Thursday, August 11, 2011

Can We Really Control Our Own Lives?


Too many people go through life knowing we should change, but unsure how to actually do so. A major subset of book publishing attempts to give is the tools to make changes in our lives—be it our careers, our family life, our souls, or whatever. And many such books wash out. Three recent books provide an eye into the difference between successful and failed self-help literature.

Julie Donley makes a good kickoff point. In Does Change have to be so HARD?, Donley, a registered nurse and entrepreneur, uses a four-point mnemonic to define what impedes our ability to change our lives: Habits, Attachments, Resistance, and Discouragement. Then she shares an eightfold path to overcome these obstacles. Wait, four noble truths and an eightfold path? Why does that sound familiar?

Unlike the Buddha, Donley offers a prescriptive approach to changing one’s life. Like too many psychologists and self-help gurus, she seems misguided in her assumption that all people are alike, and therefore can learn from instructions as clear and inflexible as those with an IKEA entertainment center. There’s no story and few object lessons— and those few objects we get come mainly from Donley’s own life, so we know who she considers the typical human.

Frustratingly, Donley isn’t wrong. Her insights into the processes humans engage to entrench themselves in bad paths, and the simple steps we could use to overcome them, make sense. They certainly ring true in my life. Yet instead of investigating any in-depth, she simply names them, gives instructions, and moves on. So I like Donley’s ideas... in the abstract. In the concrete, she holds herself distant.

Rick Singer also holds himself distant in Now: Embracing the Present Moment, yet he does so for different reasons, achieving a different effect. A student of Eastern wisdom, Singer’s similarities to the Buddha don’t seem nearly as accidental as Donley’s, and instead of giving directions in taking control of life, Singer would rather give us wisdom to ruminate over. Which makes him more effective, if less universal.

Singer divides his book twofold. First he offers ninety-nine homilies on quotes from recognized thinkers. Though these commentaries run vague, they also run short, less than a page each. Like sermonettes, these nuggets guide readers to consider some important point: how do we know success when we see it? Why is morality better than profligacy? How can we discard fears of the future and recriminations over the past to live our best right now?

In his second part, Singer provides several short essays by people who have found ways to live in the present. These essayists don’t pretend to have every answer, and they certainly don’t tell us how to approach our own lives. Yet their examples tweak our imagination, giving us the passion to look at ourselves and make the changes we need to pursue the present with everything at our disposal.

Srinivasan Pillay, in Your Brain and Business, utilizes many of Singer’s best qualities. Yet his book certainly isn’t for everyone. Utilizing the latest neuroscience, he examines the differences in brain function between people who succeed—in business, art, and life—and those who merely go through the motions. And he provides guidance on how to implement his ideas in your life.

Despite the title, this book discusses little specific to business. Rather, Pillay applies functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to different personality types and identities, connecting domains of success with particular neurological phenomena. This process returns results that often seem counterintuitive, yet demonstrate that the brain enjoys greater complexity, and more adaptability, than we realize on the surface.

Unfortunately, where Donley offers vague prescriptiveness, Pillay suffers from excessive specificity. Early on, he pledges not to rely on terminology, but he’s less than successful in that goal. His dense, highly technical language can make for very tough reading at times, and mining his jargon for application can require a hearty constitution.

Notwithstanding its density, I wish I’d known what this book describes when I started teaching. Pillay explains, for instance, the feeling of desperation that comes with new learning. Why should discovery feel so unpleasant? Because, as it turns out, we’re growing new synaptic connections. As a teacher, I can recognize my students’ discomfort as a sign of real learning.

These books’ differing levels of success might reveal a problem with the self-help publishing market.  But I suspect that these three authors court very different selves that need help.  I just wonder if they’ve all decided who those selves are yet.

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