What do self-help books offer? The promise of wealth? Success? Happiness? I remember a gut shot of recognition when I saw Anthony Robbins first book on the shelves: Unlimited Power! Isn’t that ultimately what the punter wants? Us?
All of us believe that we do indeed have a slumbering colossus within, waiting to do incredible things, if only we could just find the key…We firmly believe we are only using 5% of our brains, as in the movie Limitless, the only problem being in the details ie. accessing the other 95%.
Then there was The Secret- if you worship what you want to achieve you will achieve it.
I have a friend, the most successful entrepreneur I know from my callow days in academe, he’s a multi-millionaire and a very nice chap. Thirty years ago when he was a just a (highly successful) salesman he’d have a self help book on his desk next to his phone. “You don’t read them to get the answer,” he told me, “You read them to get re-energised when you’re feeling down. Then you can make that call and sound like you mean it.”
The father of another friend was also a very wealthy entrepreneur- he had a whole bookcase of self-help books. Maybe he, too, was using them to get some kind of lift. In any case it made me sceptical of the nay sayers, those who pour scorn on any attempt at self betterment using a book that screams: Go For It!
Naturally, there are some crap self-help books out there. But even the crappest has one thing, or perhaps two things, of value in it- usually stuff that they are repeating, or a lively quote they’ve borrowed from another righteous tome of personal development. There’s an awful lot of recycling going on in the self-improvement field.
Anthony Robbins, despite his nutty NLP ideas and simplistic pleasure/pain motivational schemas, hits the nail on the head with his titles: The Unlimited Power I’ve mentioned, along with Awaken the Giant Within. He understands that it is a FEELING we want NOW not some nebulous future state.
Stephen Covey with his worthy ‘Habits of highly successful people’ pushes, as many do, the concept of SUCCESS as the ultimate goal. Gawd knows I’ve been suckered down that alley a few times. Just what is it exactly I now ask? Being on telly? Having people stop you in the street? Lots of cash? And when does it start? Or end? The world is littered with successful people who think of themselves as failures because they aren’t as successful as someone else a notch higher up the bed post; Napoleon torturing himself because he hasn’t got to India as Alexander did, Steve Jobs thinking he isn’t Bill Gates, Bill Gates whinging that he isn’t Steve Jobs…
Success- as I’ve written elsewhere- is an exercise in framing an enterprise. Frame it so that it succeeds and you are a success. You have bragging rights. But you’ll still be disappointed unless you’ve grown to recognise the warm feeling in your midriff that success gives you- that’s what people want, cut to the chase and get the feeling direct from pills, the bottle, a line of cocaine. Which is why so many successful people turn to such things. Success, is, literally, in your head.
Money- well- there’s never enough and then you’re approaching the later stages of your life and you realise that hey, you don’t need that much, and actually time is rather more attractive as a commodity, and health isn’t bad too…
Beyond the functional requirements for money it becomes a ‘success token’. A kind of substitute currency for success. And success can likewise be turned into money.
So the books offer chimeras. Or they offer the equivalent of a day dream.
Real self-help is about building the exterior self, making it work better in the world, enabling you to be happy. Happy enough to pursue, probably at the same time, worthier goals of inner evolution. The two help each other, but it’s hard to concentrate on becoming a better person if you’re just not happy.
As Idries Shah suggests: first make yourself happy. Then think about higher studies.
Hitching yourself to open-ended concepts such as ‘being a success’ is a recipe for unrelenting toil and unhappiness. You need to be happy NOW.
I give lectures every now and then at Universities- I love doing it- but the message I find myself putting over time and again is: travel. Travel while you have no financial burdens and responsibilities, travel while you are still automatically open to new experiences, travel while you can still enjoy roughing it, travel while you can still be mentored by people along the way. With a bit of recalibrating, people of any age can do all of the above, but they can do other stuff too. People aged 18-30 often can’t- but they can travel.
And while I was on my own travels recently I connected travelling with ‘Being Extraordinary.’
When you come back from a trip- and increasingly I have ceased to use the word holiday, trips seem to offer more than that nugatory term seems to supply, when you come back you have this altered energy. Probably you are more relaxed, but usually you are more focused- things you have ignored for months you quickly achieve. In fact there is a curious parallel with the week BEFORE a trip when your productivity soars and you get everything finished in time and the week when you return when you blast through all the things you’ve been thinking about on the trip…what if you could just have the week before and week after and cut out the trip altogether?
Keep the trip. What I am circling is the idea that travel allows ANYONE to be extraordinary- by definition you are taken out of your ordinary and put somewhere new and challenging. That’s where your special energy comes from, and that’s where your special powers come from.
Special powers? Yep- all travellers know that after a few weeks you become a sort of superhero out there on the road. You can talk to anyone. Shyness goes- it has to- as you need to talk to lots of people each day just to survive. Of course you have your ups and downs, but basic extroversion becomes the order of the day. And talking to anyone you find a strange equality pervades the world of travelling. Just moving on- the downsides of class, race and sect just don’t drag you down. What other powers? Coincidence, happy chance encounters, miraculous meetings- all that becomes…expected. You become the beholder of strange sights, strange experiences, incongruities that seem to offer the key to a place, amazing rushes of energy.
Of course, all the time your money is running out, so, eventually, and probably rightly, you head home.
A week or two later you’re ordinary again.
Unless you decide to Be Extraordinary…all the time.
That, I have decided after long consideration, is the real deal. My next post will outline how…