Love, fi­nances, friend­ships and ca­reer – would you trust them all to self-help books?

When writer Mar­i­anne Power felt some­thing had to change in her life, she fol­lowed the ad­vice of a new self-help book each month for year. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

The Scotsman - - Feature -

Iwas 24 when I read my first self-help book. I was drink­ing cheap white wine in All Bar One by Ox­ford Cir­cus, moan­ing about my crappy temp­ing job, when my friend handed me a bat­tered copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Any­way by Su­san Jef­fers.

I read the tagline out loud: “How to turn your fear and in­de­ci­sion into con­fi­dence and ac­tion.”

I rolled my eyes be­fore turn­ing it over and read­ing the back: “What is stop­ping you from be­ing the per­son you want to be and liv­ing your life the way you want to live it? Fear of tack­ling an is­sue with your boss? Fear of change? Fear of tak­ing con­trol?”

I rolled my eyes some more. “I’m not scared, I’m just in a crap job.”

“I know it’s cheesy but read it,” my friend urged me. “I prom­ise it’ll make you want to go out and DO stuff!”

I couldn’t see what it had made her do other than get drunk with me, but no mat­ter. That night I read half of the book in a wine blur. The next night I fin­ished it.

I might have been an English lit grad­u­ate with literary pre­ten­sions but there was some­thing about the shouty cap­i­tal let­ters and ex­cla­ma­tion marks that was in­tox­i­cat­ing. That Amer­i­can can-do at­ti­tude. It was the ex­act op­po­site of my English/ Ir­ish pes­simism. It made me feel like any­thing was pos­si­ble.

Af­ter read­ing it I quit my temp­ing job even though I had no other work lined up. A week later I heard that a friend of a friend of a friend was work­ing at a news­pa­per. I called her and when she didn’t pick up, I kept call­ing. And kept call­ing. I showed a tenac­ity that was en­tirely new to me. Fi­nally, she called me back and told me I could come in on work ex­pe­ri­ence. Two weeks later I was of­fered a job.

That was my start in jour­nal­ism. The risk paid off.

Af­ter that I was hooked on self-help. If a book was promis­ing to change my life in my lunch hour, give me con­fi­dence/a man/money in five easy steps and had Oprah’s seal of ap­proval, I’d buy not only the book but the T-shirt and the au­dio course.

Books such as: 7 Habits of Highly Ef­fec­tive Peo­ple, The Lit­tle Book of Calm, The Rules of Life and The Power of Pos­i­tive Think­ing were all read, cover to cover. Pas­sages un­der­lined. Notes in the mar­gin. Each one seemed to prom­ise a hap­pier, saner, more ful­filled me... but did they work?

Did they hell! De­spite read­ing I Can Make You Rich – writ­ten by Paul Mckenna, a for­mer ra­dio DJ turned hyp­no­tist who had in­deed made him­self very rich with his new brand of self-help – I was a dis­as­ter with money. Give me a ten­ner and I’d have spent twenty by the time you put your wal­let back in your pocket.

Even though I’d read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Why Men Love Bitches, I was al­ways sin­gle.

And while Feel the Fear had got me started in my ca­reer, any fur­ther suc­cess was not thanks to read­ing The Suc­cess Prin­ci­ples – it was down to an all-con­sum­ing fear of fail­ure, which made me work ob­ses­sively.

While help­ing me pack for one of my many flat moves, my friend Sarah found it hys­ter­i­cally funny that in ev­ery room there was a stash of self-help books. Un­der the sofa, un­der my bed, stacked next to the wardrobe.

“A lot of them are for work,” I ar­gued. Which was true, to a point. Some­times I did write about them. But most of the time I’d bought these books for an­other rea­son: I thought they were go­ing to change my life.

“Don’t they all say the same thing?” asked Sarah. “Be pos­i­tive. Get out of your com­fort zone? I don’t get why they need 200 pages to say some­thing that’s summed up in a para­graph on the back.”

“Some­times the mes­sage needs to be re­peated for it to sink in,” I said.

Sarah picked up a book which was sit­ting on top of the fridge next to two phone charg­ers and a pile of take­away curry menus.

“How to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Start Liv­ing,” she said, read­ing out the ti­tle of a wellthumbe­d book. “That’s a good one!” I said. She laughed.

“No, re­ally it is, it’s a clas­sic, it was writ­ten in the Great De­pres­sion. I’ve read it at least three times.”

“You’ve read it three times?” said Sarah.

“Yes!”

“And you think it’s helped you.”

“Yes!”

“You don’t worry any­more...?”

“Well...”

By now she was dou­bled over, tears com­ing out of her eyes.

I wanted to get an­noyed but I couldn’t. I wor­ried more than any­body I knew.

I was a poor ad­vert for that book and in­deed for any of the books on my shelf – or rather the ones hid­den un­der my bed. I was proof of the ar­gu­ment that if self­help re­ally worked you’d just need to read one and you’d be sorted. As it was I was buy­ing at least one a month – and yet here I was, hun­gover,

Iwasproofo­fthe ar­gu­ment that if self-help re­ally worked you’d just need to read one and you’d be sorted

de­pressed, neu­rotic, alone...

So why did I read self-help if it didn’t, well, help?

Like eating choco­late cake or watch­ing old episodes of Friends, I read self­help for com­fort. These books ac­knowl­edged the in­se­cu­ri­ties and anx­i­eties I felt but was al­ways to ashamed to talk about. They made my per­sonal angst seem like a nor­mal part of be­ing hu­man. Read­ing them made me feel less alone.

Then there was the fan­tasy el­e­ment. Ev­ery night I’d de­vour their rags-to-riches prom­ises and imag­ine what life would be like if I was more con­fi­dent and more ef­fi­cient, if I didn’t worry about any­thing and jumped out of bed to med­i­tate at 5am... There was just one prob­lem. Ev­ery morn­ing I’d wake up (not at 5am) and go back to life as nor­mal. Noth­ing changed be­cause I didn’t do any­thing the books told me to do. I didn’t do the ‘jour­nal­ing’, I didn’t say any af­fir­ma­tions...

Feel the Fear changed my life the first time I read it be­cause I took ac­tion: I felt the fear and quit my job. But since then I hadn’t stepped out of my com­fort zone – I’d hardly stepped out of bed.

And then while I re-read Feel the Fear for the fifth time, I had an idea. An idea that would stop me be­ing a de­pressed, hun­gover mess and turn me into a happy, highly func­tion­ing per­son:

I wasn’t just go­ing to read self-help, I was go­ing to DO self-help.

I would fol­low ev­ery sin­gle bit of ad­vice given to me by the so-called gu­rus to find out what hap­pened if I re­ally did fol­low the 7 Habits of Highly Ef­fec­tive Peo­ple. Re­ally felt The Power of Now. Could my life be trans­formed? Could I get rich? Skinny? Find love?

The idea came to me fully formed: One book a month, fol­lowed to the let­ter, to see if self-help re­ally could change my life. I would do it for a year – so 12 books in all. And I would sys­tem­at­i­cally tackle my flaws one book at a time: money, wor­ry­ing, my weight... Then, at the end of the year, I’d be...per­fect!

0 Mar­i­anne Power: ‘I wasn’t just go­ing to read self-help, I was go­ing to DO self-help’

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