As a kid I absorbed a popular notion: that life was about growing. Not the kind that made you tall, but the kind that helped you overcome your “issues.” My dad—as a psychology professor— knew all about issues. Most people had a vast array of them. Whenever you spotted one, you had to triumph over it—fast—before it ruined your life.
Beyond triumphing, the ultimate goal of growing was never clear. But it seemed to mean becoming someone else—someone nicer, smarter, and better.
If my dad never exactly told me that, his bookshelves did. He had many books, one—apparently— for every insecurity, weakness, or shortcoming. Like a fairy godmother a self-help book seemed magical. With the wave of its papery wand you could shatter your worries, snare happiness, make friends, stop procrastinating, heal relationships, or vault to the top of something called a “corporate ladder.”
By the age of seven my head was stuffed with self-help maxims: “Think positively,” “win friends and influence people,” “be motivated.” I remember bouncing around the living room singing a positive thinking mantra, “Think enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic.”
My giddy chant had come down to me from one of the self-help courses on positive thinking that my dad taught to his college students. But the fun ended when a terrible discovery was made. I had an issue: I was shy. Or at least quiet, which was considered the same thing. When my dad learned that I was getting bullied at school for my issue, he was ready: he weighed down my arms with books about how to triumph over my shyness.
The books inducted me into the confusing paradoxes of self-help. By defining shyness—and not the bullying—as a problem that needed solving, I became ashamed of my shyness, which only made me shier.
The books treated shyness a disease or a character flaw and an opportunity for personal growth. The prescribed cure was to believe in yourself and be confident and talk more.
It had never occurred to me not to be confident until others had told me that shyness was bad. I tried talking more, but since I had nothing I really wanted to say, the other students could tell my efforts were forced, and the bullying increased.
When an adult frames “overcoming shyness” as a personal growth issue, it adds moral pressure. It forces conformity by making extraversion into a test of courage. Yet the belief that shyness was a moral weakness was far more damaging than the shyness itself.
I finally decided that I was going to be shy whether anyone liked it or not. What was wrong with being quiet? People who blurted out every thought were annoying. My dad could keep his self-help books; I was done.
Or so I thought. I had a change of heart years later when my dad bought See You at the Top by Zig Ziglar, a bestselling motivational book about achieving goals.
The book looked fun; it brimmed with amusing quips, cartoons, and anecdotes. It was a hit in my house and my dad was always quoting from it. It focused on how to get rich while also becoming a better person, using the corporate ladder as a metaphor for life.
At age 15 I knew nothing about corporate ladders, but goals I understood. In fact, I already had one. I had decided that I wanted to be a straight A student.
I read the book and followed the advice: I wrote down my goals, a list of potential obstacles, and all the ways I planned to overcome them. Three months later when my first quarter report card came out, I exulted over my perfect record.
But chasing goals, as a lifestyle, came with discomfort. You could never stay still or look out windows. Life was an unending climb toward some hazy pinnacle. The future was where all the prizes were. My todays dimmed because it lacked the sheen of my tomorrows, which were haloed by the flattering light of fantasy.
See You at the Top framed personal growth as climbing to a higher social class and making money. The book assumes that reaching the top is what life is, or should be, all about.
I am not against setting goals; I have many. But there is no top. And while the book inspired me, it also made me anxious about wasting time—or doing anything that was not moving toward a goal.
Gone were the days of pecking on the piano keys, or drawing cats, daydreaming, or looking off at the far distance in a thoughtful daze. From my new perspective, life was a chore, and to be unproductive, even for a day, was to fail at life.
My brother Steve, seven years older than me, felt the same pressure. But he dealt with his in an odd way. As an adult he began hoarding self-help books.
At one time, they littered the floor of his apartment, so that there was barely room to walk. He had rarely read more than few pages of any of them—including the one that promised a clutter-free life. But just having self-improvement books around made him feel more in control.
I understood. We had grown up in a household where a self-help book was the remedy for every problem. So why not brick yourself inside your apartment with them?
I had to tease him about that.
When I was in college, Steve and I used to walk around bookstores together. As I wandered the store, Steve would always gravitate toward the self-help aisle. I wondered what he ultimately hoped to find there: the meaning of life? A great epiphany? The secret to saving the world?
“Have you found The Book yet?” I asked him one day.
“The Book.” I had to explain that, obviously, he must be looking for the Ultimate Book which contained the Answer to Everything. Otherwise, why was he so obsessed with that one aisle?
He knew I was kidding and laughed, but he really did want that imaginary book. For that matter so did I.
“The Book” became a running joke—the rare volume that would magically solve every problem imaginable. It would give you more time and riches and eternal youth and a diet that let you eat all you wanted. Upon request it would even offer a personalized schedule for maximizing productivity.
Many years later, I have never found The Book. But my wish to be “better” remains. I stay away from self-help books though.
Not because they are all bad, but because I remember how much they once confused me.
I remember how fighting my shyness only made me shier, and how setting goals projected happiness beyond my reach. I remember how a book on reducing clutter only became part of the clutter.
Even when I tried to improve myself without books, I found myself mired in vicious cycles. Whenever I tried to concentrate better on my reading, I ended up concentrating on concentrating, and I forgot about the book altogether.
Such frustrating ironies make me envy my cat. I recently found her lying carefree in the sun and stretching in a posture of total bliss.
I thought how lucky she was to never have to worry about being a better cat. No one had ever given her a self-help book on how to be a better jumper. She never fretted about needing a fluffier tail. I never looked at her and thought, “If only my cat would be more productive.”
I accepted her as she was, even when she shredded the furniture. I thought that if I could accept my cat unconditionally, I could do the same for myself.
Finally, I could set aside the struggle for perfection and just enjoy my life.
But, alas, even unconditional self-acceptance looks suspiciously like “growth.” Another maddening cycle looms: the inability to accept my inability to accept myself.
Does irony never cease?