I read my first self-help book when I was 24. I was drinking cheap white wine in All Bar One in Oxford Circus, moaning about my temping job, when my friend gave me her well-thumbed copy of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, by Susan Jeffers. “Read this,” she said. “It’ll make you want to go out and do stuff.” I couldn’t see what it had made her want to do other than get drunk with me, but no matter.
I loved it. The American enthusiasm and capital letters and YOU CAN DO IT! exclamation marks were the perfect antidote to my English/Irish pessimism and worry. The book had such an effect that, a couple of weeks later, I quit the job. Then I heard that a friend of a friend of a friend was working at a newspaper, so I called her and when she didn’t answer I called her again and again until she let me come in and make teas. Shortly afterwards, I was offered my first job in journalism. My risk had paid off.
After that, I was addicted to self-help. If a book was promising to change my life in my lunch hour, give me confidence/a man/money in five easy steps and had Oprah’s seal of approval, I'd buy not only the book but the T-shirt and the audio course.
But by my mid-thirties – despite 10 years of reading self-help books – I was broke, single, drinking heavily and watching a lot of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I was living proof that self-help doesn’t really help. I figured that was because I never followed the advice given in the books. I had taken action after reading Feel The Fear that first time, but, after that, I didn’t leave my comfort zone. In fact, I hardly left my flat. I realised I read self-help as a form of comfort and escapism. These books would describe my insecurities and make me feel less alone, and then they gave me the chance to daydream about how amazing life would be if I got up at 5am to meditate and drink green juice.
If a book was promising to change my life in my lunch hour, give me confidence/a man/money in five easy steps and had Oprah’s seal of approval, I'd buy not only the book but the T-shirt and the audio course
Then, in the middle of a terrible hangover one Sunday, I had an idea – the idea that would really change my life. I would no longer read self-help, I would spend a year doing it to find out if self-help can actually help.
In one book, Money, A Love Story by Kate Northrup, she suggests writing down your entire history with money and also writing down the answer to these questions: What is your first money memory? And how does it relate to where you are today?
I would normally have skipped this section, but this time I took out a pen and started scribbling. I found myself remembering my dad coming home from work and throwing money up in the air and telling my sister and I we could keep what we caught. I remember us scrabbling to get the five-pound notes. Then I remember him telling us he was only joking, we had to give the money back. That moment encompassed my whole attitude to money – I think it’s to be thrown around and you never get to keep it. It was a genuine lightbulb moment.
Then I made a vision board, as recommended in The Secret, which involves sticking pictures of what you want on to a big pin board in the hope that you bring these things into your life. I learned, while cutting out pictures of sports cars and getting stressed picking tiles for my fantasy house in LA, that I’d absorbed this idea that happiness meant money but, actually, that didn’t feel right to me at all.
I realised I’d never properly allowed myself to think about what I really wanted, because what was the point? It would never happen. But this time I did allow myself and I realised actually what I wanted was friends and good health and travel. Not a Mercedes sports car in sight.
Then I went full circle and really did Feel The Fear And Do it Anyway. I spent a month jumping out of planes, doing stand-up comedy, naked modelling and chatting up men on the Tube. It was exhausting, nerve-wracking and exhilarating. I learned that I was capable of far more than I’d thought, and when I did tiny things I normally avoided, like opening my bank statements or parallel parking, I felt the rush of confidence and power that spilled into other areas of my life.
So, yes, read the self-help – but do it, too. Even if it’s just one small thing. Life starts the minute you close the book and get out into the world.
HELP ME! One Woman's Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power is published by Picador on 6 September