New Self-Help Reads

By Lynn Harris
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Are we a ruthless, me-first nation of compassionless consumers who thrill at the public humiliation of "American Idol" contestants? Or, after Sept. 11 and Katrina, are we kinder than ever, reembracing aw-shucks values, venerating "ordinary" heroes and crowning uber-goofball Taylor Hicks the biggest winner of all?

Judging from a cross section of self-help books, publishers are banking on a buying public that, at least this season, wants the good guys to finish first.

But psychotherapist and philosopher Piero Ferrucci is worried about our souls anyway. In The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life (Tarcher/Penguin, $22.95), Ferrucci posits that "we all are in the midst of a 'global cooling,' " an "Ice Age of the heart," a moment when "kindness is not a luxury, it is a necessity."

Hope for change rests on the fact that we remain at least capable of compassion: "If our long evolution has been successful, it is also because we have been kind." In other words, we haven't all killed one another yet.

Kind is not just please and thank you, Ferrucci writes. Using religious, philosophical and personal examples linked by occasionally high-minded and precious prose, Ferrucci argues that kindness lies at the core of 18 other qualities that help humans thrive, such as honesty, loyalty and humility. Of the last, he asks, "How can we be kind if, deep down, we think we are special and not subject to the laws others have to obey?"

Today's business books appear to be cut from similar cloth, "trending" away from the success-at-all-costs philosophy that, at its most extreme, ushered in the unkind age of Enron. Take, for example, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature (HBS, $26.95), by Harvard business ethicist Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., which looks to fictional heroes and antiheroes for guidance.

A lesser book might have offered Cliffs Notes (Hamlet: indecisive; Ahab: monomaniacal; Odysseus: resourceful!) or drawn facile conclusions ("Do what's right" or "Whatever it takes to realize your dream!"). Instead, Badaracco explores nuance, using a tribal leader's actions in the Nigerian novel "Things Fall Apart" to suggest that having a fixed moral code -- which sounds like a good thing -- can inhibit complex, pragmatic and principled decision making.

He rejects the temptation to interpret hardworking Monroe Stahr, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished "The Last Tycoon," as merely "a sad, simplistic poster boy for the slogan that no one ever died wishing to have spent more time at the office." Instead he urges readers to explore why Stahr made the sacrifices he did. One reason: Like "most outstanding leaders," he does "sweat the small stuff."

Many people -- and one fast-food marketing department -- have found their hero not in fiction but at, forgive the pun, their local sub shop. Remember Jared Fogle? The fellow who lost 250 pounds on a self-devised diet of two Subway sandwiches a day? Perhaps inevitably, Fogle has written Jared, the Subway Guy -- Winning Through Losing: 13 Steps for Turning Your Life Around (St. Martin's, $22.95).

Fogle does somersaults to show that his motivational tips apply to anyone struggling in a rut or with an addiction, but his folk-hero status is so linked to weight loss that, most likely, it's mainly dieters who will want to hear his can-do, whatever-works message. While the metaphors come piled on like too many toppings ("Confront the monster . . . reach for the stars!"), some of his advice is surprisingly fresh. Forget setting "small goals" and lining up a "buddy" for support, he says: "People would have laughed at me."

Fogle's book falls short, though, when he reminds readers that "true success is maintaining your goal, not just reaching it" yet omits any explanation of how, precisely, he has maintained his. Perhaps it's motivation enough to know that at any moment, he might have to be on TV.

There are, it turns out, thousands of other Jareds out there intent on turning their triumphs over adversity into careers as motivational speakers. Roger Crawford, all four of whose limbs are incomplete, became a nationally ranked tennis player -- and he'll tell you and your co-workers about it for $7,500 a pop. Rene Godefroy, a Haitian refugee who became a doorman at a posh hotel, gives 50 speeches a year: "We should all be doormen," he says, "and open doors."

That's the world Jonathan Black explores in Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz (Bloomsbury, $22.95). This industry has corporations practically writing blank checks, even though, as Black shows, executives admit that rah-rah motivational speakers offer no tangible return on investment.

Juicy topic! Alas, the book doesn't deliver. It's never clear what we're supposed to make of this slapdash hodgepodge of profiles, interviews and descriptions of speakers' conferences, plus a history of public oratory from antiquity to Tony Robbins. The remainder of the book -- wherein Black himself tries out Toastmasters and the Landmark Forum self-development seminar, with thoroughly unremarkable results -- does nothing to fill the coherence vacuum.

Finally, writers looking for a particular kind of motivation will find it in Cathy Yardley's inexcusably typo-ridden but otherwise useful Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, $22.95). Yardley's sound and welcome defense of chick lit rests essentially on two points: Saying that " 'wanting a husband when there's a hole in the ozone layer is frivolous' is not only intellectual snobbery, it's pointless," and "We're not finding the cure for cancer here." Yardley's advice is precise, realistic and readable. And her insistence that you need a story, not just a "cool idea," is worth the sale price alone.

Even if you don't finish your manuscript till next year, don't worry: Chick lit -- in all its genres and definitions -- is not a fad, Yardley writes. We still seem to crave a world in which pink-heeled protagonists -- and the nice, ordinary men who love them -- get their happy endings.

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