“Would a pilot hearing about a fatal, mid-air accident prefer to think of it as a pilot error?”
“Mechanical error!” I answered, confidently, “Because that way the pilot is blameless”.
“Wrong,” answered my questioner. “Pilot error, because that way the pilot knows there’s a chance of preventing an accident if it ever happens to them.”
It was an early lesson for me in the significance of moving away from a victim mentality towards one of ‘agency’ in one’s own life. Since then, I have been a regular and grateful reader of many self-help books and, more recently, a coach seeking to help others help themselves.
Self-help is now a major industry. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in 1928 and has never been out of print since. It has been joined by thousands of other titles, each holding the promise of improving oneself in one way or another: Change Your Life in 7 Days, Families and How to Survive Them, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Get Rich, Be Thin, Be Happy... the list stretches on.
Central to most of these books is a core message: that we can become the person we aspire to be and create the life we want, simply by taking responsibility for our own lives – by becoming the pilot of our own plane. The film Invictus relates how no less a figure than Nelson Mandela found inspiration whilst incarcerated on Robben Island in a short 19th century poem’s message of self-mastery:
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
- William Ernest Henley
It is hard to underestimate how powerful such a realisation can be – especially when the influence of traditional sources of guidance, such as family and religion, is lessening, and when the prevailing sense is that each of us is on an essentially solitary journey through life.
I have been struck, time and again, by how much difference an individual’s mindset can make to outcomes. Two young children accidently fall into a swimming pool and almost drown. One understandably develops a life-long terror of water; the other becomes a life-guard. It is the same ‘event’ and yet a radically different ‘experience.’ In other words, we might not always be able to control what happens to us, but we can control what we make it mean – we can genuinely self-help.
There is a wonderful quote from Bruce Springsteen that I often use with coachees who feel incapacitated by fear in one way or another. Asked if he ever got scared before playing concerts in front of audiences of more than 50,000 people, he answered: “Never. When I get ready to go on stage, my heart starts pounding, my hands start shaking, my breath goes up into my throat, and I know that I am pumped and ready to play!”
In other words, Springsteen has redefined for himself the sensations most of us would describe as ‘helpless terror’ to be those of ‘excited readiness.’
Techniques such as neurolinguistic programming (NLP) provide a number of sophisticated tools for intervening in this gap between perception and reality. A person with a phobia of flying may sit in the departure lounge listening to a voice in their head recounting all the terrible things that might go wrong. Someone traumatised by an accident may, whenever they recall it, see it vividly and ‘immersively’ in colour. Yet once we realise that we can control these voices and pictures – just as a TV producer might in an edit suite – we find we can discernibly affect our own experience. Make the ‘voice of doom’ the ‘voice of Donald Duck’ and it no longer holds the same terror. Drain the terrifying image of its colour and push it into the far distance and it loses its emotional power over us.
The reverse is also true. If we turn up the volume and colour on what we want, we discover it further motivates us to achieve it. Indeed, a core message of this school of self-help is that we should aim towards the positive, towards what we want in life rather than away from what we don’t; towards success, health and wealth – rather than away from failure, sickness and poverty.
The power of intent...
Some best-selling books, such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, invest ‘intent’ with magical powers to create our reality:
“What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match – no exception... everything in your life you have attracted... accept that fact... You are the only one that creates your reality.”
This ‘Law of Attraction’ (‘you become and attract what you think’) has been applied to the acquisition of material objects and business success. Large organisations encourage their senior executives to imagine extraordinary breakthroughs and then drive their people towards them, persuaded that this is the way to game-changing performance. And so it can be.
But not always. The Law of Attraction can also be the route to delusion, manipulation and disillusion – to a sense of failure that is as total as it is personal. Several experiments have shown that simply visualising an outcome can lead subjects to apply themselves less, with a consequent reduction in positive outcomes. And if the only reason for failure is our own inability to marshal enough positive intent, then it follows that we ourselves are profoundly to blame for everything that happens to us – adding liability to loss.
...versus acceptance of what is
In contrast, another school of self-help – Gestalt Therapy – argues for what it terms the ‘paradoxical theory of change’: that the way to contentment and to success is not through assertion, but through acceptance. Indeed, the more we try to be what we are not, the more we stay the same and it is only when we stop resisting and start fully accepting ‘what is’ that a new outlook – or gestalt – becomes possible.
It is a paradox detectable in many traditions. Tai Chi and many other martial arts are based on the founding principles of Lao Tsu, a 6th century BC philosopher, who taught that it was in yielding that we overcome, in being able to bend that we can be straight. In the fairy tales many of us were read as children, it is only when the princess fully reconciles herself to the frog – by kissing him – that transformation happens and she wins her prince.
In this view, there is something fanciful and essentially adolescent about the notion that we can become anything we want to be. Rather, it is through accepting a more limited – but real – sense of ourselves that we gain traction. We are required to recognise that we are necessarily influenced by forces beyond our control – our genetic make-up, our parenting, our culture – and it is only when we acknowledge ourselves as we are and accept our profound inter-dependence on others, that agency becomes possible.
A corollary of this can be seen in leadership. Very often it is not the ‘heroic leader’ who leaves the most positive legacy. In fact, their very self-sufficiency infantilises their team, providing no room for others to step up and support. It is the ‘good enough leader’ who accepts they do not have all the answers and welcomes the contributions of others, who creates the teams and businesses that continue to prosper after their own departure.
Dreaming for tomorrow (but living for today)
An increasingly popular approach to acceptance in self-help literature is that of ‘mindfulness’, which requires a total emersion in the sensations of the present moment and a stilling of the ‘monkey mind’. In the words of Ekhart Tolle, this is the 'power of now':
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” For Tolle, self-improvement is nothing more than self-acceptance, because we are each already ‘whole, complete and perfect.’ Yet there is surely a risk that such a philosophy can tip into a form of fatalism that tolerates needless limitations and substandard outcomes, and it is hard to see how it can be sufficient in a commercial world where innovation and improvement are the life-blood.
For me, neither ‘intent’ nor ‘acceptance’ can be the whole answer. I am left seeking a dynamic balance of the two, between dreaming for tomorrow and living for today, between going for what I want and wanting what I have got.
Self-help literature has been significant to millions of us in developing a happier, better adjusted self. As competition and opportunities increase, and as religious and family structures reduce, the importance of investing in the development of ‘Me, Inc’ is only likely to grow.
But, to me, the term ‘self-help’ will always describe a process, not a destination, and it can all too easily miss the point of leadership and of life. To return to an aviation metaphor, we need to secure our own oxygen masks first, because it is only then – when we as individuals are strong, self-aware and self-giving – that we can best serve others.