Saturday, November 14, 2015

Self-Help & the 8th Habit


Don’t you hate it when this happens?

It’s always so tempting to mock the word “paradigm,” and other concepts from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  (I mentioned this book to my brother and he said, “Let me guess … these habits include yachting, fine dining, and fox hunting.”)  And if more people knew the subtitle of the 7 Habits book, Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, they’d probably make fun of that, too.  In general, the entire self-help industry has been a giant target for all kinds of sarcastic vitriol.

For example, George Carlin is very funny on this topic.  He asks, “Why do so many people need help?  Life is not that complicated….  I really don’t understand:  if you’re lookin’ for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?  That’s not self-help … that’s help!  There’s no such thing as self-help!  You did it yourself … you didn’t need help!”

As much as I enjoyed that riff, I can’t embrace his distaste for self-help.  I myself have no use for glib aphorisms, much traditional advice (like the importance of goals), and frankly most of the books in the self-help section.  However, I’m a big believer in self-help as an endeavor, and actually respect The 7 Habits.  In fact, in this post I’m going to give you an 8th habit—an all-important one that I think Stephen R. Covey missed.

The self-help paradox

Some of the abuse that The 7 Habits gets is based on clichés like “paradigm” and “win-win.”  The comic strip “Dilbert” has been mining that stuff for so long, “Dilbert” itself can get repetitive.  (In Covey’s defense, “paradigm” and “win-win” weren’t hackneyed when he first trotted them out, and it’s only due to the massive success of his book that they’ve been overused ad nauseam.)  But I think there’s something else people are bothered by; after all, many other self-help books, such as Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, avoid the problem of trite language.  I think a lot of people instinctively recoil from the very idea of self-help.  (I know I did, when I was younger and cockier.)

Why should this be?  Well, many forms of self-help are aimed at people with drug, alcohol, or other addictions … not exactly the kind of person we hold up as a role model.  Beyond that, I think there’s a tendency to equate self-help with weakness, and whiny-ness, and perhaps with excessive humility.  Maybe showcasing the awareness of your own frailty can come across as emo.  If you meet a stranger at a cocktail party who within 30 seconds is mentioning his or her therapist, you might start looking for an excuse to disengage.

But if you look at self-help as commitment to improving yourself (and one that can be as private as you wish), and if you acknowledge that there’s a distinction to be made between good, sound advice in book form and all the chaff that any industry will naturally accumulate, I don’t think there’s any reason to automatically eschew the entire notion of trying to be a better person.  The alternative, when you think about it, is to think of yourself, “I’m just fine the way I am.” 

To me, that’s a pathetic way to be, and actually strikes me as more conducive to being emo.  When I witness emo behavior, I see it as an overblown, melodramatic indulgence and I want to shout, “Aw, just shut up!  I know you’re feeling all sad and vulnerable, but don’t wallow in it—work on it!  You could start by growing a pair!”  (Am I sexist?  Perhaps not—after all, I didn’t say “when I witness emo behavior in a male.”  I think “grow a pair” has, like “guy,” become almost a gender-neutral term.)

Frankly, I think the biggest problem with The 7 Habits is simply that not enough people actually read the book.  More broadly speaking, I think too many people—for reasons of pride, or insecurity, or laziness, or some combination of these—are unwilling to challenge their personal status quo.

So here’s my 8th habit:  get help.  Or to be more specific, don’t get too comfortable.  Concede that you’re not perfect, and work on yourself—and don’t pretend that your natural instincts about this process are any match for the careful, thorough thinking that very good minds have already done.  After all, if you knew how to be the perfect you, you’d be perfect.  And you’re not.  (Nobody is, except perhaps Atul Gawande.)

An example

I’m a cheap bastard.  When my daughter’s Stumpjumper (a great bike, but ~15 years old) wasn’t shifting right, I was determined to fix the shifter instead of replacing it.

I tried the easy route recommended by my mechanic pals (hosing the shifter’s innards down with WD-40), but that didn’t work.  This thing was completely gummed up.  So I took it apart.  Damn, that thing’s complicated.  There are all these washers and bushings and pawls, and it’s got 3 springs, one of which you have to wind up and hold tension on while you bolt the shifter back together.  I took photos as I went, but I wasn’t methodical enough, and missed important information, and wasted vast amounts of time in vain.  Throughout the ordeal there was this voice in my head:  “You’re an idiot!” and “Your brothers are right, you’re not mechanically minded!” and “You suck!” and “You call yourself a bike mechanic?” and “Like an idiot, you bought your kid an ancient bike you can’t get parts for and now you’re screwed!” and so forth.

I took a break from the shifter repair to closely examine these strong feelings I was having, and question whether there’s something wrong with me that I can’t take little failures like this in stride.  In the big scheme of things, a new shifter wouldn’t actually be that expensive.  Any third party would probably having trouble understanding why this meant so much to me—and maybe for good reason!  What if I’m being totally unreasonable, I wondered, and some deep fracture in my ego is starting to show itself?  These are all worthy ideas to investigate, and it’s a worthy thing to have the bravery to confront yourself and entertain such doubts.

So did I look online for a good therapist who could sort out my feelings of self-loathing?  No, in the final analysis I determined that that wasn’t the kind of self-help I needed.  I just needed a good website with some better photos of the shifter.  And man, I found an awesome site!  Click here:  this guy not only posted 17 great photos of the left shifter alone, he annotated them and provided complete instructions!

Frankly, I was plenty daunted by the website, because it gave me even less excuse to chuck the shifter and buy a replacement.  But more than that, this guy’s success, and his generosity in putting up the instructions and photos, inspired me.  He obviously has great patience, and a more methodological approach, and I thought, “Why can’t I be more like him?”  So I gave it another crack, and it really did end up being a self-help project (i.e., requiring my own effort and insight) because I couldn’t just follow the guy’s directions … I needed to conceptualize the pieces in 3-D, and try out various ways of putting them together (since I’d buggered the thing up to the point that some were installed wrong).  In case you’re interested, here’s my own set of photos:

(That last photo is a still from a movie I made, which was instrumental because even when I had the shifter assembled correctly, I still had to reach through a gap in the housing with a screwdriver and click the internal pieces back and forth, to work in the oil, before the lever finally started working—which it totally does now, like a champ!).

My point is this:  at the core of self-help is a refusal to let yourself off the hook too easily.  Sure, there is good advice out there about being compassionate with yourself, and the self-loathing voices that countless people have in their heads are not often very constructive.  But for every person who pushes himself too hard and needs to lighten up, I’d say there are 10 who are just too complacent to push their comfort zone, or too reluctant to get help on something they can’t handle on their own.

Giving up too easily can lead to serious consequences; standing down and accepting defeat is no good for the soul.  When I got that shifter working again, I just sat there for a spell, clicking away, putting it through its paces, as delighted as Eeyore savoring his birthday presents:  putting his (popped) balloon from Piglet into the (empty) honey pot Pooh gave him and taking it back out again.

Without getting help (and inspiration) from this complete stranger on the Internet, I’d have failed to fix the shifter, and that self-annihilating voice might well have taken to reasserting itself every time I looked at the mismatched replacement shifter on my kid’s bike.  Instead, the repaired shifter is now an emblem of my perseverance.  (Is it okay that I berated myself so much during the process?  Yeah, probably.  I’m a loud person from a loud family  so my internal voice is bound to be loud as well.  I think my self-esteem is fine.  Sometimes my stubbornness plays a little rough, that’s all.)

One more point to be made here is that not all self-help resources are touchy-feely.  A how-to guide, or the shifter repair instructions on a website, are still self-help.  Why are so many people perfectly casual about instruction manuals and how-to guides but suddenly get nervous when the book is about fixing yourself instead of some object?  A self-help book is either good or it isn’t … there’s no shame in giving it a go, even if (or perhaps especially if) the process might subject you to uncomfortable self-examination.

The cynical justification for the 8th habit

Okay, maybe you’ve been gagging on my whole essay here because you’re just too cynical to go in for this idealistic self-help business and my saccharine success story.  That’s fine—but you should still embrace my 8th habit—get help—for one purely pragmatic reason:  chances are very good your boss will appreciate it.

Who is it, after all, in the “Dilbert” strip who’s always spouting stuff about “win-win” and “paradigms”?  It’s the bosses!  Who are the people, in the real world, who have used these terms so much, and for so long, that they’ve become clichés?  The executives! 

Now, there are various ways to account for this.  One way is to say that executives just have a weakness for this stuff and those who spout banal platitudes and ideological sound-bites are bound to flock together.  But another possible explanation is that a willingness to embrace the self-help ethos is what actually helped propel these people to power.  I don’t think it matters which of these you believe, because the bottom line is, management does respect the self-help impulse.  (Over a dozen C-level executives are quoted in the “Praise for…” section of The 7 Habits.)

When you think about this, it makes perfect sense.  Any healthy corporation needs to foster a culture of earnestness, while rooting out cynicism (which can hugely erode employee morale).  I don’t think you can ever go wrong, career-wise, by erring on the side of humility.

So am I saying you should leave The 7 Habits on your desk for your boss to see, and/or gush to him or her about this or that self-help book?  Not at all.  This essay being the exception, I’m generally pretty quiet about my own self-improvement projects.  Moreover, there’s no telling what your particular boss might think of this or that self-help resource.  But if you suppress your cynicism, and acknowledge the reality that earnestness isn’t the 8th deadly sin, and at the very minimum resist the temptation to pooh-pooh the various professional development programs and rah-rah sales kickoff meetings or whatever, your attitude is bound to evolve, and this will be noticed.  Humility is a habit that very few people, I think, would hold against you.
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