Saturday, December 8, 2007

My tryst with self-improvement books


I was 25 years old when I stumbled upon a copy of the well-known book by Dale Carnegie " How to win friends and influence people". I had just started my career a couple of years earlier. So it was no big wonder that I was drawn to the title of the book. Of course, I wanted to win friends just as any other young person. But more importantly, I wanted to learn the secrets of influencing people. After all, in this competitive world of ours how could one make it on the basis of professional talent alone? Talent plus something else were required. So, here at last was a book which was going to teach me step by step how to influence people. More exactly, how to influence people into helping me. Into beating my peers in the game of climbing the career ladder.

As I began reading it, I became mesmerised with both the style and the contents of the book. Looking back today with the advantage of hindsight , I would say that whatever was written was plain common sense. But then common sense being so uncommon, a book was needed to teach remembering common sense. There were plenty of tips, all personally tried successfully by Dale Carnegie. So, several of them were workable. The only problem, even in those days, was that so many other youngsters too were learning Carnegie techniques of influencing people. The result could not be any thing other than creating a level playing field , one cancelling out the advantage of the other.

The next self-improvement book I read was also one by Carnegie. How to stop worrying and start living. This book was not very useful to me since at that age, I did not have too many worries. Whatever few worries I had were solvable without paying money to Dale Carnegie. But then , having bought the book and read it, I had to utilize the knowledge gained. So I started counselling a senior colleague of mine who , I was convinced, had thick lines of worry on his forehead and constantly so. With all the sincerity, I suggested that our friend Carnegie would have answers to let him stop worrying and start living, if only my colleague will let me know what was bothering him so much. Probably, my body language made him suspect that I was ridiculing him. Who was I , a man as much as 10 years younger than the worried man, to hint that the latter should start living? His reply, delivered with all the heat and passion that he could collect ,taught me a lesson of a life time; never mess with people with thick lines of worry on their foreheads.

Carnegie was fast becoming a liability to me. But I gave him one last chance. I bought his book on Public Speaking. The book was eminently readable. But Public Speaking is never learnt by reading a book. It is learnt by going up the stage , mustering up some courage and spitting out some murmurs. Nevertheless, I must concede that once I joined a Public Speaking course, many of the techniques Carnegie suggested came handy.

It was time to say good-bye to Carnegie and graduate to Napoleon Hill. Hill's book "Think and Grow rich" cited numerous examples to prove that growing rich was indeed within reach. I do not remember now very well what all the qualities he had listed to stand a chance of becoming rich. Determination was one. I remember this, since my Ophthalmologist friend who always carried this book while travelling, used to roar " Determination !" in the Public Speaking class. In fact, this Ophthalmologist friend has indeed become very rich over the years. I suspect that some credit should go to Napoleon Hill's book. I do not know whether he still carries the book with him while travelling because he does not use Public Transport any more. The Ophthalmologist drives what to my eyes looks like a BMW.

There was this book the title of which was " How to live 24 hours a day". I do not remember the name of the author. The book cautioned that one should not waste even a single minute of one's precious life. So,the author said, if you are travelling in a train, take a book with u , at least a dictionary and read. But not newspaper. Spending more than a few minutes on a newspaper is oriental lavishness, according to the book. The author permits you to do budgeting for your household during the travel. Or think of what you are going to do in the office that day. Any thing would do, but do not allow the mind to rest. In other words, do not let your mind be in peace. And when you return home from the office, there are other pieces of advice to follow.If you want to go to a music concert in the evening, you would get the author's permission only if you have already read a book on " How to listen to music" . Feeling the flow of music is just not enough. One of the craziest books I have ever read. The author perhaps thought that living meant continuous mental action and whacking the brain. Some living indeed !

During mid-seventies, I read ' I am OK, you are OK". The title itself is very reassuring. I did find the book useful. In an overall sense. One should take the gist and let it operate in the background of the mind. If one gets too much into the nitty-gritty and starts analysing which of your friends is conducting a child-parent conversation with you, you will surely lose that friend. If you always wanted to be an adult and speak or conduct yourself like one , you will soon miss the pleasure that certain childlike qualities such as looking at things with wonder or with open mind can bring to life.

I first thought that the book " Your erroneous Zones" was pure pornography. But the content was applied psychology. The title scared away several people who would have otherwise read the book and found it useful. I think that the name of the author is Dyer or some such short name. Not only the title of the book, this guy grinning broadly from the cover page did make people think that he was some modern day version of Vatsyayana, the author of Kama Sutra.

I have moved on. I do not read " How to..." books any more. Well, age is one important reason. Besides, the wise books of today advise you to accept the self as it is and watch how such acceptance becomes the trigger to let changes happen on their own. Sounds very Zen, no?

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