Question: Adam, what is your book about?
Adam: It's a collection of simple ways to improve your own disposition while making you more effective with your actions. Most of the chapters are about improving your attitude and dealing better with people. Those are the two categories that anyone can continually improve, and this book was meant as an ongoing guide, something to refer to again and again throughout our lives.
No matter how much I want to be in the habit of telling the people in my life what I appreciate about them, for example, I still need regular reminders. That habit does not come naturally, and no matter how much we may believe it is a good and right thing to do, too many other circumstances intervene, too many things are on our minds, and so we never get a chance to practice it enough to make it a habit, to make it something that pops into our minds when it's missing. Self-Help Stuff That Works is full of principles like that, and now we have a book we can pick up and spend a few minutes reading before we go to work or before going to bed that can remind us of basic principles and help us form new habits.
But the book is not merely what we already know. Many of the chapters are about new research and how those findings can be applied in our daily lives.
Question: Will applying the principles of your book make someone happy? A certain amount of unhappiness is inevitable, don't you think?
Adam: Absolutely. But all of us experience more unpleasant feelings than we need to. We have more frustration, worry, stress, etc., than is healthy or necessary. And the book is filled with methods to eliminate some of that from our lives.
For example, in the chapter called Adrift, I share a principle I swiped from Steven Callahan. When he was alone in the middle of the Atlantic in his life raft with very little chance of rescue, he told himself, I can handle it. Compared to what others have been through, I'm lucky. He told that to himself over and over and he said it gave him fortitude.
I've tried the same thing many times (not getting stranded in the middle of the ocean, but telling myself I can handle it), and I'll be damned if it doesn't give me fortitude every single time. One of the things we tend to think in hard times is I can't take this, which is a thought that makes us weak. The thought itself makes you collapse inside and give up. It makes you feel small and makes the world seem like a big steamroller plowing over helpless little you. The thought I can't take this makes you experience unnecessary negative feelings.
You are not helpless. And you can take it. You're a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for, and when you do give yourself credit for being tough, you become tougher!
Question: What's your background?
Adam: I'm self-educated, which is probably appropriate for a self-help author. I happen to be fascinated with psychology and change and I have been since I was in high school. I've devoured hundreds of books on those subjects and marked passages which I then read onto audiotapes and listened to them in the car and while shaving, ironing, doing dishes, etc. And I try the ideas I learn about. My whole life is a kind of experiment.
Question: How is your book different from other self-help books?
Adam: My book is unique in a couple of useful ways. First, the chapters are short. They get right to the point.
Second, each chapter ends with a principle, usually just one, and usually simply and briefly stated. I've found that you can't really apply a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. But you can apply a sentence.
In Dale Carnegie's biography the authors point out that another book on the same subject was published six years before How to Win Friends and Influence People came out. It was called Strategy in Handling People. The two books had many of the same principles, and in fact, many of the same illustrations. But Carnegie's book went on to be the number two bestseller of all time (behind the Bible) in America. And nobody has heard of the other one.
One reason for the first book's failure is that the principles were long. For example, in Carnegie's book (in the section on persuading others) one of the principles is:
Get the other person saying "yes, yes" immediately.
In the Strategy book, the same principle was stated this way:
The first step in persuading people to act as you wish, is to present your plans in such a way as to get a "Yes Response" at the very start. Throughout your interview, but above all at the beginning of it, try to get as many "Yeses" as you possibly can.
Which principle is easier to remember? Which one is easier to apply? Self-Help Stuff That Works does the same thing: The principles are designed to be easy to remember to make them easier to apply. I tested the principles myself and kept changing and re-wording and shortening them until they were very applicable tools.
Question: How did you become interested in this subject?
Adam: I was shy in high school and I wanted to become more popular (especially with girls) so I read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. It made a difference and taught me things that really helped me in high school.
I think I was lucky to have chosen that particular book for my first self-help book because it is thoroughly action-oriented. The first chapter actually tells you how to get the most out of the book, and I went on to use the same approach with other books, even those that weren't obviously self-help in nature.
Question: What inspired you to write this book?
Adam: The book kind of grew by itself. I was a columnist for what used to be known as At Your Best, a newsletter sold to business for their employees, which is now part of a much larger online "product" called Rodale's Online Health. In the meantime, I wrote a book called Using Your Head. When I took the manuscript to the publisher, as a last-minute idea, I printed a small collection of my articles into a booklet, and told the publisher I was thinking of publishing a whole book of these little articles after Using Your Head was published.
She looked over the stuff and told me she thought I ought to publish the collection of articles first.
Question: What kind of newsletter was At Your Best?
Adam: It was a six-page monthly newsletter that was bought by businesses for their employees. If the company had 50 employees, they'd get a subscription for 50 newsletters. They'd put the newsletters in the break rooms or in their checks. Most of the articles were short (500 words or less) and practical. Most were about doing better at work, improving your attitude, and dealing with the normal problems of time management and family concerns.
Question: Who is your book directed toward and what would you like them to get out of it?
Adam: It is directed toward normal, healthy people. It is for people who like to learn and improve their lives. And I would like them to use the principles to have better relationships, to feel better more often, and to make their work life more enjoyable.
I know a lot of people think self-help books are for losers or people with problems. But every person has problems. Everyone has room for improvement.
From what I've seen, the people who are interested in improving themselves are usually upbeat and at least relatively successful, and most very successful people I've met are enthusiastic about improving themselves. I don't know if people became upbeat and successful because they have improved themselves, or if upbeat and successful people are simply more likely to be interested in improving. But often the people who could benefit most from self-help material are the ones who would never think of reading a self-help book.
It is not a very sane person who is unwilling to do anything to help himself or improve his circumstances and it is a particularly debilitating belief that I'm just the way I am and I can't do anything to change things. So the pursuit of self-help could be seen as a sign of mental health.
Question: What about the theory that much of what we are is unchangeable and genetic? Isn't depression genetic?
Adam: There's certainly a genetic predisposition in some people toward depression, but some people with that predisposition do not get depressed, so the important question is not how much of it is genetic, but what can be done to overcome it? Brain chemistry is not the end of the line. The way you think changes your brain chemistry. And exercise and the way you eat changes your brain chemistry. Certainly some people are hopelessly handicapped by a quirk in their brain tissue. But even severely depressed people can benefit from thinking less pessimistically. It may not make them as happy as the rest of us, but it'll make them happier.
I think it would be a mistake to put too much credence in the postulate depression is genetic. It is a defeatist and highly pessimistic explanation of a phenomenon that has shown itself amenable to alterations in thinking habits. It is ironic that a person would have to be fairly pessimistic to explain depression as purely genetic! The explanation itself is depressing!
Question: Is your book generally useful? Or does it apply to only certain people?
Adam: It is generally applicable. The chapters talk about dealing with people, feeling good more often, enjoying your work and doing it better, and these are things most of us deal with every day.
Question: What has it done for you? How has the content of the book helped you?
Adam: Every one of the chapters covers a principle that helped me. The things I tried that didn't help didn't make it into the book!
The very first chapter, for example, is on the work of Martin Seligman, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania. For over forty years he has been conducting experiments to discover how people get depressed and what can be done about it. His best book (in my opinion, of course) is Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. I got it because my wife had suffered from depression off and on her whole life. The information helped her tremendously, but a surprise to me was that it helped me also. It surprised me because I had always considered myself an optimist.
There's a questionnaire in the book that allows you to discover how optimistic or pessimistic you are and in what way, specifically, you are optimistic or pessimistic. Out of the six categories of optimism/pessimism, I was very pessimistic in one of them: Taking credit for the good stuff. When something nice happened, I hardly ever acknowledged myself for the part I played in bringing it about. This category doesn't produce really devastating depression, but it did prevent me from feeling some good feelings.
So I talk about the principles from Seligman's book in my first chapter. It is useful to know. It helps. For every chapter in the book, I can tell you how that principle helped me.
Question: Why would people want to buy this? How's it going to help them?
Adam: There are several ways it could be helpful to someone. First, and probably most important, when any of us (let's take you for example) gets in a bad mood — for example, if you're in an argument with your spouse or feel bummed because you've been slacking on your exercise program or because your kid is getting in trouble at school — the book is ready-made for browsing at times like that. I do it myself, and it works like a charm. For the everyday problems and unpleasant feelings, there's something in the book, usually lots of things, that address the situation usefully.
It's important, for example, to refrain from jumping to negative or self-defeating conclusions, and you can certainly read that and remember it. However, when a friend of yours gets mad and hangs up on you, and you start fuming, one of the things you probably won't remember is to check your thoughts for ill-formed conclusions. And yet that's the very time you need that information. So the book is good for browsing, to remind you of things you could apply that would help.
The reason I made Self-Help Stuff That Works hardbound and Smythe-sewn is because it needs to hold up under years of constant use. It's when you're upset, when you're mad, when you're frustrated, when you feel defeated, that's the most important time to confer with the book. That's when it can remind you to do the things you know in your good moments you ought to do, but in your bad moments you forget to do.
So the book is good at bringing you up when things are bad. But it's also useful for making things better when things are fine. Leaf through the book and find a principle you want to practice today, write it on a card, and practice it for the day. This will produce incremental, but noticeable improvements in your life.
For example, I decided today I'm going to pay attention to what I appreciate and say it. That will benefit me today, but it'll also begin to make me more aware of it in the days after, and if I practice it a lot, it will form a new habit that will benefit me the rest of my life.
Question: What is the basic nub of the book?
Adam: You can improve your attitude, become more effective at work and enjoy better relationships by becoming more rational with your thinking, imbuing your life with more purpose, and raising your level of integrity.
Question: Are you totally happy and fulfilled? Do you ever have problems?
Adam: I don't think any final attainment is possible. I've never met anyone who was perfect, and I don't expect I would be the exception. Improvement is always possible, however.
Even if someone could, by some miracle, solve all her problems, I think she would immediately create a problem, because whether we're aware of it or not, solving problems is where most of the fun in life is. Now, of course, some people call them "problems," and some call them "goals," but however you think of them, overcoming challenges is the source of our most satisfying moments.
Question: Aren't the techniques in your book superficial? Do they deal with unconscious motivations? Can they produce real change?
Adam: Dealing with unconscious motivations is like chasing a phantom. You never know if your "discoveries" are really something you've made up or genuine. The "deeper" you go, the more lost you get and the more ephemeral and purely subjective it becomes. And often, recovering a genuine forgotten trauma does nothing to help you change your thoughts or behavior now. It may be interesting, but is it practical? The techniques in Self-Help Stuff That Works are direct and overt, and yes, they do produce real change.
Question: Have you used any of the principles in your own life?
Adam: Yes, every single one of them. In fact, that was one of my criteria for putting a chapter in the book. For it to be chosen, it needed to:
1. Produce a good result/effort ratio: that is, it had to produce a great result for the effort. Some ideas work very well, but require great effort. Some require very little effort but don't do much good. I chose the ones that produced.
2. Be simple. It takes a high degree of concentration to apply a complex or complicated principle, and I wasn't interested in those kinds of techniques.
3. Be something I have used myself and want to use in the future.
Question: Is there any "self-help stuff" that doesn't work?
Adam: Yes, there is. And there's some self-help stuff that's just too complicated or too difficult to do. I don't want to slam any book in particular, but some have an eight-step program or a long list of things to do in the heat of the moment, or have a long, drawn-out technique that most people wouldn't do. And some are just too airy-fairy to even know if it's working or not. Did the crystals work? Are you now in a higher plane? Is your aura brighter? How would you really know?
I once spent six hours writing every goal I had, everything I wanted. I followed the technique outlined in the book to the letter. I had pages and pages of goals, from the immediate to the far-off fantasies. It took a long time, and didn't do me any good as far as I can tell. Goals are important to have, but time is limited. Having just a few goals is much easier and less stressful to deal with. When you accomplish those, then maybe you can think up some new ones. But having 500 goals is pointless. Worse, it's kind of overwhelming.
In the creation of Self-Help Stuff That Works I filtered all that out. All that's left in the book is pure gold.
Order your copy of Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan here.