The Americans have cornered the market in self-help books. They do it bigger and better than everyone else. But there is room for a more measured tone perhaps, a tone more suited to the English way- and it is we, after all who re-ignited the whole self-help business with Pilgrim’s Progress and Samuel Smiles- ‘self-help’. I say re-ignited because self-help as a written subject goes back to the Greeks and Romans- to Hesiod’s works and days, to the Stoics and the Epicureans, to the age when philosophy wasn’t about getting a Phd in something obscure, it was about finding the best way to live your life.
Self-help is about building your external self, the bit that does battle with the world. There is another bit, the part that floats above the trivialities of mere worldly ambition and seeks objects of a more durable kind for sustained contemplation and affection. Imagine you are in prison. Self-help is an escape kit that will get you through the bars and into the sunshine outside. That’s when the real living begins, but self-help won’t help you there.
An utterly English self-help will have to deal, better, than American books do, with the scoffers and cynics. An English man or woman is by nature inclined to scoffing and cynicism about self-improvement- at least in public. Times may be changing. The Guardian has a self-help column after all. I often think of addressing my 19 year old self, my 21 year old self. I think I read my first self-help book in my early twenties. I loved it (I think it was the excellent ‘silva mind control technique’). I recall the excitement at wolfing down the good sense (and considerable bollocks) of Tony Robbins ‘Unlimited Power’. It appealed to the greedy part of me- “Yeah- give me all that power!” My 19 year old self was still looking for the meaning of it all, the bigger picture. Maybe what I write now he would have sniffed at, moving on to Swedenbourg or Sartre…who knows. In any case I will try and make the case that Self-help can be projected in a way that the English will not find silly or demeaning, that humour can go hand in hand with self-improvement, and that maybe cynicism and mockery, though useful correctives, aren’t much use for getting you out of bed in the morning.
1.What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Not a lot?
The thought of making a filthy fat wedge of cash?
Hitch hiking round the world?
Working for Microsoft?
Starting your own business?
Running your own business?
In a way it is the KEY question. Depression is chracterised as an inability to get ought of bed. In as much as we all seek sanity we need a good answer to this question. First off, the discipline school of self-help hardly considers this question. For them it is about sticking to a routine, a set of good habits, one of which is to lumber out of bed at 5am gurning for whatever is top of your ‘to do’ list.
Though I know a woman who told me her greatest pleasure is ticking off things on her ‘to do’ list I suspect this is not a common state of being.
You’re lying under the warm covers, the alarm goes. Fuck it. Another day dawns. Or- GGRREAT- frosties time! Then on to living my fantastic life. Or…something in between. Actually we just need to have something that gets us out of bed with a feeling of hope rather than hopelessness, a feeling of interest rather than boredom, a feeling of moving towards rather than moving away.
The addict gets out of bed to get his fix. Or her fix. Addiction is the dark side of obsession. Obsession is the modern word for attachment-to. We need to find a way to attach, to get moving just as much as we need a way to detach, to let go.
Professor Bill Weinstein used to encourage students to apply a theory, almost any theory would do, to the inchoate material they were studying, ‘just to get the wheels spinning’. When they were ‘moving’ they could always ditch it for a better explanation. His metaphor, which has stayed with me ever since, is that of lifting up the back of a car, getting the wheels spinning, then dropping it down to watch it roar away. You need to be moving to get anything done. It’s like riding a bicycle- once you’re moving you can forget about staying upright.
A little bit of obsession, a little bit of unhealthy interest, gets the wheels spinning, it gets you moving. You need to be moving to develop concentration, focus, staying power. You need to have enough of the above to GET A RESULT- what Christopher Ross, author of the excellent Tunnel Visions, calls a ‘success pay-off’.
The success pay-off or SPO is the basic fuel of self-help. The thought of success gets us moving. The fact of success, however small, gives us an energy boost. Ever wondered why older folk make such a big deal of trivial successes? Because they want to extract the energy potential out of each and every one. How we frame an event determines how much of a success pay off we get from it. Part is dependent on the culture- even if you think TV is trivial, just appear on it to notice how other people behave and what a rush of energy it gives you. Being on TV in our culture=success, and therefore it provides an energy rush. Hence the incredible and sometimes foolish drive of many people to appear on the telly doing almost anything.
But there are more sophisticated ways of packaging your life into success pay-offs. Instead of just learning French, say, from Rosetta stone, enrol to take an exam after a set period- that will define your study as a ‘success’ and give you that buzz of energy to get you out of bed in the morning.
Motivation, will to start and keep going, the desire to get back up when you’ve been knocked down- these are the crucial ingredients you are trying to nurture and grow in any self-help program. You can have habits that encourage this will power, motivation, and you can have bad habits that discourage it. But first you have to have ‘it’.
We’re back to what gets you out of bed in the morning.
If I am on a walk, a long distance walk, I always wake up full of beans and ready to go (assuming I haven’t been too long in some country pub the night before). A journey for me is its own motivation. Something new everyday, something to do.
Once I needed to write a series of poems in a hurry for a poetry reading I was giving. Everyday I got out of bed full of curiousity at what I would create that day. I knew I would be surprising myself by the day’s end with something new and unexpected- a bit like going on a journey.
I’ve heard form policemen that what attracts them to a pretty difficult and often unpleasant job is that everyday is different, there is always something new happening in the world of crime!
We seek stimulation of a certain kind. It is actually the same stumulation that unlocks our ability to learn. The nucleus basalis in the brain needs to be ‘unlocked’ before it allows neurotrasmitters assocated with growing dendrites (brain connections). At the heart of life is the need to learn. This comes from novelty, from focussing hard, from a shock or surprise.
So to find what gets you out of bed in the morning you need to find something that provides novelty- say going to antiques fairs and markets as a dealer, meeting new people as a journalist, visiting new places as a travel writer. Or something that provides total focus opportunities- working intensely, studying intensely. Or something that provides a shock or series of surprises- which by definition is harder to program into everyday life (though it explains the fascination for violence football hooligans demonstrate).
An obsession, cultivated a little, can be the ‘focussing hard’ opportunity. Or it could be doing an intensive course in something.
Novelty – any job which allows you to find something different everyday will help here.
You can see why entrepreneurs are often so energised: they are looking for novelty, new things and new ways to do things; they may also be focussing hard, pursuing intensively their dream of achievement in some area of business.
You can see why doing a dull repetitive job is so sapping of energy and ‘getting up in the morning’ buzz.
The question ‘what gets you up in the morning?’ inevitably leads back to what kind of creature a human being is. What makes us tick? What are the important levers and what are the unimportant ones?
For now I think we have touched on one very important one: humans are learning machines. We are born to learn, it’s a core activity and we neglect it at our peril. And I mean learning in the widest possible sense of experiencing new things and digesting them so that we ‘grow’ in some sense that actually makes sense. But it’s important to see that focussing hard on something – be it gardening or collecting stamps can be just as much a ‘growth’ activity as travelling to a new country and seeing novel sights.
But we need to find something of either or both in whatever it is that gets us up in the morning.