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INTERESTING STUFF – 28 January 2017

Done With Self-Improvement

EDITORIAL NOTE: Please take note of a new regular section at the bottom of today's post.

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During most of my adult life, the United States has been big on self-improvement. Thousands of books bear witness to this – such titles as the granddaddy of them all, How to Win Friends and Influence People from the 1930s. You will undoubtedly recognize some of the biggest sellers since then including

Think and Grow Rich
The Power of Positive Thinking
Awakening to Your Life's Purpose
You Can Heal Your Life
The Road Less Traveled
Dress For Success
Your Erroneous Zones
I'm OK, You're OK
The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People
Codependence No More
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom

And so on ad infinitum. These self-help classics and thousands of lesser volumes promise that if you just change yourself in one particular way, you will be rich and famous and happy.

Or something like that.

I was never a strong fan of self-help books but there is a lot of pressure in American culture to be working on bettering yourself. Constantly.

It's hard to resist and over the years I did succumb to several personal development books even as I was disappointed at how thin and shallow the advice is.

Whatever change they promised, the result for me - not surprisingly - was some measure of guilt and self-loathing at not being good enough to master the instructions. Not exactly the what I was going for when I picked up the book.

Now that I have reached an age where I ought to be able to skate toward the end, they haven't eased off, these self-help gurus.

There is hardly an elder website worthy of the name that isn't stuffed with articles about how to achieve “positive ageing,” “creative ageing,” “successful ageing,” “better ageing” “purposeful ageing,” and one of my favorites, “how to look younger as you get older.” And much more.

But here's the thing: At 75, I don't need any help to “exercise my mind” or take up “lifelong learning.” I've been doing those things steadily, day by day since before I can remember and I doubt there are many people who can avoid it. By now, I'm not going to “overcome any fears” that I haven't already. And I don't have enough time left to worry about “identifying my blind spots.”

It exhausts me just to even think about doing such things at my age. I'm not saying the self-help industry is a sham but I've learned that there is no secret ingredient, no idea, no revelation that will make you or me a better person.

That comes from inside, from quiet times with ourselves, from living by the values we believe in.

It may have taken me way too long to get to this but no book, no guru, no facile elder webpage about how to age well is going to change me anymore than they did when I was young. I'm done with self-improvement and getting on with living however many years of life remain to me, warts and all.

Old People at Play

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(So much is happening so quickly in the new administration that even large news organizations are having trouble keeping pace, let alone a little, one-woman website like this. So now and then when the day's topic relates to ageing but I want to pass on some short, resistance-related information, I will post it here at the bottom of the main story. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.)

Here is the first go:

On Wednesday, in his daily email newsletter from Axios, Mike Allen reported on America's latest reading habit:

"'1984 sales soar after Trump claims, alternative facts' per AP: 'First published in 1949, Orwell's classic dystopian tale of a society in which facts are distorted and suppressed in a cloud of newspeak topped the best-seller list of Amazon.com [last] evening...

"Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel about the election of an authoritarian president, It Can't Happen Here, was at No. 46. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was at No. 71. Sales also were up for Hannah Arendt's seminal nonfiction analysis, The Origins of Totalitarianism."

This is terrific, good news. I re-read all four of these books during the election campaign along with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. They are important instruction manuals for the times we are living in now.


The Washington Post noted the sale of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course only Hillary supporters can read.

That is one good thing to have come from the outcome of the election, the resurgence of some of these classics. At least they have resurrected an awareness that perhaps had gone dormant among most people.

The self-help thing mostly left me cold about twenty years ago, around the time that Oprah began putting things out on an almost daily basis. While waiting in a long grocery line recently I picked up a People magazine with her on the cover, once again sharing the secret of weight loss. The article was a retrospective of the diets and weight control programs she's tried over the years. If Oprah, with all the resources anyone could want (cook, coach, gurus, etc. etc. ) fights this battle perennially, where is the answer? This just reinforced my belief that there is no one answer, other than to apply common sense and get over yourself.

I gave up self-help books when I hit my 30's because they all pretty much said the same practical things that I knew or they were naive or they wanted my money. I think the only thing that helps is something that reinforces you respect and love of yourself as your body and mind age and begin to fight with you.

Thank you for adding the RESISTANCE NOTES. I just wish you'd include them even when they don't relate to aging. We all have families who have to live in this world when we're gone and we care about all the alarming changes #45 is making.

I grew up reading all the self improvement books, too. I hate the ones targeted to our peer age group because they mostly make me feel like a failure because I'm not out bungee jumping and sky diving.

Jean R...
Maybe I'm slow, but you have certainly confused me with your request. Today's resistance note does not have anything to do with ageing. And on days when I'm not writing about ageing, the entire post relates to the resistance. So maybe you could clarify what you're asking?


The Origins of Totalitarianism is on sale today at Amazon for the Kindle, $1.99. (Saturday). I read your comment first and then saw the ad. I'm going to buy it because of your quote.

I mostly aged regarding self help books, but there was a time I took some advise. I was in a state of a deep sense of personal failure and I took this advice. Every day I looked at myself in the mirror and said to my image, "I am a good person". It took awhile but eventually I began to believe it.

Thank you for the blog.

In my middle years (35-50), I read several self help books which seemed to be the perfect books coming along at the perfect time......A Road Less Travelled and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Both contributed to my getting a 2nd degree, travelling on my own, leaving a suffocating marriage and exiting a job to just soak in a more creative life. I don't regret the time spent reading their advice nor the decisions I made as a result. But too often I see friends (I'm 70 but many friends a years younger) relying on what they read to 'give them the answers'. Especially when they're looking for that perfect man. At 70 and single, I take pleasure in knowing myself well and having lived by my own self-developed values, ethics and truths.

I wouldn't mind self-help books if they weren't generally so insipid. The effort to improve oneself seems to me to be a logical act if a person continues to learn and to reflect on her own thinking and behavior.

I wish I could say I gave up self-help books with Mirabelle Morgan's "Total Woman." I only remember it now because it is the only book I ever said I would throw on a dung heap because it would make better fertilizer than advice. It was such bullshit. The last one it picked up was the "7 Habits of Highly Successful People." I never got past the first habit. I also noticed that Amazon has "Origins of Totalitarianism" on sale for $1.99 for Kindle. I had read parts for various classes and thought I might go back and read the whole thing. Ought to pick up "Eichmann In Jerusalem" where she coined the phrase "banality of evil." Please keep the new section.

I've given up on self-help, having gotten way happier thru self-acceptance.

I've also given up on books, thanks to six concussions.

"When I Say No I Feel Guilty" is the one I benefited from...or perhaps it was a case of "When the student is ready the teacher appears".

No more self- help books or articles for me, I hope by now at the age of 84 I''m ageing as gracefully as I know how. I must say however that the present political scene doesn't help my sunny disposition!

When I was a kid I read How to win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. That was the only 'self help' book I ever read pretty much the whole way through. The others, those with alluring titles that I leafed through over the years seemed to be (as others have noted) of little worth..

The how to be an elder books are nauseating. When some of those authors reach elderhood, they may discover reality.

I'm glad you have decided to add that extra "Resistance Notes" category. We live in strange times.

I enriched a lot of self-help authors in the early '70s. Most of the books were pretty useless, especially for a shy introvert. But I found a lot of reassurance in the smallest of them all, "How to Be Your Own Best Friend."

As for the books suddenly finding new popularity, "1984" and "Brave New World, etc., I read them all way back when and don't need to revisit them to see what's happening now. But maybe they'll open the eyes of some younger readers.

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals was an inspiration to me and my co-workers in the War on Poverty back in the early '70s. http://amzn.to/2k12aPp

I too read 1984 & Brave New World years ago and some of the others you mention.
My problem now is I can't stay away from Twitter and various news feeds to see the latest on what Tweety Bird has done--but also the latest resistance moves, e.g. our mayor, among others, pushing back at Trump, re immigrants.

As for self help books--especially the ones on successful aging--thanks for your comments! In a time of ongoing turmoil in my life, I relied on them a lot, when I was younger, just to keep sane. But that was then. Now, it's only the country :-/ They make me feel deficient, if I let them, when in fact I'm finally having the time to do what I want to do. I'm not really in the market for learning a new language to forestall Alzheimer's, or be more social, or whatever. I'm calling senators and others, marching once in a long while, though I hate rallies, making such contributions as I can, etc. --not for self improvement!

I too gave up on self-help books long ago. One of the best things I ever did in this area was get involved in a situation where my Myers-Briggs personality was unveiled. I finally figured out how to deal with myself (and others).
When I went looking for retirement information (not the financial kind) I kept running into stuff that kept telling me to retire "correctly" I had to be just as busy and involved as when I was working. This was not helpful [as was actually crap] and I finally decided that I would just retire and wing it.
So far so good.

As to the books I suggest Ayn Rand "The Fountainhead". As kind of a know your enemy type of suggestion. A lot of the [extreme] conservatives see this book as their "bible" from what I understand.

Another thought in regards to the current administration
I recently found an old page from a "Vocabulary Builder" page a day calendar that I saved for some reason - I mean this was from 20+ years ago. I must have been prescient or something.
Kakistocracy [kak-is-toc-ra-cy] Government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens. From the Greek kakistos, worst
I guess now we have an official name for this instead of "Trumphism"

Thanks for the kakistocracy definition for readers. Masha Gessen has been using it since the election in her excellent NYRB columns and others are now picking it up.

Right on about self help....... I've learned stuff from friends, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Han, but that's about it.

I can't wait to get my hands on Bernie Sander's "Our Revolution."

The worst person I ever worked for was a huge fan of '7 habits..' --I'd already given up long before that on believing in self-help gurus and if I hadn't, those forced classes the whole staff had to attend ('opportunities for improvement' he called them) would certainly have cured me completely. That guy and that book contributed to my decision to take early retirement. BTW, I recently read where 'he who shall not be named' follows the 'gospel' of Norman Vincent Peale ( early preachers of bettering yourself even at the expense of others) .

Thanks for everything you do re. RESISTANCE -- posts and post-scripts -- whatever works is appreciated. It is terrific news about the books now reaching the best-seller lists again, although Dianne's comment up at the top which made me laugh may actually be true.

Back in the day, when I was a very inexperienced and isolated Mom, I got one useful nugget of wisdom from "Parent Effectiveness Training" that greatly eased my raising of 4 girls born inside 6 years. It seems so simple, but learning to decide 'whose problem is it?' made letting go of such things as riding herd on homework, nagging about clothes, not missing the school bus, etc. not my problem. Spats between sisters were theirs to solve. They learned responsibility and I got a break from being the heavy.

I also found "I'm OK, You're OK" useful in understanding some relationships and transactions. But I soon got too busy to read those kinds of books -- or any books, for that matter, and haven't felt the need to self-improve since then.

Thanks for the add-on RESISTANCE note.

I consider myself a life long learner. I start the new year with targets or goals of things I'd like to accomplish during the year. Many are mundane like learn to make a pie. Accomplishments are important to me and something I missed when I retired. But, even when I worked, I tried to be a better person and I continue to do this. It's a personal mission. It has led me to have new experiences, to confront my fears and to make new friends. It has deepened me.

I don't know how I'll feel about this as I get older but I'd like to think there's always something new to learn.

Thank you for posting the medical interview prep sheets!

All those mostly insipid and generally useless self-help tomes probably did help someone--the authors, many of whom probably laughed all the way to the bank!

In my younger years I read "1984" and several of the other books mentioned and don't feel the need to revisit them now--it's all too evident what kind of times we find ourselves living in. Ayn Rand's books put forth what I believe is the driving philosophy of today's Republicans, even many who profess to be "Christian". They seem to have missed entirely the part about "do unto others" while eagerly imbibing the Kool-Aid of the "prosperity gospel" right along with The Orange Apparition.

I appreciate info about The Resistance. I may be among very few who think that at this point it seems rather diffuse and unfocused. I'm getting emails (all soliciting money that I don't have!) from a myriad of Progressive causes. I hope that in the ensuing weeks the resistance will coalesce and become less fragmented--perhaps identifying larger issues that will impact individuals and large groups of other people--in addition to pushing back against tRump, Inc. in general.

For me, these issues would most likely be Social Security/Medicare, affordable housing for elders and Supreme Court appointments. It's not that I don't care about women's reproductive rights, minimum wage, the environment and immigration--I do--but if the resistance isn't at least somewhat focused, I wonder how effective it will be overall. Gens X, Y and the Millennials need to be at the forefront of some of these battles, and it is encouraging to see that many of them appear to agree.

Checking back in here to read comments left since early this morning, I'm finding that I want to say one more thing.

The se;f-help books that I dismiss are largely those that are written by people who seem to spend their entire lives re-writing the same book, with a different title and slight variation (or maybe not). And those who seem to believe that everyone should hanker after getting richer or thinner or more attractive.

Like some here, I have found books, over the past 50+ years that they would come into my purview, that made a difference in my life, and which I have recommended to others at times. They weren't necessarily classified as self-help books though, and generally fell into the areas of parenting, getting along with co-workers (or bosses, or really anyone), what to do around people who felt toxic, and general acceptance of self and others.

One book in that last category, which I honestly cannot remember the title of now, had a line that has stuck in my head for decades, and which i have shared countless times: "Order and perfection are not synonymous; all that's ever needed is 'good enough.'" By that time, I had already spent way too much time expecting perfection from myself and others and I was very thankful to have come across that simple message that helped me let us all off the hook. Life has immeasurably better ever since.

My dad had the best self-help advice:

"If you want something, get off your a$$ and earn it."

Sounds good to me.

Re: self help books... having a child go thru drug rehab while in high school introduced me to the plethora of @youve done parenting all wrong until now..you can do it right" books. The best thing I got out of them was the phrase "Thats unacceptable behavior" instead of long lectures to my kids. It worked and 3 of my 4 adult children also used the phrase.
Otherwise I just try to be the best me I can. That's enough.
Thanks for Notes for the Underground. Good idea. I like the idea of having posts devoted to the resistance as well as having a paragraph or 2 weekly or whenever the need comes.
Be well Ronni

Adam Gopnik published an excellent piece in the latest "New Yorker" on the upsurge of sales of "1984" and its significance today.

It's late. But I have to comment on I'm Ok, You're Ok. My mother was determined my husband and I should read it, so she bought it for us. Sometime later, on a visit, she asked if I'd read it. No, I said, but I threw it at S. It was a long time ago. I hope I was joking.

I gave up the self-help books decades ago. They seemed all too "victim blamey" If I wasn't positive enough, if I loved too much, it was my fault. Nuts to that! Just try to be a kind person and be a bit more self-aware and you've got most of it handled. Self-improvement is a journey. Occasionally a book can help nudge you. . .
It is so comforting to see that some of my favourite Orwell books are being read again! 1984, Animal Farm and The Road to Wigan Pier. I went to look for them on the shelves and to my horror, I can't find my copies. I'm hoping that somebody in the family has them. . . or I will have to re-purchase them again.

I will be 70 in 15 days. One of my first presents to myself is to take ALLLL the self help books I have never read or remembered to the library. Then I will check out 1984. I have been telling everyone to read it because it's exactly what's happening. We can't let our minds be worn down by this administration's constant lying and ego. Thank you Ronnie!

Ronni, your observations about self-help books reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book, Bright Sided. As a NY Times review stated, "the reliance on one’s personal disposition shifts attention from the larger social, political and economic forces behind poverty, unemployment and poor health care. 'It can’t all be fixed by assertiveness training,' [Ehrenreich] said wryly." The review concluded, "if people insist on seeing her as a 'messenger of doom,' she gracefully accepts the role: 'I will see what I can do to awaken us to this mass delusion.'"

I love the title of a Buddhist book I saw once it was: "There is Nothing Wrong with You".

I was also one of those trying to read all self help books. Bit somehow once i found out about myer briggs and went deep into it. I felt like i finally found what i needed and i found peace and the right path..

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