Saturday, March 8, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

What help are self-help books?

AS one leafs through a magazine or a newspaper, ever so often one comes across tips, pointers and advice galore on how to do this, that and the other. You'll have suggestions on how to be a good/efficient and effective communicator, leader, boss, spouse, teacher. You name it and it's there. The market too is virtually inundated with "how to" books that claim to tell you how to cope with all kinds of problems under the sun — real or imagined — only if you're prepared to heed to their "easy to practice" advice, which, of course, comes at a small price.


A product of the American culture which exalts the individual and celebrates the premium on success, it was initially the need to adopt a prescriptive mode for a culture that was evolving and formulating parameters that gave a fillip to the how-to culture.

To encapsulate denser knowledge in the form of rules and pointers, lay down do’s and don’ts and make a palatable package for the common man is something that even our ancient texts did in the Indian context but there was much less reductionism and more depth.

Says eminent psychologist Sagar Sharma, "Somehow these books are more popular in India, perhaps that’s because we believe in miracles!" It's amazing how our pop psychologists seem to have found answers to all possible questions human beings may or may not want to ask each other or themselves in different social, historical or cultural contexts.

Advocated by proponents of mass culture that functions on the premise that what works well for the masses needs to be followed, the assumption is that there are ready-made solutions to all life situations and people can be dealt with, situations controlled if you follow certain tips in letter and spirit.

"To expect everyone to learn from another person’s experience is not possible. Quick-fix solutions do not work because they lack depth. After all, each individual is a sum total of his genetic code, past experiences and environment. We should keep increasing our knowledge quotient and act judiciously according to specific situations. After all, there is an information explosion and to make sense of the world we need to acquire varying coping skills. In a way these books do add to the entire corpus of information", says Meenakshi Malhotra, Professor, Organisational Behaviour, UBS, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

It is something about our times that makes us want to cope with and be able to understand and deal with every facet of life impeccably. Perhaps, it is the very uncertainty and flux of living in an age where all the givens have collapsed and there is loss of "the public sense of significance" as David Daiches put it in another context. This lack of certainty makes us clutch on to these fixed notions of what will make us tick in what sphere and how good will we be in all our roles. Perhaps, it is the search for instant solutions to every problem and quick-fix answers even to searching metaphysical queries that makes us uncomfortable with soul-searching or introspection. We are reluctant to be confronted by a lack of certitude, because there is so much of it otherwise in the frenetic-paced lives we lead. The certitude these books offer might be illusory. Gurmeet Anand, lecturer psychology, Government College, SAS Nagar, is of the view that "It is auto-suggestion that works best if you want to bring about a change in yourself. If you want to practice what these pointers try and tell you, it is virtually impossible because you do not exist in a vacuum, but are a part of an entire socio-cultural context, where you not only act but react to a situation and to others whom you come into contact with.

"There are three stages that you have to encounter if you come across a problem. The first is the realisation that there is a problem, followed by the need to seek a solution and lastly, the willingness to change. It is this willingness to change that is the most difficult to implement and sustain, because our basic personality does not change."

Even if you are a trained psychologist who is aware of the intricacies of human behaviour it is not possible to eliminate dissonance from your professional or personal life. So you might have four psychologists in a single department, all equally aware of the way they ought to behave but unable to rise above considerations of ego and personality clashes. "As a result they will look in four different directions", says Manmeet, (name changed) who had a first-hand experience of such a set-up.

There is nothing wrong about the need to control our environment and relationships, but it does presuppose a certain degree of smart-alecky, cocky confidence in our ability to mould and hone. We live in age where everything must be instant, whether it is food, people skills or seeking thrills. As Sagar Sharma says, "In today’s context, there is a need for instant results and gratification cannot be delayed. The presupposition is that an individual can win everything. If that was possible after reading 50 pages of a book or an article, the world would have become heaven! In fact, we want to tackle even the most precious relationships with much less effort than we should be putting in to make them work."

What worked 10 years before need not work the present context. Postmodern man, who is both an instrument and a victim of this eternal state of flux, is forever haunted by the desire to exercise control over his situation and environment. He finds it hard to come to terms with a reality that he cannot necessarily have control over. It's another matter that he's increasingly losing control over himself and his own processes. Due to the break-up of traditional joint families where wisdom or nuggets of practical advice were handed down by an aunt, uncle or sister--in-law, in a way these books or tips are seeking to fill in the gap. It is a different matter that two-way communication, the essence of interpersonal communication, is any day better than falling back on a book for advice.

As Munish, an engineering graduate narrates, "All the tips on how to win friends and influence people go flying out of the window when you encounter boorish, uncouth behaviour. You can control your own actions but not the others’ reactions and behaviour. I devour all these tips more as a feel-good exercise rather than for any practical utility."

One would think that all this preparation and well-meaning advice would hone our skills and help us polish our personalities until they sparkled. And we would be able to deal with all the communication blocks with panache and sail through life with a hail-fellow-well-met brand of geniality. However, life is a mixed bag of surprises that does not lend itself to being deciphered by 10, 20 or 30 points of a smart person's guide of how to. "Above all, human nature and behaviour, warts and all, are as unpredictable as they are variable", maintains Dolly Singh, who read Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus with interest only to find that nothing really prepares one for mother-in-law problems in the Indian context!

No wonder, the more we grapple with "how to," the less equipped we are to actually relate to people, things and events. The growing number of shrinks, helplines, therapists and increasing dissonance would testify to our seeking recourse to the entire baggage of psychobabble. As Sagar Sharma maintains, "Well-written books by scholars can make one aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses sometimes. It is like a self x-ray." How much of it really helps in improving the quality of life is another issue. Even after an x-ray, the diagnosis and line of treatment may not be consistent or therapeutic. For every cynic who pooh-pooh’s the quick-fix, there is an ardent supporter and votary of the how-to culture.

Rajan Walia, Deputy General Manager Marketing, Connect, is an ardent fan of books written by management gurus. He feels what one gains from a book depends on that individual’s response. Ten different people will respond to the same book differently. "Some are knowledge-seekers, they will imbibe something from such books, while others read them just to bandy about quotes or participate in a social discussion and say, ‘I too have read this book.’ Still others would use the information to gain a perspective on people and problems and introspect. However, as far as Rajan himself is concerned, "I find books that narrate success stories or business philosophies of successful businessmen in the West inspiring. Especially, if we were to keep in view that for those young executives who may not be located in a metro or have access to models overseas, these books fill a gap and update them." Dale Carnegie remains a hot favourite for many aspirants for social success. Honing one’s own skills is fine but how can you win others over when you can’t win yourself is something that is highly debatable. We are trying to run around, do too much and measure life with achievements or success orientation...the more you run, farther from the goal you are.

Parminder, a fashion designer, says: "These feel-good books and tips make you feel as if you can do it but the effects are short-term ones. Very soon you move on to the next feel-good ‘I can-do-it-this way’ fix. I feel some people are junkies for such stuff. It would be worthwhile to try and psychoanalyse why some people fall for such stuff while others resist it."

Why must we always try to fit people into boxes, label them and categorise them as well as our own responses? No amount of imbibing Deepak Chopra, Arandiam Chaudhry, Shiv Khera or John Gray helps you to understand the multiplexity of life. In an age where information gathers, knowledge decays and knowledge accumulates, wisdom decays, why can’t we go along when a little voice says: "why can't we just let things be and react and relate without every thought, action, word and deed being dissected and analysed to death?" That would be admitting that there is a force that cannot be tamed and so may be treated as an acceptance of defeat.

We, the verbally smart, techno-savvy and 'skilled-in-all-spheres' people would be loath to admit defeat, especially when it comes to dealing with other people. May be a machine or a computer would still succeed in humbling us but not another 'mere mortal.'

When we can't control, there is rage and helplessness, while when we surrender and resign ourselves, there is a peace that surpasseth understanding. Why are we so anxious about wanting to control and gain an edge over people, events and relationships? The mystery is gone, as is the power of acceptance and acquiescence, surrender as it were to forces beyond and a willingness to comply with nature's flow. Why can't one just flow along with life and take people along? Despite (or because of it) all this theorising and defining, despite all this categorisation and the adages and do-it-yourself at our command, we still fumble and hopelessly falter.