Three days after we picked up The Secret, we won the lottery. It was a Friday night in Williamsburg, and we were drunkenly blinking into the fluorescent lights of a local bodega, waiting for our dinner—also, technically, a late lunch and tomorrow’s early breakfast—of a beef patty with cheese, when we decided to feed two dollars into a machine to purchase an Instant Take 5 ticket, which enticed us with a promise that we could “Win Up To $5,555!”
We used a quarter to scratch the ticket, revealing our win of $5, not five grand, but more than double the amount we had paid for the privilege of entering. It didn’t matter that we would have to wait until the next day to retrieve our winnings, or that we would inevitably forget to do so and continue to hold the prize-winning piece of paper in our wallet for the rest of the week before we remembered that we had hit it big in an alcoholic stupor. At the time it was a sign: that if we could win money just from reading The Secret, than one week of piling on the self-help books would lead to bigger and better things (and hopefully give us the tools to keep track of our earnings).
We were so wrong.
By Friday afternoon, we had speed-read (or at least skimmed through) Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, the aforementioned Oprah-certified The Secret, the celebrity-smattered Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self, Marina Spence‘s Make Every Day a Friday, and Russell Simmons’ Do You!: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success. Every day, we took one more “self-help” suggestion from each of the books and added it on to our daily schedule.
At least we know we’re in good company: in the year 2008 alone, according to Forbes, Americans spent more than $11 billion improving themselves through classes, seminars, CDs, and books. (Ironically, the majority of the self-help books you’ll find in a Barnes & Noble will have a chapter on managing your finances. The other half will involve a Real Housewife telling you how to lose weight.) Because we are cynical non-believers, we decided to start with The Secret, which didn’t cost us a penny since we already owned it as a gag gift we were planning to give a friend for a birthday.
We begin with the positive thinking exercises outlined in Rhonda Byrne‘s The Secret (Atria Books/Beyond Worlds, 2006). We get a kick out of reading passages out loud to our siblings like an over-eager guidance counselor, or zealous Tony Robbins-esque figure. Stuff like: “If you see it in your mind, you’re going to hold it in your hand!” and “In fact, parts of our body are literally replaced every day!” For those out there who have never read The Secret—which has sold more than 21 million copies by promoting “the laws of attraction”—the idea is simple. You want something, you think hard enough about it (while keeping the rest of your thoughts positive), and you will get it.
This is so shammy and hokey that we can’t believe Oprah promoted it, until we remember that Oprah promoted James Frey as well. Two for two, Oprah.
As an experiment, waiting for coffee in Starbucks, we decide to will a cupcake into our possession. We focus on the idea of a cupcake; how we will come to own and then enjoy it. While we’re thinking about how stupid this whole process is, we notice a Starbucks employee replacing the breakfast items in the counter with afternoon snacks. Including…yes! Cupcakes! We buy one while pondering the miracle of The Secret, which we had finished in a record two days—What? It’s a small book—and attracting positivity into our lives, which lasts approximately four minutes until we remember that we are supposed to be on diet anyway and discard the entirety of our tasty, magical treat. Money down the drain! This is probably why we need financial self-improvement books.
Time to plunge into Mr. Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown Publishing Group, 2009). We avoided Mr. Ferriss’ other tome, The 4-Hour Body, because we didn’t want to exercise, and also because we didn’t want to think about Mr. Ferriss giving women extended orgasms, which we know from a New York Times‘ article is in there somewhere. Plus, we were excited about the suggestion in Workweek that we completely ignore email except for two short windows per day: one at noon, and one at 4 p.m. But this immediately presents a problem for our editors, who were not aware of the “stay offline” portion of Mr. Ferriss’ program when they suggested we look into it. Oh well! By 10 p.m., editors have found a loophole in our system and are now texting us notes about work whenever we’re out of the office.
The problem with Ferriss’ book, which promotes (among other things) the “80-20 principle”—i.e., that 80 percent of our benefits come from 20 percent of our work—is that the 4-Hour logic doesn’t hold water when you are doing field reporting. The concepts the author outlined in his D-E-A-L program (Definition, Elimination, Automation, Liberation) might work for would-be entrepreneurs or office slackers, but try “eliminating” your reading of the news to just two hours a week (which Mr. Ferriss claims to do) when your job is to be on top of the news cycle. Being fired can’t possibly be part of the game plan, right? Automation—which involves a sort of out-processing of most of your work so one can spend as little time as possible actually doing one’s job—is also not an option if you work in a creative field, though we did appreciate Mr. Ferriss’ sound financial advice and persuasive arguments for taking “mini-retirements” now, instead of saving it up until we are too old to travel.
As for the whole Definition part…we have trouble with that too. The “D” is for defining in very specific terms what you want from your career and life. We begin to notice a disturbing trend in self-help literature, asking us to formulate a concrete example of our ideal lifestyle—the very thing we have been avoiding having to think about since we picked a major in college.
“Go Where the Action Is” is one of the crucial components laid out by Russell Simmons in Do You!: 12 Laws to Access the Power In You to Achieve Happiness and Success (Gotham, 2007). Though it has all of the literary heft of a fortune cookie, we assume that this book will have the most helpful, down-to-earth advice in our new library, something we belatedly acknowledge is due to our love of Def Comedy Jam.
Mr. Simmons gives a lot of lip service to moving to New York, L.A., or Atlanta, because, as he says: “…You ain’t going to become a rapper or an actor living in Idaho…You can’t wait for the action to come to you. You must go to the action.”
We already live in New York, but as it stands, the “action” on Tuesday night seems to be in Zuccotti Park, where we park ourselves for the night in an attempt to sleep among the protesters. We’ve written enough about the movement, it’s time to dive headfirst into the grimy late-night underbelly in order to live up to our full potential as an in-the-field reporter. Mr. Simmons, himself an Occupy-advocate—and a member in good standing of the 1%—spends most of his book talking about the lessons of Kanye, Jay-Z, and his own clothing brand, Phat Farms. Unfortunately the rules governing rapping and entrepreneurship are still far from those of journalism, and we spend half the night shivering, climbing in to share sleeping bags with drunk Canadians who make us recite lines from Good Will Hunting in a Boston accent. We’re operating under the misguided premise that being close to the epicenter of “action” will somehow make our lives better. Instead, we get a sinus infection, and are two hours late for work the next day.
Humpday! We feel like the inside of a dirty hippie’s sock (and probably smell just as bad) after trying to overnight it in Zuccotti the night before.There’s nothing more we rather do than go home and shower, so what better book to read than Marina Spence’s slight little number, Make Every Day a Friday! (Morgan James Publishing, 2009). The book touts itself as a “stress-free” system to “gently guide” you to change either your work, or your attitude towards your current job. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take more than 10 pages to realize that Friday! is one those books: the ones that work under the presumption that your dream job is out there for you somewhere, or that you have the perfect job but you need to make some other life-shifts in order to appreciate it fully. Because our mood is so dark, we decide to embrace Ms. Spence’s tip/sub-chapter that “Hating Your Job is a Gift!” from the “Taking Steps to Clarity” chapter. We make a list of all the things we don’t like about our work.
- Having to do assignments that involve trying to “better ourselves” in any way
- Getting up early in the mornings
- Long commute
- No good food places in Times Square
Now, Make Every Day a Friday tells us to look at our list and imagine the opposite of what we wrote in our “career hate” list. And we can imagine this life perfectly: working from home all day (when the “work day” starts at noon); eating MSG-laden Chinese food from the place on the corner; never taking any steps to get ourselves into a healthier, more social lifestyle. The thing is, we’ve already had that career before…it’s called freelancing, and after a year and a half of it we went so stir-crazy we were begging friends to let us just come in and hang out in their offices, just to give us an excuse to brush our teeth and get dressed in the morning.
So, the opposite of our current “career dislikes” is an even worse scenario. Great. Why can’t any book just tell us what we want to hear…that things are perfect the way they are and maybe we should just take a nap?
We do some of the time-traveling exercises encouraged by Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Joseph Galliano’s book has a wide range of celebrities writing letters to their awkward, adolescent selves, which technically isn’t “self-help” as much as “inspirational” and/or “somewhat terrifying.” After all, who isn’t better off now than when they were 16? Certainly not Stephen King, though he does council his younger incarnation to “Stay away from recreational drugs.” Hugh Jackman keeps it vague with “You’ve had many blessings in your life and will have many more…don’t forget where those blessings came from.” (Australia?)
Still, if James Franco and the guy who plays Fred on YouTube are qualified to give life advice to younger versions of themselves, certainly we must have some wisdom to impart as well. After many false starts, we eventually wind up with a piece of paper that sounds more like an evil twin’s of King’s:
Dear Us at 16,
You might think that all those psychedelic drugs you are currently taking will eventually have long-term consequences. To the best of our knowledge…you’re good. Ecstasy stops working when you are around 21, so do as much as possible now. Oh, and you’re not imagining things: mom and dad are getting a divorce.
Keep on truckin’,
Us at 27
The problem with writing a letter to ourselves after reading this book is that everyone in “Dear Me” is famous and living the dream, so their advice is applicable not only to their former selves, but to anyone who also wants to be Alice Cooper/William Shatner/J.K Rowling. Their advice (for the most part) is of the “It Gets Better” variety…because for them, it did. We can’t offer that kind of solace to our former selves. Life is better in some ways…other ways, it’s worse. (At 16, we probably would have loved to spend a night sleeping in a concrete park in New York, who are we dash our young dreams by whining about it now?)
We stared at the piece of paper for awhile, feeling depressed. Sort of wish we had eaten that cupcake when we had the chance; binge on carrots and hummus instead. Never have we felt so stressed out, overworked, underpaid, and unlovable as when we started taking the advice of other people on how to make our lives better.
During our last day of formal self-improvement, we go to Williamsburg to meet Anna Goldstein, a New York life coach who specializes in helping women in their 20s and 30s (she can be found online at Self In The City). Running late to the meeting, we quickly scarf down a(nother) beef patty while smoking a cigarette simultaneously, which we assume means that these programs have not been working the way they should.
Ms. Goldstein’s process revolves around the Model of Behavioral Function, a sort of thought-to-action guide to getting our shit together. As we sit in her home office, a huge, brightly lit studio space with a large-screen TV and wacky furniture that actually looks more like a well-funded tech start-up than a therapist’s office, we jot in a notebook as she instructs:
Of course, Ms. Goldstein is not our therapist, but as we go over the events that immediately preceded our encounter—the rushed and greasy lunch when we really wanted sushi—we find ourselves venting a week’s worth of pent-up frustration. Ms. Goldstein prompts us occasionally on how we could alter our first line of thinking to create a different belief system about work, health, interpersonal relationships, and the rest. It’s harder than it seems, which we’re beginning to realize is why the the self-help books haven’t done us much good. While books can encourage you to act differently, Ms. Goldstein helps us isolate those early negative thought patterns that feed into our pre-existing (but somewhat unconscious) belief system. For example: “We never exercise because our bike is in the shop and we can’t find time to pick it up,” which leads to the belief of “We never exercise.” And if we take it as a given that we never exercise, why bother being proactive about picking up our bike?
Eventually, we cycle (so to speak) to the problem that’s been plaguing us all week:
“What do you want to do?” asked Ms. Goldstein.
“We want to write comedy,” we tell her. And when we say it out loud, it sounds just as stupid as all the times we’ve thought about it while reading self-help books.
“And what would that look like?”
After we’re done pragmatically laying out the details of our eventual “Shouts and Murmurs” piece, the hypothetical book we will write, and how to deal with obligations of fame and fortune, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea after all. It also seems like we’ve put a lot of subconscious thought into our Goal Lifestyle, despite floundering for weeks over the absurdity of answering the world’s vaguest question: “What do we want?”
Feeling better, we treat ourselves to sushi after meeting with Ms. Goldstein, and then break our “no e-mail” rule to send our boss a message: we’ll be taking the rest of the day off.
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