The Not-So-Simple Life

I’ve gotten a lot from self-help books. Ever since Dr. Seuss helped me discover the hidden value of–and even eat–green eggs and ham, I realized that books with ideas about personal improvement might be able to help me get ahead of the pack.

It wasn’t long before I moved beyond eating-endurance challenges—with a stop at How to Eat Fried Worms along the way, of course—and moved onto weightier tomes dedicated to self-help. Like Atlas Shrugged.

No, seriously. Ayn Rand’s 1100-page magnum opus was my first real self-help book—though as a work of dystopian fiction, it’s not usually grouped in that category in the bookstore. Still, it was the first time I really felt like an author was speaking to me, saying, “You can do more than just eat fried worms!” (Anyone who has seen the late Rand speak on TV is welcome to take an amusing moment to picture her emphatically yelling that phrase.)

My quest did not stop there – in fact hasn’t stopped yet. I’m currently re-reading the classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. The reason I’m re-reading it is that I clearly don’t remember—or am not applying—all of the advice in the book. (If I did, you and I probably wouldn’t be here talking right now, would we?) I basically came away with one thing from my first reading of Lakein’s book: “You have to pick goals and head toward them if you want to have the life of your dreams”. Check. But I feel like there was some stuff about choosing priorities, and narrowing down your choices or something…yuck, it sounds as boring and distasteful now as it did when I was 21. But still, something must be done–and I do owe a lot to that book, which led me to create to-do lists over 15 years ago that I am still working on today.

Between Atlas Shrugged and Lakein’s book, there was Unlimited Power, by self-help super-guru Tony Robbins—possibly my best yard sale purchase ever. I had no idea who he was at the time, but he said he used to be an overweight loser and now was a successful millionaire, so he had my ear. (Little did I know it would take me more than a decade to work my way up to being an overweight loser myself.) I actually picked up a handful of useful things from Robbins’s book (take that, Lakein!), but the main lesson I came away with was: “You can change the way you act and think”–a simple but important premise. (Also, did you know that Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky, and turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars for it until they let him star as Rocky? Neither did I until I read Unlimited Power…I actually get a little chill thinking about the strength of Stallone’s decision-making at that time. Yo, Inspiration!)

Come to think of it, it was those three books that conspired to get me to write down my values as goals, into a personal mission statement—not of what I was going to do, but of how I was going to be. It’s an actual document I created, when I was 22 or so, defining the values I was going to do my best to embrace as I headed forward into life. Values that for the most part I take for granted now (even as I sometimes often continually fail to live up to them).

Actually, what happened is that the latter two books—Lakein and Robbins’s iconic self-help guides—had made it clear to energetic, ambitious young me that I could become even stronger than my already-powerful self, if I put my mind to it. And that brought me back to the original lessons I got from Atlas Shrugged, which I had surely read for a second time by then. Namely: “It’s OK to be you, and it’s OK to believe you are right—as long as you’re a good person, and as long you are actually right.”

There’s always a catch, right? That whole second part has really slowed down my progress toward total global domination. For example, lately I’ve been struggling to reconcile my personal values manifesto with this really fun (and colorful!) self-help book I found, which seems to be detailing a process by which one could conceivably steal Christmas from a entire village of Whos…

Crap! Number 18: “I will not lie or steal.” Damn values!

This column is featured in The Simplifier #5.10.