Shining Eyes, Clear Heads – Self-Help Without the Bullshit

I have a confession to make: when I was a teenager I was enthralled by motivational speakers. I was visited with this affliction after Ben Zander (a Boston-based orchestra conductor and musician) descended upon my high school and brought me to tears with his inspiring exhortation always to “radiate possibility” rather than “spiral downward”. I will never forget the image of Zander violently thumping the school’s brand new Steinway grand piano as another student played, stirring him to new heights of passion in his performance, while the principle watched in horror, his body jerking every time Zander’s fist crashed into the polished black instrument.

My infatuation deepened when I tagged-along with my Mum to a conference for Human Resources professionals in Vancouver. I spent days watching presentation after presentation: athletes, business leaders, and spiritual gurus all extolled the virtues of their brand of wisdom to the accompaniment of upbeat music, manic grins and, in one memorable case, a big drum the speaker whacked as they intoned.

I loved it. After the speeches I felt a great sense of uplift, of empowerment, as if everything was in my grasp. By following the simple steps provided, or by consulting my “true self”, or by always “radiating possibility” I would be able to achieve my dreams. And I was convinced the people around me felt this too: their shining faces and glittering eyes and raucous applause were evidence, to me, that these speakers were more than earning their (sometimes quite spectacular) fees.

I was convinced this was how I was going to make my living: I would do something amazing, then use my shining example to inspire others. But what to do? Although a passionate singer, I am no Pavarotti. I adore acting, but Daniel Day Lewis has me beat. And the peaks of Mount Everest seemed completely out of reach given my complete lack of athleticism and willowy teenage frame. I was at a loss!

I began to read books by famous motivational speakers and self-help gurus to see if I could find the secret to their success and a route into the business. At university I had a whole shelf dedicated to Chicken Soup for the Soul and its spin-offs. My absolute favorite was, of course, Zander’s The Art of Possibility (written with his then-wife, Rosamund Zander), a signed copy of which crowns my bookcase to this very day. Filled with delicious secular parables and touching human stories about people finding improbable solutions to intractable personal and professional problems by remaining open to unusual possibilities, the book was a constant touchstone for my young self. Zander’s counsel that we must at all times encourage others’ eyes to shine with enthusiasm for life became a personal maxim.

It was reading books such as these, through, which slowly started to strip the sheen from the idea of motivational speaking as a vocation. Frankly, as I began to realize as I gathered more life experience – particularly challenging and troubling experience – so much of what’s on offer in such books is shallow, simplistic, and self-regarding. Ideas which once seemed to confer the mantle of wisdom began, on closer inspection, to look threadbare and patchy. As I delved deeply into philosophy’s wealthy trove, I began to see self-help “insights” as costume jewelry baubles, dull glass to philosophy’s glittering, multi-faceted diamonds. I became more skeptical of self-help gurus and motivational speakers, and their books gather dust on my shelf.

I still want to inspire people, certainly. I want to awaken people to their own potential, to their capability to grow and to affect change. I believe, deep in my core, that most of us are capable of far more than we imagine, and that the grind of the everyday blinds us to our own power. I want to help others’ eyes to shine. But I recognize, too, that the predicament of life, and the challenges we face as individuals and as a society, are too complex and too urgent for platitudes and deepitys. The balloon of our hope is lost if it loses its tether to reality. A quick-fix is likely no fix at all.

So, what to do? Give up on inspiration entirely, turning our shining eyes to a beady gaze of uncompromising pragmatism? I think not. I hope not. I believe it is possible to convey difficult, challenging, complex conundrums in ways which do justice to the messiness of life while providing reasons for hope and inspiration. I believe there are times when we need others to help us see possibilities which are invisible to us, and why shouldn’t it be a motivational speaker? Sometimes – and here I go further than others might – I believe our tendency to seek complexity can obscure simple truths, our minute examination of the bark of trees leaving us blind to the glorious forest.

While much motivational speaking is shallow, and much self-help simplistic, it doesn’t have to be so. And, to be honest, perhaps my rightful skepticism of self-help has tarnished, over time, into an unfair cynicism. As I trudge toward 30 (my birthday is on January 3rd) I find myself yearning for some of the wide-eyed passion and openness to experience of my teenage self, even if it was somewhat overdone. We can, I think, have shining eyes and clear heads, inspiration without stupefaction, self-help without the bullshit. The question is, how do we provide it?

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Some guy

    Science! Good science on how people actually work and what kind of steps can improve their lives. I have great hopes that psychology will start to provide it. The more we understand ourselves and other humans, the better we should be at motivating people…in theory.

    I’ve never read the art of possibility but I have one of the chicken soup books. It’s about animals, I think. I’ve also read Emotional Intelligence, which was interesting but ultimately unhelful. I’ve also got The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman. It’s a good book but I haven’t yet put it into practice. Obviously no book can live your life for you.

  • Donna Farrer

    We have to start with us. I partly agree with what the above commenter wrote, books can’t live your life for you, but they can give you many ideas but it’s up to you to make them part of your journey if you feel they fit! I have recently been readig A Rebel Chick Mystic’s Guide by Lisa Selow (lisaselow.com if anyone wants to check it out) and it has a number of great ideas and thoughts on how to get back to your true self, and I have been trying to implement my versions of her ideas and it helps! Good luck in finding what you are looking for!

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