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Beware of Self-Help Gurus

By Marty Nemko

Imagine a doctor urged you to undergo a treatment and encouraged you with tales of successful patients. He failed, however, to mention that the treatment fails with 90 percent of patients like you. You’d sue and win in any court in the land.

Yet self-help gurus routinely make similar recommendations without reprisal. For example, haven’t you heard a guru intone that the secret of success is self-esteem, affirmations, or meditation? Or urge you to “dream it and you can do it.”? Or even “Don’t push. When it’s meant to be, it’ll be.” You’re skeptical but gurus seduce you with tales of how they or an acolyte, with a dream and some effort, went from depressed to delighted, rags to riches, dung shoveler to star.

What the gurus don’t tell you are the odds. Sure, it worked for their cherry-picked exemplar or for themselves. After all, they were smart, driven, and/or lucky enough to get a book published or to appear on Oprah. The problem is that the typical consumer of their nostrums isn’t as smart, driven, and lucky. The gurus don’t tell you that for every Million-Dollar-Baby success story, there are countless people who bought Guru’s exhortations yet are still mumbling in their beer.

I’m tempted to attend some guru’s introductory workshop designed to up-sell attendees a long (read “expensive”) workshop and ask, “What percentage of your workshop attendees significantly improved their life as a result?” If the guru were honest, he’d probably say he doesn’t know—few gurus are brave enough to validly evaluate their exhortations’ and incantations’ efficacy. Or if she were professional enough to do so, based on my discussions with hundreds of career coaching clients and with my friends and colleagues, I know the efficacy rate would be low. Barbara Sher, one of the few self-help experts I respect, author of Wishcraft and the nugget-filled Barbara Sher’s Idea Book ( agrees. “I ask my audiences, ‘How many of you have been actually helped by positive thinking?’ No one raises their hand.”

What has more often helped my clients increase their career and personal satisfaction?

· Get a family member or close friend to hire or refer you for a better job than you could land in the open market.

· Rather than a career change, consider a career tweak: delegate or outsource your job’s yucky parts, become an expert in a niche within your field, or change bosses or workplaces.

· Accept, at long last, that you’re paying too big a price for your laziness. Become aware of each moment you’re deciding whether to work or shirk, and more often choose to work.

· If you are, or suspect you have an emotional problem such as depression, bipolar or attention deficit disorder, consider having an expert evaluate whether you should try or change medication.

· Stop analyzing and start acting: take a low-risk step. An object at rest tends to stay at rest—the slacker syndrome.

· Develop a plan broken down into baby steps. Yes, I know that’s a cliché, but it works. Sher urges her clients to constantly ask themselves, “Does this get me closer to my goal or not?”

· Look better: lose weight, get nicer clothes, haircut, or makeup.

· Consider going back to school. I hate to recommend that because, if you’re self-motivated, mentorships and self-study can teach you more of value, faster, less expensively, and more conveniently, but most of my clients need school’s structure and the threat of a bad grade to motivate them.

· Run a simple business, perhaps one (or more!) you can run from home such as editing, tax preparing, tutoring, agenting, brokering, virtual assisting, or coaching. That too is a favorite Sher recommendation. She knows people who have become coaches specializing in: charisma, fashion, dinner parties, performance anxiety, writing, caring for newborns, decorating, organizing, and small business. Or make dolls and offer them at craft fairs, sell your to-die-for fudge to restaurants and caterers, sell gift baskets, flowers, and kids’ toys in the halls of corporations to busy workers who don’t have time to shop.

· Another recommendation Sher and I agree on: consider getting support. Many but not all people attain goals faster and more pleasurably with a buddy or “success team” to brainstorm with and report to weekly or even daily. Each session, after you get help, help the other person(s).

· We’re all capable of behaving better or worse. Decide to be your best self.

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