Friday, December 15, 2006

Was it just one of those things? Or did he sweat the small stuff?

ONE CAN NEVERshould never—make light of a death. Every death is tragic in its own way, certainly to at least some someone left behind, which is why I found it a bit personally hard to join in the rather ghoulish revelry at the demise of Uday and Qusay. Say what you will about how Saddam's sons lived, they were people—human beings—and deserved a bit more dignity in death.* And so I want to be clear that, in this post, I take no joy—at all—in pointing out that Richard Carlson, who rose to meteoric heights with his 1997 instant self-help milestone, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, has died of a heart attack at age 45. Carlson fell ill while on a plane, en route to New York to promote his latest book, Don't Get Scrooged. In Scrooged, he proposed to teach his fans how to better cope with holiday stress.

Whatever silent physiological forces may have been at work here, it is sometimes said that heart attacks in relatively young men are classic signs of an anxious, Type-A personality

* I remember thinking, as I watched the nonstop media images of their battered bodies and bloodied, misshapen faces: Is this really so different from when our enemies parade down the street carrying the corpses of our dead GIs?


Steve Salerno said...

I am informed by one of the faithful--off-blog--that this post falls short of my usual standards of logic and, especially, fair play. Nevertheless I have decided to leave it up for comment. We'll see what the yield is, if any.

Cosmic Connie said...

Fair or not, Steve, you're probably not the only person who was thinking that maybe Carlson wasn't taking his own advice. Of course, it is also possible he had some congenital heart defect that will only be discovered postmortem, or maybe he was taking some medications or herbal supplements that triggered the heart attack.

Or perhaps the second portion of the title of his most famous book was a lie. Maybe it's *not* all small stuff, after all, and he just had more than he could handle.

PS -- I didn't crow when Saddam's sons were killed either, and I cringed whenever I heard someone else doing so.

RevRon's Rants said...

While each death does indeed represent a tragedy to some, it would be hypocritical of us to deny that the irony of some deaths is much more universally perceived than the tragedy. I am reminded of a well-known advocate of health foods (well before health foods were mainstream) who keeled over and died of a heart attack on the old Joey Bishop show. There were, of course, those who wept at his passing, but I'll bet there were far more who found humor in the event.

It is my fondest hope that when I die, it will be wrapped in circumstance that will leave my loved ones laughing their collective butts off for years to come. They all know me well enough to know that I wouldn't object in the least.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about Saddam's sons. I could not believe that we were collectively descending to such a subhuman level--it was appalling--and is one reason I'm glad to see the Democrats return in force, whatever their numerous weaknesses and failings. I cannot believe a Democratic White House would have promoted such a ghoulish response, and I cannot believe Americans would have descended to such a contemptible level without lots of encouragement from the Republican machine. Ugh!!!!

Cosmic Connie said...

And in the category of ironic deaths, let’s not forget exercise guru James Fixx, whose 1977 bestseller “The Complete Book Of Running” was largely responsible for the jogging craze that continues to this day. Fixx died at the age of 52 after his daily run. Although he had a family history of heart problems, and an autopsy revealed severe coronary artery blockages, to this day some people point to his death as an example of the dangers of too much exercise.

As for Richard Carlson, I suppose there are worse self-help books than “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff.” I own that book, and, insipid as it is, there is some fairly good common-sense advice in its pages, although I found nothing that would make me want to buy subsequent titles from that author. At least he didn’t try to cram the wisdom of the ages into seven simple steps or principles – not in that book, anyway. However, he did appear to succumb to the “principles” mania in a later book co-authored with Wayne Dyer, “You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles For Keeping Life In Perspective.” And then there was “Shortcut Through Therapy: Ten Principles of Growth-Oriented, Contented Living.” And, of course, he had tons of other books and companion products. The man was definitely an industry in and of himself.

Steve Salerno said...

Good point, CosCon (re Fixx). I'd forgotten about that. But you know, Fixx's death had a larger meaning than just irony. It said to America, "Jogging won't necessarily protect you against sudden death, if it's going to happen for other reasons." And really, that's an important message that applies in self-help as well: These routines and regimens and "thought processes" are not panaceas. They don't "make it all better," especially if there are other circumstances in your life--either unknown or beyond your control--that are destined to undo you anyway.

That's what bothers me so much about the message of Will Smith's new film (Pursuit of Happyness, sic): It's another one of those "you can do anything in life if you just try hard enough and don't listen to other people's naysaying," blah blah blah. Yeah, right. It's easy to say that in hindsight, looking at someone who's already risen to the top. But put me in an auditorium full of any given 1000 kids who are just starting out in life--who come from very unpromising circumstances--and have them chant that mantra daily, and let's see how often it works.... Oh wait, I forgot; those results are in, courtesy of the American educational system's self-esteem movement over the past quarter-century. And they're disastrous.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes people teach what they cannot practice.

Sometimes, the best teachers aren't the best in putting things into practice.

Cosmic Connie said...

Good point, Anon. Just because a teacher doesn't always follow his or her own advice, that doesn't make the advice invalid.

In Fixx’s case, the practice he preached about obviously did not save him in the end. But it may have added some quality years to his life. Fixx was overweight and a smoker for years before he took up running. By the time he wrote "The Complete Book Of Running," about ten years later, he'd lost over 60 pounds and was smoke-free. Given the fact that he'd lived an unhealthy lifestyle for so long, and that his own dad had a heart attack at 35 and died of one at 42, it's possible that Fixx's jogging did help to add a few years to his life. At least he lost weight and stopped smoking, and that probably wouldn't have happened if he hadn't gotten into running.

But it seems that jogging alone did not save him, and he probably wasn't doing everything he could to prevent a premature death from a heart attack.

BTW, although his bestselling book was titled "The Complete Book Of Running," he still felt compelled to write a follow-up a few years later: "Jim Fixx's Second Book of Running: The Companion Volume to The Complete Book of Running." I guess the publishing god looked down upon him and said, "It is not good for a complete book to be alone. It needs a companion." :-)

I don't think we should automatically any self-improvement program just because we don't have control over every variable in our lives. But there really is so much crap out there, and the SHAMsters are all too willing to hedge about that “larger meaning” Steve mentioned. To make as much money as possible, the hucksters have to somehow make us believe that *their* way will save us, despite all of those things in our lives that really are beyond our control.

I can't help thinking about "The Secret," and how its promoters are aggressively pushing the idea that you can have, do or be anything you want to be, if only you learn how to use the Law of Attraction. They seem to be saying that we actually have control over everything that happens in our lives, or, at least, that we attract everything that happens to us, good or bad. And, of course, if you just buy "The Secret" and learn how to exploit LOA, you too can have a happy life. But I'd best shut up about that now, lest a Secretron come on here and take me to task for "ranting." :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

I just noticed an omitted word in my last comment. It may have been clear enough from context, but what I meant to say, in the first sentence of paragraph 5, was, "I don't think we should automatically *dismiss* any self-improvement program just because we don't have control over every variable in our lives." Sorry about that.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, though I almost always seem to find myself on the side you're on, I have to pick a bone with you here, at least a little. You say you're not making light of Carlson's death, but I almost think you say it insincerely, like a disclaimer. And that allows you to go right on and have a little tongue in cheek fun with his misfortune. SO I would agree with your off blog critic in this case; a little bit tacky here. No offense?

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, I agree with you. I'm not saying we should dismiss self-help programs out of hand, and that was never really the point of SHAM (the book). I have simply been trying to emphasize that there is a BIG WIDE UNIVERSE between (a) "dismissing self-improvement programs" just because we don't have control of all the variables, and (b) BLINDLY BUYING IN to the programs, ASSUMING that we can control all the variables--which, I submit, is what most consumers of self-help (foolishly) do.

And Alyssa, I have no comeback. I can definitely see your point. Though I also seem to have a fair degree of (at least qualified) support here from the others.

Dr. "Swill" McGraw said...

"Don't Sweat the Small Stuff--and It's ALL Small Stuff" could almost be a textbook case about what's wrong with the self-help movement.

The first part of the title is genuinely good advice: "Don't sweat the small stuff!" I agree. Every culture in the world has some variation on that advice. Cuz it's true. If you let yourself get bent out of shape over trivial things, you won't have enough energy left to tackle life's major problems.

However, the second part of the title is utter nonsense... "And it's ALL small stuff!" Uhh... no it's not. Hurricane Katrina, the Bush kleptocracy, terrorist attacks, starving children, AIDS, the Holocaust, Stalin's purges.... and in fact if you think it's all "small stuff" then you are going to become apathetic and not worry about significant dangers till it's far too late to effectively neutralize them.

I guess you could separate whether a self-help book is helpful or not based on whether they accept that it's not all small stuff or not. If they insist all problems are trivial, and all worries should be suppressed or ignored, then the book is worthless. That could pretty much be the litmus test. Is the author trying to help you surmount fear and depression so you can take effective action, or is the author telling you there is never any rational basis for fear and depression, and that healthy people don't HAVE such emotions? If the answer is the latter, the book is guaranteed to be worthless.

Cosmic Connie said...

To Carlson's credit (I guess), he did subsequently write a book called, "What About The Big Stuff? finding Strength And Moving Forward When The Stakes Are High." But it was his "Small Stuff" series that made him famous, and from which he made the most money.

Also, Steve, I know you advocate a middle ground re acceptance of self-improvement programs. I probably wasn't expressing myself clearly. If anything, I'm the one who has a tendency to be dismissive of self-help programs without examining their merits. But I have to keep reminding myself that there is a spark of truth in even the most absurd program. Unfortunately, there's also a whole crock of .... in many of them.

a/good/lysstener said...

I'll just say that some of us are truly glad our "points" are not so ponderous. Or maybe pendulous. :)

Dr "Swill" McGraw said...

Connie, I never even heard about "What about the Big Stuff?" whereas I remember seeing volumes of "Small Stuff" everywhere.

I looked on and there are only five or six "Big Stuff" readers' reviews, compared to 226 "Small Stuff" reviews. I guess that gives an indication of the comparative sales for the two books. Plus there's all those other volumes of the "Small Stuff" series as well. Lends support to Steve's theory that readers don't want to hear the truth, I guess.

It's also interesting that "Big Stuff" was first published in 2002, about a year after Sept 11.
It looks to me like Carlson said to himself, "hmm... yeah... maybe I better address that..." and hastily culled something together. It looks more like a guy trying to plug up the holes in his leaky boat than trying to build a safe, sturdy boat from scratch.

I can't help noticing a quote from the book mentioned in Publisher's Weekly review on Amazon:

"Fortunately, a vast majority... is small stuff.... However, there's no denying that `big stuff' exists," [Carlson] admits.

Ummm... there's "no denying" that some problems in life are very "big"? Yet at the same time it's "all small stuff"? Can you say "cognitive dissonance"?

I'm really curious to see how his death by heart attack during the holiday season affects the sales of his how-to-beat-the-holiday-season-stress book. If the book sells briskly, then Steve is right: self-help readers are delusional.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything unfair about this comment of yours Steve. When people go public and put themselves on the line, they have to be willing to be judged for it by other people who wonder if it all adds up. Keep calling them as you see them.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Dr. "Swill." Publishers just hate authors who take their deadlines literally--especially when the book promotion is just about to begin! Carlson's publisher is probably going to take a multi-million hit on this one.

Steve Salerno said...

FYI, Carlson's "Scrooged" is Amazon's No. 880 as I write this, and also is doing well at the bookstores. Many writers and other celebrities have found their greatest fame posthumously. Of course, let us also remember that we live a culture where dead politicians have been known to win elections.

Trish Ryan said...

Steve - you're right about how far we've slipped when we're celebrating human beings being maimed and killed. Nobody wins there.

You're also right (a tad glib, but I'm not sure I could have resisited, either) about the unwritten message of Carlson's death. Honestly, there is a limit to what we can accomplish through our own "human potential" to make things better. To suggest otherwise is just not backed up by any sort of evidence. It's a little odd that we made such a celebrity out of a man whose primary message was "don't worry about it." That, on it's own, isn't particularly good advice.

Cosmic Connie said...

Dr. Swill, I hadn't heard of Carlson's "Big Stuff" book either till I went on Amazon the other day in preparation for commenting on Steve's post. My thoughts were the same as yours: after 9/11, anyone would be hard-pressed to believe that "it's all small stuff." Carlson needed to cover his you-know-what. And even though I have his first "Small Stuff" book, I'm no fan of this author. I feel bad for his family, and I am sorry for him that his life was cut short, but let's face it, he was pandering to the "feel-good" market in a big way. Obviously, it's a huge and hungry market.

Anonymous said...

I just came across your blog and well...I dunno. I'm not the most intelectual guy you'll ever meet or the sharpest knife in the drawer (as it were*) but as much as you were professing to want to dole out dignity in light of the death of a fellow human being, I find it almost impossible to see that last paragraph as anything other than a "dig". A jeer, really, that seems to me unnecessary and hypocritical. Maybe you should go back and read the previous paragraph you wrote. You know...the part about every life deserving dignity and having value? You have NO IDEA what caused that man's heart attack and your comment plays part in the almost mockery of his death. If irony is/was your point, maybe you should say so more overtly so as to seem less hypocritical.

I don't read blogs anymore. I find that people who write blogs tend to become, if they weren't already, the type of person who just likes "the sound" of their own voice and become dangerously self righteous, glib, and smug. After a time, it's as though they take themselves TOO seriously and ACTUALLY start believing everything they type is solid fact, real, and "Right". Here's hoping you avoid the same pitfalls that so many others have fallen prey to.

*It seems, also, that you like the whole asterisk and "(as it were)" thing so thought I'd oblige. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors and to your future victi...I mean... SUBJECTS/TOPICS.


Blu Raeven

Steve Salerno said...

Bill, first of all, thanks for weighing in here. I don't know if you'll even read this response, because it sounds like you just dropped by long enough to tell us you're dropping out, but I'm going to address your remarks anyway, but they deserve addressing.

I can certainly understand a reaction like yours on the part of someone who just found this post, in isolation, and didn't really understand SHAMblog's genesis and mission. I can't summarize all of that (adequately) for you here, in a few words. I will say only that this blog--and the book that inspired it--are themselves reactions to a $12 billion industry that promotes (for a price) "failsafe" prescriptions for successful living--an industry that not just implicitly but quite specifically touts itself as having the answers to everything. As I've often said in debunking The Secret and its so-called "law of attraction," if this law purports to deliver to everyone complete fulfillment--"no exceptions whatsoever," to quote the book's author--then all I have to do as a critical thinker is find ONE instance where the book fails. If someone holds himself up as the guru of stress-free living, then I think it's at least possibly relevant that he dies of a heart attack en route to deliver one of his sermons, just as I thought it was potentially relevant that the husband of Lucinda Bassett--who sells her anti-anxiety/depression remedies ubiquitously on radio--ended up putting a shotgun in his mouth. To me that is very similar to a case where the spouse of a person who runs a drug-addiction clinic ends up dying of a drug overdose: I mean, if you can't even keep your partner clean and sober...

I am not making fun of anyone or dancing on anyone's grave. I am pointing out things that strike me as potentially relevant ironies.

Anonymous said...

Steve, my hunch is that you're absolutely right.

On Richard's wife's blog under "links" (, she lists "
A man filled with deep insight and was a dear friend of Richards." Under Joe's website I found this article/summary from Joe's self-help book "The speed trap." You have to read the link... "Jerry", the fictional character, sounds just like Richard, and I'm 90% sure that's who he was talking about! I re-read it several times, and what I saw was a person who didn't mostly live up to the priciples that he taught, and was very motivated by money.

I also read on another blog that Richard had learned as a young psychologist that the road to fortune and fame was to write a lot of books, and that's exactly what he did. As a therapist who also struggles with anxiety, I found one of Richard's books at the library, but my natural curiosity/analytical mind of course led me to want to know more about Richard himself and how genuine he was. I do think that he was a kind person in some ways, but from what I can gather he was primarily a work-a-holic person who was motivated by money and success. Perhaps he did use positive thinking, but he did not slow down at all.

So strange how hard it is to find this information; the public figures especially in this field really do keep up a tight appearance and are often best friends with everyone else in the field, with what I could learn.