Friday, January 15, 2010

Self-help, part 3: Start by knowing what you want

"Give me an example of a goal you'd like to achieve."

I should have known I didn't need a $300 goal-achievement course when I couldn't come up with a single unrealized goal. The person selling this "life-changing system" tried again. "Just tell me something you've been wanting to do and haven't."

"Uh, I want to check out the new Burnsville shopping mall." Wow, I've got a live one here, she had to be thinking. But she was determined to demonstrate how this system worked. "Okay, let's it break down into achievable steps. What's a small step you could take toward realizing this goal?"

"Uh, I could get in my car and drive there." Why did this not set off alarms in my head? Brrrrng! You don't need this!

Instead, I was attracted by the sparkly promise of a new key to success and happiness. I shelled out $300 for a colorful cardboard box containing a dozen audio tapes and a few hundred bright paper cards on which I was to write goals and intermediate steps - weekly and daily - toward achieving them. Over the next few months I listened to about half the tapes and wrote on a couple dozen of the cards. Then the box sat on a shelf in my bedroom in three successive homes over thirty-some years. Two years ago I threw it away. I would have tried to sell it on Ebay--I am evidence that there is a market for such things--but without all the little cards it just wouldn't be the same.

In the years since I put aside the "system," I have set and achieved plenty of significant goals. I did it mostly the natural way, thinking, "Here's something I'd like to do." But sometimes, when conflicted among several possible goods, I have called upon my husband's mantra: Start by knowing what you want.

Stuck in a troublesome situation you'd like to escape? Start by knowing what you want. Approaching a negotiation with someone whose service was less than satisfactory? Don't waste time complaining; tell them what will make you happy. Dissatisfied with a situation at the office? Decide how you want things to be.

And that's the issue. My problem has seldom been how to achieve something once I set my mind to it--in fact, my husband and I make a formidable pair of strategists. The problem, from time to time, has been knowing what I want. For that, you have to know yourself and be willing to make choices, even take risks.

Today, I know what I want: good health and a good life in retirement not long from now. There are some arrangements to be made. None of them involves listening to goal-setting tapes. If I find myself writing notes on colorful little cards, I promise I will not have paid $300 for them.

How about you? Driven by goals? Systematic in seeking them? If I hadn't thrown away the tapes and cards, would you have said, "Yes! Send them at once....That's exactly what I need!"

So ends another in a series of recollections of mostly-useless self-help stuff I've bought over the years. Occasionally, I learned a little something. Other times, nothing at all! Next up: assertiveness training.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Self-help books, part 2: 'I'm OK - You're OK'

Remember "warm fuzzies" and "cold pricklies"? They are among the simplified concepts that made Thomas Harris's I'm OK - You're OK a best-seller in the early 1970s. It's one of the biggest-selling self-help books ever, according to Wikipedia. Harris set out to popularize the theory of Transactional Analysis (TA). I'm not saying it was a good book; I'm just saying I learned these things:

* It's better to give (and receive) "warm fuzzies" than "cold pricklies." A boyfriend at the time told me I had a tendency to do the cold and prickly. Who knew?

* If someone pays you a compliment, accept it. To shrug it off, feign modesty, or--worst of all--ignore it is to repay a warm fuzzy with a cold prickly. It does not make you humble; it makes you ungrateful. I took that to heart from that day to this. I remember organizing and emceeing a day-long women's movement conference that was very well received. At the end of the day I got a wonderful ovation and I stood in the warm spotlight and drank it in. I opened myself to it, and I never turned off that switch.

* In our relationships, we get into certain habits and comfort levels. Simple example: If you are in the habit of nodding and smiling at a coworker once each day, and then you stop and have a conversation, you will tend to pass without acknowledging one another a few times, until you feel you have rebalanced the contact to an appropriate level. See Rituals.

* People play interpersonal games that are often unproductive. "Yes, but" is a common favorite. Someone complains about a situation. A well-meaning individual suggests, "Why don't you try x?" The complainer says, "Yes, but I can't because blah blah." No matter how many suggestions the friend makes, the complainer has an excuse for all of them. I sometimes catch myself playing "yes, but," and I'm usually able to stop and say, "Thanks for the suggestions, I guess I just wanted to vent." Or I recognize that someone else is playing it and I can change the subject or walk away. I think it's the one such game I recognize quickly.

TA offered many other theories, a lot based on Adult, Parent, and Child ego states. Some of it has survived, some has been discounted. One thing remains true: If someone pays you a compliment, acknowledge it. Revel in it, even.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Self-help books, part 1: 'personality quotient'

I must have been about 12 or 13 when I read my first self-help book: What's Your PQ*? (*Personality Quotient).

I don't remember exactly what it advised, but my take-away was to read Time magazine before going on a date so I'd have something to talk about (it would be years before I'd need that one) and to liven up my wardrobe with colorful neck scarves.

I remember walking home from the library and running into Kay Stokes, who was a year or two older and lived just down the block. "What books did you check out?" she asked. I showed her. "That again? This is the third time you've read it," she said. I flushed with embarrassment. "Well, uh, I never got around to reading it before," I lied.

My mother told me I'd have a better personality if I stopped thinking about myself and smiled more. Easy for her to say. Although I didn't know about introverts and extroverts at the time (that would require a different self-help book), I was the former and she was the latter. I mean, you can be an introvert and still smile and be interested in others, but you can't do it all the time.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that whatever else that book said, I didn't do much to incorporate its advice into my life. Which would be a pattern. Just like the organization for which I work, which hires lots of consultants and then ignores their advice, I have a history of collecting self-help books and, um, ignoring their advice.

Today, I Googled the title of the book to see whether anyone has mentioned it. Turns out there are people running businesses that will conduct workshops and evaluations to help you maximize your Personality Quotient in the name of making you more employable, or to help corporations make you more productive. I don't think neck scarves are required.


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