When self-help… helps

I wrote this for a newspaper a couple of years ago, but they never printed it. The enthusiastic response to my review of Peter Jones’s wonderful book, How To Do Everything And Be Happy, inspired me to hunt it out.

Sitting in a coffee shop, postponing going in to the office, I started reading Paul McKenna’s book Change Your Life in Seven Days. I’d read enough self-help to know that it was unlikely to really change my life at all, let alone in seven days, but I was ever-optimistic and hoped that this book would be the one to make the difference. For years, I’d been a self-help addict. My shelves groaned with titles like Make Your Creative Dreams Real, How Much Joy Can You Stand, Live the Life You Love, Write it Down Make it Happen, Creating a Charmed Life and more, and yet I was still miserable, but with no reason to be.

I was happily married with a gorgeous young baby, and my husband and I had finally managed to buy our own home, but I hated my job and was frustrated that I’d never managed to get a writing career off the ground. (I’d started writing a novel around ten years earlier, but hadn’t been able to finish it.) Mostly I was disappointed with myself. I wanted change and had taken certain efforts to find something that inspired and challenged me, but no matter what I did or how I felt, I always seemed to end up back in what was basically the same job, just in a different company.

While I drank my decaf latte, I started reading McKenna’s book and, just a few pages in, found an allegory that began ‘Imagine you woke up one day in a land populated almost entirely by giants.’ Ordinarily, I would have skipped over it. I wanted information on how to change my life not namby-pamby fairy tales, but for some reason I kept reading. It went on: ‘Do as you are told. It’s easier to get along if you go along. Don’t cry. Don’t fight. Study hard. Get a job. Do as you are told. Get married. Have children to support you in your old age. Do as you are told.’ Which is exactly what I’d always done. I’d been the good girl. I’d been conscientious. I’d studied and worked hard thinking that eventually I would be rewarded, but instead I’d just been taken for granted. I got to the end of the story: ‘And then one day you wake up, and there is a tiny little creature staring up at you. She has awakened in a land of giants. And because you love her, you begin to teach her everything you’ve learned about how to survive in this land of giants. And so, the cycle continues …’ And I started to cry. I had my own tiny little creature – who was, at that moment, being looked after by someone else – and I didn’t want him to grow up with a mother who was disappointed in her life and too afraid to follow her dreams.

But it was time for work (and of course I couldn’t be late) so I left the coffee shop still sobbing and had only just managed to pull myself together by the time I got to the office. I’d worked in various roles in the same company for a while, but the latest position was the worst. I was an Administrator in Corporate Recovery and Personal Insolvency, which meant that generally every client I spoke to had either lost their job or was facing bankruptcy. Angry and tearful callers were common. I often had to advise worried and frightened people who had been told they could lose their homes, should sell their cars, even give up their pets. I felt like every aspect of my job was negative and it was wearing me down. I couldn’t concentrate in that morning’s meeting. I thought about what I’d always wanted to do: write. Why had I never done it? What was I afraid of? Maybe I should just do it. Yes, I might fail, but wasn’t I already failing by being unwilling to try?

After finishing the Paul McKenna book, I realised that simply reading self-help hadn’t been enough – I needed more direct assistance. I contacted life coach Suzy Greaves, who quickly helped me realise that, rather than being afraid of failure as I’d always assumed, I was actually afraid of success. I was also pinning all my hopes on having a novel published, which, should it ever happen, still might not necessarily mean I could give up my job. With Suzy’s advice and support, I remembered my teenage dream of being a journalist and, fairly quickly, got a commission from a national glossy magazine. I was worried that it was a fluke, but I also wondered if it could be the start of something.

Spending more and more time at work either daydreaming about leaving or researching article ideas online, I felt guilty. Although I didn’t enjoy my job, I’d always tried to do it to the best of my ability and I hated that my heart wasn’t in it. But opening the post one morning, I found a letter from the wife of a client. She was writing to tell us he’d committed suicide over their financial situation. I found myself in tears again. Life really was too short. I shut myself in an office and rang my husband, David. I told him I wanted to quit. “Fine,” he said. “Really?” I asked. We didn’t have savings – in fact our financial situation wasn’t much healthier than some of my clients. David had a good job, but didn’t earn enough to support us without me working at all. I knew that if we got desperate I could temp, but I really didn’t want to. My mum had told me to learn secretarial skills so I’d always have something to “fall back on”, but I’d been falling back on it for fifteen years. David asked me if I thought I could get more commissions and I told him I did. “Okay,” he said. “You’re not happy. So quit.”

I handed in my notice that same day and I have never regretted it. My freelance career took off and I matched my employed earnings in the first year and have increased my income each subsequent year. I work from home and can do the school run, attend assemblies and sports days and, on the few occasions my son has been ill, have been able to pick him up within ten minutes of getting the phone call. I’ve since had another baby and now I arrange my work around him. I also finally finished a novel and, last year, signed a two book deal with a major publisher.

But I only realised how far I’d come when I started reading Kasey Edwards’ book, 30 Something and Over It for my book club. I thought it was a memoir, but found it often drifted into self-help and Edwards’ search for a more fulfilling job and life. And rather than being inspired, I was bored. I wondered when I’d last picked up a self-help book. I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t recently. I used to wander aimlessly around the self-help section of my local Borders, looking for The One. The one that would change my life. I haven’t been near that section for a long time. Now I haunt the young adult section, picturing my own book gracing the shelves.

12 thoughts on “When self-help… helps

  1. That is an excellent post. Very inspirational and gives me hope for my plans once Olivia starts school. I am really pleased it all worked out for you xx

  2. I really can’t thank you enough for your wise words and recommendations. It seems like we have gone through similar things – the sobbing, the worrying, the dreaming….my action plan is now in place. 🙂

  3. Wow! I utterly 150% love this blogpost. Keris, what you have been through in your job situation sounds so sadly like mine. There are days when I just cannot bear it and I want to crumble. But I can’t afford to. Being published is a big dream for me, but in the meantime, I will suck it up, continue working at it, love my equally creative husband and do my damnedest to get out of the rut of sitting in a job with no forward prospects and working on my writing, my blog and finding solace in my friends, writing and in being part of a an amazing community, both online and in real life.

    You really have become a hero for me. <>

    1. Thanks, Liz. Sorry to hear you’re in a similar boat, but you know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. #mixingmymetaphors 😉

  4. This is such an excellent post. Like everyone else who has commented reading this leaves me feeling inspired and hopeful for the future. Thank you so much.

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