Change The Adjectives

I recently got finished reading the book “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood.

Atwood is a feminist novelist who makes occasional and GOOD forays into science fiction. Though her stories are not innovative for the science fiction genre she writes well, and infuses new life into old stories.

In Atwood’s book the main character studies literature while he is in school. He develops an interest in reading very old self help books. When he graduates he ends up getting a job as a promotions person for a company that makes self improvement products. I found this quote from the job interview scene to be provocative:

(approximately page 245, the chapter titled “Vulturing”)

What had impressed them, said the interviewers — there were two of them, a woman and a man — was his senior dissertation on self-help books of the twentieth century. One of their core products, they told him, was the improvement items — not books any more, of course, but the DVDs, the CD-ROMs, the Web sites, and so forth.

(page 246 )

“You showed great insight into the process”, the woman said. “In your dissertation. We found it very mature.”

“If you know one century, you know them all,” said the man.

“But the adjectives change”, said Jimmy. “Nothing’s worse than last year’s adjectives”

“Exactly!” said the man, as if Jimmy had just solved the riddle of the universe in one blinding flashbulb of light.

I have some time management and self improvement books on my book shelf that have really been valuable in my life. I’ve noticed that new books on these subjects come out in regular cycles, but they rarely ever say anything new and sometimes they say the same old thing not as well as earlier books.

Like Atwood’s quote it seems that all these authors do is make new buzz terms and rearrange the content without adding any value. Yes, some of them do add insights or make old content more accessible to contemporary audiences. Beyond this there are two reason I think that drive the perpetual recycling of the self help books:

1. It is hard to make money republishing or using existing works.

2. The consumer wants to believe there is something new and publishers are willing to exploit this.

In regards to #2 one of the things I liked about Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” is his observation that successful people do things of value, even when they do not feel like it. Covey went on to say that no matter the system, if you want to be successful at your goals sooner or later it will always come back to having to do that.

Having read book reviews of various self help books on Amazon I think people who go self-help book hopping are looking for a way around having to do things when they do not feel like doing them. They are looking for some magical system that will make them always feel enthused about doing what they think they should be doing. When a new book, with the same content, but “new adjectives” comes out it gives them the illusion of a new system that might have away around having to do things without feeling like doing them.

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