Monday 21 October 2019

For a whole year, I will live by the rules of self-help books

Self-improvement addict Marianne Power is testing out the genre's most popular tomes, with mixed results.

Marianne Power
Marianne Power
Marianne Power skydiving

Marianne Power

I was 23 when I read my first self-help book. I had just graduated and was in a job I hated. I was lost, scared and moaning about my lot to a friend when she fished out a copy of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers from her handbag.

"Read this," she said. "It's amazing, it just makes you want to go out and do stuff!" I couldn't see what it made her go out and do other than drink cheap white wine with me, but no matter.

That night I read half the book. The next night I finished it. I was hooked.

There was something intoxicating about the invigorating American voice, the exclamation marks and capital letters… it was unlike anything I'd read before. It showed me life could be bigger, better, brighter than the one I was leading.

It had such an impact on me, shortly after that I quit my crappy job, even though I had nothing to go to. The week I left I heard a friend of a friend was working at a newspaper. I felt the fear and picked up the phone to her. I went and made teas, and they soon offered me a job. The risk paid off.

My self-help addiction was born.

For the last 13 years self-improvement bibles have been my constant - and somewhat embarrassing - companion. If it's promising to change my life in my lunch hour, give me confidence in ten easy steps or teach me how to be a 'money magnet' - I'll buy the book, the t-shirt and the DVD.

At a glance I can see six self-help books on my bedside table: The Secret, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Little Book of Calm, How to Be a Money Magnet, The Power of Positive Thinking. There are dozens more scattered around various bookshelves.

Each one of them seemed to offer the key to a happier, saner, more fulfilled me. It's an offer that's too hard to resist - and I'm not the only one who can't.

Until fairly recently, self-help was something for Oprah-loving Americans, people happy to talk about 'feelings' and their childhoods - but now it's come over here. Recent figures show book sales have dropped by 1pc since the recession, but in that same period, sales of self-help books have increased by 25pc.

It's estimated in the UK, self-help has earned publishers £75 million in the past five years, while in the US, the self-improvement industry is worth more than $10 billion.

Paul McKenna alone is his own industry - making £45 million out of telling us how to be thinner, happier, and more confident. In just seven days. It seems in times of financial and religious uncertainty, we reach for guidance from anyone - even an ex radio DJ.

But do any of them actually work?

In many ways I am living proof that they don't.

Despite reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, I don't own a house, don't have savings and am in debt to the tune of €20,000. Even though I've read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and The Rules, I have spent most of my life terminally single.

I embody the critics' theory that these books promise the earth but deliver nothing but unrealistic expectations and disappointment. They argue that if these books really did deliver the happiness they promise, you'd only ever buy one book and that would be it - you'd be fixed. As it is, studies show that people who buy self-help tend to buy a new book every 18 months and there are currently 181,370 books listed under the self-help section of Amazon.

And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm sure there is wisdom in these candy-covered bibles.

I think the reason they haven't worked is because, like most people, I just read them, nod in agreement and then carry on as usual. I don't actually follow any of the advice. Instead I've read these books as a source of comfort, a distraction from the reality of life. Which is why for the last nine months I've been on a strange mission to follow the advice of a different self-help book every month - and I mean really follow it to the letter - in a bid to find out if self-help helps.

I got the idea last Christmas, when I was ending yet another year feeling lost, low and lonely. My friends were all busy with their husbands and babies and I was busy worrying about my overdraft and what the hell I was doing with my life. I did what I always do when I feel like that - I turned to self-help and my favourite book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.

I realised when I was half way through that this must be the third or fourth time I'd read the book. There were even passages underlined - and yet I was the worst advert that poor old Carnegie could ask for. It didn't matter how many times I read the book, I would always stay in the same rut if I didn't change my behaviour.

That's when I had the idea. I would spend a year not just reading self-help but actually DOING self-help. I started a blog so that I'd be held accountable and in January I started with Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers. Jeffers argues that if we wait around for the time we feel brave enough, strong enough, or confident enough to do the things we want to do, well we'll be waiting forever. We should do one scary thing a day. So I did. I jumped out of a plane, got naked in public (as a life model) and performed stand-up comedy, among other things. It was a terrifying but exhilarating start to the year.

In February I repeated money affirmations such as 'Money flows to me easily and effortlessly', 'I am a money magnet' in the hope that it would get me out of the red, as suggested in a book called Money: A Love Story by Kate Northrup. I also went through two years of bank statements and put them into new folders with heart-shaped labels. Pretty packaging is meant to help you hate your overdraft less and labelling my lever arch folder 'Lovely tax man' and 'Happy HSBC' had a surprisingly good effect.

In March I road-tested Mercedes, wrote myself pretend cheques and created a 'Vision Board', as it suggests in The Secret - one of the best-selling self-help books of all time tells you can have anything you want in life if you just believe.

Come April I've tried to get rejected every day as part of a self-help game, called Rejection Therapy, created by a man called Jason Comely. The idea behind that one is that we're all terrified of rejection and that by going out and looking for it - by asking for discounts in shops, promotions at work, free coffees - we get used to it and realise that it doesn't kill us. We also discover that rejection doesn't happen nearly as much as we think it's going to, which was definitely my experience but that month was brutally difficult. Don't expect to get a friendly reception when you ask Starbucks for a free coffee.

After that I recovered with a week of swearing in Italy. No really - it's called F**k It Therapy and I f**king loved it! The author of that book, John C Parkin, argues that the phrase 'F**K It' is the 'Western expression of the Eastern philosophy of accepting and letting go.' He reckons we should all say 'f**k it' to worrying about our weight, worrying about money, worrying about our relationships - or lack of - and I have to say that was one of the best months of my project.

Much, much better than angel therapy which I abandoned after just two weeks. According to queen of the angels, Doreen Virtue, we each have at least two guardian angels and we can chat to them at any time. I couldn't. To me reading that book was like trying to believe in unicorns.

It's been a crazy year and on a few occasions it's felt like I've lost the plot. One of the other arguments against self-help is that it makes already neurotic people more neurotic and self-obsessed. I have to say there's some truth in this. I now analyse every bit of my life - why did I say that? Was it fear of intimacy? Why did I do that? Was it fear of failure? - and it's not healthy. Nobody should think about themselves this much. There's a lot to be said for just getting on with it and not thinking too much about things.

And despite all my daring deeds, on paper my life is relatively unchanged. Despite my money mantras and keeping money journal, I am as broke as I was at the start of the year - although I feel much more calm around money and I now look at my bank balance every day.

I'm still single too, even though I cleared out one half of my wardrobe to make 'space' for a man in my life, another piece of spurious advice from The Secret. I still get anxious and doubt myself even though I've done months of mantras telling myself that 'I'm a strong and loving creature' and that I 'I do everything easily and effortlessly,' as recommended in Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, by Susan Jeffers.

But, in other ways I am transformed. I have done things this year that I would never thought I was capable of. Take the stand-up comedy.

It was one of the scariest things I've ever done but walking off stage to the sound of applause was one of the proudest moments of my life. It made me think that really anything is possible. We can all do so much more than we think. I felt like a hero.

I had the same feeling when I chatted up a stranger, as part of Rejection Therapy. I have always been terrified of any kind of rejection, especially from men. I have absolutely no confidence, I always assume that anyone I like would have no interest in me but in April I saw a man I fancied in a coffee shop. After a lot of panicking and sweating, I went up to him at his table and said hello. My heart was beating so loud I thought he'd be able to hear it.

He looked stunned but asked me to join him and we ended up chatting for hours. We went out on a couple of dates and even though he was not the love of my life, going up to him that day was a life-changing experience. He told me that he had seen me too but did not have the guts to approach me. It made me realise that I've been rejecting myself in my head more than any man had actually rejected me and it's time for that to stop.

At the moment I'm living by the rules of a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a textbook-size tome with Venn diagrams and words like 'paradigm shift'. It's rigorous and old-fashioned in its ideas that we should all live according to fundamental principles and that happiness is only a by-product of living a good, disciplined and unselfish life. Radical thoughts in today's 'me, me, me' world but I have to say I like it.

This weekend I'll be writing my eulogy. The book's author, Stephen Covey believes that we should all think about what we want to be remembered for at the end of our lives and to keep those goals uppermost in our mind every day. Right now all I can think is that I'd like to die rich and skinny, but I'm sure I'll be able to get more profound with the help of a cup of tea and a biscuit. It's the kind of exercise that I would normally skip but I'm realising that doing what the gurus tell you to do is the only way these books will help. And a bit like buying a diet book or joining a gym, you have to do the work - and keep it up.

I've got a few months left to go on my project (I took a couple of months off during the year) and I can't decide whether when I'm finished I'll never want to open another self-help book again, or if my addiction will be even stronger. Either way I've realised one thing this year: self-help cannot change your life, only you can do that.

Follow Marianne's journey at


Marianne top 10 self-help books

MONEY A LOVE STORY, by Kate Northup

This book focuses a lot on how our beliefs and our upbringing affect our bank balance. So if we were brought up to think that money is the root of all evil, that will play out all your life.


The title says it all: life is scary and if we wait for the day we feel confident enough, bright enough, successful enough to go out and do things, we'll be waiting forever.


One of the criticisms of self-help is that it pedals unrealistic ideas and doesn't deliver - this self-help classic really doesn't fall into that trap. Its basic message? Life is hard.

F**K IT THERAPY, by John C Parkin

The mantra is to simply say 'f**k it' to what people think of us, to worrying about our figures, our money, finding the perfect relationships - with this funny and wise book.

THE POWER OF NOW, by Eckhart Tolle

The only way to find peace is to live in the moment and to realise that our thoughts are not a reality, they are just stories we tell ourselves. Quite new-agey in its tone but life-changing.


Self-help argues unless we love ourselves we will be no use to anyone. One man's story from a breakdown to full health by repeating 'I love myself'.


Funny, wise and unflinchingly honest. Ruby Wax has suffered from severe depression in the past and describes what depression feels like and what happens in the brain to cause it.


Hay believes a lot of our anxieties stem from our childhood and that many of our physical ailments come from emotional upset. The only way to change is to making positive thinking a full time job.

THE SECRET, by Rhonda Byrne

Millions, including Oprah and Will Smith, swear by this book about the Law of Attraction. It argues that you can have anything you want in life - the dream house, man, job - if you believe it's going to happen.


This classic is about how to get on with people. The rules are disarmingly simple: really listen to people, try to understand their point of view, admit your mistakes.

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