Do self-help books help? That is the question freelance journalist Marianne Power sets out to answer in her sparkling début Help Me! One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life, set to be one of the hits of the autumn. Acquired on a pre-empt by Picador, rights have now been sold in 22 territories, and offers to turn it into a Netflix-style TV series are piling up on the table. When I meet Power at her publisher’s office, she still has the wide-eyed and slightly stunned air of someone who cannot believe her good fortune. "I do keep pinching myself at the moment—life is so nice," she says.
It’s all a far cry from the place Power was in when the idea for the book came to her four years ago. At 36, she was stuck in a rut; living in a rented room in London, single, in debt and thoroughly miserable. One day, while nursing another hangover, she resolved to follow the guidance of a different self-help book each month for a year to see if any of them would deliver her elusive perfect life. And she would write about the experience, first in a blog, and then in a book.
Within a month of starting the blog at the start of 2014, agents were getting in touch, having read about Power’s quest in a Daily Mail article. "I was offered a book deal quite early on, but even though I’d dreamt of publishing a book all my life, I turned it down because it seemed too early... and that has turned out to be such a good thing, because the book took me a lot longer than I expected." After much writing and rewriting, Help Me! finally went out to publishers last summer, and Power chose to go with Picador, describing their first meeting as "like a really good date".
In Help Me!, Power describes what happened when she attempted to overcome her various self-diagnosed flaws—whether it be her disastrous attitude to money, or her inability to say "fuck it"—by working through such classics of the self-help genre as Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. The result is an often laugh-out-loud odyssey, with embarrassing incidents and downright disasters aplenty. Even on this entertaining level, you can understand why publishers worldwide have been falling over themselves to acquire it.
But as you read and laugh along while Power tries to chat a stranger up on the Tube, or overcomes her fear of parallel parking, or dares to pose nude as a life-drawing model ("you’ve made my arse the size of Australia!" she almost shouts at one of the artists afterwards), you realise that she is also opening up her inner self to us, and the book starts to delve into more serious territory. She tells of her riches-to-rags childhood, her diagnosis with skin cancer when she was 18, of being treated for depression in her early 30s; and gradually a somewhat introspective woman genuinely wrestling with life’s big questions reveals herself. In this way, Help Me! transcends its "Bridget Jones gazes at her navel" premise to ask searching questions about the multimillion-dollar personal development industry and, ultimately, about how we really can best find contentment.
No happy ever after
When she began her quest, Power had no idea that it would take her through some dark nights of the soul. "I had this journalist’s expectation of a fantastic, perfect ending. I honestly thought I would do all these self-help books, that it would be a bit hard, I’d learn a bit along the way, and it would end with me being a very happy, perfect person. The more I got involved in self-help, and the more I looked at myself, the messier it became." In the end, Power’s "journey" ("I hate that word") took her considerably more than a year. "At the time, I hated that it all got so messy and behind schedule, but now I look back and realise that’s because what I did was real. I wasn’t just pretending."
Ironically, it was successfully following the advice of a self-help book in her early twenties which eventually brought about the life crisis of Power’s thirties. "After graduating from UCL, me and my friends were still in London, doing jobs that we hated. A friend gave me a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. I was a bit snooty about it, because I studied English Literature at university, blah, blah, blah, but I went home and read it when I was half-drunk and honestly couldn’t get enough of it. It was such an antidote to the pessimism that I had." Within a week or two, Power had quit her hated PR job and, after repeatedly calling a friend who was working on the Femail section at the Daily Mail, landed herself a job in journalism. Before the age of 30 she was working as features editor on the newly launched Irish Daily Mail.
Then, with her stress levels at an all-time high, she quit the day job and embarked on an equally successful freelance career, writing for the Telegraph and magazines such as Grazia and Red, as well as the Mail. "And that’s where the book starts. On paper things were really good—I had a really lovely freelance lifestyle—but there was this big gaping hole. I just didn’t seem to be able to get on with life the way that everyone else was. All my friends were beginning to move into flats and have boyfriends and husbands and children. Why wasn’t I doing that? I thought there was something wrong with me. It was then that I started to read self-help in earnest."
Would she still recommend any of the self-help books she read during her quest? "Oh, yes. Reading The Power of Now, for example, was a proper heavens-opening moment for me—I think [Eckhart Tolle] speaks truth. I love Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly too. She doesn’t agree with the term ‘self-help’, because she doesn’t think we’re meant to do it by ourselves. She believes real healing comes from helping and being honest with each other. I think there’s truth in that too, and hopefully my book will open up some good conversations. And I loved F **k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John C Parkin, because behind all the swearing and light-heartedness
I think there’s real wisdom." It will be interesting to see if publication of Help Me! causes any self-help sales spikes.
So, to return to my opening question: does self-help actually help? "It does! It didn’t help me in the way I wanted it to: it didn’t deliver the perfect life. And while I’m very proud of some of the stuff I faced down, I learned that if you spend your whole life navel-gazing, or even a year, as I did, that’s not a recipe for happiness either. I thought the more I looked at myself, the happier I’d become, but I didn’t.
"Self-help helps when you find a balance between looking after yourself and looking after other people. It’s like when you’re in an aeroplane and they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping anyone else. I think there’s a lesson in that."
Like eating chocolate cake or watching old episodes of "Friends", I read self-help for comfort. These books acknowledged the insecurities and anxieties I felt but was always too ashamed to talk about. They made my personal angst seem like a normal part of being human. Reading them made me feel less alone.
Then there was the fantasy element. Every night I’d devour their rags-to-riches promises and imagine what life would be like if I was more confident and more efficient, if I didn’t worry about anything and jumped out of bed to meditate at 5am... There was just one problem. Every morning I’d wake up (not at 5am) and go back to life as normal. Nothing changed because I didn’t do anything the books told me to do. I didn’t do the "journaling", I didn’t say any affirmations...
And then, with Sunday’s hangover finally fading, while I re-read Feel the Fear for the fifth time, I had an idea. An idea that would stop me being a depressed, hungover mess and turn me into a happy, high-functioning person... I was going to do self-help. I would follow every single bit of advice given to me by the so-called gurus to find out what happened if I really did follow The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Really felt The Power of Now.￼￼￼