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Feel The Fear — And Read It Anyway: 'Help Me!' Documents A Year Of Self-Help Books

I missed Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Skipped The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Not that I couldn't use the help! But because I was always a little skeptical — if these books work, why do we need so many of them? Couldn't we all just read one and be sorted? Marianne Power was similarly skeptical, but she also says she found herself, at age 36, convinced her life was in a rut and not quite sure how to climb out of it.

So she embarked on a project: Read one self-help book a month, for one full year. Twelve books total. The result is her own book, Help Me! One Woman's Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life. And she set herself some rules — for example, she couldn't just read each book, she had to follow the advice in it. To the letter.

"The first book I followed was a self-help classic called Feel the Fear ... and Do It Anyway," Power says. "That says you should do something scary every day, so I created a list of scary things to do ... Standup comedy was the most terrifying thing I could think of doing. I did that. I jumped out of a plane, I did naked modeling for an art class. And there were also kind of smaller things, opening bank statements. So yeah, it was a cross-section. By the end of that month, I'd done more scary things in 30 days than I'd done in the 30 years beforehand." And it worked — at the end of the month, Powers says, she was "an adrenalized nutcase," but she felt "very, very alive."

Interview Highlights

On her favorite of the books

I loved The Power of Now, which is an Oprah favorite actually. It's written by Eckhart Tolle, and Eckhart Tolle says that when we see people walking down the street talking to themselves, we think they're a bit mad, but actually we're all doing that to ourselves all the time, we all have this voice in our head that's narrating what's happening, and it's quite often very critical, it's beating yourself up for something you've done in the past, or it's worrying about what's going to happen in the future, and as a result, you miss the only thing that is ever real, according to Eckhart Tolle, and that's now. Right now, this second. And in the book, he asks, in any given moment, to ask yourself, "do I have a problem, right now, right here?" And the answer is almost always no. So I found that book very helpful.

On getting in deeper than she intended

I just thought it was a very clever idea, and that it would make me feel better ... I didn't really understand that actually, I was taking myself apart in some ways.

I just thought it was a very clever idea, and that it would make me feel better, you know, in the way you can feel better if you've had a week of early nights, or you lose a few pounds. I didn't really understand that actually, I was taking myself apart in some ways. It started life as a blog, and I was blogging as I was doing it, and yeah, as I got further and further into it, it was becoming a much deeper undertaking than I understood.

On an important London cabbie

I was having a really hard time at this point; I was having nightmares every night, and it seemed like the more I was thinking about myself, the more I hated myself, and the harder I was trying to be perfect, the more of a failure I felt ... And I got into this taxi, and we got chatting, and he just asked me, "How are you?" and I found myself saying, "I feel like I'm going crazy." And he didn't balk, he just said, "Why is that, then?" And I started telling him about what I'd been doing.

And, I mean, this is a 60-something London taxi driver. I thought he would have absolutely no clue what I was talking about. But he did, he just seemed to get it, and he said, "So you've been digging deep, then?" And I said, "I have." And he said, "It's like layers of an onion. You keep peeling, peeling each one off, and you feel like you're coming apart," and I started crying then. And he told me about his own life story, and a period where he questioned everything and came close to a breakdown, and so he told me, "You're touching the void, and you need to step back now and be normal for a while, go to the cinema, walk in the park, stop doing this for a while." And it was him who actually said, "you should go speak to someone." And it was after that that I did take a break, went to a therapist, and managed to limp my way through the end of the project ... I'm very grateful to him. I never found out his name, but he's one of my favorite moments from that year. The kindness of strangers can be just as healing as a book.

On whether self-help helps

It probably didn't help me in the ways that I thought it was going to help me. But it helped in a much deeper and better way than I was expecting, which is I did learn by the end that I didn't have to improve myself or change myself, I just needed to accept myself. Human beings are messy, and we have good days and we have bad days, and yeah, I've come away at the end of all this much more at peace with myself than I was before.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

BooksMorning EditionAll Things Considered
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.