There's a reason why self-help is a multibillion-dollar industry. It offers a magical commodity – the shot at a better life. Read this, attend that, and before you know it, look! You're poised, confident and successful. It’s a beguiling promise. But does it work? The British journalist Marianne Power decided to find out.
Picking 12 self-help approaches, she followed them faithfully, one after the other, over the course of a year.
She recorded this journey in a blog and then a best-selling book, called "Help Me! One Woman's Quest to Find Out If Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life."
In this clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Marianne Power explains how and why she began this adventure in self-help.
Looking for Help
On my own bookshelf, I have a decades-old copy of Dale Carnegie's "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living," with a cracked spine and loose pages, picked up in a secondhand bookstore on a trip to Australia. So when this book gets a mention near the start of "Help Me!", I'm instantly invested in Power's story.
Her copy of Carnegie's classic is equally well-thumbed, she says, but it's not one of the 12 she picked for her experiment. These range from Stephen R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," to "How to Hear Your Angels," by Doreen Virtue. Also included are Kate Northrup's "Money, A Love Story," "The Secret," by Rhonda Byrne, and "Daring Greatly," by Brené Brown.
But she kicked off with "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway," by Susan Jeffers.
Feel the Fear
"The advice in that book is that you do one scary thing a day, and that can be small to big," she tells me, in our Expert Interview podcast. "So, 'small,' in my case – opening bank statements was quite terrifying, and parallel parking."
"And then 'big,' I did some really big things: I wrote a list at the start of the month, and the most terrifying thing I could think of doing was stand-up comedy, which I did, and I did public speaking, and I jumped out of a plane, and I chatted up men on the Northern Line [of the London Underground]."
All these activities are recounted in hilarious detail in "Help Me!" It was a great start to the year of self-help for Marianne Power – lots of wins in the first month.
The Self-Help Breakdown
But as the experiment continued, a dark side emerged, which Power describes with compelling honesty.
Partway through the year, she had a kind of breakdown: she stopped working and started pushing her friends away. Self-examination was taking its toll.
"It seemed to be the more I looked at my problems the more I had," says Power. "The more I was losing touch with the kind of solid ground of my old life."
And life-changing, significant change can be unsettling. "I was letting go of the old me and I just didn't know what was going to be next," she admits. "I think this is part of the paradox of self-help: we think we want to change, but real change, when it's happening, is actually very scary. It's terrifying."
"Help Me!" reads like a novel. The compelling narrative is shaped by exhilarating ups and heartbreaking downs. And there's a satisfying conclusion, too, when our heroine arrives at peaceful self-acceptance.
A few years after the experiment, I'm keen to know which techniques have had a lasting impact on Power's life. Not surprisingly, "Feel the Fear" has been one of the most powerful books.
"Every time I'm asked to go on television or radio or do public speaking I am terrified, and I do it anyway," she says. "[Before,] I always said no, just no way – the fear of embarrassment, of failing, of not saying the right things: it was too much. Now I seem to be able to live with that."
Other books that made an impression were "The Power of Now," by Eckhart Tolle, and "F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way," by John C. Parkin.
"'F**k it' is the Western expression of the Eastern philosophy of accepting and letting go," Power explains. "As soon as you just start to care a bit less about what's going to happen… as soon as you stop the worrying, you relax, and then things tend to go better."
The Best of Self-Help
Which brings us back to the gentle father of self-help, Dale Carnegie, whose 1948 classic book on living worry-free foreshadows much of the advice Marianne Power encountered in her experiment. Wisdom that eases the human condition appears to be universal.
"Many of us struggle with the same insecurities," Power says. "It doesn't matter how together we look or how big our job is, everybody has these struggles with self-doubt, feeling like they're not doing enough… and if a book can help us understand our situations a bit more, and feel less alone, that is really valuable."