Thursday, February 03, 2011

'The Practical Guru.' A new self-help book by...Steve Salerno?

Those who follow me on Twitter (all told, I think that's about 9 of you) will notice that as of today, I've begun posting tweets under a rubric I am calling "practical guruism." Fear not, I haven't gone over to the Dark Side, and despite the provocative title I chose for this post, I have no plans to turn all of this into a self-help book of my own, should this category of tweets go viral. (As if...!) But you know, I've been engaged in a bit of back-and-forth with Newark mayor Cory Booker, who's about as sharp a tack as anyone you'll find in public service, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania included; Mayor Booker and I now follow each other on Twitter. Even as smart as he is, Cory, for whatever unfathomable reason, is an admitted diehard fan of the sort of cheap, easy inspiration you'll find throughout the SHAMsphere: No dream is too big, Never let anyone tell you you're incapable of doing something, et cetera. (Then again, his reason may be entirely fathomable if you examine it in political terms: Voters like inspirational leaders. And he does happen to be the mayor of an oft-embattled urban area, where morale can be a problem.)

SHAMbloggers of course know my feelings on such nauseatum, if you will. To summarize, not only do I think "no-limits!" motivational cliches are generally unhelpful, but I think they're often downright harmful, for myriad reasons detailed not just in SHAM but again and again on this blog. (Consider that hope unbound is
no small part of what got us into the financial trough we've been stuck in for a few years now. Here's a short piece I did for the Journal, which outlines just a few of the linkages.) At the same time, I don't think any of us who are now marching in favor of causes like cultural sanity and self-help skepticism would like to be labeled negative thinkers. We don't see ourselves that way (certainly I don't see myself that way). We're just realists. So as I was back-and-forthing with the mayor the other day, I got to thinking: There has to be something between law-of-attraction-style cosmic bullshit and Sylvia Plath-style "why don't we all just go jump off the nearest bridge, shall we?" Nothing in that middle ground would be salable, of course: As I've said before, no publisher's gonna put out a (serious) book whose title or message is, "Yeah, Maybe You Can Do It, and Maybe You Can't, But What the Hell, Why Not Give it a Shot For a While? It Wouldn't Be the First Time You Failed..." The self-help market hinges on the extreme message and the extreme message only. (Again, that is the very rot at the core.)

Still, I thought I'd try to come up with some doable/realistic prescriptions for positive thinking: succinct little notions that embody the way a person really ought to think (and feel) in order to be able to face each new day with some enthusiasm while also having a reasonable and philosophical approach to the ups and downs of life.

Nothing may come of it in the end ... but I figure what the hell, maybe I'll give it a shot for a while.


Cosmic Connie said...

Great start, Steve, and I'll buy the book when (not if!) it comes out. All you need to do is line up a good illustrator/cartoonist -- maybe that brilliant young Oatmeal guy (Matthew Inman) would be interested.

Steve Salerno said...

Yeah, but then I'll just end up on Salty Droid's hit list...and probably yours, too. ;)

Cosmic Connie said...

Nah, Salty just goes after the people who kill their followers or who deliberately bilk vulnerable targets out of thousands of dollars. That doesn't sound like you. And I just go after the people who kill their followers, deliberately bilk vulnerable targets out of thousands of dollars, and write or say silly or stupid stuff. That doesn't sound like you either.

Steve Salerno said...

It has always been my goal to avoid killing my followers. There are few enough of them as it is...

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, you know how there is that concept of the "good enough" marriage?

You could call yourself "The Good Enough Guru." Good enough tweets for a good enough day.

Steve Salerno said...

But I don't see it that way, Kat. (May I call you that? Always wanted to be able to call a woman "Kat" without having her hit me or step on me with a sharp heel.) This isn't about "settling," per se; it's about developing the coping skills that enable the average person to face life in an unflinching way. It's a subtle but important difference. One doesn't want to go into life with the plan of settling, after all. But in order to be truly happy, one must be able to, well, doublethink, as Orwell put it: To simultaneously (a) put out a 110% effort toward achieving The Dream while also being able to (b) recognize as early as possible if The Dream is not right for you, and (c) understand that you may have to find happiness elsewhere, and thereby adjust on the fly. This, I admit, is an almost impossible paradigm to hold within the head of a single sane person, but why-oh-why do we act in this society as if (a) is the only permissible outlook on life?

It's like the example I used in a piece I did once for Skeptic: Even in the simplest mathematical terms, there are just not enough presidencies available for even one-millionth of all kids to hold that goal in their heads! The typical human being has just 40 years in which to be elected president (and as a practical matter, we don't usually elect people older than 65, which cuts the window down to just 30 years). In that span, there will be just seven or eight presidents elected, even assuming that each of them lasts but one term. So you have maybe 100 million Americans in any given generation (plus some overlap with previous or succeeding generations) vying for eight slots at most. What are the odds? And what's wrong with explaining that to kids?

a/good/lysstener said...

I think it's a great idea, Steve! I can't imagine you could say anything dumber than a lot of the books that are now best-sellers! ;-P

Steve Salerno said...


a/good/lysstener said...

And who is that adorable dog in the new pic? Is that even real??

Steve Salerno said...

He is very much real. He's a pitbull named Benny, and he and his "father" (who is actually my son, Graig) are presently staying with us. Though, we tend to tell anxious types in the neighborhood that he's a "lab mix." In the insider's dog world, that's recognized code for "pitbull," but it usually slips under the radar of the casual pet owner.

He's an absolute delight of a dog, btw. Loves everyone, and seems to like nothing better than giving people kisses for minutes on end.

Kathryn Price said...

You may call me "Kat" and I won't hit you. Just to note, though, I grew up the only girl with three brothers and somewhere in me there is still a scrappy fighter.

I see what you're saying about the subtle difference between settling and developing coping skills to face life unflinchingly. Maybe I was thinking of "good enough" in contrast to Byrne's "perfect" everything. If we're focused on perfection and refuse to embrace life that is messy and just possibly not choreographed around soothing us, I think we miss something vital. What I would call that "something vital" is not something I can articulate yet. I think you're right about the doublethink needed both to pursue dreams and adjust on the fly when we don't get there, or when The Dream isn't what we thought, or when we are faced with responsibilities that might push The Dream out a bit. I don't know why the 110% scenario is the only permissible one.

And what of hope? How did Emily Dickinson say it: "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul...sore must be the storm/That could abash the little bird/That kept so many warm." There is a difference between tending the thing with feathers and feeding it into a raging delusion. I consider myself a realist, and a person of reasonable hope. I don't think "reasonable hope" would sell, however. How about hope and trust that you can achieve some things you set out to do, provided that you have a reasonable facility for such things and...oh never mind.

Cosmic Connie said...

Good comments here. (Great to see you back, "Kat." Hi, Alyssa!)

Meanwhile, as we SHAMbloggers attempt to work out more balanced and reasoned approaches to life and happiness, the New-Wage gurus just keep on churning out crap. Mr. Fire, for example, offers new secrets for speeding up the Law of Attraction -- all "scientifically" based, of course. In his latest blog post he goes on about a chat he had with one Dr. Garland Landrith, whom Joe describes as "a cutting-edge quantum field psychologist and energy healer, whose research was cited in the highly-acclaimed film, What the Bleep!?"

Ah, yes, that super-scientifical movie that featured Crazy JZ Knight and her imaginary pal Ramtha, along with bad animations and even worse acting from Marlee Matlin.

Dr. Landrith is all about tapping your way to bliss via Emotional Freedom Technique and other quantum stuff.

As Joe wrote:

[Dr. Landrith] went on to tell me that in his quantum meditations people could get results faster if they practiced three things:

* Have an intention
* Let go of that intention
* Let thoughts be around phrases such as “yes yes yes” and “I love you” and “I am so blessed.”

This might not mean much to you until you realize Dr. Landrith has been involved in *hundreds* of scientific studies proving this new way of meditating and manifesting works.

On the page on Dr. Landrith's site promoting his "tapping" phone consultations...

...we are informed that through his tapping sessions, he has successfully treated:
* High blood pressure and hypertension
* Grief from the loss of a loved one or break up of a relationship
* Depression and anxiety (problems sleeping, panic attacks, worrying etc.), especially with natural alternatives to Prozac and other drugs
* Those with terminal illness and immune system dysfunction as well as those who want to regain their youthful vim and vigor
* Trauma, especially difficult cases caused by early dysfunctional family experiences including: adoption and abandonment issues, prematurely born and thus separated from the mom at birth, war and rape, not being wanted by one’s parents, sexual, physical and emotional abuse as a child, and memory gaps in childhood.
* Relationship enhancement between our loved ones and us, including attracting a soul mate and putting the spark back in a marriage
* Sexual dysfunction―premature ejaculation and lack of interest, as well as Sacred Sexuality Tantra techniques
* Chronic pain such as arthritis, joint pain, and pain associated with accidents
* Addictions including smoking, drugs, sex, porn, gambling, alcohol, food, shopping, etc.

And guess what... as you tap yourself over the phone, Dr. Landrith will be tapping himself right along with you!

Here's the link to Joe's post. The comments so far are interesting, especially one from a Robert T, who really hit the nail on the head.

Steve Salerno said...

Kat et al, this may be the last thing you'd ever expect to hear on SHAMblog, but I do think there's some truth to the notion that it takes a wholly unrealistic appraisal of one's chances in order to make it to the top, and the more competitive the realm, the more this is true. I also admit that it is very, very hard to maintain the sort of "balanced" mindset I advocated above (and am planning to advocate in my tweets). The simple fact is, there are many among us who, as soon as you puncture their balloon the tiniest bit, they tend to deflate completely. For such people, there's no middle ground: Either they think they can touch the stars, or they think they're the lowest form of life on earth. That is the admitted danger in the "realistic" approach to life. Without delusions of grandeur, some people have no hope at all. I'm not sure why this is, but it seems to be human nature, at least for some of us. It is probably true that if you polled the highest achievers in various realms, you will probably find that they have a doggedness and sense of entitlement that is off the charts, compared to the average person.

It follows that there are going to be some individuals who--if you take away their dreams--will NOT go as far in life as they would have, had you left them alone in their deluded state of mind.

BUT THAT IS NOT THE CASE FOR THE AVERAGE PERSON. And no matter how dogged and deluded you are, in most competitive realms, the odds simply dictate that you will NOT finish at the top, or anywhere near. Which is why I still say: To imply to kids (or anyone else) that "you can do anything you want in life!" is absurd and, in the end, unfair to them. If they take you at your literal word, it will probably lead to heartbreak, statistically speaking.

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, "a wholly unrealistic appraisal of one's chances to make it to the top"? I assume that you're talking about a group of people who are roughly equally qualified through talent, training, sheer doggedness, etc., in the first place. I can see where the more competitive the realm, the more it would be true that the chances that any one of them will be the one to reach the top is unrealistic, and also necessary for them to continue working towards it. I can go along with that. When I talk about the raging delusion of unrealistic hopes, I'm talking about a person with no scientific aptitude deciding to be an astronaut, for example. The Byrne-Vitale "have, do or be anything" scenario seems to promise just that--anything you want--merely by projecting your positive thoughts intensely enough. Having said that, the person with no aptitude for something might be able to achieve it through sheer discipline and dedication in some cases.

Have you come across the controversy--I think it began in the Wall Street Journal--about Amy Chua, author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which engendered the most responses ever for a WSJ article, some 7,000 the last time I checked? Considering the U.S. style of parenting too soft, undisciplined and protective of self-esteem, Ms. Chua takes the opposite tack--what she calls the "Chinese mother" approach, based on her heritage--and pushes her kids to a degree that has been called abusive. (I haven't read the book but I would call the cited examples abusive.) She forced her daughters to practice piano for hours daily, denying one of them food, water, bathroom breaks and sleep until she played a piece well enough to satisfy her mother. One daughter has played Carnegie Hall at age 16. (My response is: so what?) I agree that not enough is asked of kids in the U.S. today (in many cases), but in the case of Chua's kids, unless the child has a passion for piano, what does it matter that she achieved this milestone? As some critics have pointed out, what if you're a virtuoso technically, but you play without any feeling, any soul? Who needs that kind of music, and at what cost? I'm getting away from the subject of your post, but that is an example of someone who was made it to the top through sheer discipline (and torture, in my opinion) to achieve something for which she perhaps did not have an aptitude. (Or did she?) So it appears that willpower, doggedness, discipline (and an out of control parent) can get a person to the top. A wholly unrealistic appraisal of one's chances could provide the fuel that causes one to edge out all the others in a competitive field. I guess I wrote all that to say I get your point, but in most cases, there must have been a realistic appraisal to begin with--in terms of talent and aptitude. Except maybe when there isn't, as is possibly the case with Chua's daughter.

Steve Salerno said...

Kat: All points taken. Just remember that when you get into the area of today's faux, bolt-on self-esteem, you're preaching to the choir here.

Your latest comment really begs questions like: What constitutes success? And at what cost is it "worth it"? And who makes those calls, anyway? If maniacal parents succeed in producing a world-class doctor who would've been happier being a school teacher or a soccer coach--society still has a world-class doctor, right? So is it more important that s/he be totally fulfilled? Or that society have that doctor?

Long before such latter-day controversies emerged, there was the story--from my beloved realm--of baseball player Jimmy Piersall. Jimmy's father, through an extremely hard-nosed and unforgiving approach, molded his son into a major league ballplayer; played in the Boston Red Sox outfield for several years right next to Ted Williams. But in the process, the elder Piersall also succeeded in making the younger Piersall into a basket case who ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown; he had to be institutionalized.

And yet the fact remains: Through sheer determination and a refusal to accept failure, Piersall's dad took a kid of so-so talents and essentially abused him into becoming a major league ballplayer. Does that not count for something?

You can ask the same questions about marriages, btw. Nowadays we tend to sneer at the old-school mentality that forced so many mismatched couples to stay in blah marriages "for the sake of the kids," but maybe the kids were better off in a two-parent marriage, even if the marriage didn't work all that well for the adults. Again, who's to say where the greater benefit resides?

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, I do know how you stand on the subject of faux self-esteem. On the other hand, Ms. Chua called her children "garbage" and "fat" among other things, to turn them into straight A, piano prodigy, destined for Harvard or Yale creations.

Regarding the story of Jimmy Piersall--and I only know what you've just told me here--I would say it wasn't worth it, even if his father took a kid of so-so talent to the major league. Whose dream was it? Maybe in the end Jimmy Piersall considered it worth it, despite his breakdown and institutionalization; I don't know. If to play in the major league next to one of the greats, though, your life was hell and anxiety, what was the point? The honor or award becomes an end in itself, not an outcome of an individual's development of a gift or calling.

When I was growing up, there was a man in our neighborhood who pushed all his kids into gymnastics. They kept a trampoline in their yard, and the rest of the neighborhood kids would amble by and see them practicing flips on it endlessly. Once the rigors of our day at Catholic school were over (which was plenty rigorous), we were free to wander around the neighborhood at will and we were awed (not in a good way) by the way these kids had to practice over and over, their father standing by. I don't recall seeing them outside of their yard, ever. One of them made it to the Olympics and I can't even remember what medal he won. The daughter fled the moment she was old enough to leave and never set foot in a gymn again. My mother heard through the neighborhood grapevine that the daughter vehemently hated gymnastics. I wonder what interests the daughter might have pursued and developed on her own, had she not spent her whole childhood on a trampoline. Not a medal, perhaps, but a life! Why is reaching the top as an end in itself so important anyway?

Kathryn Price said...

Connie, I went to the link you provided for Vitale's post and saw the comment by Robert T. He so hit the nail on the head. Joe rolls out new techniques on almost a quarterly basis, and they are not coming from the universe, they are coming from his a-hem! I read Joe's rebuttal to the effect that he does get love, with a link to his own post about it at Yes, a cure for lagging sales. That's love, according to Joe. He revealed that everything he touches doesn't actually turn to gold, and when it doesn't, he has learned that the reason is that he didn't love the project enough. Brother. I'd take something like "love means never having to say you're sorry" over Joe's definition any day.

Steve Salerno said...

Kat: Personally, I agree with you wholeheartedly: Success isn't about an "end," and it isn't about "finishing first," per se. But I wonder if that makes either of us right?

It's interesting. My Dad used to say, "You can be fulfilled at something that keeps you poor, or you can be fulfilled at something that makes you rich. So why not go for the latter?" (A bit of context: He said this as a man who'd always been frustrated in his own attempts to "reach the top." So he wanted his kids to do better.) But the irony is, my father and mother, though they never made a lot of money and had little to leave us, gave us an incredibly loving and supportive household, which itself imbued my sisters and me with a sense of self-worth, even if Mom and Dad weren't the type to walk around constantly telling us how "wonderful" we were.

I feel that I have "actualized" myself as much as possible; I was (and remain) a rather strange and discordant person, with multiple incompatible goals; given all that, I have wrung out of myself pretty much what there was to get. I've had 109 different lives and enjoyed them all thoroughly, even if none of them took me to the apocryphal mountaintop. My greatest regret is that I haven't provided my family with the level of security another man might have, but I've also made peace with the idea that I've done the best I could, given who I am.

Does that make me a success? A failure? I don't know. But it doesn't really matter. It's what had to be.

Dimension Skipper said...

Today's Wondermark, by David Malki.

Perhaps you and Mr. Malki could team up to brainstorm some additional PG ideas for your followers...

Anonymous said...

Or, you could share the "Wisdumb" of Bob Tzu (@duhism on Twitter or, which routinely (and comically) skewers all things New Age and motivational..."

Steve Salerno said...

But see, my point in doing this is not to play it for laughs. There has to be a logically supportable, pragmatically useful middle ground between "the Universe is here to meet your needs" and "life's rigged against you so you might as well just give up." To put it in question form: How do we motivate without simply blowing smoke up people's you-know-whats?

Kathryn Price said...

Steve: "But the irony is, my father and mother, though they never made a lot of money and had little to leave us, gave us an incredibly loving and supportive household, which itself imbued my sisters and me with a sense of self-worth,"--and that counts for much more, I think, than a parent who drives a child because of his/her own need for success. I sometimes wish my parents had been more aware of the talents that my brothers and I had growing up. They weren't negligent by any means, they were always there, but I think they were mainly concerned with creating a secure life. They didn't come from a world concerned with calling out our gifts and encouraging us to build on them. Plus, I was known for being "stubborn," so had I had a hard-driving, ambitious parent, I would have rebelled.

I used to read a lot of books on mountain climbing. I'm not sure why I was drawn to the genre because I had no intention of climbing Mount Everest, but I do love wilderness and hiking, and I think I liked to vicariously experience what it might be like to summit a mountain peak. After a while, I started getting turned off by the books. There were so many deaths and so many devastated families left behind; I couldn't help thinking...and for what? I understand that the climbers had a passion for what they did and loved the challenge, but they were elevating that above everything else, including their families. They had to be doing it more than just to say they reached the top; I'm sure they loved the sport. But it seemed to me that somewhere some of them crossed a line into an obsession with reaching the top, while others were able to reassess their plans if a storm set in, and they were able to retreat to base camp and thus survive. I know that's an extreme example of "reaching the top," and most endeavors don't require that kind of sacrifice, but it seems to me that there is wisdom in knowing when it's a good thing, and okay, and human, to retreat to base camp. I'm not sure if this sheds light on what we're discussing, but it came to my mind as an example.

By the way, I've been reading your blog and Cosmic Connie's and sometimes Salty Droid's now and then over the months. I've recently emerged from the shadows to actually comment because I have had a week off between Winter Term and Spring Semester (I'm in grad school), allowing me to actually engage in life, at least briefly.

Steve Salerno said...

Kat: You've been "engaging in life"?!
Shame on you!

Mike Cane said...

"You can do anything you want .... except the things you can't."

There, that'll fit in a tweet!

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, thanks. I can see huge sales potential for a book with such a title. ;) But who knows--maybe it would be the makings of a great parody in the Real Men Don't Eat Quiche mold.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I like your idea of a book that's actually *reality*-based, a handbook for real life and being human. As the paradise seekers increasingly discover that they've been sold snake oil, there just might be a sizeable audience, people who are ready to come back down to earth, and relinquish the false promise of fairy tale lives.

I like the idea!


Steve Salerno said... I now have maybe...five sales? If everyone follows through? ;)

LizaJane said...

Ever watch the American Idol auditions? There you see, firsthand, what happens when you are told all your life, by society at large, that you can do anything so long as you believe hard enough.

And when you choose to disregard reality (your utter lack of talent in the chosen area) and put the flawed advice to the test -- huge shock! devastation! it turns out to be a big fat load of hooey. But the rejection only makes you redouble your effort, believe in yourself EVEN MORE, and curse (on national TV) those naysayers who clearly do not know what they are talking about.

Never mind that you really and truly are tone deaf, ugly, and your mother dresses you funny. If you just keep singing in the shower and REALLY believe in your talent, eventually you'll be a pop star.

Steve Salerno said...

LzJ: Thanks for weighing in. I've actually written about Idol in that connection; so has writer and social critic Alexandra Wolfe, in a wonderful piece she called "American Coddle":


Anonymous said...

"'The Practical Guru.' A new self-help book by...Steve Salerno?"


I think you should stick to "exposing the scams, shams, and shames of modern life." not helping or contributing to people. Helping others is not your thing man.

One-upping people, undermining people, smearing people, pointing at people, and acting superior to other people, these are things you have mastered Steve, these are your things. Stick to what you do best. This is your lasting contribution to the world.