with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 210: What happens when you follow 100 self-help books to the letter? (with Kristen Meinzer)

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May 16, 2024

Why does it seem that many people read self-help books with no intention of actually doing what the books prescribe? Why are self-help books often less clear than it seems they ought to be? What are self-help books actually designed to do? Why do self-help authors continue to write as though their ideas will help everyone when it seems fairly obvious that no single self-help book has ever been a global panacea? Should self-help advice differ based on the gender of the receiver? How does life coaching differ from self-help? How does therapy differ both from life coaching and from self-help? Should therapists fire their clients once the clients' problems have been solved? Should therapists give homework? What are the best and worst ideas commonly found in self-help books?

Kristen Meinzer is a culture critic, podcaster, and author. She cohosts the podcast How To Be Fine (Apple Podcasts, Instagram), formerly called By The Book, which looks at the good and the bad of the wellness industry. She also cohosts the podcast The Daily Fail, which does comedic close readings of the tabloids. Additionally, Kristen is a frequent contributor on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour.

Further reading:

SPENCER: Kristen, welcome.

KRISTEN: Hi, thanks so much for having me, Spencer.

SPENCER: I'm really excited to be talking to you. I'm a longtime listener of your podcast, 'By The Book,' which I guess now has morphed into 'How To Be Fine.' Is that right?

KRISTEN: That is right. After living by the rules of nearly a hundred self-help books, we decided we wanted to expand beyond self-help books to be able to talk about what is trending on TikTok, what are the headlines this week with self-help influencers, and so on. So much of what's happening in the wellness space, and so much that is noteworthy in the betterment world, is really not just in books anymore.

SPENCER: I think it's so fascinating that you live by a hundred self-help books; it gives you such an interesting perspective, especially the way that you approached it, which is really trying to break down each book and saying, "Well, what is this book really telling me to do and let me really make an effort to follow it." Because I think most people that read self-help books are not doing it in such a systematic way.

KRISTEN: Oh, I so appreciate your mentioning that. Because honestly, that might have been the hardest part of the show, because so many self-help books are just really badly written, and the steps are not really clear; none of them are actionable. It's hard to take away what I am supposed to do with this information that I read. And so, Jolenta and I would read each book through with a fine-tooth comb, reread it, highlight, create outlines, and try to figure out: What are the actionable steps? What are they actually telling us to do? By the end of each book, before ever hitting the tape recorder, we would have already spent between 20 and 100 hours just distilling those rules. It was like writing a master's thesis each week. And yet, that part of the show was always done in the first seven minutes where we would just distill the book, its rules, and the bio of the author. All of that, when we read it on air, was so quick and snappy. I just really appreciate that you noticed the effort we put in because I don't know if everybody did. That part's really hard.

SPENCER: It's funny, you would think that self-help authors were just, at some point, say, "Here's my advice, just do these seven things." But often, it's buried throughout 300 pages of anecdotes and stories, etc.

KRISTEN: Exactly. A lot of, "Oh, I was thinking about this the other day." It's kind of like those recipes that are online. Search engine optimization means that they all have a story, and you're just trying to scroll down and figure out, "Do I put raspberries in this cake or not? I don't understand what's happening here."

SPENCER: You're like, "I don't need this person's entire life story to know what ingredient I put in my soup."

KRISTEN: Yes, exactly. And so many self-help books are like that on steroids, where finding each of the ingredients is like, "Oh, it's on the bottom of the second page of chapter seven." But then, you have to page through so much further to find the next ingredient, and so on. It's really hard.

SPENCER: I tend to approach things in a very analytical way, which I suspect you do as well. And I wonder if a lot of people, when they read these books, are just sort of reading them for a different reason or with a different motivation — that it's more about taking inspiration, feeling connected, and feeling understood, rather than seeking concrete advice. So, I'm curious: what do you think about that?

KRISTEN: I think that's absolutely true. We have a very vibrant community that talks with us and talks back at us all the time. We totally welcome criticism about how we've interpreted books, or how we interpret self-help trends and so on. Many of them tell us that it does not matter what we're talking about, and a large percentage write back and say, "You interpreted this wrong. You're doing it wrong. That's not how you're supposed to read self-help books. It's really about knowing what works for you. And it's really about feeling like somebody is seeing you for who you are. And what you're doing, which is so systematic and so structured, is not what self-help books are supposed to be." And to those listeners, I say, "That's fine. You don't have to live by self-help books the way we have." But it makes for a better show if you get to hear us actually following through on action items and trying to do what the author is telling us to do, rather than just absorbing it. It would have been a really boring show if Jolenta and I just hit record and said, "Yeah, that really struck a chord with me. Hmm, I really feel seen by this author." That wouldn't have worked as well as hearing us actually go out and try to put our life on the line, like 'The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck' tells us to, or throwing out half of our worldly items if they 'didn't spark joy' like 'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' tells us to do. Hearing us follow through on the action items really points to what's workable and what's not workable in these books, what advice is preposterous, and what actually might change our lives for the better. That's going to work so much better because we tend to learn better through story, through things being illustrated, much more than we do through just facts or thoughts or perceptions of an author, if that makes sense.

SPENCER: One thing that changed my view on self-help books a bit is this: when I was younger, I viewed them as sources of information — you read them, you learn some things. But then, what I later started thinking is that maybe a better perspective is that they're an intervention. You read the book, and something should be different afterwards. It's not just information; it's all the ways that it changes you — maybe it gets you to think about things differently, maybe it motivates you in some way, etc. And I'm wondering, what do you think of that perspective?

KRISTEN: I think that makes sense because a lot of people are seeking out self-help books because they want to fix something in their lives, whether it's how they communicate with their boss, how to better organize their home, or how to have more confidence speaking about intimate issues with one's partner. There are so many reasons why people seek out self-help books, and often it is to find some sort of insight or solution into a challenge or a problem. And so, yeah, it makes sense that they are kind of interventions in a way; they're kind of that book that's telling you, "Hey, maybe this set of things in your kitchen will help your kitchen to stay clean or going forward." Or, "Hey, maybe now's a really good time to think about planning out how you talk to your boss before you just go in there and cry."

SPENCER: You mentioned earlier about different things working for different people. I think that's a really interesting topic when it comes to self-help because a self-help book is a static piece of material. It's written, and everyone reads the same exact experience. And yet, humans are wildly different from each other: we have such different life experiences, our minds work differently from each other, and so on. I'm wondering, coming from that perspective, how do you think about how a self-help book has to sort of work for everybody?

KRISTEN: I don't think self-help books should work for everybody. The fact that they're marketed in such a way that they're here to solve everybody's problems, and authors frequently say, "If I can do it, anyone can," well, maybe not. Because maybe the fact that meditating for three hours a day works for the author of '10% Happier,' that works for him. For a lot of other people, meditating for three hours a day means you're dropping the ball on child care, you're not being there for your partner, you're not doing other things that are really good for you. And frankly, not everybody benefits from meditating for three hours a day. Some people hate meditation. Some people find it less empowering and less fulfilling than, let's say, going on a walk or cooking or doing something else. So, the idea that 'this one author says that they meditate for three hours a day, and you should consider doing the same thing,' maybe you can consider it, but that doesn't mean it's going to work for you too. And it also doesn't mean you are broken if it doesn't work for you. I worry a lot about authors who pretty much speak in universals and say, "This is the way to fix this." When in fact, we're not all fixed by the same things. Some of us are fixed by different things, and it doesn't mean you're a failure because this method didn't work for you. It just means the author has one thing that works for them, this author became so convinced that they were right, that they are putting it out in the world for the rest of us to do. But their conviction doesn't necessarily equal truth; it means it worked for them.

SPENCER: I feel that one of the most common errors that smart people make is they assume that whatever worked for them will work for others. And I just see this constantly, where people are like, "Oh, I tried this hack, and oh my god, everyone has to do it an hour." "I tried this nutrition thing and oh, my gosh, it was life changing," and they became an evangelist.

KRISTEN: Yes, I think we've all run into those folks or maybe, in our own lives, we've been those folks at times because we were so excited that something did make a difference in our lives. But I think it's important to remember that, once again, we all have different things that are going to work for us because of different childhood traumas, because of different biology, because of different socio-economic circumstances. For example, Amanda Palmer wrote a book called 'The Art of Asking.' Her whole belief is you just have to go and ask for what you want. She doesn't want to work a traditional job. She made that very clear to her parents when she was still in college. She said, "I'm never going to work a regular job." And how did she get ahead? In her mind, she did it just by asking for free stuff all the time: "Hey, musicians. I'll give you a platform. Be on stage with me, don't get paid, but I'll give you exposure." "Hey, you. Why don't you give me a place to live for free?" And one reason that works for her is she is conventionally extremely attractive–white and of a certain socio-economic class. If you don't look like her, let's say you have a different socio-economic background, let's say you aren't white, let's say you look a way that is discriminated against. For example, if you have a certain disability or you're fat, going up to people and just asking for money and asking for free stuff isn't necessarily going to work as well. You might be considered a nuisance, you might be arrested. If you are a black man, you might be murdered. There are a lot of things that are going to work for her that aren't going to work for others because of those circumstances, and that's just one example.

SPENCER: It reminds me about conversations that I've had with young women who grew up in New York City — I grew up in New York City as a man with facial hair, a man with a bit of a resting-stay-away-from-me face — about just the differences in our experience, where some of these women are just constantly approached by people, that people are talking to them all the time. And pretty much nobody ever talks to me when I'm on the street. It's like we live in totally different worlds.

KRISTEN: That is such a great example. Gender really affects how we experience the world. A study that I frequently cite is from Goodreads from a few years ago. Two thirds of best selling self-help books are written by men and two thirds of readers are women. So this is an industry in which men are telling women what to do. But does a man even know what it's like to walk through the world as a woman? As you said, Spencer, you know cognitively — you have been exposed to those truths — but you won't ever necessarily feel what it's like to walk through the world as a woman.

SPENCER: Oh, absolutely. I think one of the huge shocks to me was when I learned how often women are sexually harassed on the street. Because, I essentially never see it. I'm walking around the street and I don't observe it. But then, there are some women who experience that every day but somehow invisible to me because (I don't know) maybe it's just because the men who do it just won't do it if there's a man there, because maybe it feels threatening or something.

KRISTEN: Yeah. I think that's definitely a factor there. I've definitely had boyfriends over the years who never quite grasped how often it happened until one reckless guy who was too drunk decided to do it in front of them. And so, those boyfriends then saw for the first time like, "Oh, my god. Is this you every day?" It's like, "Yes, this is me every day. I'm a woman walking in the world, unfortunately. This is just part of life, unfortunately."

SPENCER: You mentioned how two thirds of the audience for self-help books are women. One thing I've wondered about is the audience for your own podcast. I've suspected that it is majority women. Is that true?

KRISTEN: Yes. Most of our listeners are women.

SPENCER: How do you think about what makes self-help valuable for women versus men? Do you think it's different or do you think it's essentially the same thing that people are after?

KRISTEN: Well, I think it's interesting about why women have historically read self-help books. A lot of it is because women, from a very young age, are socialized to be people pleasers: 'How can we be more likable? How can we be more like this? How can we be a better wife? How can we be a better parent? How can we keep a better home? How can we get past this imposter syndrome and be taken more seriously at work? How can we do all of these things?' These are the questions that are imposed on us when we're still in diapers — 'must be more likable,' 'must work harder,' 'must do better.' I think with men, men aren't necessarily socialized with those same pressures. I don't know about you, Spencer, where you socialized from a very young age around: How do I look prettier? How do I be more likable? How do I keep a better house? I don't know if you were. But most men I know weren't socialized with those expectations. So, I think women wouldn't read self-help books so often, if society didn't put so much baggage on us. But also, self-help books have been, in some ways, a real refuge for women whose doctors, for example, don't take them seriously. Up until 100 years ago, a lot of doctors still believed our uterus just floated around our bodies and made us naggy and hysterical — that's where that word comes from. And the idea that doctors up until 30 years ago, didn't scientifically identify the clitoris yet. There are all these things that doctors kind of treat women as the anomaly and men as the default. And in my lifetime, I didn't even know what the heart attack symptoms were in a woman because they only really studied what a heart attack looks like in a man. And because of all this, it makes sense to me that so many women would try to seek out help in other places to be understood emotionally, psychologically, and medically, and otherwise, because the traditional medical systems frequently have ignored women.

SPENCER: Do you think that self-help that caters to men tends to cater more around a kind of achievement striving and productivity, whereas self-help that caters for women focuses on sort of different needs?

KRISTEN: I think a lot of the books cover the same stuff, but they are marketed differently, and booksellers tend to shelf them in different parts of the store. A book about productivity and doing one's best, there are just as many books targeting men as women. But the ones targeting men will often end up in the business section, for example, not in the self-help section. They'll just be shelved differently. And the men's books will oftentimes be marketed and have titles that are different. It almost feels as though a lot of the books aimed at men are trying to send a message, "Hey, I'm not gay. I'm not an effem. I'm not a girl." So they seem to have this certain veneer to them to be hyper masculine and hyper straight because, god forbid, a man actually wants to know how to communicate more clearly with their partner about sex. That would just be a sign that they're weak. So, you want to read a bro-type of book instead that's about the conquest or make your lady scream for more — those kinds of books, instead. They're just packaged differently. But again, I think a lot of the books are covering the same things.

SPENCER: That reminds me of the book 'Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus.' It seems like it's trying to help men communicate with women, but maybe that's not really what's going on. What's your interpretation of that book?

KRISTEN: Well, this book is now several decades old, but it was a national bestseller. I think it is an international bestseller. It spawned an entire empire, including clothing, salad dressings, board games, cruise ships. 'Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus' was just part of the vernacular.

SPENCER: They have a men's salad dressing and a woman's salad dressing [laughs]?

KRISTEN: Oh, yes.

SPENCER: Oh my god.

KRISTEN: A Mars salad dressing and a Venus one [laughs]. And ostensibly, the author wrote the book because he wanted women to better understand the men in their lives and communicate better with the women in their lives. The problem is, what he was writing about, and what he was referring to as universals — 'all men are like this and all women should thus behave this way' — puts all of the onus on the women to grapple with and to fix men who were socialized to be emotionally distant and completely unempathetic. So the way to deal with that is, "Ladies, give your man his space. If he doesn't talk to you for three days to two weeks, if he has to go into his cave and retreat, you have to accept that. And ladies, don't ever criticize a man and criticism includes if he takes a wrong term when you're trying to get to Christmas dinner on time, and he takes you to Connecticut, when you're actually supposed to be in New York. Ladies, you can't speak up because he's gonna take real care of his ego if you point out when he does things wrong." So there are a lot of instructions in that book about: 'Ladies, here's how to deal with your man and stop being such a negative harp.' 'Ladies, stop trying to get your man to talk if he doesn't want to talk.' 'Ladies, stop asking for attention; a man has a right to not pay attention to you if he doesn't want to. And that is just something you have to change your expectations around.' So, I don't doubt that there are certain men, particularly of the boomer age and older, who were raised to be less emotive, who were raised to internalize all of their feelings rather than talk them through. But is it a woman's job to then feed into that and play along with that? No, obviously not. I'm sure the book helped some people of a certain generation to better understand men in their lives. But I think beyond that generation, it doesn't necessarily make sense. And regardless of what generation we're in, that's not necessarily male behavior that we should be nurturing and blaming ourselves for. We shouldn't be, 'Oh, God, why am I such an awful woman? I'm always trying to get my man to talk about his feelings. God, I'm terrible. I'm such a hurt.' And it's like, 'Maybe it's not the woman's fault. Maybe it's the man's fault for not choosing to be more emotionally vulnerable and evolved.'

SPENCER: It seems that sometimes negative attributes can become sort of idolized as though that's a good thing. It's like, "Oh, no. A tough man doesn't talk about his feelings. He just sucks it up." And you're trying to take this thing that's actually a flaw and you hold it up as though it's something to aspire to.

KRISTEN: Oh, yeah. And there are so many examples of that in self-help books. For example, in a number of self-help books, there's this belief that you should take ownership of whatever happened to you: "Stop playing the victim card. Maybe it's time you start asking, 'Why did daddy hit me? What did I do to deserve it?'" And that comes up in a lot of books — 'we only get back from the world what we put out there.' And that includes books like The Secret, that believe in the so-called 'law of attraction.' And according to the law of attraction — which is malarkey — 'like attracts like.' That's not really true, by the way. Positive does not attract positive in science. If you look at it, positive attracts negative and negative attracts positive. We all know this, how magnets work.

SPENCER: But even the metaphor doesn't fit, right?

KRISTEN: Exactly. [laughs] So, if I put out positive energy, positive things will happen to me. But we know that's not true. Some people who are terrible and commit terrible acts and commit violence against others are rewarded with a great deal of money and fame and esteem. Meanwhile, some people who do nothing but put kindness out into the world end up in a cancer ward at the age of 17. And it's not because they were bad people. So, these laws of attraction, or to go back to my original example, the idea from somebody who was abused by a parent that 'What did you do to cause that? Take ownership of what energy you put out into the world,' is just celebrating something that shouldn't be celebrated. Celebrating taking ownership of your role in things? Sometimes we don't have a role in things. Sometimes people just do bad things to us. And it's okay to say, "That's what happened. Now, what am I going to do moving forward, what am I going to do to cope with that to move past the trauma, to not live in denial, but not live in that space of pain forever?" That is a healthy thing to do. It's not healthy to say, "What did I do to ask for it?" But so many self-help books really tell us that's what we should be doing: 'Take ownership of your trauma; what did you do to bring it on yourself?'


SPENCER: I've watched The Secret documentary out of a kind of sheer curiosity. It really is a shocking worldview. They literally have a scene that says that if you believe hard enough in something, you will get it no matter what it is, 100% of the time. And they have an example where someone imagines getting an elephant and then they end up with an elephant in their house. And they use that as an example of, "Oh, wow, thank God there's a time delay, because imagine if the elephant appeared immediately, and then they have the elephant pooping in the person's house." I'm like, "Wow. This is just sort of unbelievably ridiculous." But at the same time, this is clearly really appealing. This is wildly popular. Millions of people believe in this. I have a suspicion that part of the reason for this is that there is an element of truth, that if you're focusing on positive things and what you want, there is some benefit to that. Not through something mystical like attracting positive things, but it just kind of feels better to focus on positive things and maybe people want to be around you more, etc. Whereas, if you're always focusing on what's going wrong, maybe that actually makes you feel worse and makes you kind of a negative person. And I'm wondering what you think about that? Do you think that there's some kernel of truth, even though it's mostly false, and that's sort of what's drawing people to it?

KRISTEN: Oh, yeah. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, right? I feel the same way with a lot of self-help books. I do believe that life is more fun when we look around and notice the things that are good in it. How miserable is it if we just walk around — you and I both live in New York City — if all we did was walk around and look for (let's say) 'the dog pooped on the sidewalk,' for example. If that's all we did every day, go out with the mission to look for that, we'd be like, "Oh, we live in the dirtiest, filthiest town with the worst humans who are irresponsible and reckless and animals should not be put in their care. What about caring for your neighbors? What about caring for our community in the streets? We live in the worst place in the world." We could do that or instead, we noticed every time we saw a bird or a flower. Well, there are at least 10 million more birds and flowers than there are incidents of poop on the sidewalk, right? So, it's just going to, at least for me, feel better to notice the birds and the flowers. It's not to sayI don't notice the poop. It's just that I am not everyday just focused on, "Let's just look for the shit in the world." Excuse my language. But I just find life is more fun and more beautiful when I'm also noticing the beauty in it, the ways that people are helping each other and holding the door open for other people, and the smiles people give each other. Because there's so much of that in the world, too, and I just feel happier when I see those things.

SPENCER: I have an exercise I do occasionally, where I walk down the street and my goal is to try to find something good about everything I see. Like, I'll see a stop sign and I'm like, "Oh, isn't that amazing that everyone kind of agrees to stop and so people don't get hit that often?" And then, I see Starbucks and I'm like, "Wow, isn't that amazing I can walk in and get a coffee if I wanted to?" And just try to do that with everything. It really is an amazing feeling, and it really kind of gets you psyched up and excited about being alive, and it's a wonderful feeling. I feel that something like The Secret is taking this little bit of helpful truth or advice and packaging it in a really harmful worldview. But then, a bunch of people who adopt it get that kernel of an actual helpful bit, and it helps sell them on the BS part of it.

KRISTEN: Yes, I totally agree. I also find it interesting that the people who are the biggest proponents of books like The Secret, though, are frequently celebrities who have achieved great wealth and fame. So, it's almost like just confirmation bias: "Look at how rich I got. I must have really sent out good vibes into the universe to deserve this. Because I deserve this right? Because according to The Secret, I only get back what I deserve. I only got all of this wealth because I'm better than everyone else and deserved it. I thought more positive thoughts. I did the best thing in the world and these other poor schmucks, what were they doing? What were the people doing who live in halfway houses or live in tents under a bridge? They just didn't believe hard enough. I'm better at believing good things."

SPENCER: That reminds me, it seems to me like a fundamental aspect of many self-help books is this idea that, "Look at me. I was like you. Now I'm better than you. And if you just follow this simple advice, you can be like me, too." Would you think that's accurate?

KRISTEN: Oh, yes. That is pretty much the thesis statement for, I'd say, nine out of ten self-help books that are out there. "I was down on my luck. And then I did this and this. And if I can do it, anyone can. Look at me now. Now I'm wildly successful. And I'm rich and look at my hot wife." The fact of the matter is that a lot of these people, who are spinning this Horatio Alger story of, 'I started down here, and I somehow got all the way up here, thanks to my own efforts,' if you scratch the surface, you'll see maybe they were already born on the ninth rung of the ladder, and they didn't have to go very far to get to the top of the ladder. A lot of them were already nearly there, and their rock bottom is what we would achieve if our wildest dreams came true. For example, a lot of authors, if we read their bios, we will find out, "Oh, they grew up in an upper middle class household. Their parents sent them to boarding school. They didn't have to pay for their own college, so they never had any college debt to pay for. And their parents gave them the modest seed funds of a million dollars to start their first business." A lot of them seem to have this kind of story where, 'hmmm, you didn't really do anything on your own actually.' Or even if their parents didn't give them those seed funds for their first business, they grew up with all of those other advantages I just mentioned, which most Americans don't. According to one study, 85% of Americans can't afford to pay for their kids to go to college. So, if you're in that 15% where your parents paid for your college, that alone puts you in a more elite place than the rest of us.

SPENCER: It seems like self-help authors often want to downplay these aspects because it makes them less relatable. And they want everyone to feel like they could do it too, if they just did this technique or they just woke up at 6am and followed this routine, etc.

KRISTEN: Yes. And then their story isn't as compelling either. Because a lot of what catches us, what compels us is the story–that idea that you really did need help, you found the help, and you got up here. I think what you're saying about relatability is very true, too. But then, also, they're just not very convincing as experts either. Because we want them to be both relatable, but we also want them to lay out a case for us that's actually true. But if we find out all the advantages they had, then their case really falls apart.

SPENCER: This reminds me a little bit — I don't know how much you've looked into this — but the world where people sell online courses which kind of connects to the self-help world. There's this funny circularity where people will make an online course, they'll sell it, and then they'll write a course about how to sell courses, where people are like, "Your credential is that you're selling me this course about making courses, so that I can sell courses to other people." And you're like, "Where does it end?"

KRISTEN: Oh, my gosh. That is so much of the self-help world. There's a big racket with life coaching that's exactly that. We had an episode on 'How To Be Fine' about life coaching, where the way a lot of life coach businesses make their money is not by actually coaching people, it's by selling so-called certifications to become a life coach yourself, even though there's not a nationally recognized certification system. This is not an accredited sort of real degree that has oversight. But these organizations — these self-appointed schools or experts who are selling life coaching classes so you too can be a life coach — the way those people make their money is then by recruiting new people to be life coaches, and then paying their uplines. It's essentially a pyramid scheme. So, who is actually being coached who needs a life coach? I don't think that many people. And who is taking life coaching classes? A lot of people.

SPENCER: Have you experimented with having life coaches?

KRISTEN: I personally have not. I have a few friends who have gone to life coaches and have had great experiences. But unfortunately, I also have a few friends who kind of fell into the trap of, 'Well, I went to a life coach and I was really inspired by what she had to say. She told me early on, "You have what it takes to be a life coach, too. I see it in you." I was feeling lost. Yes, her course cost $20,000, but it only took six months to complete. Now, I just have a new lease on life because I have a new career. I really believe in myself. I have this certification.' A year later, I checked back in with that friend, and they hadn't had a single client. So, they got duped. Unfortunately, a few of my friends have fallen for it.

SPENCER: Yikes. Wow. That's almost like a straight up MLM or pyramid scheme. That's interesting.

KRISTEN: Yeah, it is. And I just feel so bad for the people who get sucked into it because it doesn't mean they're stupid or they're bad people. It means the life coach they were talking to was just a really, really good con-man.

SPENCER: Who is also at a position of authority. When someone's coaching you and they're offering you this opportunity, it'd be like your doctor who's trying to sell you something. It seems like an inappropriate relationship for someone who's trying to help you with your personal problems to also be trying to sell you something.

KRISTEN: Oh, exactly. That is such a good way to put it. It's not just about being a really good con-man. It's about taking advantage of that power you have over somebody else. You're absolutely right.

SPENCER: I feel so conflicted about life coaching because on the one hand, anyone can be a life coach with any kind of experience, and they don't need any credentials; you could see all kinds of problems arising from that, like the ones you're pointing out. On the other hand, I do think there are lots of people who just have interesting and valuable life experiences they could share. I'm pretty extremely anti-credentials — I think a lot of credentials are kind of BS, and they kind of gatekeeping people from doing things and create a lot of friction in society. Like, do we really need people to be registered to cut hair? Is that really necessary? Does that just create pointless barriers? So yeah, I don't know where I land overall. I guess, I'm glad that people can do it, although I do think people should be cautious when they approach a life coach.

KRISTEN: I think we should always have caution when we're putting our mental health in other people's hands. The problem is, frequently, when we're struggling with psychological, emotional issues, or financial ones, for that matter, we're not necessarily in the position to make the most well-informed, well-researched decisions. Sometimes we're just going to somebody who is on the first or second page of our Google search because we're not feeling strong enough to 'do a comprehensive analysis of who's the best person to go to under those circumstances, and I'll spend the next six weeks researching this.' Most of us, if we're in a really bad spot, aren't going to do that. We're just going to go for who comes up in our search engine. So I understand why not everybody does as much research as maybe they could or should, because they're not in a mental spot to do that, when they're looking for someone to help them.

SPENCER: I have a little side. I don't know if I want to call it a hobby, but I've tried different life coaches, and I'll do five sessions with them just to see what it's like and to learn about a new type of technique. And I've done some really funny wacky ones. I did one on contradiction coaching, where the whole idea is they try to find contradictions in your worldview, and then force you to sit with them. I found that quite intriguing. I did another one that was on sort of somatic stuff, where you pay attention to your body and you try to feel your emotions, your body, etc. I find it pretty interesting. But really a huge mix from completely useless, infuriating, up to quite useful.

KRISTEN: Oh, that's great. I am curious about what were the most infuriating ones.

SPENCER: Oh, the most infuriating one I had? Well, I had two funny experiences with this person. One is that, at one point, during a session, they tried to convince me that we have intergenerational trauma. And they were saying, "Well, maybe you had relatives in the Holocaust and maybe you're experiencing the trauma from that." And I was like, "Well, do you mean that maybe there's a culture of anxiety that stems out of that that was taught." And they're like, "No. It can be passed down to your genes." I was like, "No, I'm pretty sure it can't." But they were really adamantly trying to convince me that science has proven that your genes can carry trauma. I was just pretty put off by the whole conversation.

KRISTEN: It can be tough when other people have decided they want to define something traumatic in us. I think that that's sometimes dangerous. And sometimes the theories that are being thrown out there are not proven. Sometimes the theories are like, "Oh, there's some research that suggests this." But there's also this other pile of research — I'm not gonna mention — that is completely contestable.

SPENCER: Yeah, and I think something that's so common in both self-help and in life coaching is just people adhering to some completely non-evidence based, non-scientific theory, but that they hold it very strongly as though it's reality. I think that can go to very weird places.

KRISTEN: Oh, yeah. That's so true. And to go back to trauma for a second, if they are trauma-informed, therapists are going to look for trauma all the time when really, maybe you're just going in because you want to learn how to organize your time better. And maybe it's not about trauma. It might be completely about something else. There's a high likelihood it's not about trauma. But if they want it to be about trauma, and that's what their specialty is, they might impose that along with a bunch of stats that back up their position, even if those stats all fall apart upon close examination. So, yeah, in addition to the bad science, there's also the agenda of individual therapists and life coaches. Because they're human, humans have our own biases, and we do have our own agendas.

SPENCER: And I think they tend to come in with a perspective on the way psychology works. Whether it's trauma-informed or based on the law of attraction or cognitive hypnotherapy or what have you, but whatever method they're bringing in, they're going to bring that to your problems. And some of those approaches, I think, are much more reasonable and much more helpful than others. But you're going to get a sort of shockingly different experience, depending on who you end up working with.

KRISTEN: Oh, absolutely, yes.

SPENCER: I also had a coach I worked with whom I had a funny experience with. On session one, I kind of said to them, "Look, I'm just planning on just doing it for a short time. How many sessions do you think I would need to do to really give us a fair shake to see if it's benefiting me?" And they're like, "Oh, yeah. I think four sessions will be enough." And I was like, "Okay, let's do five just to be safe, and I'll evaluate at five." So anyway, we get to the end of five sessions and I say, "Okay, well, to be honest with you, I don't feel like I really have improved in these five sessions. So, I think I'm not going to continue." And they're like, "You, impatient New Yorkers. Come on, you just want a quick fix?" And I was like, "We had a conversation about this. You told me it was four sessions. I gave you an extra session." [laughs] Yeah, it's a mix. I've also had some great life coaches. It's really all over the place. High variance, I'd say.

KRISTEN: I don't want anyone to take away from this conversation that I'm saying all life coaches are bad. I'm just saying the way the industry is exploited and set up, and because it's not regulated — and I know not everybody likes regulation — that's one reason why it's so easy for people who maybe aren't the most qualified to do certain things with their clients that aren't great, or to use their clients as their next mark of who to sell something to.

SPENCER: I have to say, a heuristic I've developed over the years is that one of the strongest indicators that someone is good in this kind of domain, whether it's in therapy or life coaching, is that one: they fire their clients. At some point, they'll say, "You know what? I think you've made the progress that we set out to. I don't think you need to come to me anymore." Whereas, if they never fire their clients, I think that's not a good sign. And then the second one is whether they give you homework. Are they giving you things to do before the next session? Because 90% or whatever percent of the time in your week, you're not with them. And so if you're not doing something between sessions to put into action what you talked about, how much change is that really likely to make for you?

KRISTEN: I love both of those points. This is something that I tell people all the time. On 'How To Be Fine,' we have listeners write in for advice. In addition to talking about different betterment topics, we also answer advice letters every week. Week-after-week we get questions about people who have issues with their own therapists, who are trying to make their therapy more effective. And one thing that I say over and over again is, "Is your therapist giving you homework? And if they're not, ask them for homework. And if the therapist chooses not to give you homework, ask your therapist, 'Why won't you give me homework?'" Because some therapists will say, "Oh, that's not my job. I don't give you homework." Well, what is your job then? If your job is not to give me homework, what is your job then? So it can be a scary thing to stand up to somebody (white coat syndrome) who is an authority, somebody who's highly educated, somebody who is supposed to be taking care of one's mental health. It can be really hard to stand up to that person. But these are things that can make your therapy more effective. So, I totally agree with you, asking for homework is great. I've never actually said it out loud, but I'm so glad you did, I also totally believe that therapists should part ways with their clients at a certain point. I know people who've been going to the same therapist for over 20 years. And sometimes I wonder, "Is this therapist actually helping this person to do better in life? Or has this turned into a different kind of relationship? What is going on here?" And I'm not saying it's always bad that someone is with the same therapist for 20 years. But it does sometimes make me wonder, what is happening with this therapist? Are they actually helping certain things to be better or are they becoming a crutch for this person? I'm not sure.

SPENCER: It's interesting because you could see a therapist serving a long-term need over 20 years. Let's say someone just needs empathetic listening. It's hard to imagine someone working with someone for 20 years and continuingly solving their problems, right?

KRISTEN: Yes, exactly. And unfortunately, I already said it before, but I think sometimes we forget that therapists are people too. Not all therapists are good, some of them are flawed, some of them have their agendas, some of them have their biases, and not all of them know where to draw safe lines, also. I have one friend who was pregnant. And when she was having her baby shower, her therapist asked, "Oh, am I invited? I got some gifts for the babies." And I thought, "So you're gonna let your therapist come to your baby shower? Your therapist isn't your friend. Your therapist shouldn't be at your baby shower." I have lots of other stories of therapists kind of not knowing what the line is either. I think we have to remember that therapists are people, and they don't always do the right thing. Sometimes maybe they don't keep that professional distance that they should, unfortunately.

SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's such a good point. It's really, really hard to be a therapist. I think it's a really difficult profession because people are coming in, often with very, very difficult things that they are dealing with, and you have a very limited ability to help them. Also, you build relationships with these people, but you have to keep a certain distance that we're not used to in life, where you might be seeing someone for years and you have to kind of have that separation between what's happening in their life and happening in yours. I have a friend who specialized in helping people with borderline personality disorder at one point. We'd be going out to coffee and she'd be 30 minutes late. She would say, "I'm so sorry. My patient was threatening to kill themselves, and I had to pull over on the side of the road." And you're just thinking about the difficulty level of how you handle that.

KRISTEN: Oh, God, that sounds terrible. It really does. For a lot of people in the world, their therapist really is their hero, their lifeline, their only person to turn to when things are really, really tough. It must be an enormous responsibility to hold on one's shoulders to be that therapist, in that case.


SPENCER: Going back to the topic of living by all the self-help books that you did, I have some things I'm just so curious about. The first of which is, after having lived by all these books, do you feel that they fundamentally changed you?

KRISTEN: Hmm. I think what changed in me is that I became more understanding. When I started out on this project, Jolenta was the self-help believer; she wanted to believe all the promises. She desperately wanted to feel like at the end of reading each book, she would be more confident, feel smarter, stronger, and better able to handle the challenges of life. She wanted to hate herself less. In her own words, she still says, "I'm just a garbage person. I'm such a loser." And also, by her own admission, she has a lot of rage and anger against other people around her. So, she wanted to fix those things. I was the opposite. I was somebody who — I forgot what outlet referred to me this way — almost comically well-adjusted to the point where I seem like a caricature. I'm like, "Why would I hate myself? Things are fine. We shouldn't hate ourselves." And Jolenta was the opposite of that. The anger in life, like, "Why would I be angry? I think the worst things that have happened in my life are behind me. Hopefully that's the case and things are just getting better." It's interesting that I went in just completely not thinking these books had anything worthwhile to offer me, and I thought a lot of them were just frantically trash. And Jolenta went in so desperately wanting to believe them. Both of us were kind of stereotypes in a certain way to our listeners, but also relatable to our listeners in different ways. But to go back to your question, what did I get out of these books? I think I went in really thinking a lot of them were unnecessary, that they were trash, that they preyed on people like Jolenta. I was angry because they made a lot of promises, and Jolenta is not alone in thinking like, "What's wrong with me? I must be such a fuckup that these books don't work on me. What is wrong with me? It worked for the author, why won't it work for me." They initially made me really angry, and I was embarrassed to be seen in public reading some of these books because I thought they were for suckers. I thought they were for losers who couldn't figure out their own stuff with the help of a therapist. I thought they were for people who would fall for any dumb thing that they read in a women's magazine. So, I thought badly of the books and I also, frankly, felt some of the readers were just naive suckers. What changed from living by all these books was that I think I developed a lot more empathy for the readers of these books. I really came to understand why so many people sought these books out and why they wanted to believe in the promises of these books. I also came to understand that we all make our mistakes in life, and some of us can get past those mistakes easier than others. And we all have our traumas in life, and some people can get past their traumas more easily than others. And we all react differently to different things. And of course, some people are really going to, as a result, want some of these books to help them. If it's taken years of therapy and they're still not better, and it's taken years of meditation and it still hasn't gotten better, well, maybe this book will help; maybe this will be the one. I really came to understand that we all have a different speed at which we do things. And oftentimes, in my own life, too I'll say this: something that everybody else around me saw as obvious was, "God, Kristen, just break up with them." Well, I knew that's what I was supposed to do. But to get to the spot where I could finally do that took more than knowing; it took feeling safe enough and a lot of other circumstances in my life to break up with that one guy, for example. I think that, the more I looked at my own self and my own mistakes, and the more self-help books I read, I think I just developed a lot more empathy for all of the readers — all the people who, like Jolenta, every week would be reading a new self-help book thinking, "This is going to be the one that fixes me." Now I understand why she and so many other people do that; I get it.

SPENCER: It's really interesting that you point to that. And that is an interesting kind of meta-takeaway. But it's sort of not something that the books did for you. Maybe it's something that you kind of did for yourself that you're coming to understand the people who read these. You might think that reading 100 books has got to sort of fundamentally alter you in some way. You've tried so many different techniques. Is there really nothing that they changed about you directly?

KRISTEN: Well, I hate to say it — and Jolenta agrees with me on this — but I'm gonna say: the books that I felt were the most beneficial to me, were the ones that actually were just confirmation bias. Jolenta and I agree on this. The books that I like the best are like, "Practice random acts of kindness on people." And Jolenta is like, "Ahh, you already do that stuff. Of course you like the book that tells you to do that [laughs]. Of course, you think that's gonna make you happier because this is something you already do." And I'm like, "You're right, it is." And likewise, with walking through life, flexing my positivity muscles, looking for the good in the world, which we already talked about earlier, Spencer. Again, Jolenta and I agree, "Is that actually something the book taught me or was that just confirmation bias for something I was already doing?" There is one thing, though, that I still think about from one of the books that I think was a good message, which is from Dale Carnegie's book, 'How to Win Friends & Influence People.' I'm paraphrasing here, but he essentially says, "You know how when you come home from work and your dog greets you at the door like it's the first time they've seen you in years, and they're so excited to see you? Let's do that with all the people we love. Let's be the dog." That's really stuck with me, and I'm like, "Oh, yeah. I want to be the dog." I want to be the one that, if my husband has been out for the day, when he comes home, I don't just roll my eyes and think like, "Oh, why did he close the door so loudly?" I want to be the one who's excited to see him and not groan because he slammed the door too loud. But instead, think, "Wow, this is so great. This is like my favorite person in the world, and we actually live together. Isn't that super cool? 'Oh, how are you? I'm so excited to see you. I'm so lucky you're in my life.'" I want to do that not just with my husband but with different friends. And as a Minnesotan, that can be a little bit tough because we are not necessarily raised to be the most effusive people. I started, at a certain point, ending every phone call with my sister and with my friends in Minnesota saying, "I love you." And I will tell you, most of them still don't say it back. They mostly awkwardly say, "Okay, bye," and hang up on me [laughs].

SPENCER: Good for you, though. I bet they appreciate it.

KRISTEN: Whether they like it or not, I'm gonna be the dog. I don't care if they feel awkward because they're Minnesotan. I'm still gonna say I love you at the end of a phone call.

SPENCER: That's very sweet. I feel now that I should buy that book for my cat because I think he could use a little more dog likeness. [Kristen laughs] No, but that really resonates with me. I'm not a very effusive person in my face. I feel emotions, but my face doesn't necessarily express those emotions. It's funny that you bring up the example because that's something I've worked on. When I feel really happy seeing someone, I try to show it because I don't normally show it — my face is a little bit blank. And so, I'm really trying to make it clear, "I'm really happy to see you." And I think it makes people feel really good.

KRISTEN: Yeah, it does. One other little take away from the books — I can't even remember which book this first came up in — but the idea that tiny little bits of connection are fine. And I think that for a lot of my life, I felt like, "Ah, I don't want to have to write a whole letter to somebody. I don't want to do an hour long phone call with somebody." But it's okay for me to just write one sentence to a friend I haven't seen in two years. And that one sentence can be enough. Like, "Hey, I saw this picture of this elephant with this other elephant in the river taking baths, and I thought of you." And that can be enough. It can just be like, "I saw this picture and I thought of you." Or, "Remember that one time..." I sent a note to my friend Dave. He and I had been friends since we were 10 years old and sat next to each other and Mrs. Lang's math class. We love each other to death. We don't see each other very often. He still lives in Minnesota. But one day I just opened the door, and I texted him and said, "Do you remember our imaginary dog, Earl?" We just had this imaginary dog when we were roommates in college. And then we just wrote back and forth about all the good things Earl did, and what a good dog he was; he was the best boy. It was just three or four back and forths, and that was enough. And then we didn't talk again for like another six months. But that's okay because tiny moments of connection are okay. We don't need to be perfect. It can just be some small little attempt. We don't have to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It can just be something tiny, and that's okay.

SPENCER: It's really funny that you bring up that example. Because one thing that we do is we run replications of new papers that come out in top journals related to psychology. A recent replication we did was on this exact topic. They asked people to think of an acquaintance, and they basically had them rate something like, "How happy would you be to hear from this acquaintance?" And then they had another equivalent group say, "How happy do you think that acquaintance would be to hear from you?" What they found is that people said they would be much happier to hear from their acquaintances than they thought their acquaintance would be to hear from them. It was this interesting asymmetry suggesting that, "No, maybe people really do want to hear from you more than you'd realize, even if it's just a quick message." So, that just kind of supports what you were saying.

KRISTEN: Yeah, and maybe it also reflects how we think about ourselves: "Oh, I don't want to be a burden. Oh, God, would I just be a bother writing to them right now? Would they want to?" I think a lot of the time, we're not a bother. We are a welcomed presence in someone's lives, even if we're telling ourselves something different.

SPENCER: Okay. So, the other side of the coin: what were some of the most toxic ideas you encountered throughout this hundred books?

KRISTEN: Oh my gosh [laughs], there are so many of them. All of the books like 'Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,' the ones that try to categorize, 'all men are like this, and all women are like this.' 'Why Men Love Bitches' is another example. These books seem to speak in universal scientific terms of how genetically males are 'this' and genetically females are 'this.' I think those books are very dangerous, especially considering, as we understand it today, in this Lord's year of 2023, the idea of gender is not binary, anyway. It is such a social construct to such a great degree. It is not just a case of, 'you're somebody who was brought up wearing a dress, and you're somebody who was brought up playing with action figures.' It's not as simple as that. And by the way, a lot of people who identify as men did wear dresses. And a lot of women, as children, played with action figures. It's just so much messier than a lot of these books want to admit. They want to make things so simple. And in their simplicity, a lot of them are spreading dangerous ideas. I just have to say that a lot of what they're saying, even in the best intentioned of circumstances, when it comes to gender, are really telling women to be okay with something that's not good enough, unfortunately, to stop expecting so much, or alternatively, how to do even more than we already do. I wish for more books that just say, "You're good enough the way you are. You don't have to aim to be a ten out of ten. Six is great. You're a six, that's fine. Most of us are fives or sixes in life, or four. Isn't that how a bell curve works? Most of us are four, five, or six, whether that has to do with what we look like, how productive we are, or how good we are at communicating with loved ones. It's okay to not be a ten. We can do our best to cater to those around us in a way that is fair and equitable. But it's okay. A lot of us just are not going to be ten out of ten." And sometimes in the aim for women to be a ten out of ten, we're also allowing other people around us, oftentimes the man, to be twos, if that makes sense. All these books about how to manage a household better and manage our time better, a lot of that maybe would be made better if we had equitable relationships, where we weren't doing all of the housekeeping and helping the kids with all of their homework, and doing all the cooking, and doing blank, and doing blank, and doing blank, on top of our full time jobs. Maybe we shouldn't be prioritizing the man cave while the woman is in the kitchen. Maybe there should be other things that we should be focusing on when it comes to gender in the books. And then, the idea that we should take responsibility for the bad things that have happened to us. This is something that I especially hated how it was written about in 'The Four Agreements.' There are examples of, "If my parents abused me, what should I look at that I did to cause that abuse?" We don't need to take ownership for everything that happened to us all the time. We can take ownership of what we did when we actually played a role in it. But children should not have to ask themselves, "What did I do to ask for that abuse I received?" People who've been raped should not be asking, "What did I do to deserve being raped?"

SPENCER: Yeah, that's just an awful idea; it's so atrocious. I actually wanted to ask you about that kind of victim mentality idea. There's this sense in which feeling like a victim can remove your sense of power. You can feel like, 'Oh, I'm just helpless in the world that is just doing things to me, and I have nothing I can do about it.' And then of course, there are times when we really can't do anything about it: We truly are a victim. We really have no responsibility in it. And I think the attitude that a lot of self-help books have is that you should never be the victim; you're always empowered, you're always responsible, you're always able to do things differently. It's one of those double-edged swords where it feels like, for some people, maybe that does get them to pull themselves out, even if they didn't cause that problem. Maybe it gets them to make their life better. But maybe for other people, it's just getting them to blame themselves for something that they're not responsible for. So I'm just curious how you think about that sort of trade-off there?

KRISTEN: I totally agree with everything that you're saying. I think there are situations where part of the healing process is to acknowledge how we were victimized and to not blame ourselves. And there are those of us who go through life blaming ourselves for bad things that happened to us when it's really not our fault. To use the rape example, again, women throughout history have been questioned, "Well, what were you wearing? Did you smile at him too much? Were you walking alone at night? Really, you decided to be on a sidewalk at night? As a woman really, you did that, huh?" And so, a lot of the time I think as women, we have to get past the idea that we had anything to do with that and say, "Yes, I was just a victim. I was absolutely 100% a victim. And then work on the healing from there." I'm not saying to live in a space of victimhood for the rest of one's life. I think that we shouldn't necessarily think of victimhood as a forever state. But we can look at that incident and say, "That wasn't my fault what happened to me." But then we can move forward in life in other ways and look at the things we do have power over, and the ways we do have the ability to make ourselves more strong, and to make ourselves more whole after those incidents where we were legitimately victimized. So, I'm not saying to ignore the victimhood. I'm also not saying live forever within that victimhood. I think that we should learn to move through it, and hopefully be a little bit stronger afterwards because it's terrible to live one's whole life in that victim state forever. But it is important to say, "Yes, that wasn't my fault."

SPENCER: Were there any books you live by that you feel like they made your life worse by trying to follow the advice?

KRISTEN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. So I'll give you one example. There are several books I could point to here, but I'll just give one example. The best selling book 'French Women Don't Get Fat,' that is a book we live by in our first season of 'By The Book.' And for the first several days, the instructions are to live on magical leek soup. This is how you make it, Spencer: you take leeks, you boil them, and then you don't even eat the leaks, you eat the water that the leaks were boiled in, which to me isn't actually even eating. That's not eating at all. We're supposed to do that, we're supposed to live on a lot of other things that just were not palatable and did not go down well for me. For me, it really pointed to how stupid and dangerous diet books are. I already knew they were bad, I already knew diet culture was terrible, I already don't think that thin people are morally superior to fat people, and I don't think everybody should aim to be thin. We all come in different shapes and sizes. Some people are taller, some people are shorter, some people are fatter, some people are thinner, whatever. There is no judgment; who cares. But our world obviously treats people differently based on our size. Because the world doesn't agree with me, there is some sort of moral hierarchy around size. These diet books are full of that. And like all self-help books, full of promises of, 'If you just do this one thing, or if you just do these six things, or if you just do these things that you have to parse out yourself by reading between the lines of my very mushy book that I wrote, then you too will be thin." But once you stop doing those things — because it's not sustainable to live on magic leek soup forever, for example — then things aren't going to go the way the book says. You're not going to be skinny forever if you start eating again, when all you've been living on is leek water. That's just not how human bodies work. And likewise, with a lot of advice in the self-help books about productivity that are telling you, "Wake up at 5AM, and then just work until blah, blah, blah." Well, not everybody forever can for the rest of their lives can wake up at 5AM and then work till midnight. Eventually, sleep deprivation is going to kick in. And then, you're going to start failing when your body gives in and says, "I can't work this much anymore." You're going to fail. And whose fault will it be? It will be yours — you the reader of the book, who didn't follow the book closely enough. And same with diet books, and same with so many other books there. But with the diet book, in particular, 'French Women Don't Get Fat,' I just went into a terrible spiral. I was crying, I was deprived of nutrients. I have a history of disordered eating, and I was starting to repeat certain things that were really dangerous that I've done when I was younger. I started getting up in the middle of the night every 10 minutes and starting to weigh myself at night in secret and not telling my husband. I was doing a lot of bad things. I don't think diet books are good. I don't think they're safe. And I don't think that any of them can successfully deliver on their promises.

SPENCER: Yikes. That's scary. It seems like diet books are almost the ultimate self-help book: you go on a diet, of course you lose weight, because you're doing some insane form of eating — you're not getting enough calories — and then inevitably, you're gonna get it all back. And then, the book can blame you for not following their instructions. And then, now you're back into the cycle of, "Oh, I need this book again." Or, "I need this author. I need their next book or their next course."

KRISTEN: Yes, absolutely. There were some listeners who, after that episode, really struck a chord with lots of people. I think that episode is when people really, really, really felt viscerally attached to the show because most Americans have been on a diet. Most of us have been on many, many, many diets. That's just the way America works, particularly women. A lot of our listeners said, "Please live by more diet books." That was one of the most traumatic and interesting episodes of a podcast I've ever heard. Jolenta and I decided after that book, "No, we're never living by another diet book again. I think we've proven our point with this one book about how much damage this can do." And Jolenta and I we're not going to deliberately put our health and wellness at risk to make good entertainment. We thought once was enough.

SPENCER: Does that bother you that people wanted you to keep doing it, even after seeing the negative effects that had on you?

KRISTEN: No, I understand that. I totally understand that. We also have listeners who say, "We wish you still lived by self-help books," even though eventually that became tough too, not just the work of distilling all the books, which I mentioned earlier. But for my entire time being married to my husband, we were recorded that entire time for the first six years of our relationship.

SPENCER: Oh, my god. Wow. Because of the audio for the episodes [inaudible]?

KRISTEN: Yeah. And that can take a toll after a while. My husband was fine with it, and he was always a good sport. But unlike Jolenta and her husband — who both met in acting school and love being recorded and love having their names and faces out there, and their voices out there — my husband never wanted to pursue that. So, it does eventually take a toll. And same with my friends. I started making a headcount of how many of my friends had been repeatedly on the show, and that's over 30 of my friends. And after the show was done, I asked them, "Are you happy that you're not being recorded anymore?" And pretty much universally, they all said, "Yes, it's been a tough six years of never knowing when we were being recorded."

SPENCER: Wow, it almost reminds me of these early experiments in reality television, where people would record themselves all the time, but that was your life for six years.

KRISTEN: Yeah. I will also add, though, that it wasn't just the toll of being recorded all the time. All my friends, family, and my husband were good sports. But also, I'm sure you've noticed this too, Spencer, there comes a point where the books just kind of start repeating themselves. They kind of have the same messages over and over again, just repackaged in a different way. There are like 40 versions of The Secret that are published every year. There are a million different home organizing books that are put out every year, productivity books, which almost always say the same 10 things, meditation books, and so on. So after a while, they just become really repetitive. And we felt that 'By The Book' was becoming a show that was less exciting because of that, because the more books we read, the more they kind of became the same book.

SPENCER: Was there any book you read that struck you like, 'Wow, this is really unique and different. There's no other book like this.'

KRISTEN: Oh, no other book like this? There was a book that I thought was pretty funny. There are a couple of funny books, actually, that I thought were great. One was about how to hold a grudge. And it was just giving people permission to be angry.

SPENCER: [laughs] And that's a unique take.

KRISTEN: I thought that was pretty funny. But that was one of our most badly received episodes ever because I, who am generally a very jolly person, gave myself permission to be angry at the upstairs neighbors who make a lot of noise. They're lovely people. I just want to make this clear. We think our upstairs neighbors are great people. But they have two young kids, and young kids just make a lot of noise. They jump off the furniture, they get on the furniture, they jump off the furniture, they get back on the furniture, they knock over the furniture. They're kids. They make a lot of noise. And so the book was like, "Yeah, hold a grudge. Nurture reckless fantasies. What would you like to go wrong with the person you're holding a grudge against?" And so, I did all of the things the book said. But it was one of our worst received episodes ever, because people felt like I was mean, and that the upstairs neighbors were victims. I'm like, "I don't think our upstairs neighbors listened to my show. I don't think they were victims here. I'm just doing what the book said." Yeah, that was one book I did think was really fun because I don't think enough books give women permission to be angry. And there are a lot of reasons to be angry in the world. I also really liked our books that are more about community care, rather than self-care. And by that I mean, maybe sometimes we shouldn't just look inward because maybe the reasons that we are unhappy or things aren't going well for us are sometimes not about ourselves. Maybe they're about bigger structural or social issues. Maybe the fact that I cry every day when I come home from work and have to deal with all of the things at home, or I'm caretaking for a parent and a child at the same time, and how can I learn to be happy, maybe you're crying everyday because you're in a bad situation, and we don't have the social structures that support people who are caregivers for both older and younger generations at the same time. Maybe that's an issue. Or maybe you're coming home and crying every day because there are major economic disparities in the US, and you know that you can't get your next meal until Friday when your paycheck comes in, and you're trying to find some way to eat. Maybe it's not about manifesting something better or meditating. Maybe it's about the social structures being unfair. So community care books are really about looking at those bigger social issues: 'What can I do to make the world a better place so that I feel better, but hopefully other people can feel better, too.'

SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like a hidden premise within self-help, that it's all about the individual. It's about what you can do differently rather than the community around you. So, it seems like it's an inversion of that.

KRISTEN: Yes, exactly.

SPENCER: Before we wrap up, one thing I wanted to ask is, suppose someone's interested in delving into self -help books, do you have any advice about how to approach it, either deciding what books to read o r how to go into those books to get the most out of them?

KRISTEN: Yeah. I would just remind everybody out there, first of all, nobody is more of an expert in you than you. And I think sometimes when we pick up a self-help book, we think, "Oh, this person is an expert." But are they really an expert in you? They've never met you before. They wrote that book not knowing you, not knowing your background, your history, your biology, your family structure, your traumas, etc. So, if the book fails to work for you, that's usually not your fault. I would say, it's never your fault. It may just be that the author doesn't know you, and they don't know what's best for you. And in fact, the author may not be an expert after all; many of them are not. John Gray, the author of 'Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,' just got his degree from a diploma mill. And a lot of these authors have. So, even if they look like experts, they might not be experts. And you don't have to worry if it doesn't work for you. There are other ways you can find things that work for you. And another thing I'd say, feel free to just pick and choose. If a nugget strikes you as useful, try that nugget. Or if a passage strikes a chord with you and makes you feel better about yourself, enjoy that passage. But also keep in mind, it's okay if it doesn't work for you. And if it works for you, it doesn't necessarily work for others. So, don't become a preacher and try to force everybody else to read a book because it worked for you either.

SPENCER: It's good advice. It seems like there's some self-help books that just teach things that are harmful or detrimental ideas. But, it seems like the best self-help books teach ideas that are helpful for some people in some contexts. And so, you can try them on and see if it helps you see if it improves your life. If not, discard it and move on to the next thing.

KRISTEN: Absolutely, yeah. There's no such thing as universals when it comes to self-help. We all have different things that work for us, and that's okay. And that's part of what makes us interesting. How boring would we be if we were all exactly the same?

SPENCER: Kristen, thank you so much for coming on.

KRISTEN: Oh, thank you so much. This has been such a great conversation. I really appreciate it.


JOSH: A listener asks: "What's one thing you've been enjoying recently?"

SPENCER: Well, as the weather has been warming up here in New York, I've really been enjoying getting outside, walking around Central Park, taking calls in Central Park when I have to do work calls on a really nice day. So that's been a source of joy for me lately.




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