I hate self-help books. Most of them boil down to vague and often victim-blaming platitudes about how everything bad that’s ever gotten in your way was your own damn fault for not thinking positively enough. Even psychiatry books, which should be a grade above self-help, often come across as condescending “mansplaining” when they try to offer solutions to women that we know from experience don’t work.
But I was at Borders recently, and I came across a book called Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently by some white dude named Marcus Buckingham that I’d never heard of (why yes, I have been living under a rock – a big giant rock called Lots and Lots of Stress).
Three things about the book got my attention:
- The mention of strength. I’ve always been a strong person, but the strains I’ve been under lately have made me feel weak to the point of collapse.
- It’s targeting women specifically.
- Can a white guy actually give women good targeted advice?
To my surprise, the answer to No. 3 is yes. Now, the book is targeting married career moms – the traditional picture of “women who try to have it all.” That’s not me at all. And yet, as a woman with goals, passions and responsibilities that compete for my energy, I found this book surprisingly helpful.
In a nutshell, Marcus Buckingham tells you how to determine what your personal strengths are, and then how to go about steering your life towards those strengths and away from situations that weaken you. His advice is the most specific I’ve come across in a self-help book. There’s an actual technique to this, and the more I work with it, the better I feel.
From a gender perspective, there’s something very interesting about Buckingham’s basic premise. At the start of the book, he introduces stats that indicate women are, on the whole, less happy than they were forty years ago, and that we get less happy or more dissatisfied as we get older. More stats suggest it’s not that we’re working too many hours. He believes we’re stressed out by two things: an excess of choice, and men – and since we have less control over men than we have over our choices, he focuses on the choice problem. He argues that forty years ago, most of us were doomed to be housewives, and that was pretty much that. Now we have all sorts of options, and animal brains can get anxious when they’re required to make choices with limited information (will that degree be worth the paper it’s printed on when you’re forty-eight?).
As I was reading this, I was forced to agree that too much choice can create anxiety. But on the other hand, how dare some white dude tell me I have too many choices! Many men have always enjoyed all these choices, so why are they not frazzled and lining up for psychiatric prescriptions at the same rate as women? He addresses this:
“Some might say that modern life asks men to make similar choices. But that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. For all the dilemmas men face – and they have their share – there isn’t much of a debate about whether they should put their work or family first. If they take an hour out of the day to meet their child at school, they’re applauded.”
He’s right. Generally speaking, men have more options than women (all other things being equal between two individuals). But choices aren’t being forced upon them. If they simply default to working hard and leaving the wife to deal with the kids and household chores, society approves. If they help their wives out even a little, society approves even more. There is a clear, though often difficult and insanely stressful, path to societal approval for white, straight, able-bodied men, and some men outside those categories are able to access limited forms of approval, too.
But when do women get this approval, ever? Where is that choice we could make that would guarantee society approves of us? That choice that would put our minds at ease, even if it stresses us out and we start dying of heart attacks as often as men? It doesn’t exist. Society’s always looking to judge us. For everyone who thinks you slept around too much, someone else thinks you didn’t sleep around enough. For everyone who thinks you should stay home with your kids, there’s someone who thinks that’s the worst move ever.
And that’s Buckingham’s point: society doesn’t have our backs, and it’s not fair, but he believes there is a way to make your life work better for you despite all this, and he spells it out in reasonably specific terms that I found persuasive.