Self Help Books Are Making You Worse

May 2nd, 2019 2:59pm

I recently visited a bookstore to buy myself a birthday present. When I came through the door, I immediately encountered a large table with dozens of self-help books on it. The store's management had strategically placed the table in a location that would force customers to walk around it.

My first thought was that there sure are a lot of folks writing self-help books. My second thought was there must be a whole lot of folks seeking some kind of help.  

Not the least bit interested in self-help books, I meandered through the mystery, philosophy, and current events sections. But I kept thinking about all those self-help books. All those self-help authors. And all those people wanting some kind of help. 

I understand people want more happiness, more fulfillment, more whatever. I get that. But I wondered why so many are searching for something more these days. I have some thoughts on it, but I'll save those for another day. Maybe another column.

I returned to the self-help display and glanced at the titles. I even picked up a few books and skimmed random pages. Some were well-known classics and others had catchy titles without much substance. What I saw in those few moments confirmed two things I already knew. First, not all mental health professionals write well. In fact, many write poorly. Second, not all self-help authors have anything original to say. 

As I thought about it all, I realized most people buying self-help books do so based on several unstated assumptions. First, they assume they can or should be happier, more fulfilled, or better in some way. Second, they assume the author has knowledge that will help them get there. And third, even if the first two assumptions are true, they assume reading the book will lead them to greater happiness, fulfillment, or to whatever improvement they seek. That third assumption bothers me. 

Reading a book, by itself, can't make you happier or more fulfilled. It would be nice if you could buy a book, spent a few hours reading it, and have a better life, but that's not how it works. What usually happens is you buy the book, you read it, and you feel a bit better for perhaps a day, and then you forget what you learned and revert to your familiar thought and behavior patterns. So eventually, when you feel you want more happiness or fulfillment, you buy another self-help book and the same thing happens. After a while you own dozens of self-help books, but you're not happier or more fulfilled.

Don't get me wrong, there are some great self-help books. Two I particularly like are The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck and The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman.  But, assuming the book contains some useful idea or knowledge, reading the book is just the first step. You have to take that idea or knowledge, consider it in the context of your own life, and apply it in your life.  Every day. For the rest of your life. This is what mental health professionals refer to as "doing the work."

Self-help books hurt you by leading you to believe that just reading a book can improve your life. They suck up your money and time, and leave you frustrated because you did not realize reading the book was just the first step on a long journey.

I could buy a book on how to throw a football, but to expect that just reading the book would make me a better passer would be foolish. I would have to take the knowledge gained from that book and practice. I would have to push myself, ask what I am doing right, what I am doing wrong, and seek feedback from others. Maybe find a coach. If I did those things, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, I would get better.

So instead of buying another self-help book, take one down from your shelf that you've already read. Read it again. Pick three ideas from it that resonate with you and write them down on an index card. Then consider those ideas in the context of your life. Devise a written plan on how you will incorporate those ideas into your life. Then execute that plan and hold yourself accountable. Every day.

           

 

 

           

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My Right Mindset Routine

March 25th, 2019 12:51am - Posted By: Mark Cohen

CLICK HERE:

My Right Mindset Routine

If you can't see the entire PDF, email me at mark@cohenslaw.com and I will email the article to you.

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Zen and the Art of Being a Platypus

August 30th, 2016 3:22am - Posted By: Mark Cohen

“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” – Robert M. Pirsig.

Nuclear powered weasels frolic in the morning mist, as the chromosomes in my crooked toes silently tap to the rhythm of the spaghetti resting peacefully atop my chartreuse lawn mower.

Okay, that was gibberish. I wrote it to get your attention. And to help you exit your logical mind. Because today I want to muse about logic and labels – labels you apply to yourself and others.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig observed that the scientific method often breaks things down into their component parts. Then we label those parts. For instance, we can describe a motorcycle by referring to the fuel system, the electrical system, and the power system. This process is useful, but somewhat artificial. When you look at a motorcycle, you won’t see anything labeled “fuel system.” We break things down and label them because it helps us think about and discuss things, but in doing so we often lose sight of the big picture – the motorcycle as a whole. Pirsig writes, “Mark Twain's experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty.

Which brings me to the platypus. Biologists traditionally divided vertebrates (animals with a spine) into five categories - mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Mammals have fur and give birth to their offspring rather than laying eggs. Reptiles lay eggs. Amphibians can live on land or in water. Then along comes the platypus. It has fur. It lays eggs. It lives on land and in water. Is it a mammal, a reptile, or amphibian? Biologists got tired of debating this and gave up. They created a new class of vertebrates - monotremes (egg laying mammals). So now, there are six classes of vertebrates. Did God change the number from five to six?  No, man did. The universe and the animal kingdom stayed exactly the same.  Biologists just changed their way of looking at things.

I know what you’re thinking.  Cohen is sucking down shots of Jeremiah Weed, listening to vulgar Mojo Nixon tunes, and hammering away on his Panasonic CF-52 laptop because he has nothing better to do on a Friday night. True, but irrelevant. I could still be right.

Think about the labels we apply to ourselves and others. We always employ some version of the verb “to be” when we apply labels. There were four cliques at my high school – the jocks, the nerds, the freaks, and the hicks. But not every student fit easily into one of those four categories. There was a kid on my track team who mostly smoked dope. He missed many track practices. But he would somehow make it to the meets and almost always place first in the mile race. (This was before the pointy-headed liberal elitists at Harvard shamed us all into using the metric system).  Was that kid a freak or a jock? He was a platypus. He did not feel constrained to place himself into one of the artificial categories others had created.

Back in 1936, a young man was born in Texas. His father was an Army officer who pushed him hard. He was an exceptional athlete and became a Rhodes Scholar. After earning a master’s degree at Oxford, he joined the Army and became a helicopter pilot. So exceptional was he that the Army offered him a chance to teach at West Point. Sounds like a pretty straight laced guy, right? Certainly not the kind of man that would throw all that away and become a pot smoking, folk singing hippie. His name was Kris Kristofferson. Platypus.

Ever hear of Bruce Dickinson? Probably not. He flew Boeing 757’s for an airline. He wrote some books. He was nationally ranked in the sport of fencing. Oh yeah, he was the lead singer for Iron Maiden. Platypus.

You’ve probably never heard of Tom Scholz either. He was a nerd who earned a master’s degree at M.I.T. and then worked for Polaroid. Pretty boring dude until he formed the band, Boston. Platypus.

You don’t have to be a musician to be a platypus. Take the case of Charley L. Johnson, Ph.D. He spent most of his adult life as an unknown professor of engineering at New Mexico State University. Typical nerd. Oh yeah, he was the quarterback for the Denver Broncos for four years. He played pro football for 15 years, and during some of those years, he was studying for his doctorate and serving on active duty (not in the reserves) in the U.S. Army. Typical platypus. (Johnson wasn’t the only platypus ever to play Quarterback for the Broncos. For a very brief time, the Broncos had a quarterback named Fred Mortensen. He never achieved NFL success, but he is the only Broncos quarterback ever to call a play in Chinese. He spoke fluent Mandarin).

Don’t worry; you need not be an athlete to be a platypus. There once was a young man from a small town in Missouri who became a lawyer. The law bored him, so he gave it up and taught high school. He liked gazing at stars and began studying astronomy. His name is Edwin Hubble. He discovered that the universe is expanding. America named a telescope after him. The Platypus telescope.

Changing careers is a great way to show your platypusosity. You can go from actor to President (Ronald Reagan), comedian to U.S. Senator (Al Franken), Astronaut to U.S. Senator (John Glenn), carpenter to actor (Harrison Ford), lawyer to fried chicken king (Col. Sanders), farm worker to artist (Grandma Moses), teacher to comedian (Joy Behar), journalist to fashion designer (Vera Wang), or actor to Panama’s Minister of Tourism (Ruben Blades).

You can change your religious or spiritual views. You are not stuck with the labels your parents applied to you or that you applied to yourself. There was once a young man who, after working as a printer and banker, earned a master’s degree in theology and became an Episcopal priest. But he realized the statement, “I am an Episcopal priest” wasn’t accurate. He was just him. Episcopal priest was just his current occupation. Two different things. He wasn’t stuck with the label. So he decided to study Buddhism. His name was Alan Watts.

You can also reject political labels. When I tell people I am a registered Democrat, they are often surprised to learn that I support gun rights, favor tougher enforcement of immigration laws, and support making English our official national language. I am a political platypus.

You are you. Your labels are not you. You are more than the sum of your labels. Labels others apply to you are artificial classifications they are employing to make things easier for them – they do not change you in any way. The same is true for labels you apply to yourself. You can change the labels you apply to yourself.

Be careful with the word “is.”  To say, “She is a Republican” is simplistic. It would be more accurate to say, “She is currently registered to vote as a Republican.” But that is not who she is.  She may also be a mother, a guitarist, a scientist, and a rap music fan. 

If you want to be happy, stop feeling constrained by labels others apply to you or that you apply to yourself. Labels are just words, they are not you. And stop applying so many labels to others because those artificial labels are preventing you from seeing the entire person.

Some self-help gurus encourage their clients to visualize themselves as a lion or hard charging rhinoceros. That’s okay, but lions and rhinos lead pretty one-dimensional lives. I say visualize yourself as a platypus.

You can do it. Be one of the few. The proud. The platypuses.

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The Flow of Existence

April 16th, 2015 3:48am - Posted By: Mark Cohen

The Flow of Existence (click)

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