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Saturday, January 12th, 2008
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Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone

by Beth Lisick

New Year, New You?

A review by Danielle Marshall

As every calendar year ends, we often think about how we could have done things differently and invariably we begin writing resolutions for the New Year. Beth Lisick had just such an epiphany while waking up sore and hung over after her New Year's Eve party; apparently doing the splits is much harder when you are over 35. Thusly, Lisick embarks on a year of self-improvement; soliciting the help of America's most famous self-help authors. Thus her book Helping Me Help Myself was born.

From Richard Simmons to Stephen Covey, Lisick spends a month on each self-improvement task and distills it all, very wittily, for our reading pleasure. What is most surprising about Lisick's record of her experiences is her complete lack of guile. While exposing some of the most absurd or ineffective advice of our most famous self-help gurus, Lisick seems to genuinely try to follow their precepts in earnest, only to find at times that the steps to follow are not necessarily one size fits all.

In selecting what books to purchase, or what talk-show stalwart to follow, Lisick employs the "Elvis method": 50,000,000 fans can't be wrong. She chose the most popular, most televised, and most respected people she can find. And when personal interaction with the authors/gurus couldn't be achieved, she attended their conferences, their seminars, their public appearances like a disciple.

One of her most fun and endearing encounters occurs when she takes a "Cruise to Lose" with Richard Simmons. From the moment Simmons runs up to hug and kiss her, after noticing her "Cruise to Lose" nametag, we know that Lisick is in it to win it. She exercises in earnest with Simmons and his weeping, rabid fan base, and in the process begins to understand what brought Simmons to the forefront of the fitness movement for our most out-of-shape citizens; he truly cares for each and every person who is struggling and he is evangelical in his pursuit of trying to change their lives. Lisick (who does not struggle with a weight problem herself) comes away with an appreciation for his methods beyond the revival-tent mechanisms he employs.

Conversely, we have Suze Orman, the nation's most famous and outspoken financial advisor. Her wink-and-nudge approach to her own financial advice is centered around the fact that Orman worships at her own altar. There is nothing more intoxicating to Orman than the sound of her own voice or her own visage in the mirror. Lisick finds that Orman's disdain for folks who can't get their financial act together is deeply rooted in some disturbing aspects of Orman's personal history.

From the most complicated (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) to the most simplistic and inane (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus), Lisick follows all the prescribed paths to self-improvement and does her best to let the advice enhance her life as a wife, mother, artist, and generally disorganized person. What she exposes, above all, is that self-help is America's guilty (and secretive) solution for our own discontentment with our lives. While self-improvement is at the very root of our American ideals, we disdain its followers (god forbid anyone should discover that we are one of them). We view self-helpers as a band of schmucks. While we all want to "do better" in life, we prefer to have everyone think that we blazed our own trail to financial independence, interpersonal happiness, and success, and that our formula for each is unique to us alone.

Lisick's voice is always truthful and illuminating and witty, without ire. She lacks the snarky tones of so many of her contemporaries while still eliciting out-loud laughs at the absurdity of it all. By being one of them, Lisick genuinely immerses herself into the culture, instead of standing on the sidelines pointing and laughing. And without becoming a victim of full-on Stockholm Syndrome, Lisick manages to become self-help's reluctant, albeit somewhat hopeless, fan. And in the process, we readers become the author's fans as well.

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