The following article is currently on The Browser as part of their Five Books series. The interview was conducted by Sophie Roell.
Most self-help books promise to take you from 0 to 100, but many people reading them are starting at minus 100. The author of What’s Stopping You? picks books that helped him understand his own insecurities, and come up with a plan.
Do you think reading books can really help you get over something major like your insecurities?
No. People tend to buy self-help books pretty much out of desperation, in the desire that something will cure them. But a key element in all this is that you’re not going to be cured. You’re going to die with these insecurities. One of the reasons for that is that it’s about triggering: your insecurities are based on you being triggered at certain key moments, normally moments that involve fear, and that triggering is inevitable. It’s going to happen. What I say in my book, What’s Stopping You? is that first of all you need to understand your insecurities and why you have them. Secondly you have to accept that they’re part of you. You are who you are. You are an insecure person. You cannot develop the personality traits of somebody that is a secure person. Thirdly, people with insecurities need a map to help them find a way forward. What’s Stopping You? is not a map, but it’s telling you how to draw your own map to navigate your insecurities. It should help you plan a way forward that’s more positive than the negative, defeatist, way that you approach things now. You’re not going to be cured, but you can overcome some of the difficulties that your insecurities give you and end up in a better place.
Let’s talk about how the books you’ve chosen fit into all this. The first one is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, which argues that emotional intelligence is more important than standard measures of intelligence like IQ.
Yes, that’s the key revelation. But another key element, which was quite revelatory for me when I read it, is about the impact of fear on your brain. The impact of fear as a physiological response was well known when he wrote the book, but what was less well known was the idea of fear as a neurological response. He pointed to research showing what happens to the brain when fear is triggered, and it’s very damaging. There’s a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, and deals with emotions such as fear and distress. Its main purpose is to alert you to danger and it sends an emergency signal. All those physiological responses you have are basically the body’s response to that emergency signal. That’s what people experience when they experience fear, but it’s not just the fear of a dog barking at you or someone attacking you, it’s fear based on a fear conditioning. These are moments when something happens to you that induces fear or distress, and can include fear of failure or fear of being upset, and the same response occurs.
That’s why I like Goleman’s book, because it makes you aware these triggers are going to happen. They are always going to be there. It’s the element of incurability: your first response is always going to be a fear response. If you feel insecure, you feel insecure about certain things, and those insecurities will be triggered by certain incidents that act as reminders. That triggering is going to happen, it’s set in your brain. He calls them “neural hijackings” — that’s the key phrase. The amygdala has jumped in and said “there’s an emergency here,” and that overrides what Goleman calls the thinking brain. That’s what’s absolutely crucial to insecure people. It’s what they can’t lose, no matter what the claims of all those self-help books.
And you feel crippled when that hits?
Disabled is a better word, but yes, it’s absolutely disabling. What he points out — which is why I thought it was so brilliant when I read it — is that it’s actually a mild form of posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s about traumas that occurred when you were very young and it’s about how you deal with the trauma, when you’re tangentially reminded of it. It’s that that creates the fear response. It brings you to a halt, and prevents you doing things. It prevents you actually moving your life forward, it prevents you taking risks in your life.
Let’s go on to the next book you’ve chosen They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life by Oliver James.
What Oliver James argues is that this is all mostly to do with conditioning. He’s not saying it’s got nothing to do with genetics, but there’s a lot of noise now, about genetics and people being born with certain mental conditions. In his view, with many mental conditions – such as ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, even Asperger’s – conditioning is much more important than genetics. It’s all about what happens to you between the ages of one and six. You can’t just say: “Well that’s just me, that’s the way I am.” There’s a reason you are like that, and it’s usually to do with very early life trauma.
What was a real revelation for me was his discussion on scripts. You’re given a script for life, and you will always play out this script. For instance, my script was that I was the younger brother to a sister who didn’t like me very much. That became my script: the annoying little brother. Another script I had was that my father was constantly disappointed in me, so I was also the disappointing son. And what Oliver James says is that once you have this script, it follows you through your entire life. Others will fit into your own script – perhaps in my example acting as my annoyed sister or disappointed father. I will always play the annoying little brother role. If I’m in a group of people, that script will dictate the way I react to people, the way I treat people and my expectations of how they’re going to perceive me.
It was Virgina Satir who talked about the family being the factory where people are made, and Oliver James encapsulates that very well by talking about scripts. I thought that was absolutely brilliant. You feel trapped in this script. So how do you get out of it? Well, the way you get out of it is to develop new scripts, which is also Oliver James’s message.
Another important thing James talks about is how you must develop insight. The key advantage that you can have, as an insecure person is insight into both your own and others’ insecurities. Everyone is in some way insecure, and certainly has their own script, but you’re the one that has insight into that process happening. That gives you an enormous advantage. It even helps with my sister. She still treats me as the annoying little brother but I now know that’s the script so I can cope with it.
Now you see the beginning of this journey, of navigating your insecurities…
Aren’t Oliver James’s views controversial though?
In terms of your script, he’s building on the work of others, and that’s not so controversial. But with his downgrading of genetics, debate certainly rages. People are very divided about it. I don’t actually see why it’s so controversial, because all he’s saying is that even if there’s an element of genetics – and according to him there’s no evidence there is — it’s not helpful to assume it’s genetics. It’s much more helpful to assume it’s conditioning.
Your next book is by a man I’d never heard of but sounds fascinating, Viktor Frankl. His book is called Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna in the 1930s and then got carted off to Auschwitz with all his family. He was the only one that survived. Halfway through this enormous trauma, he decided he was receiving an incredible insight into human responses to stress. Rather than waiting for some Nazi guard to kill him, he was going to use what was happening to him to comment on the human condition, and it completely transformed his view of his circumstances. He was watching some of his fellow inmates go under and give up, and eventually die. He was watching others that didn’t die. Why did they not die? What made them behave in a way that helped them survive? He came up with the idea that it’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you respond. He’s got this quote “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” You can choose how you respond to something, even being in Auschwitz. It’s massively powerful.
The idea is that suffering gives you perspective, and that your suffering will stop the second you get perspective on it, the second it has meaning. He realized, in Auschwitz, that his suffering had meaning because he was going to write about it. His suffering stopped at that point.
He uses another example, of a man who is grieving for his wife. He just couldn’t live without his dead wife. Frankl met with this man and said to him: “Actually the fact she died first means you’ve spared her grief. Your suffering has meaning, because it spared her grief.” That was an enormous help to him. The idea that suffering has a purpose is incredibly enlightening. It also fits well with James’s notion of insight.
Your next choice is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which I think is pretty well known. He mentions how you should envisage what you want said about you at your funeral, which made me laugh.
I’m not so keen on that one. I think visualization is a very good thing, but not at your funeral. I don’t think you’ll care, because obviously you’re not going to be there. I do think you should think about where you want to be in ten year’s time and visualize it very closely and in great detail. Then you can start looking at where you need to be in five year’s time in order to get to that ten-year point, and then in two years’ time etc. What’s he’s trying to do with the mention of your funeral is get into your values. Everybody wants to be seen as a good person, so have strong principles, because it’s those principles that will get read out at your funeral.
The reason I chose Covey is that it’s the best of the normal self-help books. Most self-help books begin with step one, and what they promise to do is take you from 0 to 100. But most people who read such books don’t start at 0, they start at minus 100. So even getting to zero is quite an effort. By reading Goleman, James and Frankl, we’ve got ourselves to zero. We’re now at zero. And so we can now read Covey, who is incredibly practical. The seven habits are so great, that you shouldn’t ignore them.
Covey’s got this fantastic quote: “In choosing our response to circumstance, we powerfully affect our circumstance.” That echoes Frankl and he actually quotes Frankl – in fact it was Covey that alerted me to Frankl.
He also talks about compartmentalizing things that happen in your life. He talks about the “circle of concern” and the “circle of influence.” The circle of concern is anything that impacts your life, which could be things like the weather. Within that there’s the “circle of influence.” You obviously can’t influence the weather, but there are other things you can influence. Effective people focus on the circle of influence, but it’s the classic response of the insecure person to rail against a circle of concern where they have no power or influence.
Another thing he says is that you’ve got to “act or be acted upon”. This was a classic for me. If you don’t become proactive in moving towards what you want, what will happen is that other people who have goals will simply recruit you. You’ll end up working for someone else’s plan. He’s basically saying, “Get a plan.” Then work out the sequence of the plan and do things in the right order.
Another element I really like in this book is that Covey really starts the process of dealing with people. The biggest barrier for any insecure person is other people. You can get in these horrible situations where you come to see a relationship, say with your boss, as a battle between you and them. Covey would take one look at that kind of situation and say “Why are you battling? You’ve got to think win-win. You’ve got to help him achieve his goals and then he’s going to help you achieve your goals.” He also says, seek first to understand, then be understood. You should try and understand what’s happening, and who you’re dealing with. So often you want the other person to understand what you’re going through, whereas if you seek to understand their situation first, you’d have much more insight.
But is Covey mainly talking about a business environment?
No it’s not a business book, it’s very personal. It’s a lot about relationships which is actually relevant to my last book…
Yes, tell me about Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is almost a self-help book for people who are put off by self-help books. Out of these five, it’s the one you’d probably find in the downstairs loo. It’s very readable, all these nice 300-word bits. It’s brilliant for people with low self-esteem because he really does throw it at you, how you should just reconsider the world. One of the things that happens, if you’ve got low self-esteem, is that you don’t like yourself, so you end up not liking other people. That’s a very negative dynamic. What you should do is start the process of gaining self-esteem by liking other people, by forcing yourself to like other people and that will help you to like yourself. How do you do that? What Carlson says is that you should develop your compassion. That runs right the way through this book — the idea of developing your compassion. He’s saying people are complicated, people have problems just as bad as yours and you should develop compassion for them. If you make sure that’s in the forefront of your mind the whole time, it’ll make you like yourself more. You won’t be thinking “Oh that person is trying to do me over!” which undermines your self-esteem. Instead, you’re reinforcing your self-esteem by saying “The reason they’re behaving that way is because of this or that.” If all you can see is the impact something is having on you, you become ineffective. What I like about this idea of developing your compassion is that it’s something you can proactively adopt. Even after everything has gone wrong, even after you’ve had the wrong reactions, all that stuff that supports your low self-esteem or supports your insecurities, you can then go, “You know what? I’ve got that wrong.” You can mentally develop your compassion even after the event.
From the title it sounded like this book was about keeping things in perspective, but you’re saying it’s really about compassion.
It’s about both. One of the key problems is self-obsession. I can’t remember if he actually uses that word, but it becomes obvious that that’s what it’s about. You need to stop seeing the impact everyone has on you, and see the impact you have on them. One of the things he likes saying is “Be nice to receptionists.” You see people who are rude to receptionists and it’s an incredibly ineffective thing to do. If you’re nice to the receptionist the whole thing is going the right way, you’ve got compassion for them, you’re smiling, you’re making them feel good and everything is going the right way and nothing is a problem. But if you’re rude to receptionists because you don’t value them, or you just think they’re a barrier, then everything goes wrong. It actually reinforces your low self-esteem and your insecurities.
Is it really possible to follow the advice in these books?
Obviously we are who we are, we are frail humans that are triggered by our insecurities. Carlson is not saying you’re a perfect person. He’s saying we all have these gripes and negativities and grumbles and this is a new way of looking at them. You should catch yourself and then look at them differently. One of the things I keep saying in my own book is that it’s not about your first reaction, it’s about your second. Someone approaches you in the street with a copy of The Big Issue [the UK magazine sold by homeless people], and your instant reaction could be “Get away from me filthy man!” But your second reaction could correct this. “No, no,” we should think. “The right thing to do here is at least be polite and nice, even if you don’t want to buy a copy of The Big Issue.” The first reaction is going to happen, ignore it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the second reaction that’s the important, considered, one. Eventually, that becomes such a habit, that your second reaction is almost instant. You’ve had this flood of understanding and you’ve managed to catch yourself, you’ve managed to react in the right way, externally. However you’ve reacted internally, you’ve reacted the right way externally. That’s all Carlson is saying, and that’s why I liked the book. He’s saying: “Just think about this a bit. Take a moment. React better and that will help you.”
What Covey is trying to do in his book is to structure a positive route by which you can then, each day, take a step forward. He’s very keen on us keeping a diary, and planning our future, he’s very keen on us making small positive steps. Each day you slowly build towards a better future. He’s very structured, there’s even a timetable in Seven Habits that looks like your old school timetable. From 8am till 8pm you’re supposed to structure your day and fill it with positive actions.
There’s also a brilliant matrix in the book, which is the time management matrix. It divides every activity you have into things that are not urgent and are urgent and things that are not important and are important. The activity box you must focus on in order to make progress is the not-urgent but important one. He says that’s the box you most neglect, because what happens is that you spend your time in the urgent box, either important and urgent, which is fine, or not important and urgent, which is basically someone’s interruptions, and then what happens is that you’re so tired after that that you end up in the box of not important and not urgent, which is basically watching tv or surfing the Internet. Once you realize that that’s how your time divides, it’s incredibly useful. You can begin that process of saying “OK the not urgent but important box is the key box,” and that’s where you start. That should then drive everything else. He’s basically reordering your life so things are structured in a different way.
So in answer to your question, I would say yes. Covey has reordered your life, he’s made you start a diary, he’s made you set some plans, and he’s made you create a timetable. Sure you may lapse, but by that time you should be in the flow of things working better for you, you should have a plan…
You did all this?
Oh yes, absolutely. I did a ten-year plan. What you do is you keep a diary (physical, not electronic), and as you swap diaries you should then rewrite your plan at the back. Write down your goals and principles, that’s key for Covey. He invokes the US constitution. He says, if you think about America, for hundreds of years it has lived by this constitution, by its founding principles. America often goes wrong, like Watergate or Guantanamo Bay, but it has a benchmark. Indeed, when people say something is un-American, what they mean is it goes against the constitution of the USA, because they’ve got principles enshrined in this constitution. That’s one powerful document. So we should develop our own constitution and have our own principles and you write them down and each year as you change diary you rewrite them, because they may change, as the US constitution has.
These books really did change your life?
Yes. Some of them more than others. For me, Emotional Intelligence really made the scales fall from eyes regarding what was going on in my head. Stephen Covey definitely made a big difference in terms of reorganizing how I thought about my future, and making me an effective person. Absolutely. Carlson is more of a pleasant book to read, it gives you a warm feeling. But also this idea of developing your compassion is so important. It’s not important because it’s the right thing to do, it’s important because it’s incredibly effective.