What is the secret to living a successful, fulfilling life? Well, it depends who you ask. Ask someone who lives a successful, fulfilling live and they tend to toss around boring terms like talent, hard work, good fortune and perseverance. (Yawn!)
Ask someone who earns their living as a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, however, and you’ll get an altogether different, more marketable answer. The answer varies from self-proclaimed expert to self-proclaimed expert. But they inevitably involve (1) a hitherto undisclosed insight, (2) with a catchy title, and a formula that (3) happens to be exactly the right length for one of those crappy paperbacks you rashly purchase at the airport when you’re depressed at how unsuccessful your life is.
As someone perpetually at the airport, and depressed at how unsuccessful their life is, permit me to offer this beginner’s guide…
DALE CARNEGIE: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (1936)
“There is only one way to get anybody to do anything,” Dale Carnegie wrote in 1936. “That is by making them want to do it.” His book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is probably the best known, certainly the most parodied but, alas, no longer the best-selling title of its kind.
Carnegie admitted to swiping some of his ideas from “Socrates, Jesus and Chesterfield”. (The cigarette company? The football team?) But with a focus on the improvement of oneself, as opposed to the manipulation of others, he had essentially invented the self-help genre as we know it.
RHONDA BYRNE: THE SECRET (2006)
The blockbuster self-help philosophy of the Naughties was a hastily assembled stew comprising three distinct ingredients. First, there is a dollop of common sense. (If you are positive and open to new experiences good things are more likely to happen to you.)
Second, is a generous helping of narcissistic self-indulgence. (You should focus exclusively on gratifying your own needs and desires, at the expense of the needs and desires of others around you.)
Finally, there is a truck load of horseshit so transparently bonkers even Tom Cruise would probably shake his head, chuckle quietly and walk away.
The latter is Byrne’s Law of Attraction, whereby if you envisage an unoccupied parking space, tiny frequency waves will radiate outward from your brain to ensure that said space will be vacant upon arrival at your destination.
(For the record, remarks such as “Jesus Christ, that is totally insane” are not considered the done thing in self-help circles. A more appropriate phrasing here would be “Hey, if it works for you, who cares that it’s totally insane?”)
SUSAN JEFFERS: FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY (1986)
Susan Jeffers, who died last month aged 74, had long mastered the art of the snappy book title. Over the course of her career, they included End The Struggle and Dance With Life, I Can Handle It! and (my personal favourite) I’m Okay, You’re a Brat!
But it is her first book that remains her best known. In it, Jeffers shares such startling insights as the fact that “90% of what we worry about never happens.” I’m guessing one of the fears she overcame in writing the book was ‘What if someone asks me how I possibly arrived at that figure?’
ANTHONY ROBBINS: UNLIMITED POWER (1987)
In Unlimited Power, Tony Robbins invites us to examine the careers of such business luminaries as Colonel Sanders (yes, the KFC guy) and ask ourselves what qualities Sanders had that we don’t have. Was it talent, he asks? Apparently not. Intelligence? Nope, not that either.
The difference, Robbins explains, is something called “personal power”, which the bauld Colonel apparently had in spades. Personally, I’d have said it was the white suit, string tie and the finger-lickin’ chicken recipe. But then, that’s just the sort of negative, cynical attitude that will one day see me die penniless in a skip.
JACK CANFIELD & MARK VICTOR HANSEN: CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (1993)
Twenty years ago, two motivational speakers compiled 101 of the sort of sickly sweet, inspirational “true life” stories you might nowadays discreetly unfriend your mother for posting to Facebook. That book became a publishing phenomenon.
Today, Canfield and Hansen’s empire of feel good pablum now spans over 100 titles, including Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Chicken Soup for the African-American Soul and Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul. (The latter of which may, or may not, be a self-help book aimed at automobiles.)
BRIAN TRACY: MAXIMUM ACHIEVEMENT (STRATEGIES AND SKILLS THAT WILL UNLOCK YOUR HIDDEN POWERS TO SUCCEED) (1993)
“At almost any time, you can measure how well you are doing in your relationship by one simple test: laughter. How much two people laugh together is the surest single measure of how well things are going.” By that yardstick, author Brian Tracy and I must be involved in one of the great romances of our age.
The guy is a firecracker of vague, muddled and/or incomprehensible gobbledygook masquerading as insight. Who knows, maybe it is my ability to follow coherent lines of thought that has been holding me back all these years.
DEEPAK CHOPRA: THE SEVEN SPIRITUAL LAWS OF SUCCESS (1994)
The Indian-born New Age guru is a spiritual leader for celebrity age. He specialises in repackaging Hindu concepts for the ecumenical, pseudoscience for the educated as well cultivating personal friendships with people too famous to really have friends (Mikhail Gorbachev, Michael Jackson, Richard Branson).
Time Magazine is less infatuated with the man, stating that Chopra’s teachings “create false hope in genuinely ill people and dissuade them from seeking medical care and guidance”. Bah! In the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel, that’s just nitpicking, init?
ECKHART TOLLE: THE POWER OF NOW (1997)
Oprah regards Eckhart Tolle as a prophet. She was turned on to his work by Meg Ryan, so you know that, intellectually, we’re in some pretty rarefied air here. The German-born purveyor of spiritual enlightenment is an advocate of living one’s life in the moment.
Which is just as well, because he tends to leave several lifetimes’ worth of pauses between each syllable when he appears on her show. His book is equally slow moving. I’ve read the first 40 pages and, so far, I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about.
ALAN CARR: THE EASY WAY TO STOP SMOKING (1985)
Among smokers, Alan Carr has long been regarded as the man who holds the keys to the non-smoking kingdom. His famous promise was that if you finished this book, you were guaranteed to quit smoking for good.
As someone who did successfully kick the habit, but failed abjectly to make it through 400+ pages of Alan Carr’s lumpen, repetitive prose, I would say that he was right up to a point.
If you have the willpower to finish the book then you no doubt have sufficient willpower to pack in smoking. (In much the same way that, if you can knock out a machine gun nest of bloodthirsty Chechen mercenaries, you can probably subdue a detachment of Girl Guides.) One does not, however, necessarily derive from the other.
M. SCOTT PECK: THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED (1978)
It is in his real world credentials that M. Scott Peck differs most from every other author in this genre. That late author was a Harvard graduate, a World War 2 veteran, a practicing psychiatrist and the director of a mental health clinic.
Which is to say, M. Scott Peck actually had some real world credentials. His most famous book advocates the patient application of discipline and hard work, rather than any particular quick fix, as the key to dealing with life’s most taxing problems.
The Road Less Travelled remains the one self-help book likely to be read by people who don’t normally read self-help books. Which is as close, on this page, as you’ll find to an endorsement.