Merry Christmas blog readers.
Kick back, let me tell you a little Christmas story. There is even a book review involved.
So in November of 2018 I signed up for Reddit’s Secret Santa. I had done it in the past and I had enjoyed the experience. I was, however, in no god damned mood to actually do it. I barely filled out the description page that was going to be used by my secret Santa to choose a gift for me. I was too depressed to bother. But on the day redditors were matched for gifts, I got an email almost immediately that my gift had shipped. Huh. I thought it was going to be a struggle to pick me a gift. All I think I had written on the description page was that I was a dude and that I liked books.
I had forgotten that you can browse the reddit posts of the person you are buying a gift for. But my depression must have showed, because my secret Santa bought me this book: Unfu*k Yourself. The very idea of this book tickled me. I knew I was depressed, and I know that my life was pretty unsatisfactory. The past few years were difficult for me, and things just weren’t going as I wanted them to. Right around that time, I had just quit my dead end job and was getting ready to move, somewhat blindly, to a new city where I had two friends and not a clue as to what was what. I was also likely going to spend the holidays alone. This book kind of felt like a good fit, right when I needed.
The very day I got the book I sat on my sofa and read the introduction. I found myself not only enjoying it but recognizing a lot of what was being said. I had for the previous few months been meeting with a therapist who had been emphasizing many of the same points. I then encountered the following excerpt:
If you take on the following pages as a personal experiment rather than an assessment of the content, you may just end up experiencing the most radical, life-changing exercise you have ever engaged with.
Bold fucking claim. But pay attention to the modal verb.
With that massive preamble out of the way, let’s review this book.
It should be stated clearly that I read these types of books skeptically. Even in the introduction the book makes mention of Neuroplasticity, a concept that one of the essays in Edge.org’s This Idea Must Die thinks… well, that it should die. Not even a page later, the book was talking about the fact that “How we talk, think about, and therefore perceive our surroundings is the very foundation for our reality.”
Sigh. God damn it.
I did my Master’s among students scholars and peers for whom post-modernism was the norm. I won’t go down that shit-slick rabbit hole here, but let’s just say that every time I hear talk of ‘reality’ and how it can be affected, I die a little inside, and I am immediately transported back to an alcohol and marijuana fueled conversation with a dear friend who thought that the beliefs of a group of people literally changed their cultural identity, and who presented this finding as her Master’s thesis.
She failed. Miserably.
But maybe I was being too harsh. Maybe the author was being poetic. Maybe he was just being trying to talk about how the way we talk affects how we react to reality.
But even if we accept that, the book is damningly frustrating in other places. Any time the concept of blame comes up, I get massively annoyed. Other self-help books have taught me that blaming yourself is preferable to blaming the world around you, because if you blame yourself you are more likely to take some kind of action, while if you blame the world you likely won’t do anything but be in a huff about how it isn’t fair. There are other oversimplifications in the discourse of blame. One idea in this book is that if you are not taking action on a problem then you are willing to accept its consequences. Not always the case. Sometimes a person is just too ignorant on how to solve their problems. Other times there literally is nothing that can be done.
Another oversimplification is that the world exists in a form of simple consequences and actions, and that merely acting on a problems and being willing to solve it was all that was needed. At the time of this reading I had been going to the gym almost everyday for about 13 months, and had been looking for a job for about 18 months. My enthusiasm at the gym resulted in a problem with my AC joint that will never heal (according to a consulted doctor). My job hunt had netted nothing, even following the (often contradictory) advice of friends, family, and career ‘experts’. But to make this even more frustrating, it ignores the absolute complexity that is real life. Life is not and never was a binary choice between success and failure. Its a multiplex series of interrelated choices which impact one another. It isn’t about saying I am unwilling to work this job I hate but saying instead I am willing to continue to work this job I hate to maintain myself while I study to get a certificate that (hopefully) will get me a better job. And this oversimplification that the author gives us is only at all helpful if you have one problem at best, but when you have seemingly every problem in existence, its a different story. Should I spend this half hour of free time pursuing the passion project that gives me my only actual joy in life, or will you spend it rewriting your CV for the hundredth time, writing a new cover letter, applying for a job, finding out that there website wont let you upload your CV so you have to put it in manually, find out that their website pick-list doesn’t have an option for degrees obtained in Europe, and do all of this in hopes that you finally get a job that offers you insurance so that you can get to the doctor and ask about that random inexplicable pain you’ve been living with for the past six months. That ‘five min task’ that you were unwilling to do was actually a two hour task, all things considered. And you will never hear back from that job. You have 24 very limited hours in your day. How will you spend them?
I doubt that person will ever find this blog, but to the redditor who bough me this book, thanks anyway. Your heart was well and truly in the right place. But unfortunately this book was in not helpful in any way.
None of them ever are.
I think the truth of the matter is that any advice regarding how you should change your life must be really damn specific to be in anyway actually impactful. Anything that is written for as wide an audience as possible will have to be vague to work. A shoe designed to fit every foot in the world will fit no foot well.
If you have a problem in your life what you need is analysis and action: platitudes which ultimately distill to ‘improve your self-talk’ are never going to actually do anything. Imagine a person who has all the positivity and self-esteem in the world, but has a terrible CV for the job he is applying for. Is that positiveness going to help him along in anyway? Probably not. That being said, I did try to live by the principles of this book over the course of the past year. Did it improve my life? Not really. My problems were a little more complex than what was described in this book.
I am not against confidence (well, largely I am not). I think having some optimism can be a useful thing. But being grounded in reality is going to be better still, and confidence is something one should have only once earned.