Evaluating Self-Improvement Gurus

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Jan. 1 is the day most of us make resolutions that usually involve self-improvement.

A year ago, Beth Lisick gave new meaning to the term "self-help" and spent the next year determined to improve every aspect of her life.

Her journey has turned into a book, Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone.

She explains whether or not some of the more popular self-help gurus really do help.

Excerpt: Helping Me Help Myself

Helping Me Help Myself Book Cover

Technically, you wait until January 2 to start your resolutions, right? When everything is supposed to be getting back to normal, when banks are open and mail delivery resumes, that must be when you jump in and blindside this nascent, unsuspecting year with your hot new program. Because, if you're like me, the first of January is already shot. It's noon and you're just getting in the car to drive down to your parents' house to collect your four-year-old son and will spend the next six hours sinking into their battered leather sofa with the central heat blasting while emptying a wooden bowl of its potato chips and staring at a football game on the enormous TV screen before eating a half- pound of ham and polishing off the rest of the See's candies. See what I'm saying? You can't attempt anything new or revolutionary under those circumstances.

My dad, who's gearing up for triple bypass surgery later this month, is filling Eli in on the game using some of his favorite phrases like "barn burner" and "deep yogurt." Eli's not much of a football fan, but he can get into the novelty of it during holiday gatherings. My son, Gus, is momentarily content, doing a connect-the-dots book on the coffee table in front of me as I watch this football coach get more and more agitated. My first thought is: I'm glad it's not me he's yelling at. Then it dawns on me that I've been hearing a lot lately about "personal coaches" and "life coaches." It's usually in the context of a joke, or one of those newspaper lifestyle features you can't quite believe is real. One of those stories where it seems like the journalist is just interviewing her friends and passing it off as a trend. But maybe I should find a coach to help me. The thought of it makes my scalp tingle, but it might be time to admit that if I put my mind to it, anything could happen. I'm already doing okay, so I've got nowhere to go but up, right? It could even be entirely possible that by the end of the year I will actually be able to say it—"life coach"—without using a cartoon voice or making air quotes with my fingers.

"I need a life coach," I practice saying to the TV.

There are supposedly 30,000 certified life coaches in the world right now, and lord knows how many unlicensed practitioners lurking about on Craigslist, which means that each time I say those words with a sneer I am essentially hocking a giant loogie on a group of people who are only trying to help (and I'm sure some who are preying on your insecurities, which can be found in any profession, including dentistry, landscaping, and the small but influential army of body waxers). I'll start with opening my heart a little and trying not to be mean for sport. Being mean, as I've learned from Gus and quite a few blogs, is one of the easiest things in the world.

The first time I ever heard of a life coach was a couple of years ago. Some guy I'd met at a party, the kind who introduces himself as "an entrepreneur," was carrying on about a dinner party he'd thrown to which he'd invited everyone in his employ—"my people," he'd said. I was a little hung up on the reality of it anyway, a dinner party for the eight people who work for you—not for you at your company, but just, you know, the house keeper, the accountant, the pool guy, and the like. The staff. (How did I even meet this person?) He said he had wanted to invite everyone "from his life coach to his house keeper" but wasn't sure if his house keeper would feel awkward, because she didn't speak that much English, or— "and I know this is terrible to say," he conceded—if his life coach would feel "insulted" to be invited to a dinner party that included the housekeeper.

Quality problems.

I went on to quiz him, in a not unkind manner, about what he and his coach did together as I tried to wrap my mind around it. You pay this person to help you achieve your goals. You are so focused on yourself and your quest for fulfillment and happiness that you hire a professional to motivate you. You're okay, but you want to be the best you can be, and you have a very specific idea of what constitutes this Ultimate You. The corners of my mouth were involuntarily turning downward as I spoke, nearly twitching as if they were being pulled by strings. Interesting that I have none of these reactions when people tell me they are in therapy. I have heard of life coaching being called "the new therapy," and supposedly it's much more popular with men because of the bro- friendly nomenclature.

Just hanging with my coach. We're coming up with a game plan!

But why am I so critical of someone who's trying to improve his life? Do I think if I don't keep up, I'll be the last loser standing? Part of it is that the intimacy of having a personal coach freaks me out. I can barely get a pedicure without feeling ridiculous for imposing my feet upon someone for twenty minutes. How could I dump my whole life in someone's lap?

It's not that I don't have a plan. What I want to do is spend the year putting some well-known self-help programs to the test, but I am lacking any semblance of an entry point. Do newbies really just walk down the self- help aisle at the bookstore and pick up what ever looks appropriate? For something so monstrously popular, it sure is difficult to get hooked up. Where's the pusher willing to give me the first one for free?

January is passing slowly. I try to eat well and get plenty of sleep while waiting for inspirational lightning to strike, but the rotting front steps to my house, the books on the shelf that I haven't read, the way I get out of breath playing with Gus, are nagging signs that I've got to improve. As a matter of fact, I've started seeing signs everywhere, as if the universe is somehow in on my experiment with me. There are weird coincidences and synchronicities, a phenomenon first brought to my attention in the following dialogue from the 1984 cult classic Repo Man.

Miller: A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: Suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, "plate," or "shrimp," or "plate o' shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
Otto: You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?
Miller: I'll give you another instance: You know how everybody's into weirdness right now?

The first plate o' shrimp incident happens on January 3. My mom gets me a sweater for Christmas every year, and when she asked me what I wanted, I'd told her it would be nice to have a black hooded one that zips up the front. Saint that she is, she looked absolutely everywhere, and when she couldn't find it, she got me an off-white pullover one instead. Now I'm walking Gus home from preschool, wearing my new sweater, thinking about how I still want a black one. This one is so nice, cashmere and very ladylike, but I know it's only a matter of time before I ruin it. I am hard on clothes. Buttons practically fly off my shirts, shoe soles get worn down at warp speed, and holes appear in the knees of my jeans almost as frequently as they do in Gus's. So there I am walking along, a vision of the kind of sturdy sweater I want in my mind, when I see a piece of balled-up fabric in an agapanthus bush. I reach down, unfurl it, and am astounded to see almost exactly the type of sweater I was picturing.

"Gus!" I say. "This is amazing! I was just thinking about this sweater, and here it is!" The thing is sopping wet, but I snatch it up. It looks like my size, and I could wash it.

"I put it there for you," he says. And even though he's got the I know that you know I'm lying face on, I am reminded once again why Hollywood makes so many psychological thrillers featuring small children possessed by supernatural forces.

A few nights later, after I put Gus to bed, I turn on the TV. I'm not a big TV watcher, and even as I'm turning it on I'm thinking, Why am I turning on the TV? We only get three channels and all of them are fuzzy. Plus, it's Tuesday, which means there's no chance of catching an episode of America's Next Top Model. I stand in front of the screen, mostly a snow flurry, but the audio is clear. I'm drawn in by the announcer, who sounds like a great friend to have. I've always been fascinated by voice- over actors, those disembodied beings carrying urgent messages to your ears. The voice speaks about creating the life you want, finally taking the time to become the person you are really meant to be. That's what I'm doing! And what's he selling? Mattresses. Didn't the Sleep Train (where, coincidentally, my mattress is from) used to have kind of an "All aboard! Woot-woot! Catch a ride on the Sleep Train!" type approach? Is this personal fulfillment angle a new campaign?

And what about that box of free books left in front of the neighbor's house when they moved out on the first? The box I rifle through and discover Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehy, Dr. Benjamin Spock's The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care, and OK Words: A Good Book About the Good Life from I'm OK, You're OK (all of which I pile into my bag after opening OK Words to a page that says: " 'I am like that' does not help anything. 'I can be different' does"). And how do I explain all the life coaches I'm suddenly meeting?

I was invited to give a talk at a fund- raising luncheon for an upscale private school in Marin County. God only knows how they found me, but I'm glad they did. The honorarium was generous and included chauffeur ser vice to and from the school by a sweet mom in a big black SUV. As I arrived at the pastoral campus, located on thirty-five acres near the town of Corte Madera, the children were testing out special pedal carts the school had just purchased for them so they could cruise out to their fields and harvest their organic crops. There was a lovely lunch for a few hundred parents, and then I gave a reading, trying hard to edit out material that didn't seem so tame now that I was delivering it in an elementary school gymnasium.

During the Q&A session, I made a comment, mostly to get laughs. "So if anyone knows a good life coach . . ." I knew it was a lazy way to make a joke, like saying "mime" or "David Hasselhoff," but people laughed a lot. A bit too much, really. Post–coffee and dessert, I received no fewer than five business cards, either from actual life coaches or from people referring me to their life coaches who were alternately outstanding, incredible, inspiring, powerful, or intuitive. Many more parents told me that they knew life coaches and could get me the information if I needed it. I definitely needed information. When did personal coaching become so rampant? Granted, I did happen to be in Marin at a private school with its own organic farm, but a few days later, when I spoke at a book club in my hometown, one of the members also turned out to be a life coach. And I'd just heard that a friend I haven't seen in a while, a radical gay punk rock dad, also recently became a coach.

The month is slipping by. Feeling lost, I decide to go on a fast, one I'd read about called "the Master Cleanse." Maybe that would be a decent way to begin my year of self- improvement without having to make any phone calls or ask anyone for favors. Clean colon = clean slate. An equation as old as time. The start is a little rocky, but by day five I'm in the groove of drinking cayenne-laced lemonade all day and having my asshole open like a faucet each morning to release a nasty yellow bile that I'm told by a website is "built- up toxins."

The wrench in the gears comes on day six when I happen to pick up one of my Christmas presents, David Rakoff 's book of essays Don't Get Too Comfortable. Hmmm. Looks like he's written a very hilarious essay about going on a fast. Okay, forget it. Scratch writing about a fast if someone better than you has already done it. Actually, I decide, let's scratch the fast entirely. What's the use now?

To add insult, he also claims his twenty- day fast is the shortest one out there, and here I was doing a wimpy ten. I immediately go out and get Indian food. Clearly, my heart is nowhere to be found in this project yet. The only thing I learn is you don't eat two pieces of tandoori chicken, a lump of sag paneer, and a sheaf of garlic naan on an excavated stomach. Cramps and more faucet- butt follow.

I admit that I need some guidance. All I've been doing is walking around with an ever- increasing sense of self- awareness, which I'm finding debilitating. One last stab at running interference is made when I get my hearing tested and put a coaster under a wobbly table leg in the kitchen. When I find out my hearing is fine, I make a mental note to try to speak more quietly. Nice work.

The next morning, I hightail it to the bookstore. Here I am walking down the self- help aisle on purpose for the first time in my life. It makes my insides feel bad, and I don't think it's just my digestive system kicking back into gear. The problem is that instead of thinking that all those smiling faces and soothing colors and jacked-up titles are trying to help me, I feel like a bigger loser. Weak and clichéd. Like I should be drinking a glass of chardonnay while sitting on a swiveling bar stool at the island in my friend's kitchen saying, "I don't know, Joan. It's all just too much sometimes. I need some help, but I don't know how to ask for it."

Eventually, I see something. A book I decide to purchase for the six-burrito price of $24.95. It's the latest by Jack "Chicken Soup for the Soul" Canfield. The reason this one stands out is because I recognize his face, but not in a bad please change the channel he's scaring the children way. Last year I introduced myself to Jack and his wife at a publishing party. Jack Canfield happens to be the father of one of Eli's oldest friends, which is about as bizarre as finding out that your friend's dad is the biggest sitcom star in Canada or happens to be a notorious serial killer. No disrespect intended, it's just that's how far removed I feel from his world. Our friend didn't grow up in the same house as his father, so I don't know much about Jack personally, but at least I have some sort of connection to go on. Jack seemed friendly enough when I met him, and after years in the self- help biz, he's earned the nickname "America's Number- One Success Coach."

His new book is called The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Jack is on the cover, kind of a silver fox character, leaning jauntily onto the capital letter T in the title. I like imagining the photo shoot. He'd be leaning on a podium or a plant stand against a blue screen, all the while knowing there was a master plan to Photoshop it out so it looks like he's leaning into a wide open space of possibility, the only support coming from his very own title.

The endorsements on this thing are positively mammoth, with extra emphasis on the word "positive." Fifty glowing reviews from my boyfriend Tony Robbins to Wally Amos of Famous Amos cookies to the former president of Reebok. There are television producers, the CEO of Discount Tire Company, and a twelve- time national gold medalist in Olympic- style tae kwon do known as "Ninja Grandma," all praising Canfield for his wisdom and mastery of life.

I know better than to judge a book by the hyperbole of its endorsements, but I am willing, as Marcia Martin, transformational coach and former vice president of est, blurbs, to "get ready for the ride of my life." The book is touted as being the next best thing to having Jack as your personal guide, so I'm ready to strap myself in and floor it.

As I'm waiting in line to buy it, I read the dedication. "This book is dedicated to all those courageous men and women who have ever dared to step out of the dominant culture of mediocrity and endeavor to create the life of their dreams. I honor and salute you!"

My cynicism falls away. He means people like me, the ones taking the road less traveled. Just as I'm thinking, Why, thank you, Jack! Thanks for the kudos! it dawns on me. Reading this type of book is exactly something I've always associated with the dominant culture of mediocrity. That's not enough to deter me, though. I swipe my credit card so violently, I am forced to repeat the action nearly a half dozen times before the cashier steps in and bails me out.

"I guess I need some help, huh?" I chuckle awkwardly, gesturing to the book.

"Everybody needs a little help," she responds gently, not making eye contact.

Plate o' shrimp.

The sheer amount of braggadocio in the introduction is highly amusing, especially as I huddle underneath a rainbow afghan in my freezing cold living room, wisps of my hair being blown by the wind-tunnel effect created by the quarter- inch gaps in my ancient wooden- framed windows. Somebody drunk is rifling through the recycling containers on the side of my house as I read:

My success includes earning a multimillion-dollar net income every year for over the past ten years, living in a beautiful California estate, commanding speaking fees of $25,000 a talk. . . . I get to socialize with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; movie, television, and recording stars; celebrated authors; and the world's finest spiritual teachers and leaders. I have spoken to the members of Congress, professional athletes, corporate managers, and sales superstars in all the best resorts and retreat centers in the world—from the Four Seasons Resort in Nevis in the British West Indies to the finest hotels in Acapulco and Cancún. I get to ski in Idaho, California, and Utah, go rafting in Colorado, and hike in the mountains of California and Washington. And I get to vacation in the world's best resorts in Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Morocco, France, and Italy. All in all, life is a real kick!

I settle into my couch, the one with the stuffing peeking out of the armrests that my ex- roommate's ex- girlfriend's neighbor put out on the street six years ago, and fight the urge to slam the thing shut. Good for you, Jack.

Though sifting through the golf metaphors is rough at first, I start to fall for Canfield's earnest, conversational voice. When he advises me to start each day saying, "I believe the world is plotting to do me good today," it takes some reconditioning to realize he doesn't really mean, "Get a load of this hellhole we're living in!" And that is refreshing. It almost feels alternative to me, revolutionary. Jack asks me to think about the personal work I'm going to be doing as similar to what it's like getting your kitchen remodeled. You have to live with the upheaval and chaos for a while, but in the end, when you see your dream kitchen, you'll be happy you went through the whole process.

Boy, it's hard to relate. I haven't even had a dishwasher since I moved out of my parents' house twenty years ago. A dishwasher. The idea hits me like a skillet in the face. I really want a dishwasher.

I think I want a dishwasher more than anything else in life. Now I simply have to focus on how to get one. The only obstacle standing between me and that dream is money. Jack has a few ideas about that.

Early in his career, he says, he created an enormous replica of a $100,000 bill and affixed it to the ceiling over his bed for inspiration. It's go time! I set down the book and walk over to Gus's yogurt container full of crayons and start drawing, digging a humble one-dollar bill out of my wallet as a reference point. After a few minutes, I cut it out and look at it. Of course it looks dumb. We don't have a ladder tall enough to reach our ceiling, so I tape it on the wall next to my side of the bed. Then, taking another suggestion, I write myself a check for a million dollars and put it in my wallet. On the memo line, tongue gently touching cheek, I enter the words "Life Purpose." I already imagine pulling this check out and showing it to my friends for laughs, but deep down I kind of mean it. It feels sort of like voodoo.

Jack moves on to affirmations. He says we must create these for ourselves and repeat them often. In the beginning of his career, his affirmation was:

God is my infinite supply and large sums of money come to me quickly and easily under the grace of God for the highest good of all concerned. I am happily and easily earning, saving, and investing $100,000 a year.

Too bad I am such a knee-jerk Godophobe. As boring and predictable as the Godophiles, I get all bunched up when people start throwing around the word God, even if it's clear they only mean it as a code word for "a force that is bigger than me." You know how celebrities always thank God (after their agents) during award acceptance speeches? Well, I am pretty sure that I have officially heard as many people making fun of celebrities for thanking God as I have heard God being thanked at this point. Screw it. I can be different. Even though I don't believe in one supreme and all- knowing being, I get Jack's gist and decide to spare the judgment. I applaud myself for making this leap, one I know I will have to make again and again to survive in this deity- heavy self- help world.

Some more simple advice Jack has is to greet every interaction in your life with the question: "What opportunity does this present to me?" Tomorrow I'm going to start substituting this for the more familiar "What does this person want from me?" and "Dude, you better not take my parking space." I spend the next few days attempting to find opportunity when purchasing produce and meats and when asking the neighborhood cat lady to stop throwing cardboard boxes, speckled with maggots and dried chunks of Friskies Senior Savory Beef, into our garbage can. I make an effort to smile more at people, not knowing if I should expect the opportunity to come in the form of a discount, recipe suggestion, or knock- knock joke.

While I'm filling up my car with gas, two teenage boys ask me if I will buy blunts for them. I take the opportunity to decline politely, presenting them with the opportunity to call me a "motherfucking white bitch" in front of Gus, who is fiddling in the nearby squeegee bucket. That, in turn, presents me with the unexpected opportunity to say in a strange shaky voice that is beyond my control, "Well, I certainly am white, that's true, but I'm not really a bitch. Ask anyone!"

I'm admittedly a little more frazzled than usual because my dad is going in for his surgery tomorrow. Even though it's supposedly a common procedure, he's sixty- eight and not in the greatest health. And then there's the fact that his own mother died directly following her open- heart surgery, one of the first ever performed. Most of all, I hate thinking of him all unconscious on a table, chest opened up, surgeons making wisecracks about him being fat like they do on hospital shows. Sometimes I wonder if doctors really talk that disparagingly about their patients, or if maybe they've started doing it to be more like their TV counterparts.

In an unprecedented moment of boldness that afternoon, I decide to call the Chicken Soup headquarters to see if I can coax some free e-coaching out of Jack. Perhaps some direct mentoring will do me good. I explain my project and even tell them that one of Jack's sons is a friend of mine. I am given a contact name to e-mail, a task I take care of promptly.

The next day, Gus and I go down to San Jose to visit my dad in the hospital. Eli feels bad that he can't come, but he's working. In shorthand, Eli is a workaholic, but when you're trying to get a small business off the ground, there's no other way around it. He takes what ever work comes his way—jazz, bluegrass, folk, reggae, rock—he records it all at his Oakland studio (which, in a nice synchronicity, happens to be called New, Improved Recording) any day of the week during any given twelve- hour period between 9:00 A.M. and 2:00 A.M. At this point, he hasn't had a day off in nearly three weeks.

The hospital smells like steamy Band- Aids and Mr. Clean. Gus hates it, but my mom distracts him with a game of Go Fish while I wander down the empty corridor to find my dad. I walk in the room and I'm shocked. He looks amazing, better than he has in months. His skin had taken on an odd grayish tone, like a pile of soggy newspapers, which is completely gone now. He clutches a giant, red, stuffed heart pillow to his chest like a kid. When he asks what I've been up to, I try to explain myself.

"I've decided to see if I can improve my life by following the advice of America's best- known self- help gurus."

He knows me too well. He thinks I'm joking! Even while severely medicated, he replies, "But seriously. Don't you ever wonder how nice it might be if you actually did try to improve your life?"

"God, Dad!" I huff. "Why do you think I'm actually doing it?" I unconsciously pull the stuffed heart from his chest and keep my focus on it while I talk. "Do you think I'm going to dedicate a year of my life to something that's a joke? Don't you think I wish I could fix my gutters? Pay my bills? Start exercising so I don't wind up . . . ?" Oops. I quickly apologize. I don't need an expert to tell me that I should definitely stop lapsing into teenage behavior, especially when someone I love is hooked up to several machines and has tubes threaded into each orifice.

With only a few days left in January, I turn off the light that night and lie in bed worrying. It's 1:00 A.M., and Eli is not home from the studio yet. I roll toward my $100,000 bill and envision big piles of dishwasher- shaped money falling from the sky. Then I get out of bed and pick up The Success Principles again.

I see a lot of myself in Canfield's chapter succinctly titled "Ask! Ask! Ask!" Most of my reasons for not asking for help or favors are in there: fear of rejection, not wanting to be seen as a bother, and my favorite, the almighty pride. I immediately get up the courage to send another e-mail to Mr. Canfield's office. "Get your head out of the sand and ask, ask, ask!" he exhorts. His coterie of fans, including Olympic bobsledders, chiropractors, supermodels, and Colonel Sanders, cannot all be wrong.

What I learn from this chapter is that I have been asking for Jack's help the wrong way. I need to ask as if I truly expect to get it. I need to assume that he will agree to help me. The best advice of all is that I can't be afraid to ask repeatedly. I fire off another e-mail about getting some free e-coaching.

What I've noticed is that a lot of the people Canfield uses as examples of success are other success and empowerment coaches, speakers, and authors. Many of the heartwarming stories end with phrases like "and now he has the time to spend building an airplane in the basement of his 7,000 square foot mansion." (That's an actual quote.) There is clearly money to be made in the inspiration business. Perhaps if I am able to inspire all the people who have previously doubted self- help, I can be in Mr. Canfield's club. I will never learn to golf, however. It is not one of the action items in the "101 Goals" binder I spent the morning making. Number one: dishwasher. Number thirty- three (as far as I've gotten): learn to make good pork chops. Do I need to aim higher?

The old cynical me gets super- excited when I finally run into some really out- of- touch bullshit on page 170. Vinod Khosla, who is the founding CEO of Sun Microsystems, is quoted as saying, in reference to his goals for spending time with his family: "I track how many times I get home in time to have dinner with my family; my assistant reports the exact number to me each month."

And principle twenty-five stinks. "Drop out of the Ain't It Awful Club and surround yourself with successful people."

I have always found inspiration in people who wouldn't necessarily be described as "successful." What about the people who just aren't equipped to survive that well in a world that focuses on luxury goods, earning potentials, and superstars?

The next night I decide to spend some time before bed doing what Canfield calls the Mirror Exercise. I am supposed to look in the mirror and tell myself that I've done well that day. I am instructed to stay focused only on the positives. The example of Jack's own mirror exercise is excruciatingly detailed, step-by-step throughout the day, so I follow suit. My bathroom mirror is dirty. I clean it. Then I begin:

Beth, I want to appreciate you for the following things today: First of all, you got up at 9:00 A.M. even though the last time you remembering looking at the clock from your chamber of insomnia it was 3:15. When Gus came into your room and demanded that you go into his room and find his glass of water, you sprang out of bed and went to go look for it instead of yelling at him. You only drank one cup of coffee instead of two and treated yourself to a piece of buttered toast even though you suspect that wheat makes your asthma fl are up. You got to your office and refrained from wasting time/ making self feel dirty by reading self-aggrandizing blog posts by people you have met once or twice. When you walked out into the hallway and you and another woman reached the bathroom at the same time, you used the men's restroom so that she could use the women's. When there was no toilet paper, you wiped with the toilet seat cover (actually more of a light blotting) instead of the paper towels because there have been plumbing problems in the building and you know that you are not supposed to flush paper towels down the toilet. (I guess you could have put the paper towel in the garbage can like they do in some countries you have visited, but you don't know when the trash will be emptied again.) You went out to lunch with your friends and only told one critical story about someone, but it was the same one you told yesterday at lunch, to a different person, so that is probably minus points. But maybe plus points for recycling the story instead of putting a new unflattering story out in the world. You read a few chapters of your latest self- help manual before leaving on time to pick Gus up from school. You stayed and played on the playground even though you were sick to your stomach. You made Gus a healthy dinner, played trains with him, gave him a bath, and got him into bed by 8:00 P.M. Then you fell asleep in his bed because you were exhausted from not sleeping last night. When you woke up, the house was dark and quiet. Eli has since come home and gone to sleep. The two of you did not speak today except briefly on the phone to see who remembered to write the check for the Target gift card for the preschool teacher's baby shower. Neither of you did. And now you are standing here at 1:30 A.M. looking at yourself in the mirror. It is still dirty. You missed a few spots.

Jack says that it's not unusual to have a number of reactions the first time you do the Mirror Exercise. He says you might feel silly, embarrassed, or "like crying." Jack knows a lot.

It's not until his chapter "Keep Your Eye on the Prize," where he talks about how important the last forty-five minutes of the day are, that I actually remember an experience I have had with something he writes about—"imprinting." Supposedly your unconscious mind processes late-night information up to six times more often than other things you experience during the day. That's why, if you go to sleep right after watching the late- night news, you're likely to dream about discovering mutilated body parts that have been shoved inside an Igloo cooler and buried underneath the floorboards of a meth lab.

My senior year of high school my friend Nicole and I got ahold of a performance-enhancing audiocassette for athletes. We were on the track team and extremely competitive. Neither of us can remember where this "visualization" tape came from, but her stepdad was an orthodontist who dabbled in jazz and aviation, so clearly he is the prime suspect. We would listen to it before big track meets, sort of embarrassed by ourselves, but curious to see if it would work. I remember lying on my taupe- carpeted bedroom floor, looking up at the popcorn ceiling, listening to a soothing male voice guiding me through the set of actions I would take the next day, encouraging me to see myself winning my event. And it's true that that year, 1987, I broke my high school track team's long-jump record. That record still stands to this day. I actually think the tape might have worked. So what if I spent a few minutes each night "imprinting" about having a dishwasher or maintaining an orderly home?

Though I don't know much about self- help yet, remembering this story hammers it home that for any of these programs to work, I have to be committed. I have to believe. The other night I missed my train back home and went looking for someone to give me a ride across the Bay Bridge. I waited for an acquaintance to close up the bar she works at, and then we walked back to her truck. She told me her father recently died and he was her only family. She laughed and said she was basically "raised by wolves." An artist and a bartender, she is still trying to figure out what path to take in her life. She seemed sad and overwhelmed. When I mentioned the life coach thing, she didn't even flinch.

"Oh yeah, I had one of those for a while."

"You had a life coach?" She seems so normal.

"Yeah. It didn't really work out, but at first I thought he could help me get my shit together."

The thing is, of course she's normal. And because she's normal, she is just looking for ways to improve her life, even though the obstacles, including asking for help from an outside party, can seem insurmountable. If you pay someone a fistful of dough to help you make your life better, when it doesn't get better it's easy to write the whole thing off as a scam or simply "not for you."

By the way, good time to mention that a few friends have expressed concern that I will become "brainwashed" by this whole experiment.

When I wake up the next morning, I have an e-mail from the Chicken Soup HQ! Unfortunately, it says that due to the newness of the e-coaching program, they are not able to offer it to me for free. So now I have to either pony up the $300 or trust that reading Jack's advice truly is the next best thing to in- person coaching. I decide to skip the e-mail mentoring and keep reading.

Another e-mail from the desk of Jack Canfield arrives! I've been added to their mailing list. This one is pitching a new film called The Secret, something Jack says "may be the most exciting worldwide film event in history." It is also noted that due to third- party contractual restrictions, users in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea will not be able to watch the movie or purchase DVDs at this time. Sounds . . . controversial.

I'm starting to feel better by actively using my good attitude to look for possibility and opportunity instead of being cowed by all my perceptible problems and faults. Last night I tried employing

Jack's advice of simply asking for what you want. Eli and I were at an after-party-type thing for the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival and found ourselves standing next to comedians from a prematurely canceled HBO series that I loved. Normally, I would never strike up a conversation with semifamous people. I usually get intimidated and pretend not to recognize them, mostly to cut down on awkwardness, but also as a sign of immaturity on my part. I once was told Céline Dion was having dinner at the table next to me, and I refused to sneak a peek at her for the entire two hours I was there. You guys probably get stared at all the time, I thought, so I'm going to pretend I have no clue who the fuck you are. Exhilarating, though pretty sophomoric. And this was different. These were relatively obscure comedians whom I actually admire.

Eli plays no such games. He asked two of the writer- actor guys what they were currently working on, curious if there was anything we could look forward to watching. Now, I'm sure living in Los Angeles puts people on the defensive about their careers, but I thought it came across pretty clear that we were asking them as fans, not to judge what kind of work they were getting. Anyway, they didn't seem to want to talk to us that much after that, but one of the guys mentioned a comic book he was writing for. That's when it dawned on me. I was putting together a reading at the Hammer Museum at UCLA the following month, and I needed actors to read from "fan fiction" stories—stories that people write starring their favorite characters from comic books. If he was into comics, maybe he'd like to do it.

"Just tell him about it," Eli said, nudging me. "You never know."

So I gave him the lowdown, telling him what a fan I was, and tried graciously to pose the question of whether he'd like to take part. He didn't seem that enthusiastic and mumbled something about possibly being out of town for WonderCon, the big comic book convention, but he gave me his e-mail address and turned away. Of course I didn't e-mail him. Baby steps.

A couple of nights later, our new DVD from Netflix comes. I had forgotten that on one of those nights when I'd sat in front of the computer with a large goblet of wine, I had lined up about fifty movies in our queue. The one that arrives is a documentary of three comedians touring the country, playing in rock clubs as opposed to two- drink- minimum Laugh Factory comedy clubs. One of the featured comedians is the guy whose e-mail address was still sitting in the pocket of my jeans.

"Did you e-mail him about the show?" Eli asks. "What did he say?"

I duck down in my seat like I'm anticipating a smack in the face.

"I never e-mailed him."

"What about your new, improved life?"

If we were on a reality TV show, I would do that thing people do where they firmly flip the bird, in your face, all stony and silent, letting the finger do the talking, but instead I just ignore him. A bit later in the movie, when they show a scene at the comedian's house, it turns out he has an entire room devoted to his massive comic book collection. Walls of them! Then a few minutes later, they show him comic book shopping while on tour.

"You have to e-mail him," Eli says. "The museum show is all about comic books, isn't it? He wouldn't have given you his e-mail address if he wasn't interested."

Maybe getting this movie in the mail is a sign about an opportunity being presented to me.

The next day I spend at least fifteen solid minutes crafting a solicitous e-mail to the comedian. How I don't want to bother him, but after I saw the film, I was compelled to contact him. I even mention that he met me with my husband so he isn't weirded out that I might be trying to stalk him. I hit Send. And then I never hear back.

I take a look at his e-mail address again: partybummer@____.com. I realize that this is probably the address he gives out to annoying people at parties. As in "what a party bummer it was having you ask me for my e-mail. Please write me at this address, which may or may not be real, but is silently insulting you." Prescreened. So I guess I did learn a lesson. Not about getting what you ask for, but rather how to prescreen your e-mail for idiots who are bothering you at a party while you're trying to talk to your friends. That's a pretty smart trick. So I just registered the address youreharshingmybuzz@yahoo.com. If you want me to ignore you, shoot me an e-mail.

But seriously, the real party bummer is the rejection. I go back to Jack's chapter "Ask! Ask! Ask!" He writes, "How do you go about bouncing back from rejection? When do you decide that maybe your idea/project is actually not interesting?" Harsh.

Jack says that when you get rejected you can turn the beat around and expect something better to come of it. The irony is not lost that if I keep getting rejected by Jack Canfield, the more ammunition I will have that this self-help stuff is bunk, that visualizing what you want doesn't really work. But in wanting the self- help project to succeed, I also need to succeed. Jack writes:

Everyone wants financial abundance, a comfortable home, meaningful work they enjoy, good health, time to do the things they love, nurturing relationships with their families and friends, and an opportunity to make a difference in the world. But too few of us readily admit it.

That is definitely part of my problem. It goes against my nature to admit that I want all those things. So I accept this rejection and wait for something better.

From Chapter 1 of Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick, published by William Morrow. Excerpted by permission of the publisher.

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Helping Me Help Myself

One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone

by Beth Lisick

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One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone
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