's cute. This, of course, is the same phenomenon that explains why, when it came time for The Today Show to anoint a new in-house expert on consumer finance, countless seasoned reporters and editors had to make way for the cherubic Jean Chatzky. My only question at the time was, could the show's audience put its full trust in financial wisdom from a girl who then looked to be about 12? (Be patient. We'll get to Bambi.)

The Richardson segment was one of those new-start-for-the-new-year things, with GMA hoping to get the jump on its competitors by inducing viewers to mull their 2007 resolutions a few days early. In the spirit of eternal helpfulness to which SHAMbloggers have grown accustomed, I'll summarize Richardson's insights here. In fact, tell you what: We'll let her talk for herself until she says something suspect. Then and only then will I interrupt. 'K? Here goes:

GMA: "Cheryl, how would someone go about laying the groundwork for success in the New Year?"

Richardson: "Well, the first thing is, look at what you did last year that worked, and...."

OK, stop.

How do you know what really "worked" last year? Because it had a "successful outcome"? Isn't it possible that you succeeded in spite of whatever it is you did, not because of it? And certainly it's at least possible that there are other things you could've done that would've been more successful, perhaps even far more successful, than what you actually did. Anyway, how can you be that precise in separating out all the variables in your life, such that you can say with any degree of certainty that this caused that? Finally, how do you know how it's all going to work out in the end? Maybe you did such-and-such a thing and it got you a great promotion, but maybe that promotion is going to get you shipped off to open your company's new office in Dubai, where you'll eventually be kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and turn up on CNN in an
orange jumpsuit....

So, Stevie-boy, you're saying that nothing matters and we're all doomed. No. I'm saying that too many things matter—that there are too many variables, and their interplay is such that they can't be neatly separated out and analyzed as if they were independent elements. Especially not by a casual onlooker like a life coach, and even less so by a life coach you saw for three minutes on GMA. I'm also saying that most things can't be predicted—not very well for the short term, not at all for the long term. Sure, we have to live anyway, which means decisions have to be made. We all have to do what we have to do to puzzle through our lives. Our lives. No life coach can see the future. They're consultants, not clairvoyants. And in function, most of today's coaches are more like cheerleaders. Real coaches, after all, call the shots*; real coaches say no to their players (and even take players out of the game). Garden-variety life coaches, on the other hand, won't tell a client what they know a client doesn't want to hear. In any case, the life coach offers no insurance policy against failure, and may well do you substantial harm by patting you on the back (or persuading you to pat yourself on the back) when he or she shouldn't. Yanno, maybe giving up your middle-management job to open a taco stand isn't the best thing for you at this juncture in life. Don't get me wrong: If that's what you want to do, maybe you should go for it. However, if you're going to bring in a coach, then the coach should give you a no-holds-barred assessment, not just an attaboy or a lot of nebulous verbiage. (As you may have guessed by now, I'm
not too high on life coaches.)

Quick story. When I decided to trade my sales bag for a typewriter back in 1981, I went to the newsstand, found a magazine that I thought "sounded like me," and mailed off my rambling, 6,500-word manuscript about selling mirrors in Harlem. That magazine was
Harper's. If you're in the writing biz or know anything about it, you're probably laughing right now, because the odds of selling your very first piece to Harper's, especially "over the transom" (i.e. without being asked for it), range between insanely long and fuggetaboutit. Harper's is, without question, one of the toughest sales in the business. A good writer can spend his entire career submitting to Harper's and never click once. Nonetheless, editor Lewis Lapham loved the piece, bought it, and it ran in the magazine's January 1982 issue. I became something of an overnight sensation in magazine circles; agents, too, were beating a path to my door. For me, then, sending off my unbidden manuscript was "what worked" that year. (That's what Cheryl Richardson would've told me.) But any writer who looked at what I did and used it as a template for success—"Hey, I know! I'll just whip something up and send it to Harper's!"—would almost surely set himself up to fail, and fail miserably. (And the odds of failure wouldn't be that much lower even if you didn't confine yourself to Harper's. Mailing out unsolicited manuscripts is not the way to go in freelancing. That's something I myself had to learn after my first few charmed years.) Besides, though the Harper's sale ignited what some would consider a successful career in writing, the jury's still out on whether the overall shift—from selling to writing—was a good thing or a bad thing. For me and/or my family. I don't want to encumber you or this blog with all sorts of details about my financial life and family history, but suffice it to say I've begun to envy my blue-collar acquaintances who are looking forward to collecting government pensions in a few years. I suspect that my wife envies their wives.

Which brings us, at long last, to my deer story. Hunter goes into the woods. Sees a nice buck. Takes aim with his
.30-06, fires. First shot misses. Second shot is a clean kill. Goes back to his truck feeling ebullient; it's a good day. He get back-slaps all around from his hunting pals. Only later does he find out that his first shot—the one that missed—hit a pregnant woman sitting in her driveway in a nearby housing addition, warming up her car. True story; happened about 20 minutes from my house.

Get my drift? That hunter learned a hard lesson—unlike most of us, who seldom get to see the full and final effect of all of the shots we take in life. While we're toasting our successes, admiring the racks (no wisecracks, OK?) on the metaphorical deer we took down, somebody somewhere may be grappling with the consequences of the shots that got away... Of course, the opposite is also true: There's no way of knowing about the unintended good we do, either. (See:
The Five People You Meet in Heaven.) And that's really the only way to leave it: There's no way of knowing. So can we please stop pretending we know? Or hiring people to pretend for us?

* I'm not saying that we should want this from a life coach. I'm just saying that the average person misperceives the role played by the coach, and that the coach derives a faux credibility and standing from the misuse of the more authoritarian terminology. Who would pay $250 an hour for a "life cheerleader"?

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