In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I didn’t finish this book. And this review isn’t going to be very fair, because I’m going to rant about the genre as a whole.
Alan Cohen didn’t invent the touchy-feely new age self-help book, but he did come up with an awesome title, which is why I picked it up. I’ve been on a quest for a do-it-yourself therapy book that doesn’t sound like it was written by a maudlin weeper. Cohen has a no-nonsense voice, so I’ll give him that.
And some of the advice in the book is good. Don’t say yes when you mean no. Don’t put other people on a pedestal. Do more of what’s important to you, and less of what’s important to other people. The problem is that if you take this advice literally, you could quickly become the most annoying, self-centered, irresponsible person on the planet.
That’s the main problem I have with this book, and its ilk. You have to spend so much time weeding the chaff from the grain that it’s less effort just to not read it. Take the advice “trust yourself.” Cohen posits that hoary aphorism that children and animals are in tune with their subconscious, and are therefore wiser than us, and we should learn from them. My cat is afraid of the vacuum cleaner. I don’t think that makes her wiser. Children trust their instincts, but they’re also afraid of Santa Claus. No one wants you to act like a child.
He also hops on the “positive thinking” bandwagon, which I detest. There’s a small truth to this in that if you expect an interpersonal outcome to be either positive or negative, your demeanor will generally bring about the expected outcome. But that’s as far as you can take it. If positive thinking gives you positive outcomes, and negative thinking gives you negative outcomes, then people who have bad things happen to them have deserved it. Not only is that bullshit, but it’s inhumanly insensitive bullshit. Good people get mugged, sunny people get cancer, and gloomy assholes win the lottery. Telling people they aren’t successful because they aren’t thinking positively will just make them feel worse.
Here’s a particularly egregious example of how Cohen bends anecdotes to suit his point:
“Richard Bach wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a few weeks. Bill Gates became a billionaire in a few short years. Julia Roberts rose to the top of Hollywood’s A-list in her early 20s. Tiger Woods turned the golf world upside down before he was 21. Are these people just lucky?…No, they trusted their inspiration and did what they loved to do the most. Then, empowered by passion, they attracted the people and resources to assist them.”
I cry shenanigans. First of all, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a short novella, and most authors who know what they’re doing can write a short novella in a few weeks. Bill Gates wrote code for years and years, after having been bolstered by an excellent education and expert mentoring, long before he became a billionaire. Julia Roberts is talented and pretty, but hundreds of equally talented and equally pretty actresses are passed over for success because they aren’t in the right place at the right time. Tiger Woods plays good golf because he practices, not because he thinks sunshiny-thoughts all day long. To prise positive thinking over hard work, determination and yes, luck, is a slap in the face of every bronze medalist who ever stood on the podium and had to nut up and admit that sometimes other people win.
Cohen also gives conflicting advice. He admonishes people to not judge by appearance, saying that appearance isn’t important, and presents the story of a woman who got breast implants only to have them go horribly wrong. The implication here is that if you want to make yourself look better, there’s something shallow about you. I want to remind him that we live in the real world, where a person’s appearance can impact how many friends they have, how much money they make, and whether people think they are worth listening to. Sure, it’s great if you can just accept yourself the way you are, but everyone else is going to judge you.
Which is the main problem I have with the touchy-feely, positive thinking type philosophy. I hate the horrible disconnect that comes from believing something which I don’t think is true. I don’t like the jarring feeling that comes when I had a gut feeling that I was gonna get that story accepted, only to have the rejection letter show up in my inbox. I don’t like trying to get in touch with my childhood instincts when my childhood instincts tell me that ugly people can’t be trusted, cockroaches are dangerous, and if I put my hands over my eyes, no one can see me. I don’t like trying to tell myself over and over again that good things are coming. If they do, that’s great, but if they don’t, then not only do I have the not-good thing to deal with, but I’ve also been lied to by myself.
Sometimes you do have to take a step back and care for yourself instead of other people, but the fact is, we are all interconnected in this world. You have to balance between, for example “staying out of unrewarding relationships” and “spending holidays with the family.” You have to balance between not feeling guilty for things that aren’t your fault, and acknowledging that sometimes you feel guilty because you did something wrong.
If your life really and truly does suck and you need a pep talk, and if you don’t mind being talked down to, this might be an okay book to read. If you’re a normal-to-healthy person who likes to follow directions, I’d stay away from this book. It will probably turn you into a selfish, narcissistic asshole who blames other people for their problems.