by Brooks Riley
I have to confess to being a reader of Huffington Post's Living section, a Lourdes for lovers of self-help lit: a bloated site offering problem-solving, self-improving, happiness-inducing, health-enhancing, sleep-promoting, fat-melting, age-dropping, toxin-flushing, confidence-boosting, success-guaranteeing, quick-fix, net-bite, how-to advice for a seemingly endless array of real or imagined shortcomings, most of which, sadly, are hardwired into human nature.
Huffpo isn't the only one out there offering self-improvement on a massive scale: Lifehack, Lifehacker, Unclutterer, and many others can keep you trolling for days among the archives of perceived deficiencies and their inspirational antidotes.
I'm a sucker for any reading material that promises to solve the one problem which keeps me from fulfilling my potential, whatever that problem or potential may be. In reality, I strive to be better than I can be. I keep on tilting at windmills, seeking perfection in an imperfect world. And why? I can't change the world, so I try to change myself.
Reading ‘how-to' articles is an honorable distraction, better than staring into the abyss, and one that I fall prey to, especially when things aren't going well. I click on titles like “The one-minute insomnia cure,” and “Three ways to spring clean your brain,” even though I sleep like a baby and have no intention of putting a broom to my brain. I check out “7 Steps to Overcome Perfectionism”, just to reassure myself that perfection is worth pursuing after all. More often than not, a headline that heralds a new way to change my life unfolds as a regurgitation of clichés I've heard so often, they have their own genetic sequence in my ear.
A few more out of thousands:
“47 Things You Can Do to Make your Life Simple”: If I have to do 47 things, my life won't be simple anymore.
“50 ways to live a more fulfilling life”: But who's life will it be?
“The 17 Secrets to Improve Body Language”: Do I need a catalogue of tics?
And thanks to Donna Tartt in a recent NY Times interview: “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,” an old book which should be updated to include how to disappear from Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, LinkedIn, the NSA and GCHQ—far more of a challenge than eluding those near and dear.
Most of us have brought a hefty portion of competence into this world in the form of instinct. The how-to industry undermines what we know innately, by suggesting that it knows better. Rely on us, it urges, not on your own gut feeling.
Don't get me wrong. Why shouldn't we try to improve our lot by trying to improve ourselves? Why shouldn't we go for the gold when the future looks more like tarnished brass? Why shouldn't we chisel away at our bad habits one method at a time, in the hopes that one of them really works?
‘How-to' is the new religion for practicing solipsists, with legions of high-priest authors, ordained by varying degrees in psychology, expounding theories as paradoxically lay as they are messianic (‘. . .and we shall be changed,' as G.F. Handel and Charles Jennens chose to remind us). We keep coming back to these cheerleaders of the self, lured by their assurance of the possibility of change, trusting their so-called expertise, convinced by their conviction. Better still, we're even willing to step into the shoes of the non-expert, whose experience alone might provide a credible basis for emulation.
A neurologist would probably tell me that every time I read one of these articles, that region in the brain which responds to the mere thought of winning the lottery lights up like a Christmas tree. We read these self-help pep talks and at that moment become exactly what we want to become: We star in our own instant success story, the problem solved in a flash of simulated reality. When we finish the article, we revert to our old, imperfect selves again. We may put the theory we've just read about into practice, but even if it works, we will never replicate the initial thrill we experienced while we were reading about it.
Increasingly, we live in a world of ‘how-to's': Every gadget we buy comes with its how-to-use instruction manual which we either read, file, or throw out. Some of our software manuals, if printed out, surpass the Bible in length. We spend so much time making lists–or worse, finding the best app for making lists–that process has become an achievement in itself: How to get there has replaced getting there. Instinct has become extinct.
Even if we're not out to change ourselves, we still reach for other kinds of ‘how-to' materials: how to build a house, how to decorate a living room, how to build a model airplane, how to maintain a motorcycle, how to raise a child, how to repair a leaky pipe, how to bake a cake, how to start a blog, even how to live, or Life for Dummies. Dying? There's an app for that.
Unfortunately, we are born without an instruction manual wrapped around our umbilical cords. We spend the rest of our lives trying to find one, invent one, or borrow one. Some people don't need one: Some people live their lives as though they've had practice. Most of us, though, traverse a timeline of trial and error, replacing old careers with new careers, old spouses with new spouses, old habits with new habits, always striving for the closest thing to an ideal life.
If, along the way, we buy into someone else's advice about how to smooth the glitches in our glia, who's to say it isn't worth giving it a shot? There are grains of truth in some of these on-line help-yourself homilies, and once in a while we might actually change for the better, just as, once in a while, someone wins the lottery.