Every year people make New Years resolutions. They resolve to become better versions of who they were the year before. And do they? Maybe a few of those people will dramatically re-vamp their lives, but most don’t. Even many simple resolutions like “go to the gym every week” fizzle out by mid-February. This year, I decided not to make any resolutions. Especially ones that I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep. It’s not that I don’t want to improve myself, I just think that whatever pledge I make on January 1st isn’t necessarily the way to do it.
I recently read a New York Magazine article titled “The Self in Self-Help” that started off in a very interesting way, “It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t. What’s harder to understand is why transforming ourselves is so difficult. Changing other people is notoriously hard; the prevailing wisdom on that one is Don’t hold your breath. But it’s not obvious why changing oneself should present any difficulty at all. And yet, demonstrably, it does.”
So why is it so hard to change yourself? Even when you’re told how? And then the author begins discussion of the genre of self-help. “I know people who wouldn’t so much as walk through the self-help section of a bookstore without The Paris Review under one arm and a puzzled oh-I-thought-the-bathroom-was-over-here look on their face. I understand where they’re coming from, since some of the genre’s most persistent pitfalls—charlatanism, cheerleading, bad science, silver bullets, New Age hoo-ha—are my own personal peanut allergies: deadly even in tiny doses.”
I have a love-hate relationship with self-help. I love the idea that there is so much material out there (everything from advice columns, to flowcharts, to manuals) designed to help you improve any and every aspect of yourself. But I also hate that it’s embarrassing to admit (even to yourself) just how dreadful your cooking is or that you suck at networking. And then, it can be frustrating and condescending to read things you want to believe, yet you know there’s no way it’s that easy… How do you weed out the false advertising, the marketing ploys, and straight-up bullshit? You’re not the specialist – you’re trusting that they are. Finally, there’s a certain stigma surrounding self-help. That it’s for those who are too cowardly or too hopeless to go out and figure it out for themselves. On this point, I disagree. I think that often it takes courage or at least humility and self-awareness to realize when you need help and to seek it. But one of the greatest things about self-help is that you can find so much of it and take it as lightly or as seriously as you want – often I read it just for fun. You can sit in your bedroom in nothing but your underwear, with a box of chocolate next to your laptop and read about how to lose 10 pounds and look good in that LBD.
I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I read Cosmo online. Yup. If you ever ask me, I’ll talk on and on (in complete earnest) about how trashy and meaningless Cosmopolitan magazine is. I avoid it in public at all costs, at grocery store check-out aisles (oh look, I can read Newsweek instead….). Cosmopolitan and their lame self-help. The silliness of insisting a neon blazer is a wardrobe staple. How they reuse the same 30 sex tips over and over again in every issue. And they’re not even good sex tips – some of them sound straight up awkward or even painful… But it’s the idea of wanting to be better in bed. Or to cultivate a chic wardrobe. And the fact that Cosmopolitan magazine has somehow established itself as an authority among women – as having some sort of (unexplainable) credibility and wisdom to impart. What if something I read could make me better? Even a little bit better?
I might not completely buy into everything I read, but it’s hard to not buy into anything either, just a little bit. I might try and meditate on the words of the Buddha, study along the advice of my professors, dress following the wisdom of fashion blogs, and eat according to the food pyramid poster at the doctor’s office. But who knows if it’ll make me better, smarter, prettier, or healthier?
I think friendship (or even just companionship) plays an important role in successful self-improvement. Self-improvement doesn’t have to be all self-help. Let others help you. Self-improvement is much easier when you don’t have to do it alone. Want to be more fit? Diet and jog with a friend. Motivate (and guilt-trip) each other. Want to be a better lover? Communicate in bed. Or talk about it afterwards. Want to be a better student? Find a study buddy when you’re struggling. This year, I want to work towards a better me. I’ll probably still browse through self-help magazines/articles/books when they catch my eye, whether or not they’re truly effective – I mean, anything’s worth trying, it can’t hurt right? – but I also won’t try to do everything alone, or to limit myself to a silly 364 day deadline for any goals.