Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Philosophy of the Vague

Chris Luke, Power Habits: 101 Life Lessons & Success Habits of Great Leaders, Business Icons and Inspirational Achievers

I've noticed most bookstores have two sections side-by-side: "Self-Help" and "Psychology." The former is self-explanatory and highlights authors like Jack Canfield, Tony Robbins, and Sylvia Browne. The latter includes some scholarly psychologists, like Paul Ekman or Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, but is mainly dominated by what one New Republic reviewer called “self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.” This book is, far and away, that category.

Author Chris Luke, who doesn't burden readers with anything so pedestrian as a bio or credentials, proffers a book that says nothing particularly wrong, but also says nothing particularly well. Luke offers 101 mini-essays, none over two pages, most just one plus some dangling lines. Each shares some putatively relevant life lesson, like "Challenge Yourself" or "Follow Your Curiosity," illustrated by examples from some famous, successful, or influential personality. Some examples are fictional.

My problem isn't Luke's principles. Indeed, some of them I like so much, I wish Luke spent more time unpacking them. Though Luke never mentions the word, these principles accord with classic Stoicism, a philosophy I recently rediscovered and have striven to apply in my own life. A handful of precepts Luke treats so briefly that they're arguably vulnerable to abuse if audiences read carelessly, but evidence suggests Luke's heart is in the right place.

No, my problems are sub-surface, facing more what Luke omits. For instance, despite the title, Luke never describes what habits are, nor how to engineer them. Unlike, say, Gretchen Rubin, Luke presents habits as something we do, not ways of reprogramming core mental processes. Despite advances in neuroscience, habit formation remains deeply controversial , profoundly unsettled and unsettling. Anybody who's tried muscling past bad habits knows how intractable our brains really are.

Marcus Aurelius, the great
Stoic philosopher
Just as our author omits structure, this book also omits process. Telling audiences to, say, "Cultivate Creativity," doesn't guide the nominally well-adjusted cubicle drone how to change thinking patterns learned through years of school and employment. Precepts like "Don't Wait For Permission" could sound offensive to poor or minority readers, structurally slapped down by economic and social forces that discourage, even punish, risk-taking or innovative behavior.

Let me reiterate: I don't mean Luke is wrong. Quite the contrary, his principles, if handled appropriately, are universal, portable, and empowering. But the applications are not. Telling people to "Focus" isn't good enough; entire religious traditions, like Buddhist meditation or Christian monastic prayer, are dedicated to improving individuals' ability to focus. Workers plagued by bills, responsibilities, and work-life balance, often want to focus, but need guidance actually doing so.

One short illustration should suffice. Luke says that, at the peak of his touring career, comedian Jerry Seinfeld "used a unique calendar system to motivate and pressure himself to write, even when he didn't feel like it." Holy schlamoly, now that's meaty! This old ex-teacher wants to say: "Speak more to that, please." Because I know the feeling of being too tired and discouraged to practice the art I love.

Too late, though: Luke has already caromed onto another topic. To Luke, these precepts aren't something smart people of earnest intention struggle to achieve; they're something we should just do, and quit dithering. Apparently he did. Luke repeatedly mentions his success building an exercise regimen from zero. I believe that's possible; I've seen it. But most beginners need an experienced coach, workout partner, or Phys-Ed teacher to start well. People who just start running just get charley horses.

I believe Luke's 101 principles come from good solid foundations, and not just based on my experience. They're confirmed in authors from the ancient (Marcus Aurelius) to the modern (Charles Duhigg). Writers like Kelly McGonigal confirm the science, while journalists like Malcolm Gladwell, whom Luke quotes, confirm the practice. Robust evidence testifies that Luke writes from a position of strength, backed by history's best minds. At no point in this book does Luke say anything wrong.

But neither does he say anything likely to translate into action. Because his vague, gnomic essays contain no how-to steps, I fear his words will result in many solemn nods, many  "mm-hmms," and copious agreement. Then readers who concur with his opinions will do nothing. Because being right doesn't mean much, if you aren't also useful.

Sometimes, in writing reviews like this, I catch grief for not having any counter-proposal. But I'm no scientist or journalist; that's not my job. This review links several authors whose writing achieves what Luke promises. Take a look. The processes exist, for the diligent student.

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