Overdosing on Improvement: How Seven Days of Self-Help Made Us Weak

Everything good is bad for you

Wednesday

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.

We hate:

  • 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?

Thursday

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.

Friday

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:

Think

Feel

Behavior

Results

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.

Overdosing on Improvement: How Seven Days of Self-Help Made Us Weak