Friday, July 20, 2012

If at first you don't succeed...maybe you weren't mean to?

I think I may be congenitally incapable of recommending a self-help book. Certainly over the past seven years of SHAMblogand thank you, dear Connie, for commemorating my anniversary the other dayI've only hardened in my outlook; I've made a point of refraining from recommending any work that's even vaguely redolent of SHAMmery. That's another reason whyand stop me if you've heard this storyI abandoned the idea of including a final chapter in SHAM that would've given advice about where to turn for more meaningful help. (That remains, in fact, the most common quibble I get via email: So Steve, if all this stuff you write about is really garbage, then where do you recommend that we go for help? Or are you just one of those insufferable jerks who likes to point fingers without offering any solutions of your own...huh?...HUH???) Thing is, I never wanted to be accused of setting myself up as a poor-man's Tony Robbins in my own right. There's already way too much of that going on in the SHAMsphere: would-be gurus panning everyone else's self-help panacea as a prelude to selling you their own. Second, I hoped never to enable someone to lift a quote from my book or blog, out of context, and use it in plugging his or her work: "Steve Salerno says, 'Head and shoulders above the genre" or, more likely, "Salerno says, not as shitty as the rest...!'"

All that said, I will have a few less-than-negative words, below, on a forthcoming book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. But first, to establish the proper mood, and in honor of  the aforementioned anniversary, I'm going to reprise another SHAMblog oldie-but-good, this one from February 5, 2006:
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 weightwhy 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 alland then somewithin 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 guruoh, 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 goingthat 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 falseand 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...
And now we move on to today's business at hand, The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman. Naturally it took a writer for a Brit publication to pen this book, since they're all cynics and curmudgeons over there anyway. (Wink.) But really, Burkeman's outlook evokes the subtitle I chose for my book, which people found sufficiently inscrutable that I was asked to explain it ad nauseam during my hundreds of media appearances. Before we move on, here's a short review of The Antidote that hints at the crux of the matter. Google it if you want to know more.

You see, if you tell people that they're omnipotent, two things happen, both of them awful and psychologically destructive, in my view.  
1, they tend to vastly undervalue the mechanism of successthe legwork involved. If you believe that a PMA will by itself carry the day (or at least be largely decisive), then I submit that—human nature being what it isyou're far less likely to put in the place the more pragmatic elements that historically underlie success: hard work, critical thinking, a certain amount of study/education, and perhaps most important, a candid and unflinching analysis of one's strengths and weaknesses, and how those relate to one's path of choice. 

2, when people fail to reach the topas simple math suggests will be the case for the vast majority of usthey will be crushed...far more distraught than if they'd allowed for the mere possibility of failure. (If all of your eggs are in one basket, what do you do when the basket falls and all of those eggs break?) Thus, for too many members of the generation weaned on this way of thinking, failure leads to an abiding disillusionment and, yes, a sense of helplessness.

Having made no allowances (pragmatic or psychic) for a Plan B, such people can become terrified of failure in any future endeavor. If someone has given you a "fail-safe" route to happiness and success...and it fails...are you going to trust optimism the next time, when it may be more evidence-based? (Understand, I'm not saying that optimism necessarily helps, even when the odds are in your favor. I'm just saying that a so-called belief system whose ultimate and ironic effect is to leave you incapable of optimism forevermore can't be good for you.) This is akin to what I argued about the Happyism phenomenon in my Wall Street Journal piece of December 2007: The expectation of a perpetual state of blisswhen it falls flat (as it must for mere mortals)is itself devastating. Similarly, to the athlete who fully subscribes to Sportsthink, even one major loss can be catastrophic.

The bottom line is this: If you shouldn't be certain you'll succeed...why be certain you'll fail? Hence, the state of uncertainty that Burkeman recommends.

Anyway, much as I hate to say it, I think Burkeman's book may be worth perusing (but don't quote me, please!); not because it will provide any real HELP, but because it may provide commonsensical reasons why you should save the money you were going to spend on all those other silly books.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I thought you DID provide information in Shambook as to a better way of self-improvement: common sense.

Of course, you failed to address the best way to market it... :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Yeah, what Ron said. And once again, Happy Blogaversary.