Is there such a thing as self-help?

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self-help book

If you’re looking for self-help why would you read a book written by someone else? That’s not self-help, that’s help. There is no such thing as self-help. If you did it yourself then you didn’t need help.

George Carlin – Comedian

My experience with self-help books began nearly 20 years ago. At the time I was living on a boat on the Thames with a five-month-old baby and a partner who was studying full time at the local art college.

Our income was sporadic and dependent upon the temporary office jobs I did whenever my partner could mind the baby. Having little money is stressful but even more so with a young family.

Someone from another boat lent me a self-help book and said it had improved her life. I was intrigued by her enthusiasm and by the book’s premise that it could help me.

Earning a regular income was the top priority so I started on the visualisation techniques. I imagined that I had a part-time, well-paid evening job in a bank as a graphic designer (designers were paid a lot more than personal assistants or secretaries).

I told my friends and they logically pointed out that:

  • I’d never worked in a bank
  • A part-time, well-paid evening job was virtually non-existent
  • I would have a lot of competition for the position
  • I wasn’t a graphic designer

However, I was undeterred and continued with the visualisation exercises.

Within a month I was offered a well-paid, part-time evening job in a bank as a graphic designer. The bank was Lehman Brothers.

There is nothing quite like working at a wealthy investment bank and Lehman Brothers looked after its staff. The highlight, though, was the black cab ride at the end of every shift. The bank paid for staff taxis no matter where you lived. This meant I could relax about the cost of a 30-to-40 minute ride to Surrey.

The taxi would wind through the London streets, lit up at night as we passed Westminster, Trafalgar Square and over the London Bridge, while I sat in the back marvelling at the beauty of England’s capital.

Six weeks later I was sacked when it became obvious to everybody I wasn’t a graphic designer.

I was devastated. For those six weeks I was relieved of financial stress and could just enjoy being with the baby.

Ironically, Lehman Brothers went into its own financial meltdown, sacked of its assets by the remaining investment banks during the global financial crisis.

So how did this self-help book manage to fulfil my needs? Was it just a coincidence that soon after reading the book I got the job I wanted? If so, should the book have advised me that happiness is only temporary and prepared me instead for the trauma of being fired from the perfect job?

Or did I need to read more self-help books to help me through the next act in life’s drama?

I’ve looked for answers ever since, but these days I’m more interested in neuroscience.

What self-help books and neuroscience have in common is the way we process thoughts. Self-help books provide techniques to create new habits, leading towards positive outcomes.

Neuroscience, among other things, involves research into brain plasticity and how we can change the way we think and learn as we age.

I put my faith in science rather than pop psychology to wrestle with life dilemmas. Sometimes I find answers in a YouTube TED talk video. Other times I watch a documentary or read an article in a philosophy magazine that resonates with this part of my journey.

I’ve never tried to visualise anything as specific as that job at Lehman Brothers again. In retrospect, I think it was a fluke. One of those random events that every now and then makes us query whether fate really does propel our actions.

Yet, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’m inevitably drawn to the self-help section of  the library and search for that book I was lent all those years ago and whose title I’ve forgotten.

I’ve never found it.

George Carlin summed it up best:

“Why do so many people need help? Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, you eat three meals, take one good shit and then you go back to bed.”

Thanks George, I’ll keep that in mind.

For anyone interested in the self-help phenomenon, Wikipedia has a very good explanation of the rise of the genre beginning in the latter half of the 20th Century and into the 21st.

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Author: Sue Bell
Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.