“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”
William James (1842–1910)
“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.”
Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism
You will have heard many times that “you can change your life by changing your thoughts and your mental habits,” but have you ever stopped to consider what that means? This book identifies some of the most useful ideas from writings specifically devoted to personal transformation—from the inside out.
I have called these books “self-help classics.” You may already have an idea of what self-help is, but that understanding should be deepened by the range of authors and titles covered in these pages. If there is a thread running through the works, it is their refusal to accept “common unhappiness” or “quiet desperation” as the lot of humankind.
They acknowledge life’s difficulties and setbacks as real, but say that we cannot be defined by these. No matter how adverse the situation, we always have room to determine what it will mean to us, a lesson given us in two books covered here, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. To consciously decide what we will think, not allowing genes or environment or fate to determine our path—this is the essence of self-help.
A conventional view of self-help is that it deals with problems, but most of the self-help classics are about possibilities. They can help reveal your unique course in life, form a bridge between fear and happiness, or simply inspire you to be a better person. Samuel Smiles wrote the original Self-Help in 1859. He feared that people would think his book a tribute to selfishness. In fact it preached reliance on one’s own efforts, the never-say-die pursuit of a goal that did not wait on government help or any other kind of patronage. Smiles was originally a political reformer, but came to the conclusion that the real revolutions happened inside people’s heads; he took the greatest idea of his century, “progress,” and applied it to personal life. Through telling the life stories of some of the remarkable people of his era, he tried to show that anything was possible if you had the gall to try.
Abraham Lincoln is sometimes mentioned in self-help writing because he embodies the idea of “limitless” thinking. Yet his thoughts were not applied to himself—he considered himself an ungainly depressive—but to the potential he saw in a situation (saving the Union and freeing America of slavery). Lincoln’s vision was not vainglorious; he lived for something larger.
At its best, self-help is not about the fantasies of the ego, but involves the identification of a project, goal, ideal, or way of being where you can make a big difference. In so doing, you can transform a piece of the world—and yourself along with it.
The self-help phenomenon
“…the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.”
Philip K. Dick, Valis