I love self-help.
I love it as a concept, I love it as a physical, tangible reality of subliminal tapes and mail-order DVDs and weekend seminars, and I love the earnestness of the gargantuan industry that surrounds the idea your bootstraps are not only a handy way of tying your shoes, they’re also the very first rung on the ladder to happiness. I love books with relentlessly upbeat titles and smiling, tanned people on the front cover, packed with page after page of advice and instruction on how to turn a life around in the space of a few focused months of consistent, applied effort.
I have, on my bookshelves, a collection of some of the best-known (and some of the least-known) self-help texts of the last fifty years. I have Tony Robbins’s Unlimited Power, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. To my right The Millionaire Course stands neatly alongside The 80/20 Principle, The Richest Man in Babylon and The 48 Laws of Power to the other side. I have early works on conscious neural re-structuring (Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics, 1960), a selection of the highest-regarded books ever written on business productivity (David Allen’s Getting Things Done, 2002), and, of course, the most famous books on the Law of Attraction to grace the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show (Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, 2006).
Most of them have fat chapters of content dedicated to a) the art of being spiritually fulfilled and b) making so much money you could hit Justin Bieber with your solid gold Rolls Royce and still comfortably cover the tens of millions he’ll subsequently sue you for in lost tour earnings.
Of course, the books are careful to point out, by far and away the more important element of the two is reaching inner peace. Attaining the kind of wealth that only the greatest of European kings could dream of is merely a by-product of walking the road to enlightenment, a bonus en route to Nirvana.
Many of these titles promise a total reinvention of the person reading, if the principles set out within are followed closely and completely. They claim that reading, understanding, and implementing the teachings found on their pages can completely change and revolutionise the entire life of anyone, anywhere, from any walk of life and in any state of personal despair or existential disarray. Somehow, once the last page is turned, a cosmic switch will flip. Troubles and difficulties will melt away. Blank but entirely valid cheques will swoop from the sky and into your hands with the unerring accuracy of homing pigeons, international supermodels looking for a life partner will have car trouble right outside your door, and the neighbour two doors down who borrowed your lawnmower and never gave it back will be eaten by a giant catfish.
And all of this could be entirely true, but I have no way of knowing, because I have never, ever, ever, not even once, put into practice any of the lessons these books have to impart.
Nor do I know anyone who has.
Despite the fact that the independent research firm Marketdata Enterprises listed the worth of the self-help market in the USA in 2008 alone at 11 billion dollars.
I can’t remember the last time I had a billion dollars, let alone eleven.
With that much cash movement in terms of sales, you’d think the law of averages would dictate someone would have categorically confirmed or denied the validity of the market by now.
Usually, at the mention of the term ‘self-help’, people turn up their noses. They scoff and sneer and roll their eyes and say ‘Jesus, seriously? Come on, man, everyone knows that stuff doesn’t work. It’s magic beans and sucker cola, and you’re paying good money to buy it like a chump and take it home like an idiot, you fool.’ They say that the only way to get rich with a self-help book is to write one; that all the gurus and guides and teachers who claim to have the answer to that great question of human existence – how can I be happy? – no matter how twinkly-eyed or caftan-wearing they might be, are parasites and vultures living off the wallets of the gullible and the sincere.
I don’t know one single person who has tried to implement a self-help book, guide, or class, and come out the worse for it. Nor do I know one single person who has tried to implement a self-help book, guide, or class, and come out the better, because I don’t know one single person who has ever actually tried to take any of these Seven Lessons or Eight Truths or Four Secrets and give them an open-minded, scientifically-sound road-testing. The efficacy of the material is at this point equivalent to an alligator in the sewers – everyone knows, but no one has first-hand evidence for how they know.
Except for Cousin Frank, who used to work for Pest Control, and who will be missed at family Christmas¹.
So, yes, maybe it is possible to have twenty million dollars just by thinking about it really hard, or at least, I can’t personally prove it’s not.
I could be happier. I’m the first person to admit that. I would prefer that many parts of my life were different from the way they are now; without attempting to speak for other people, I don’t believe I’m alone in this sentiment.
I’d like to live in California; I’d like to have more financial security. I’d like to drive a 1976 Chevy Impala; I’d like a publishing contract. I’d like to feel more passionate about going to the gym and eating right and getting enough sleep and doing more and more exciting things with my time.
Which brings me to an interesting question, and it’s a question I believe is worth asking anyone who has ever shelled out twenty-five bucks for a self-help book – if I know I’d like to be at Point B, when I am currently at Point A, and there’s a book that claims to be able to get me from Point A to Point B with a minimum of fuss, why haven’t I read that book and followed through?
The answer, entirely possibly, could be that the book doesn’t work. That it will leave me stuck at Point A, or worse, take me to Point C, where there are spiders, and I’ll be no better, or even worse off.
However, I don’t know that, because I haven’t tried any of the things that book has advocated as steps along the line between Point A, Point B, and Point Z: Unfathomable Wealth and Power, Spiritual Bliss, and Also, Looking Really Great in Designer Clothing.
So, I decided, I would put these things to the test.
But not with just one book.
No, one wouldn’t be nearly enough for my purposes. My mission, I decided, would be to take twelve of the best-selling, best-known self-help authors of all time – the Napoleon Hills, the Jack Canfields, the Tony Robbins and the Wayne Dyers, and apply the lessons of an even dozen, one a month, for a year. Because if just one can revolutionise a life, then twelve would, at least, revolutionise that life twelve times over, and maybe, just maybe, the whole I discovered on the other side would be greater than the sum of its parts.
Also, I would read a book by Phil McGraw.
I would approach the experiment as scientifically as possible – I would map out my progress in as many ways as possible, for the duration of the 12 months, carefully cataloguing everything I’d learned and everything that had changed in terms of my approach to my life, and note down the results. I would dissect the teachings of each book from month to month, spending the first week of the month reading each new book, then the next three weeks putting everything into practice.
And, I decided, it would be important to stack these new behaviour sets, one on top of the other. Rather than just abandoning my new gurus every 31 days, I would apply them all, each and every one, as their turn came around and they were added to the fold.
Change – the art of human change – fascinates me. And there are many people who know more about it than I; whether that’s as a result of professional training, life experience, or just by the fact they’ve gone and done it. And so I’m recruiting them, as interview subjects and guest bloggers, to buttress my own experiences.
And so, with a website launched as of now, Self-Helpless is my new experiment; to see what happens when one man applies the finest self-help technology and know-how the 20th and 21st centuries have to offer, faithfully and to the letter, for 365 days.
Wish a guy luck, yeah?
¹ – Actually, Cousin Frank’s last recorded transmission was ‘Holy God, that’s the biggest damn catfish I’ve ever se-’ and that was it, apart from the screams².
² – Something about a lawnmower.