Self-help is bullshit, right?
That's what I always thought. And that's certainly the implication in the current issue of New York magazine (this puddly essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel does nothing to change the stereotype of the self-improvement-addict-as-self-absorbed-flake).
But deep down, my relationship to so-called self-help is actually way more complex. Some of it makes me sad: "Yikes, someone needs to hear this stuff?" Some if makes me mad: "People get PAID to peddle this obvious crap?" (the proliferation of Inspiring Quotes online is just the latest indignity -- if one more person tells me to embrace failure or "win" my day, I will... well, be annoyed. So there.).
But some of it speaks to me. Intrigues me. Calls me in. We're talking about a whole genre, after all, and even if Action isn't your favorite Netflix category... surely, there's at least one action film you love?
Part One: Who Am I To Judge?
Let's face it -- I'm in a circle in the Venn Diagram that overlaps a whole lot with people attracted to self help. I'm passionate about living a meaningful life, and about being my best self (in case you hadn't noticed). I practice yoga and occasionally meditate. I love reading and writing and talking and thinking about deep spiritual questions and what makes people tick. My favorite novels and movies are the ones that depict emotion authentically. So while part of me rejects self-help -- the part of me that despises inanity and understands that there are no easy answers in life, that craves intellectual rigor, that doesn't want any chicken soup for her soul, thankyouverymuch -- another part of me is right in its target audience. Plus, if something makes someone's life better, well... who am I to judge? Really.
(Clearly, I've been judging a lot.)
Part Two: In Which I Attend a Personal Development Workshop
Last weekend, I attended an event called Intuitive Warrior. It was officially my first self-help/personal-development-style event ever. I almost cancelled. I just felt uncomfortable with it.
Except, my friend works for the company that produced the event. And she's not just a friend -- she's one of my favorite people in the world. And she loves this event. Loves the main speaker, Amir Zoghi. I wanted to go to the event to support her, and also... ok. I was a little curious. A little hopeful that something transformational might occur. I like transformation.
Part Three: Won't You Take Me To, Funky Town?
I spent the end of last year in a funk. I felt trapped in work I didn't like -- actually, I liked my work pretty well, but it didn't stir my soul. And I was feeling rather impatient with anything that wasn't soul-stirring. I hear becoming a mother can do that to you.
But it's not just that. My life has been moving in a particular direction. And at the end of last year, I could feel I was on the cusp of another shift. I was feeling the growing pains.
For 6+ years I worked at PBS. I became increasingly unhappy and ultimately I realized it was because I was replaceable. No matter how much I excelled, now matter how much I cared, I was a cog in a machine. As Ben Folds sings in the oddly-titled Fred Jones Part 2, about a man who's laid off, "you get off, someone else can get on." I started freelancing, giving me time during the day to write Creative DC, which was my true passion at the time -- that, and improv, and freelancing meant less office politics, which meant that when I went to improv practice in the evenings, I actually had the energy to show up.
This was a good thing.
Looking back now, I see this move to freelancing as a move along a spectrum, away from someone else's work and toward my own. But I never made money from Creative DC, only from client work -- and 6 years later, I've still never made a penny from blogging. I've done some professional writing, but the writing that I do from the heart -- the writing I do here -- remains a labor of (deep) love.
So, it's time to move further along the spectrum. I can feel this in my bones. You might call it... intuition.
Part Four: Shift
Which brings me back to the event I attended last weekend. I was apprehensive, but I sucked it up. I got over myself. And I went. And -- while Zoghi (and another speaker, Christine Hassler) didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, their message was apparently just what I needed to hear, at just the right time. (Maybe that's the power of self-help, after all.)
Bottom line, their message was this: "Trust your intuition. And act on it."
This is not rocket science. I can feel some of you rolling your eyes. "How much didja pay for that little chestnut?" (Nothing -- the event was free.)
I concede -- "act on your intuition" is a simple and cliched message. The power of the workshop wasn't the message. It wasn't even the performance -- the conviction Zoghi brought to his remarks, or the urgency, though certainly these things helped. It was that this was a message I wanted very, very badly to hear. That I needed to hear.
Sometimes, you just need someone else to tell you something. Isn't that why we need art, in a way? To tell us -- with language or color or movement, shape, or sound -- something we know, deep inside, to be true?
And when we really need help acting on what we know is true, sometimes the most powerful step is to admit our powerlessness. To say, "Help, I'm stuck." By attending the workshop, that's exactly what I was doing.
Before the workshop, I was stuck in my head. How can I change gears professionally? How can I start to make money from my art?
Now, instead of thinking, or worrying... I'm writing.
I don't think about wanting to write, or how to make more time for writing in my life, or how I'll get paid for my writing, or why I'm not already getting paid for it. Instead, I feel like writing, and I write.
I just write.
Part Five: Go.
Why "intuitive warrior"? Because it's not just about tuning into your intuition, or your heart. It's about tuning in, and then being a bad-ass. Getting the fuck out there and blazing trails. Maybe your trails are quiet, and that's fine, too -- you can be a quiet bad-ass. But be audacious, for fuck's sake. Trust what you love. Don't talk yourself out of feelings you know to be true. Feel what's true, and go from there. Go, go, go.
And if you need to, ask for help.
At their worst, the self-help industry are a bunch of hucksters who get paid to spout truisms they may or may not practice in their own lives. They may or may not give two shits about the people they purport to help. But you know what? That's none of my business. We all need different things to get by, and to help us shine brightly in this world. One man's personal development workshop is another man's lucky rabbit foot is another man's Bible is another man's poetry is another man's (fill in the blank). It's none of my business what you need. I just hope you get it.